In my previous post, I argued for the historicity of Jesus by examining the Jewish historian Josephus’ writings. In this post, I will look at pagan Greco-Roman authors as sources for the historical Jesus, drawing again from Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 19-74. Van Voorst lists seven pagan – i.e. non-Christian and non-Jewish – sources.
The seven, in roughly chronological order, are:
- Thallos, a historian who wrote about an eclipse of the sun (ca. 55 CE), probably refuting Christian claims of the supernatural darkness that occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:33; Matt. 27:45; Luke 23:44). Thallos was quoted by Christian author Julius Africanus in his History of the World (ca. 220). Africanus disagreed with Thallos, which suggests that Thallos was connecting an eclipse to Jesus’ crucifixion.
- Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor who wrote letters to his Emperor Trajan (ca. 112 CE) about persecuting Christians in his province, and mentions Jesus, the founder of Christianity, in passing. More on this passage later.
- Suetonius, in his book Lives of the Caesars (ca. 120 CE), mentioned that Emperor Claudius, around 49 CE, expelled the Jews from Rome because of trouble caused by “Chrestus,” which historians believe is a misspelling of Christ. Suetonius also confused Christians with Jews and Judaism, an easy mistake for a non-Christian to make of the early emerging Christian movement.
- Tacitus, a famous Roman historian, in his The Annals, book 15 (ca. 116-120 CE), mentioned Christians and Christ in describing Emperor Nero’s act of blaming and persecuting the “Chrestians” for the great fire of Rome (ca. 64 CE). We will also look at this passage in greater detail.
- Mara bar Serapion, a war prisoner of Rome, wrote a letter to his son (sometime after 73 CE), where he spoke of the “wise king” of the Jews (Jesus?), whose death at the hands of the Jews God justly avenged (the Roman destruction of Jerusalem) and whose “new laws” (Christian religion?) continue after his death among his followers. Most scholars believe that Mara, a non-Christian, is referring to Jesus, the only possible person to fit this description.
- Lucian, a Greek satirist, wrote a fiction, The Death of Peregrinus (ca. 165 CE) where among the lead character Peregrinus’ exploits was conning Christians of their money by converting to Christianity and becoming a leader among them. As a satirist, Lucian mocked Christians for their ignorance and credulity. In the process, he mentioned the founder of Christianity, “that one whom they still worship today, the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world”. He also called Jesus, “that crucified sophist.” It is noteworthy that Lucian assumed Jesus was a real person. Otherwise, believing in a fictional founder would be good material for a satirist bent on mocking Christians for their credulity.
- Celsus, a philosopher, wrote an attack on Christianity titled True Doctrine shortly after 175 CE. Although this book’s manuscript is no longer surviving, about 60-90% of its contents were quoted by the Christian theologian Origen in his rebuttal volume, Against Celsus (ca. 250 CE). Origen quoted Celsus’ various arguments against Jesus – i.e. Jesus was not born from a virgin, Jesus came from a poor family in a remote Jewish village, Jesus’ mother was convicted of adultery with a Roman soldier named Panthera and driven out by her carpenter husband, Jesus worked as a laborer in Egypt where he most likely learnt his magical skills, and Jesus then returned to Palestine claiming to be God. Although he attacked Jesus’ claims to divinity, Celsus assumed that Jesus was a real historical person. In a way, his arguments corroborate the New Testament – Jesus’ mother was Mary, there was something peculiar about his birth, there’s a connection to Egypt, that Jesus did miracles or “magic tricks”, and that Jesus claimed to be god.
None of these seven pagan sources seem like forgeries or additions because they are in the context of negative statements about Christians and Christianity, attacking or mocking Christianity, or simply neutrally describing Christians. But let’s look at two of these ancient Classical passages more closely.
Pliny the Younger
In Letter 96 of Book 10, Pliny wrote:
Since I have begun to deal with this problem, the charges have become more common and are increasing in variety, as often happens. An anonymous accusatory pamphlet has been circulated containing the names of many people. I decided to dismiss any who denied that they are or ever have been Christians when they repeated after me a formula invoking the gods and made offerings of wine and incense to your image [i.e. Emperor Trajan’s image], which I had ordered to be brought with the images of the gods into court for this reason, and when they reviled Christ. I understand that no one who is really a Christian can be made to do these things.
Other people, whose names were given to me by an informer, first said that they were Christians and then denied it. They said that they had stopped being Christians two or more years ago, and some more than twenty. They all venerated your image and the images of the gods as the others did, and reviled Christ. They also maintained that the sum total of their guilt or error was no more than the following. They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god. They also took an oath not for any crime, but to keep from theft, robbery and adultery, not to break any promise, and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed. (English translation from Jesus Outside the New Testament, 25)
Elsewhere, Pliny called Christianity a “contagious superstition”. He wrote quite a bit about Christians to Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with them and their increasing numbers.
The authenticity of this letter is not in dispute. Its style is consistent with the other letters by Pliny. Furthermore, a Christian scribe would not have written about Christians who left the faith and reviled Christ to save their own skin. There’s an overall negative tone toward Christianity in both Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s reply that suggests it is highly unlikely to be forged by later Christians.
What do we learn from this passage? We learn that about 80 years after Jesus was crucified, Christians have grown in such number that they were a threat to the Roman Empire and were being persecuted. We learn that early Christians met regularly on a determined day (perhaps Sunday) and sang hymns to Christ as if Christ is god. Also that early Christians were rather exemplary in their moral behaviour. And that early Christians would not worship or bow down to other gods/idols/images, and would not revile or curse Christ. The overall tone here suggests that Pliny assumed Christ was a real person whom the Christians worshiped.
In his The Annals, book 15, chapter 44 (ca. 116-120 CE), Tacitus wrote:
Therefore, to put down the rumor [that Emperor Nero burned Rome], Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular. Therefore, first those who admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for hatred of the human race. Derision was added to their end: they were covered with skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were crucified and when the day ended they were burned as torches. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle and gave a show in his circus, mixing with the people in charioteer’s clothing, or standing on his racing chariot. Therefore a feeling of pity arose despite a guilt which deserved the most exemplary punishment, because it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but for the ferocity of one man. (English translation from Jesus Outside the New Testament, 41-42)
The vast majority of scholars judged this passage as fundamentally authentic. First, the tone is very negative of Christians and Christianity. Christians are “hated for their shameful acts”. Christianity is a “deadly superstition”, an “evil”, and “deserved the most exemplary punishment”. A Christian scribe would not have written such remarks of his own religion. Furthermore, Tacitus reported that some Christians who were arrested “spilled the beans on” or gave up their fellow Christians: “first those who admitted to it were arrested, then on their information a very large multitude was convicted”. Surely, no Christian writer would preserve such an unflattering description of the early Christians. Thus, this is judged as genuine.
We learn from Tacitus that Christ, the founder of Christianity, was a real person who was executed by Pontius Pilate under the reign of Emperor Tiberius, which supports the New Testament story. It also showed that by 64 CE, when the great fire occurred in Rome under Nero, there were a great number of Christians in Rome, and that they were widely known though the crowds may have miscalled them “Chrestians”. But it also shows that persecution of Christians occurred by 64 CE, about 31 years after the death of Jesus. So within 30 years Christianity grew from the death of its founder in Palestine to a vast movement that populates even the capital of the Roman Empire, and persecuted by the Emperor. If Jesus were only a mythical symbolic figure, why would the early Christians, just 30 years after his death, be willing to die for a myth?
Those few scholars who argue that Jesus did not exist have to prove that these writings are all forgeries or interpolations. But that would be a stretch as we have already seen good rational reasons for their authenticity. They might have to argue that these ancient pagan authors only got their information about Jesus from Christians and were, thus, misinformed. However, given that most of these authors wrote to denigrate and attack Christianity, it seems odd that they never broached the subject or even rumors of a mythical Jesus. Clearly, that would be a powerful attack on Christianity if its opponents thought it was a viable critique. But this silence among not only these seven pagan authors but also on all ancient Judaic attacks suggests none of them assumed Jesus was anything but a real person. This is why mainstream scholarship had maintained that Jesus was a historical person.