One of the greatest non-Christian historical references to Jesus was made by Josephus, the great Jewish historian. He lived in the first century (c. 37-100 AD), and was a contemporary of many members of the nascent Church.
There are two mentions of Jesus in Josephus’ great work entitled “Jewish Antiquities”. One refers to the condemnation of James, the relative of Jesus who became the Bishop of Jerusalem after Peter’s departure from the city: James was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1). Few question the authenticity of this passage.
Of course, there is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” (so named because Josephus took on the Roman name of “Flavius”, being known as “Flavius Josephus):
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared” (Ant. 18.3.3).
Scholars believe that Josephus did write this passage, but that it was later edited by Christian interpolators, who added the phrases like “if indeed one ought to call him a man”, “He was the Christ”, and “On the third day he appeared…restored to life”. Josephus was not a believer in Jesus, and certainly would not have written those things.
However, the bulk of what he wrote can be trusted as authentic. This is made even more sure by the fact that an Arabic version of Josephus’ “Antiquities” has been discovered, where the passage in question is present, minus the interpolations.
Josephus corroborates much of what we know from the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus: that he claimed to be the Messiah, was a wise man who was thought to have performed “surprising feats” (miraculous deeds), and that his followers continued to be his disciples in a movement that continued despite his death.
In this series, I’ll be sharing some ancient, non-Christian literary evidences for Jesus. This extrabiblical evidence corroborates much of what we know about Jesus’ life, teaching, and activities that is recorded in the New Testament. This is helpful material to cite when we are dealing with a person who doubts the existence of Christ, and who also refuses to take the New Testament documents seriously as historical sources.
These non-Christian sources had no agenda to promote faith in Jesus. In fact, some of them are outright hostile to the Christian message. This is actually the best type of evidence one could hope for: enemy attestation. When one’s opponent concedes that these events in the life of Jesus did occur, it’s a powerful witness to their veracity.
Perhaps the most important non-Christian source on Jesus is the great Roman historian, Tacitus. Here’s what he said about Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64 (a fire quite likely set by Nero himself):
“Nero fastened the guilt…on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of…Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome” (Tacitus, Annals 15:44, c. 116 AD).
Tacitus here confirms that Christians were named as such because of their founder, whom he calls “Christus” (derived from the Latin for “Christ”). Christus “suffered the extreme penalty (referring to crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius (the Emperor at the time) at the hands of…Pontius Pilatus” (the Roman Prefect in charge of Judea). This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
This will be the first of a series of posts regarding extrabiblical evidence for the life, teachings, and activities of Jesus. Having already dealt with the question of Jesus’ historical existence, we now turn to the question of his words and deeds. Many people wonder if the New Testament can be trusted regarding these matters.
The famous scholar E.P. Sanders, in his 1985 book, Jesus and Judaism, argued that there were eight “almost indisputable facts” about Jesus of Nazareth that were agreed upon by the majority of historians, whether these scholars were believers or not. As Greg Monette notes, in a later book called The Historical Figure of Jesus (written in 1993 for a more general audience), Sanders expanded the list of facts to fifteen:
1. Jesus was born c. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
4. He called disciples;
5. He taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not in the cities, save for some brief teaching in Jerusalem);
6. He preached “The Kingdom of God”;
7. He went to Jerusalem for Passover about AD 30;
8. He created a disturbance in the Temple area;
9. He had a final meal with the disciples;
10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
11. He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
12. His disciples at first fled;
13. They claimed to see him after his death;
14. As a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the Kingdom;
15. They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.
This list shows that Christians can have a high degree of confidence in the historical accuracy of what the New Testament says about the general contours of Jesus’ life and ministry.
One item that is strangely absent from Sanders’ list is that Jesus was a well-known healer and exorcist. This point is very well-attested. Jesus’ abilities in this regard are proclaimed on numerous occasions in the Gospel, and corroborated by historians of the times like Josephus, who calls Jesus “a doer of wondrous deeds” in his Jewish Antiquities. In a world in which a huge percentage of people were sick at any given time, this fact explains, in large part, Jesus’ popularity among the masses.
In fact, Jesus’ own enemies didn’t even bother to dispute that he did these things. Rather, they tried to explain his abilities by suggesting that Jesus was somehow in league with Satan (Jesus rightly skewers this flawed thinking in passages such as Mark 3:22-30). That Jesus was thought to be an exorcist and healer is, I think, beyond dispute from a historical perspective.
“‘And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:3-4). They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; of fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives lustre to the soul. This is now coming upon you also, and that to strip away and consume your sins which are like thorns, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and to give you grace; for He gave it then to the Apostles. And He sat upon them in the form of fiery tongues, that they might crown themselves with new and spiritual diadems by fiery tongues upon their heads. A fiery sword barred of old the gates of Paradise; a fiery tongue which brought salvation restored the gift” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 17.15).
Happy Pentecost, everyone!
H/T to Father Z for the quote.
Today’s first reading is selected from Acts 17, which chronicles St Paul’s visit to Athens. Paul’s brilliant, culturally relevant preaching of the Gospel in the Areopagus didn’t convert everyone, outstanding though it was (the illustration of the “unknown God” was inspired – quite literally!).
This should encourage all who proclaim the Word (many people didn’t listen to Jesus himself, either). We do see, though, in the responses to Paul’s message, three common responses that all who proclaim the Gospel encounter:
God has overlooked the times of ignorance,
but now he demands that all people everywhere repent
because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world
with justice’ through a man he has appointed,
and he has provided confirmation for all
by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about resurrection of the dead,
some began to scoff, but others said,
“We should like to hear you on this some other time.”
And so Paul left them.
But some did join him, and became believers.
Among them were Dionysius,
a member of the Court of the Areopagus,
a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Some scoffed. Some said, “Let’s hear more about this later”. But some believed. And so it goes, even today.
Which camp are you in?
Rod Bennett, author of some great books on the early Church, was interviewed about today’s feast of St. Athanasius over on the Catholic Answers blog:
The theory goes like this: just a few centuries after Christ’s death, around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the true Faith suffered a catastrophic falling-away. The simple truths of the gospel became so obscured by worldliness and pagan idolatry, kicking off the Dark Ages of Catholicism, that Christianity required a complete reboot.
This idea of a “Great Apostasy” is one of the cornerstones of American Protestantism, along with Mormonism, the Jehovah s Witnesses, and even Islam. Countless millions today profess a faith built on the assumption that the early Church quickly became broken beyond repair, requiring some new prophet or reformer to restore the pure teaching of Jesus and the apostles.
This theory is popular—but it’s also fiction. In his book The Apostasy that Wasn’t, Rod Bennett narrates the drama of the early Church’s fight to preserve Christian orthodoxy, even as powerful forces try to destroy it. Amid imperial intrigue and bitter theological debate, a hero arose: the homely little monk Athanasius, a Father of the Church, whose feast we celebrate on May 2. Athanasius stood against the world to prove that there could never be a Great Apostasy, because Jesus promised his Church would never be broken.
We asked Bennett to elaborate on this influential myth and why, logically, it couldn’t have occurred.
Q. What is the Great Apostasy?
Bennett: It’s one of the cornerstones of American religion, actually—the notion that the original Church founded by Jesus and his apostles went bust somewhere along the line and had to be restored by some latter-day prophet or reformer. Most of our Christian denominations here in the Unites States teach the idea in one form or another, though, significantly, they usually disagree completely on which “Second Founder” ought to be followed.
Usually, they date the collapse to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 and his subsequent adoption of Christianity for the whole Roman Empire. In doing this, he transformed the Christian Church (or so the story goes) from a simple body of pure, New Testament believers into the state religion of the Roman Empire.
This made Church membership socially advantageous for the first time, which brought in a vast flood of half-converted pagans who were admitted with minimal fuss by a mere external act of baptism. And this, in turn, subverted the original Faith so seriously that a Dark Age of idolatry and superstition was the result, a “great falling away” so serious that it required, in the end, a complete “reboot” from heaven.
Q. Where did the notion of the Great Apostasy find its beginnings?
Well, if you think about it, any group that has a short historical pedigree—founded, as most of our denominations have been, within the last few centuries of Christianity’s very long timeline—will be driven to the idea eventually. If you find that your church was founded in the twentieth century (or the nineteenth or the sixteenth) and teaches things no one was teaching in the fourteenth, the tenth, or the fifth century, then you’re going to have to account for that fact somehow.
The most common solution has been to offer a “conspiracy theory” of some kind: this idea that the early Church actually did teach Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventism or Unitarianism or what have you, but the “powers that be” hushed the original version up—burned their books, forced them underground, and so forth. The whole “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon from a few years back was based on the same idea.
For the whole interview, including an Bennett’s interesting comparison of Constantine to a guy who marries a rich woman, click here.
Today’s Second Reading from the Mass for the Sixth Sunday of Easter comes to us from the book of Revelation. In chapters 21-22, the last two chapters of the book, we see “New Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2) being established. Here in the “new world”, we have cities like New York, which corresponds to the old city of York in the British Empire. Likewise, there is need of a New Jerusalem for another “new world”. This new world is the new creation God will establish at the eschaton, at the end of time. Heaven will unite with earth. As we read today, the New Jerusalem comes “down out of heaven from God” to earth:
The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem
coming down out of heaven from God.
It gleamed with the splendor of God.
Its radiance was like that of a precious stone,
like jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a massive, high wall,
with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed,
the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites.
There were three gates facing east,
three north, three south, and three west.
The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation,
on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve apostles of the Lamb
– Revelation 21:10-14
As Revelation scholar Wilfrid J. Harrington noted: “God did not say, ‘I will make new things’; rather, he is making all things new”. Like the Property Brothers, God is in the business of renovation, not demolition. God will not destroy the good creation he has made; he will transform it.
We see an element of this in the second reading, where both the twelve tribes of Israel are mentioned, along with the twelve apostles of the Lamb. There is continuity in the people of God; the Church does not reject true Israel, but is Israel in all its fullness, with the Messiah having come. Membership in God’s family is no longer restricted to one ethnic group, but now encompasses people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. This fulfills God’s original promise to Abraham: all the nations would be blessed through Abraham, in and through the nation of Israel.
We also see this in God’s plan for creation, and even for ourselves. In this Eastertide, when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we understand that he is the “firstfruits” of the New World. We too await “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed) in a world that will be transformed, not thrown away. This creation made by God is “very good” and God will redeem it, including our very bodies. Saint Paul writes that the entire creation itself “groans” as it awaits renewal (Rom 8:19).
As we wait for this, what should we do? How should we live? As Saint Peter writes elsewhere, we should live as good citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem even now, as we live in the earthly city:
(W)hat kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
– 2 Peter 3:11-14
Q. During Holy Week, Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story called “Did Jesus Really Exist?” Many of my friends are reading this and actually believing this stuff – it is providing them with the “excuse” they need not to practice the faith.
A. Very often, around Christmas and Easter, secular media outlets will often publish materials that call into question the reality of Christianity. Their motive is clear: to sell more papers and magazines; to attract more viewers with something “controversial”. Thankfully for us, there is ample historical evidence for the historical truth of the faith.
However, this article in Maclean’s is especially questionable. As Andy Steiger writes, the article is “outright dishonest and manipulative. It preys on ignorance and reeks of a hidden agenda.”
Q. How so?
A. The article claims that research into memory has cast doubt on much that we know about Jesus, even whether or not he existed. What can be said in response to this? First of all, there is plenty of phenomenal scholarship that has been produced in recent years that has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the validity of memory and eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. One of the greatest works of this sort is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a monumental study by the famed New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham.
As to the question of Jesus existence, the Maclean’s article is especially disingenuous. The author, Brian Bethune, attempts to make use of the work of skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to “prove” Jesus never existed. Bethune does this by subtly implying that Ehrman endorses the views of Richard Carrier (the leading “mythicist” writing today, who claims Jesus was not a historical figure). Now, it’s certainly true that Ehrman doubts the reliability of the New Testament documents (I don’t think his arguments on that front are persuasive, but that’s another article for another day). But this is a totally separate topic from the question of the existence of Jesus.
What Bethune either willfully chose to ignore, or does not know, is this: Bart Ehrman himself wrote a book in 2012 called Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he skewers the view of the “mythicists” who say that Jesus did not exist. The reality that Jesus exists, Ehrman says, “is the view of every trained scholar on the planet” (p. 12).
Either way, this is shoddy journalism, and even worse editing by Maclean’s. This once-proud Canadian institution ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such utter nonsense.
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