The Historicity of Jesus: Ancient Pagan Sources

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Tacitus

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.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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10 Responses to The Historicity of Jesus: Ancient Pagan Sources

  1. Luke says:

    There is no big deal in the debate of the historicity of Jesus the Christ. He existed, still exist and will forever exist. This is not a belief out of ignorance but from existing proof which is “the existence discussion of the Man Jesus Christ” We can never keep discussing someone or something that has never been there before. Whether He was or not is a enough proof of an existence of Jesus Christ. All the men and acts recorded in the various materials about Jesus were in existence by then, these cant be in existence in the absence of Christ

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  2. Pingback: Why think that (1) … Jesus existed? | Stepping Toes

  3. christopher smith says:

    Finally, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (Suetonius)
    Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 69 – 130)
    Suetonius was not a contemporary of the purported time of Jesus. However, since some theists cite Suetonius as independent corroboration of Jesus, I will discuss him here.
    Jeffery Jay Lowder writes:
    “Suetonius, the Roman historian and biographer formerly known as Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, wrote several works, including his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which is an account of the lives of the first twelve Roman emperors. In his Life of Claudius, he writes:
    As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

    Lowder continues:
    The claim that ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’ “can never be more than a guess, and the fact that Suetonius can elsewhere speak of ‘Christians’ as members of a new cult (without any reference to Jews) surely makes it rather unlikely that he could make such a mistake[18]
    “Chrestus” means ‘The Good” in Greek, while “Christus” means “The Messiah.” Actually, Chrestus was not an uncommon name in ancient Rome. Since Jesus was admittedly not in Rome instigating the Jews, we are almost definitely talking about someone other than Jesus here. I should mention that the entire relevant quotation from Suetonius which is involved here reads as follows:

    “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” The “he” is Claudius. As just mentioned, not even McDowell claims that Jesus was at Rome in 55 AD, when this incident is alleged to have occurred. It is also difficult to see why Jews would be led by Jesus. That is pretty strong evidence that this passage does not refer to Jesus of Nazareth at all, and so is irrelevant to our discussion of whether Jesus ever lived. We can, however, add the lack of a mention of Jesus in Suetonius to our list of “negative” evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical person. The reference in Suetonius is Life of the Caesars (Claudius 25:4).The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell Gordon Stein, Ph.D.

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  4. christopher smith says:

    Celsus’ work “assumes Jesus was a historical person” but only in the sense that he was nothing more than a man. Proving that Jesus was merely a man refutes the existence of Jesus the Christ. Think this one through.

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  5. christopher smith says:

    I don’t even see a need to refute the Pliny the Younger claim: he does not cite any evidence for the existence of Jesus, only the existence of Christians. There is nothing in his work that points to him believing in or accepting the existence of Jesus.

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  6. christopher smith says:

    Here is a refutation of your claim regarding Tacitus:

    Tacitus
    Tacitus (ca. 56 – ca. 117)
    Tacitus is remembered first and foremost as Rome’s greatest historian. His two surviving works: Annals and The Histories form a near continuous narrative from the death of Augustus in 14 CE to the death of Domitian in 96.

    Interestingly, I cannot report on the silence of Tacitus concerning Jesus, because the very years of the purported existence of Jesus 30, 31, are suspiciously missing from his work(!)
    Richard Carrier writes:

    “…we are enormously lucky to have Tacitus–only two unrelated Christian monasteries had any interest in preserving his Annals, for example, and neither of them preserved the whole thing, but each less than half of it, and by sheer luck alone, they each preserved a different half. And yet we still have large gaps in it. One of those gaps is the removal of the years 29, 30, and 31 (precisely, the latter part of 29, all of 30, and the earlier part of 31), which is probably the deliberate excision of Christian scribes who were embarrassed by the lack of any mention of Jesus or Gospel events in those years (the years Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were widely believed at the time to have occurred). There is otherwise no known explanation for why those three years were removed. The other large gap is the material between the two halves that neither institution preserved. And yet another is the end of the second half, which scribes also chose not to preserve (or lost through negligent care of the manuscript, etc.).”
    Ironically, Christians often cite Tacitus as historical evidence for Jesus.
    This is the passage cited:
    But neither the aid of man, nor the liberality of the prince, nor the propitiations of the gods succeeded in destroying the belief that the fire had been purposely lit. In order to put an end to this rumor, therefore, Nero laid the blame on and visited with severe punishment those men, hateful for their crimes, whom the people called Christians. He from whom the name was derived, Christus, was put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, checked for a moment, broke out again, not only in Judea, the native land of the monstrosity, but also in Rome, to which all conceivable horrors and abominations flow from every side, and find supporters. First, therefore, those were arrested who openly confessed; then, on their information, a great number, who were not so much convicted of the fire as of hatred of the human race. Ridicule was passed on them as they died; so that, clothed in skins of beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or committed to the flames, and when the sun had gone down they were burned to light up the night. Nero had lent his garden for this spectacle, and gave games in the Circus, mixing with the people in the dress of a charioteer or standing in the chariot. Hence there was a strong sympathy for them, though they might have been guilty enough to deserve the severest punishment, on the ground that they were sacrificed, not to the general good, but to the cruelty of one man.”[14]

    However, there are serious problems with using this passage as independent corroboration of Jesus:
    Jeffery Jay Lowder states:
    “There is no good reason to believe that Tacitus conducted independent research concerning the historicity of Jesus. The context of the reference was simply to explain the origin of the term “Christians,” which was in turn made in the context of documenting Nero’s vices…”
    It is not just ‘Christ-mythicists’ who deny that Tacitus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus; indeed, there are numerous Christian scholars who do the same! For example, France writes, Annals XV.44 “cannot carry alone the weight of the role of ‘independent testimony’ with which it has often been invested.” E.P. Sanders notes, “Roman sources that mention [Jesus] are all dependent on Christian reports.” And William Lane Craig states that Tacitus’ statement is “no doubt dependent on Christian tradition.”[15]
    So it may simply be that Tacitus was relying on oral tradition, and not on any historical research for his reference to Jesus. Tacitus himself tells us about the value of such traditions:

    “…everything gets exaggerated is typical for any story” and “all the greatest events are obscure–while some people accept whatever they hear as beyond doubt, others twist the truth into its opposite, and both errors grow over subsequent generations”[16]
    As weak as the Tacitus claim is, it remains a possibility that even this weak bit of apparent corroboration is a later interpolation.
    Some of these problems are summarized by Gordon Stein:
    “While we know from the way in which the above is written that Tacitus did not claim to have firsthand knowledge of the origins of Christianity, we can see that he is repeating a story which was then commonly believed, namely that the founder of Christianity, one Christus, had been put to death under Tiberius. There are a number of serious difficulties which must be answered before this passage can be accepted as genuine. There is no other historical proof that Nero persecuted the Christians at all. There certainly were not multitudes of Christians in Rome at that date (circa 60 A.D.). In fact, the term “Christian” was not in common use in the first century. We know Nero was indifferent to various religions in his city, and, since he almost definitely did not start the fire in Rome, he did not need any group to be his scapegoat. Tacitus does not use the name Jesus, and writes as if the reader would know the name Pontius Pilate, two things which show that Tacitus was not working from official records or writing for non-Christian audiences, both of which we would expect him to have done if the passage were genuine.
    Perhaps most damning to the authenticity of this passage is the fact that it is present almost word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (died in 403 A.D.), where it is mixed in with obviously false tales. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that Sulpicius could have copied this passage from Tacitus, as none of his contemporaries mention the passage. This means that it was probably not in the Tacitus manuscripts at that date. It is much more likely, then, that copyists working in the Dark Ages from the only existing manuscript of the Chronicle, simply copied the passage from Sulpicius into the manuscript of Tacitus which they were reproducing.”[17]
    Supporting Stein’s claim is that, as with the Testimonium, there is no provenance for the passage: No early Christian writer uses Tacitus’ passage in their apologetics, even when discussing Christian persecution by Nero:
    Tertullian (ca. 155–230)
    Lactantius (ca. 240 – ca. 320)
    Sulpicius Severus (c. 360 – 425)
    Eusebius (ca. 275 – 339)
    Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
    However, the key point here is that Tacitus did in fact write a thorough history of the purported times of Jesus and his ministry, and while this work is lost to us, Tacitus never makes any cross reference to it during his discussion of christians and Nero nor at any other point in his surviving works. The claim that Tacitus can be used as historical corroboration for the existence of Jesus is therefore spurious.

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  7. shek1na says:

    Thank you for this article.
    One man changed in fact the whole world.

    Soon we will meet the Savior at home, the new Jerusalem.
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  8. Pingback: Josephus on Jesus: Evidence for Jesus’ Existence? | 3-D Christianity

  9. Pingback: Not Christian, Or Pagan… « The Raptor's Claw

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