Read Lawrence Mykytiuk’s article “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible” as it originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2015. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2014.—Ed.
THE MAN CHRIST JESUS. Did Jesus of Nazareth exist as a real human being? Outside of the New Testament, what is the evidence for his existence? In this article, author Lawrence Mykytiuk examines the extra-Biblical textual and archaeological evidence associated with the man who would become the central figure in Christianity. Here Jesus is depicted in a vibrant sixth-century C.E. mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna, Italy/Bridgeman Images.
I thought about following up with a similar article on people in the New Testament, but I soon realized that this would be so dominated by the question of Jesus’ existence that I needed to consider this question separately. This is that article:1
Did Jesus of Nazareth, who was called Christ, exist as a real human being, “the man Christ Jesus” according to 1 Timothy 2:5?
The sources normally discussed fall into three main categories: (1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian. But when people ask whether it is possible to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, as John P. Meier pointed out decades ago, “The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers.2 What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence … for Jesus’ existence?”c
Therefore, this article will cover classical and Jewish writings almost exclusively.3
Tacitus—or more formally, Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians. His name is based on the Latin word tacitus, “silent,” from which we get the English word tacit. Interestingly, his compact prose uses silence and implications in a masterful way. One argument for the authenticity of the quotation below is that it is written in true Tacitean Latin.4 But first a short introduction.
Roman historian Tacitus. Photo: Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Images.
Tacitus’s last major work, titled Annals, written c. 116–117 C.E., includes a biography of Nero. In 64 C.E., during a fire in Rome, Nero was suspected of secretly ordering the burning of a part of town where he wanted to carry out a building project, so he tried to shift the blame to Christians. This was the occasion for Tacitus to mention Christians, whom he despised. This is what he wrote—the following excerpt is translated from Latin by Robert Van Voorst:
TACIT CONFIRMATION. Roman historian Tacitus’s last major work, Annals, mentions a “Christus” who was executed by Pontius Pilate and from whom the Christians derived their name. Tacitus’s brief reference corroborates historical details of Jesus’ death from the New Testament. The pictured volume of Tacitus’s works is from the turn of the 17th century. The volume’s title page features Plantin Press’s printing mark depicting angels, a compass and the motto Labore et Constantia (“By Labor and Constancy”). Photo: Tacitus, Opera Quae Exstant, trans. by Justus Lipsius (Antwerp, Belgium: Ex officina Plantiniana, apud Joannem Moretum, 1600). Courtesy of the Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Co. (PRB&M).
479either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, 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 [Christus in Latin], 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.5
Tacitus’s terse statement about “Christus” clearly corroborates the New Testament on certain historical details of Jesus’ death. Tacitus presents four pieces of accurate knowledge about Jesus: (1) Christus, used by Tacitus to refer to Jesus, was one distinctive way by which some referred to him, even though Tacitus mistakenly took it for a personal name rather than an epithet or title; (2) this Christus was associated with the beginning of the movement of Christians, whose name originated from his; (3) he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea; and (4) the time of his death was during Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea, during the reign of Tiberius. (Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E.; Pilate governed Judea in 26–36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor 14–37 C.E.6)
Tacitus, like classical authors in general, does not reveal the source(s) he used. But this should not detract from our confidence in Tacitus’s assertions. Scholars generally disagree about what his sources were. Tacitus was certainly among Rome’s best historians—arguably the best of all—at the top of his game as a historian and never given to careless writing.
Earlier in his career, when Tacitus was Proconsul of Asia,7 he likely supervised trials, questioned people accused of being Christians and judged and punished those whom he found guilty, as his friend Pliny the Younger had done when he too was a provincial governor. Thus Tacitus stood a very good chance of becoming aware of information that he characteristically would have wanted to verify before accepting it as true.8
CHRESTIANS OF CHRIST. Book XV of Tacitus’s Annals is preserved in the 11th–12th-century Codex Mediceus II, a collection of medieval manuscripts now housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, along with other manuscripts and books that belonged to the Medici family. Highlighted above is the Latin text reading “… whom the crowd called ‘Chrestians.’ The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate …” Photo: Codex Mediceus 68 II, fol. 38r, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy.
The other strong evidence that speaks directly about Jesus as a real person comes from Josephus, a Jewish priest who grew up as an aristocrat in first-century Palestine and ended up living in Rome, supported by the patronage of three successive emperors. In the early days of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), Josephus was a commander in Galilee but soon surrendered and became a prisoner of war. He then prophesied that his conqueror, the Roman commander Vespasian, would become emperor, and when this actually happened, Vespasian freed him. “From then on Josephus lived in Rome under the protection of the Flavians and there composed his historical and apologetic writings” (Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz).9 He even took the name Flavius, after the family name of his patron, the emperor Vespasian, and set it before his birth name, becoming, in true Roman style, Flavius Josephus. Most Jews viewed him as a despicable traitor. It was by command of Vespasian’s son Titus that a Roman army in 70 C.E. destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple, stealing its contents as spoils of war, which are partly portrayed in the imagery of their gloating triumph on the Arch of Titus in Rome.10 After Titus succeeded his father as emperor, Josephus accepted the son’s imperial patronage, as he did of Titus’s brother and successor, Domitian.
Yet in his own mind, Josephus remained a Jew both in his outlook and in his writings that extol Judaism. At the same time, by aligning himself with Roman emperors who were at that time the worst enemies of the Jewish people, he chose to ignore Jewish popular opinion.
Josephus stood in a unique position as a Jew who was secure in Roman imperial patronage and protection, eager to express pride in his Jewish heritage and yet personally independent of the Jewish community at large. Thus, in introducing Romans to Judaism, he felt free to write historical views for Roman consumption that were strongly at variance with rabbinic views.
Jewish historian Josephus is pictured in the ninth-century medieval manuscript Burgerbibliothek Bern Codex under the Greek caption “Josippos Historiographer.” Photo: Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 50, f.2r.
The shorter of these two references to Jesus (in Book 20)11 is incidental to identifying Jesus’ brother James,12 the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the temporary absence of a Roman governor between Festus’s death and governor Albinus’s arrival in 62 C.E., the high priest Ananus instigated James’s execution. Josephus described it:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.13
James is otherwise a barely noticed, minor figure in Josephus’s lengthy tome. The sole reason for referring to James at all was that his death resulted in Ananus losing his position as high priest. James (Jacob) was a common Jewish name at this time. Many men named James are mentioned in Josephus’s works, so Josephus needed to specify which one he meant. The common custom of simply giving the father’s name (James, son of Joseph) would not work here, because James’s father’s name was also very common. Therefore Josephus identified this James by reference to his famous brother Jesus. But James’s brother Jesus (Yehoshua) also had a very common name. Josephus mentions at least 12 other men named Jesus.14 Therefore Josephus specified which Jesus he was referring to by adding the phrase “who is called Messiah,” or, since he was writing in Greek, Christos.15 This phrase was necessary to identify clearly first Jesus and, via Jesus, James, the subject of the discussion. This extraneous reference to Jesus would have made no sense if Jesus had not been a real person.
Visit the historical Jesus study page in Bible History Daily to read more free articles on Jesus.
JAMES, BROTHER OF JESUS. In Jewish Antiquities, parts of which are included in this mid-17th-century book of translations, Josephus refers to a James, who is described as “the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah.” Josephus’s mention of Jesus to specify which James was being executed by the high priest Ananus in 62 C.E. affirms the existence of the historical Jesus. Photo: Josephus, Famovs and Memorable Works of Josephvs, trans. by Thomas Lodge (London: J. L. for Andrew Hebb, 1640).
This phrase—“who is called Christ”—is very unlikely to have been added by a Christian for two reasons. First, in the New Testament and in the early Church Fathers of the first two centuries C.E., Christians consistently refer to James as “the brother of the Lord” or “of the Savior” and similar terms, not “the brother of Jesus,” presumably because the name Jesus was very common and did not necessarily refer to their Lord. Second, Josephus’s description in Jewish Antiquities of how and when James was executed disagrees with Christian tradition, likewise implying a non-Christian author.18
This short identification of James by the title that some people used in order to specify his brother gains credibility as an affirmation of Jesus’ existence because the passage is not about Jesus. Rather, his name appears in a functional phrase that is called for by the sense of the passage. It can only be useful for the identification of James if it is a reference to a real person, namely, “Jesus who is called Christ.”
This clear reference to Jesus is sometimes overlooked in debates about Josephus’s other, longer reference to Jesus (to be treated next). Quite a few people are aware of the questions and doubts regarding the longer mention of Jesus, but often this other clear, simple reference and its strength as evidence for Jesus’ existence does not receive due attention.
The longer passage in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (Book 18)19 that refers to Jesus is known as the Testimonium Flavianum.
If it has any value in relation to the question of Jesus’ existence, it counts as additional evidence for Jesus’ existence. The Testimonium Flavianum reads as follows; the parts that are especially suspicious because they sound Christian are in italics:20
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.21 For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.22
All surviving manuscripts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are in Greek, like the original, contain the same version of this passage, with no significant differences.
The main question is: Did Flavius Josephus write this entire report about Jesus and his followers, or did a forger or forgers alter it or possibly insert the whole report?23 There are three ways to answer this question:24
Alternative 2: The whole passage is a forgery, inserted into Jewish Antiquities.
Alternative 3: It is only partly authentic, containing some material from Josephus, but also
some later additions by another hand(s).
Regarding Alternative 1, today almost no scholar accepts the authenticity of the entire standard Greek Testimonium Flavianum. In contrast to the obviously Christian statement “He was the Messiah” in the Testimonium, Josephus elsewhere “writes as a passionate advocate of Judaism,” says Josephus expert Steve Mason. “Everywhere Josephus praises the excellent constitution of the Jews, codified by Moses, and declares its peerless, comprehensive qualities … Josephus rejoices over converts to Judaism. In all this, there is not the slightest hint of any belief in Jesus”25 as seems to be reflected in the Testimonium.
The bold affirmation of Jesus as Messiah reads as a resounding Christian confession that echoes St. Peter himself!26 It cannot be Josephus. Alternative 1 is clearly out.
Regarding Alternative 2—the whole Testimonium Flavianum is a forgery—this is very unlikely. What is said, and the expressions in Greek that are used to say it, despite a few words that don’t seem characteristic of Josephus, generally fit much better with Josephus’s writings than with Christian writings.27 It is hypothetically possible that a forger could have learned to imitate Josephus’s style or that a reviser adjusted the passage to that style, but such a deep level of attention, based on an extensive, detailed reading of Josephus’s works and such a meticulous adoption of his vocabulary and style, goes far beyond what a forger or a reviser would need to do.
Even more important, the short passage (treated above) that mentions Jesus in order to identify James appears in a later section of the book (Book 20) and implies that Jesus was mentioned previously.
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THE TESTIMONY OF JOSEPHUS. This 15th-century manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, contains the portion of Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum that refers to Jesus (highlighted in blue). The first sentence of the manuscript, highlighted in green, reads, from the Greek, “Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.” The majority of scholars believe this passage of the Testimonium is based on the original writings of Josephus but contains later additions, likely made by Christian scribes. Photo: Codex Parisinus gr. 2075, 45v. Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Alternative 3—that the Testimonium Flavianum is based on an original report by Josephus29 that has been modified by others, probably Christian scribes, seems most likely. After extracting what appear to be Christian additions, the remaining text appears to be pure Josephus. As a Romanized Jew, Josephus would not have presented these beliefs as his own. Interestingly, in three openly Christian, non-Greek versions of the Testimonium Flavianum analyzed by Steve Mason, variations indicate changes were made by others besides Josephus.30 The Latin version says Jesus “was believed to be the Messiah.” The Syriac version is best translated, “He was thought to be the Messiah.” And the Arabic version with open coyness suggests, “He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” Alternative 3 has the support of the overwhelming majority of scholars.
We can learn quite a bit about Jesus from Tacitus and Josephus, two famous historians who were not Christian. Almost all the following statements about Jesus, which are asserted in the New Testament, are corroborated or confirmed by the relevant passages in Tacitus and Josephus. These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:31
2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.
Some of Jesus’ followers did not abandon their personal loyalty to him even after his crucifixion but submitted to his teaching. They believed that Jesus later appeared to them alive in accordance with prophecies, most likely those found in the Hebrew Bible. A well-attested link between Jesus and Christians is that Christ, as a term used to identify Jesus, became the basis of the term used to identify his followers: Christians. The Christian movement began in Judea, according to Tacitus. Josephus observes that it continued during the first century. Tacitus deplores the fact that during the second century it had spread as far as Rome.
As far as we know, no ancient person ever seriously argued that Jesus did not exist.33 Referring to the first several centuries C.E., even a scholar as cautious and thorough as Robert Van Voorst freely observes, “… 479o pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.”34
Nondenial of Jesus’ existence is particularly notable in rabbinic writings of those first several centuries C.E.: “… [I]f anyone in the ancient world had a reason to dislike the Christian faith, it was the rabbis. To argue successfully that Jesus never existed but was a creation of early Christians would have been the most effective polemic against Christianity … [Yet] all Jewish sources treated Jesus as a fully historical person … [T]he rabbis … used the real events of Jesus’ life against him” (Van Voorst).35
Thus his birth, ministry and death occasioned claims that his birth was illegitimate and that he performed miracles by evil magic, encouraged apostasy and was justly executed for his own sins. But they do not deny his existence.36
Want more on Biblical figures? Read “53 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically,”“New Testament Political Figures: The Evidence” and “Herod the Great and the Herodian Family Tree” by Lawrence Mykytiuk.
Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–200 C.E.) was a Greek satirist who wrote The Passing of Peregrinus, about a former Christian who later became a famous Cynic and revolutionary and died in 165 C.E. In two sections of Peregrinus—here translated by Craig A. Evans—Lucian, while discussing Peregrinus’s career, without naming Jesus, clearly refers to him, albeit with contempt in the midst of satire:
It was then that he learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And— what else?—in short order he made them look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector—to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.37
For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws.38
Although Lucian was aware of the Christians’ “books” (some of which might have been parts of the New Testament), his many bits of misinformation make it seem very likely that he did not read them. The compound term “priests and scribes,” for example, seems to have been borrowed from Judaism, and indeed, Christianity and Judaism were sometimes confused among classical authors.
Lucian seems to have gathered all of his information from sources independent of the New Testament and other Christian writings. For this reason, this writing of his is usually valued as independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
This is true despite his ridicule and contempt for Christians and their “crucified sophist.” “Sophist” was a derisive term used for cheats or for teachers who only taught for money. Lucian despised Christians for worshiping someone thought to be a criminal worthy of death and especially despised “the man who was crucified.”
▸ Celsus, the Platonist philosopher, considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.39
▸ Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor and friend of Tacitus, wrote about early Christian worship of Christ “as to a god.”40
▸ Suetonius, a Roman writer, lawyer and historian, wrote of riots in 49 C.E. among Jews in Rome which might have been about Christus but which he thought were incited by “the instigator Chrestus,” whose identification with Jesus is not completely certain.41
▸ Mara bar Serapion, a prisoner of war held by the Romans, wrote a letter to his son that described “the wise Jewish king” in a way that seems to indicate Jesus but does not specify his identity.42
Other documentary sources are doubtful or irrelevant.43
One can label the evidence treated above as documentary (sometimes called literary) or as archaeological. Almost all sources covered above exist in the form of documents that have been copied and preserved over the course of many centuries, rather than excavated in archaeological digs. Therefore, although some writers call them archaeological evidence, I prefer to say that these truly ancient texts are ancient documentary sources, rather than archaeological discoveries.
Some ossuaries (bone boxes) have come to light that are inscribed simply with the name Jesus (Yeshu or Yeshua‘ in Hebrew), but no one suggests that this was Jesus of Nazareth. The name Jesus was very common at this time, as was Joseph. So as far as we know, these ordinary ossuaries have nothing to do with the New Testament Jesus. Even the ossuary from the East Talpiot district of Jerusalem, whose inscription is translated “Yeshua‘, son of Joseph,” does not refer to him.44
As for the famous James ossuary first published in 2002,d whose inscription is translated “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua‘,” more smoothly rendered, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” it is unprovenanced, and it will likely take decades to settle the matter of whether it is authentic. Following well established, sound methodology, I do not base conclusions on materials whose authenticity is uncertain, because they might be forged.45 Therefore the James ossuary, which is treated in many other publications, is not included here.46
As a final observation: In New Testament scholarship generally, a number of specialists consider the question of whether Jesus existed to have been finally and conclusively settled in the affirmative. A few vocal scholars, however, still deny that he ever lived.47
“Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible” by Lawrence Mykytiuk originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on December 8, 2014.
Lawrence Mykytiuk is associate professor of library science and the history librarian at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of the book Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
a. Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible,”BAR, March/April 2014.
b. See biblicalarchaeology.org/50.
c. John P. Meier, “The Testimonium,”Bible Review, June 1991.
d. See André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus,”BAR, November/December 2002; Hershel Shanks, “‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic!”BAR, July/August 2012.
1. I gratefully dedicate this article to my brother, Thomas S. Mykytiuk, to the memory of his wife, Nancy E. Mykytiuk, and to their growing tribe of descendants. I wish to thank Dr. Stuart D. Robertson of Purdue University, a Josephus scholar who studied under the great Louis H. Feldman, for kindly offering his comments on an early draft of this article. As the sole author, I alone am responsible for all of this article’s errors and shortcomings.
The previous BAR article is supplemented by two more persons, officials of Nebuchadnezzar II, mentioned in the “Queries and Comments” section, BAR, July/August 2014, bringing the actual total to 52. That previous article is based on my own research, because few other researchers had worked toward the twin goals I sought: first, developing the necessary methodology, and second, applying that methodology comprehensively to archaeological materials that relate to the Hebrew Bible. In contrast, this article treats an area that has already been thoroughly researched, so I have gleaned material from the best results previously obtained (may the reader pardon the many quotations).
Another contrast is that the challenge in the research that led to the previous article was to determine whether the inscriptions (down to 400 B.C.E.) actually referred to the Biblical figure. In the present article, most of the documents very clearly refer to the Jesus of the New Testament. Only in relatively few instances, such as some rabbinic texts, is the reference very unclear. The challenge in this article has been to evaluate the relative strength of the documents about Jesus as evidence, while keeping in mind whether they are independent of the New Testament.
2. Of course, the New Testament is actually a small library of texts, as is the Hebrew Bible.
3. Because Meier only covered writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, his article stays within the first century. This article covers writings that originated in the first several centuries C.E. These non-Christian sources deserve to be welcomed and examined by anyone interested in the historical aspect of Scripture. At the same time, Christian sources found in the New Testament and outside of it have great value as historical evidence and are not to be discounted or dismissed.
The Gospels, for example, are loosely parallel to writings by members of a Prime Minister’s or President’s cabinet, in that they are valuable for the firsthand information they provide from inner circles (F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, Knowing Christianity [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974], pp. 14–15). While allowance must be made for human limitations (at least lack of omniscience) and bias (such as loyalty to a particular person or deity), no good historian would completely discard them.
An example that is more to the point is Bart D. Ehrman’s strong affirmation of Jesus’ existence in his Did Jesus Exist? (New York: HarperOne, 2012), pp. 142–174. It is based on New Testament data and is noteworthy for its down-to-earth perception. Ehrman bases his conclusion that Jesus existed on two facts: first, that the apostle Paul was personally acquainted with Jesus’ brother James and with the apostle Peter; and second, that, contrary to Jewish messianic expectation of the day, Jesus was crucified (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 173).
In the last analysis, all evidence from all sources must be considered. Both Biblical and non-Biblical sources “are in principle of equal value in the study of Jesus” (Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], p. 23). An excellent, up-to-date resource on both Christian and non-Christian sources is Craig A. Evans, ed., Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (New York: Routledge, 2008).
4. “As Norma Miller delightfully remarks, ‘The well-intentioned pagan glossers of ancient texts do not normally express themselves in Tacitean Latin,’ and the same could be said of Christian interpolators” (Norma P. Miller, Tacitus: Annals XV [London: Macmillan, 1971], p. xxviii, quoted in Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000], p. 43).
5.Annals XV.44, as translated in Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 42–43. Instead of the better-documented reading, “Chrestians,” the word “Christians” appears in a more traditional translation by Alfred J. Church and William J. Brodribb, Annals of Tacitus (London: Macmillan, 1882), pp. 304–305, and in an even earlier edition, which appears at www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Tacitus_on_Christ.html.
6. Along with these corroborations, Tacitus’s statement also contains difficulties that might cause concern. Three that I consider the most important are treated in this note. Although debates will continue, proper use of historical background offers reasonable, tenable solutions that we may hold with confidence while remaining open to new evidence and new interpretations if they are better. Every approach has difficulties to explain. I prefer those that come with this article’s approach, because I consider them smaller and more easily resolved than the problems of other approaches.
First, it is common for scholars to observe that Pontius Pilate’s official title when he governed Judaea (26/27–36 C.E.) was not procurator, as in the quotation from Tacitus above, but praefectus (in Latin, literally, “placed in charge”; in English, prefect), as stated on the “Pilate stone” discovered in 1961. This stone was lying in the ruins of the theater in the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima, on Israel’s northern seacoast. The stone had been trimmed down to be re-used twice, so the first part of the title is broken off, but the title is not in doubt. With square brackets marking missing letters that scholars have filled in, two of its four lines read “[Po]ntius Pilate . . . [Pref]ect of Juda[ea]”:
line 2 […PO]NTIUS PILATUS
line 3 […PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
The inscription could potentially be dated to any time in Pilate’s career, but a date between 31 and 36 C.E. seems most likely. See Clayton Miles Lehmann and Kenneth G. Holum, The Greek and Latin Inscriptions of Caesarea Maritima, Joint Expedition to Caesarea Excavation Reports V (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2000), pp. 67–70, no. 43, p. 249 Pl. XXVI.
The family name Pontius was common in some parts of Italy during that era, but the name Pilatus was “extremely rare” (A. N. Sherwin-White, “Pilate, Pontius,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986], p. 867). Because of the rarity of the name Pilatus and because only one Pontius Pilatus was ever the Roman governor of Judea, this identification should be regarded as completely certain.
It is possible that “procurator” in the quotation above is a simple error, but the historical background reveals that it is not so much an error as it is an anachronism—something placed out of its proper time, whether intentionally or by accident. As emperor until 14 C.E., Augustus gave governors of western and southern Judea the title praefectus. But later, Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.) began conferring the title procurator pro legato, “procurator acting as legate” on new provincial governors. A procurator, literally, “caretaker,” was a steward who managed financial affairs on behalf of the owner. Roman governmental procurators managed taxes and estates on behalf of the emperor and had administrative duties. The English verb to procure is derived from the same root.
From then on, the title procurator replaced praefectus in many Roman provinces, including Judea. “So the early governors of western and southern Judea, after it became a Roman province in A.D. 6, were officially entitled praefecti. Later writers, however, usually referred to them anachronistically as procurators or the Greek equivalent …” (A. N. Sherwin-White, “Procurator,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 979.)
Writing in 116 or 117 C.E., Tacitus, who was above all a careful writer, might have intentionally chosen to use the then-current title procurator in keeping with the anachronistic way of speaking that was common in his day. Even today, we accept titles used anachronistically. One might read comparable statements about “U.S. Secretaries of Defense from Henry Stimson during World War II to Chuck Hagel,” even though Stimson’s actual title was Secretary of War, and the current title is Secretary of Defense. Readers who are unfamiliar with Stimson’s title would nevertheless understand which position he held in the government.
Whether procurator was used intentionally or not, in effect this anachronistic term helped readers quickly understand Pilate’s official position and avoided confusing people who were not familiar with the older title.
The second difficulty is that Tacitus’s word for “Christians” is spelled two different ways in existing Latin manuscripts of Annals: both Christianoi and Chrestianoi. The name Chrestus, meaning “good, kind, useful, beneficent,” was commonly given to slaves who served Roman masters. In spoken conversation, people in Rome could easily have mistakenly heard the Latinized foreign word Christus as the familiar name Chrestus. Chrestianoi, “good, kind, useful ones,” is found in the oldest surviving manuscript of this passage in Tacitus.
[T]he original hand of the oldest surviving manuscript, the Second Medicean (eleventh century), which is almost certainly the source of all other surviving manuscripts, reads Chrestianoi, “Chrestians.” A marginal gloss “corrects” it to Christianoi. Chrestianoi is to be preferred as the earliest and most difficult reading and is adopted by the three current critical editions and the recent scholarship utilizing them. It also makes better sense in context. Tacitus is correcting, in a way typical of his style of economy, the misunderstanding of the “crowd” (vulgus) by stating that the founder of this name (auctor nominis eius) is Christus, not the name implicitly given by the crowd, Chrestus. Tacitus could have written auctor superstitionis, “the founder of this superstition,” or something similar, but he calls attention by his somewhat unusual phrase to the nomen [name] of the movement in order to link it directly—and correctly—to the name of Christ (Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 43–44. See also John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Bible Reference Library [New York: Doubleday, 1991], p. 100, note 7.).
It is very common for ancient classical writings to be represented by manuscripts that were copied many centuries later. For example, the earliest manuscript of the Odyssey is from the 900s C.E., yet it is traditionally ascribed to the blind Greek poet Homer, who is dated variously from about the 800s to the 500s B.C.E., roughly 1,400 to 1,700 years earlier. Similarly, it is not unusual for the earliest surviving manuscripts of various works of the Greek philosopher Plato to date from over 1,000 years after he wrote.
For a technical, critical discussion of Christus and Chrestus in English, see Robert Renahan, “Christus or Chrestus in Tacitus?” Past and Present 23 (1968), pp. 368–370.
The third difficulty is more apparent than real: Why did it take about 85 years for a classical author such as Tacitus to write about Jesus, whose crucifixion occurred c. 29 C.E.? (The A.D. system, devised by the Christian Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus [“Dennis the Small”] in the 525 C.E. and used in our present-day calendar, was not perfectly set on the exact year of Jesus’ birth, though it was close. As a result, Jesus was born within the years we now refer to as 6 to 4 B.C.E. That would put the beginning of his ministry, around age 30 (Luke 3:23), at c. 25 C.E. In the widely held view that Jesus’ ministry lasted 3.5 years before his death, a reasonable date for the crucifixion is c. 29 C.E.)
The following two observations made by F. F. Bruce are relevant to works by Tacitus and by several other classical writers who mention Jesus:
2. Roman civilization paid almost no attention to obscure religious leaders in faraway places, such as Jesus in Judea—just as today’s Western nations pay almost no attention to religious leaders in remote parts of the world, unless the national interest is involved. Rome became concerned only when Christians grew numerous. (Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins, pp. 17–18. For thorough discussion, see Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 68–71.)
A time factor that affects Tacitus in particular is:
3. In the Annals, the reference to Jesus appears only in connection with the cruel treatment of Christians in Rome by Nero, as part of a biography of Nero (d. 68 C.E.). By happenstance, Tacitus did not get around to composing Nero’s biography until the last group of narratives he wrote before he died. A writer for most of his life, Tacitus began with works on oratory, ethnography of German tribes and other subjects. His book Histories, written c. 100–110, which covers the reigns of later Roman emperors after Nero, was actually written before his book Annals, which covers the earlier reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Thus Tacitus wrote his biography of Nero at the end of his career.
7.Asia was the name of a Roman province in what is now western Turkey (Asia Minor).
8. Perhaps he compared it to Roman records, whether in general governmental archives or in records concerning various religions. I have read one analysis by an author who arbitrarily assumes that Tacitus got his information only from Christians—no other source. Then, on the sole basis of the author’s own assumption, the analysis completely dismisses Tacitus’s clear historical statement about “Christus.” This evaluation is based on opinion, not evidence. It also undervalues Tacitus’s very careful writing and his discernment as a historian. He likely had access to some archives through his status, either as Proconsul of Asia, as a senator—or, as is often overlooked, from his connections as a high-ranking priest of Roman religion. In 88 C.E., he became “a member of the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis [“The Board of Fifteen for Performing Sacrifices”], the priestly organization charged, among other things, with … supervising the practice of officially tolerated foreign cults in the city … [and facing] the growing necessity to distinguish illicit Christianity from licit Judaism” (Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, p. 52), or, given Jewish resistance to oppressive measures taken by Rome, at least to keep a close watch on developments within Judaism. Indeed, “a Roman archive … is particularly suggested by the note of the temporary suppression of the superstition, which indicates an official perspective” (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 83). Membership in this priestly regulatory group very likely gave Tacitus access to at least some of the accurate knowledge he possessed about Christus. With characteristic brevity, he reported the facts as he understood them, quickly dismissing the despised, executed Christus from the Annals (see Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 90).
Tacitus himself tells us … that in 88 [C.E.] both in his capacity as priest of the college of quindecimviri sacris faciundis and as a praetor he had been present at and had paid close attention to the ludi saeculares [“secular games”] celebrated by Domitian in that year… [Annals, XI.11, 3–4]. It rather sounds as if he took his religious office seriously …
Tacitus presents himself as a man concerned to preserve traditional Roman religious practice, convinced that when religious matters are allowed to slide or are completely disregarded, the gods will vent their anger on the Roman people to correct their error. What on his view angers the gods is not so much failure to observe the niceties of ritual practice, as disdain for the moral order that the gods uphold” (Matthew W. Dickie, “Magic in the Roman Historians,” in Richard Lindsay Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, eds., Magical Practice in the Latin West: Papers from the International Conference Held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept. – 1st Oct. 2005, Religions in the Greco-Roman World, vol. 168 [Leiden: Brill, 2010], pp. 82, 83).
Tacitus was in his twenties in 79 C.E., when an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius annihilated the city of Pompeii. One can reasonably suppose how he might have interpreted this disaster in relation to the Roman gods.
9. Quoted from Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 64.
10. Titus’s troops captured and treated as war booty the sacred menorah that had stood in the holy place inside the Temple. See articles on the menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus, in Yeshiva University’s Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project, etc., at yeshiva.academia.edu/StevenFine/Menorah-Arch-of-Titus-Digital-Restoration-Project.
11.Jewish Antiquities, XX.200 (or, in Whiston’s translation of Jewish Antiquities, XX.9.1).
12. James’s name was actually Jacob. Odd as it may seem, the English name James is ultimately derived from the Hebrew name Jacob.
13.Jewish Antiquities, XX.9.1 in Whiston’s translation (§200 in scholarly editions), as translated by Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 57. Meier’s original passage includes the phrases in square brackets [ ]. The omitted words indicated by the ellipsis (…) are in Greek, to let scholars know what words are translated into English.
14. Winter asserts that Josephus mentions about twelve others named Jesus. Feldman puts that number at 21. See Paul Winter, “Excursus II: Josephus on Jesus and James: Ant. xviii 3, 3 (63–64) and xx 9,1 (200–203),” in Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 3 vols., rev. and ed. by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, Matthew Black and Martin Goodman (Edinburgh: Clark, 1973–1987), vol. 1, p. 431; Louis H. Feldman, “Introduction,” in Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, eds., Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1987), p. 56.
15. See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp. 57–58. Messiah, the Hebrew term for “anointed (one),” came through Greek translation (Christos) into English as Christ.
16. See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 59, note 12; pp. 72–73, note 12.
17. Richard T. France, The Evidence for Jesus, The Jesus Library (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986), p. 26.
18. Josephus says James was executed by stoning before the Jewish War began, but Christian tradition says he was executed during the Jewish War by being thrown from a height of the Temple, then, after an attempt to stone him was prevented, finally being clubbed to death. See Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 58.
19. XVIII.63–64 (in Whiston’s translation: XVIII.3.3).
20. It was modern scholar John P. Meier who put these passages in italics.
21. Christians believe that Jesus was fully human, but also fully Divine, having two natures in one person. To refer to him as “a wise man,” as the earlier part of the sentence does, would seem incomplete to a Christian. This clause seems intended to lead toward the two boldly Christian statements that come later.
22. This straightforward translation from Greek, in which I have italicized three phrases, is by Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pp. 65–66.
In his Bible Review article (Meier, “The Testimonium,”Bible Review, June 1991, p. 23), John P. Meier subtracts these three apparently Christian portions from the Testimonium. What remains is a very plausible suggestion, possibly the authentic, smoothly flowing report written by Flavius Josephus—or very close to it. Here is the remainder:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pp. 65–66, after deleting the apparent Christian additions as Meier would).
23. Regarding differing religious convictions of readers that have generated disagreements about this passage at least since medieval times, see Alice Whealey, Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, Studies in Biblical Literature, vol. 36 (New York: Peter Lang, 2003). Whealey’s observations in her conclusion, pp. 203–207, may be summarized as follows:
In the High Middle Ages (c. 1050–1350), Jewish scholars claimed it was a Christian forgery that was inserted into Josephus’s text, and Christians simply claimed it was entirely authentic. The problem was that with few exceptions, both sides argued from a priori assumptions with no critical examination of evidence. In the late 1500s and the 1600s, some Protestant scholars made the public charge of forgery. By the mid-1700s, based on textual evidence, scholarly opinion had rejected the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum and the controversy largely ended for over two centuries.
Twentieth-century scholars, however, revived the controversy on the basis of “new” variations of the text and whole works from ancient times that had been overlooked. Instead of the generally Protestant character of the earlier controversy, the controversy that began in the twentieth century is “more academic and less sectarian … marked by the presence of Jewish scholars for the first time as prominent participants on both sides of the question, and in general the attitudes of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and secular scholars towards the text have drawn closer together” (p. 206).
24. Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 65–69. Meier, “The Testimonium,”Bible Review, June 1991, gives the third answer.
25. Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), p. 229.
26. Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20.
27. According to Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pp. 66–67, unless otherwise noted, these phrases that are characteristic of Josephus include: 1) Calling Jesus “a wise man” and calling his miracles “surprising deeds”; 2) Use of one of Josephus’s favorite phrases, “accept the truth gladly,” that in the “gladly” part includes the Greek word for “pleasure” which for Christian writers of this era, as a rule, had a bad connotation; 3) The reference to attracting “many of the Greeks” (meaning Hellenistic Gentiles), which fits better with Rome in Josephus’s time than with the references to Gentiles in the Gospels, which are few (such as John 12:20–22). On the style being that of Josephus, see also Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 89–91; 4) “The execution of Jesus by Pilate on the denunciation of the Jewish authorities shows acquaintance with legal conditions in Judaea and contradicts the tendency of the Christian reports of the trial of Jesus, which incriminate the Jews but play down Pilate’s responsibility” (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 67); 5) Calling Christians a “tribe” tends to show a Jewish perspective.
28. On whether the Testimonium Flavianum interrupts the structure of its literary context, see Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pp. 67–68, under “The interpolation hypothesis.” They describe E. Norden’s analysis (in German) of the context in Jewish Antiquities. Also see France, Evidence for Jesus, pp. 27–28, which mentions that Josephus’s typical sequencing includes digressions. Josephus’s key vocabulary regarding revolts is absent from the section on Jesus, perhaps removed by a Christian copyist who refused to perpetuate Josephus’s portrayal of Jesus as a real or potential rebel political leader.
29. Various scholars have suggested that Josephus’s original text took a hostile view of Jesus, but others, that it took a neutral to slightly positive view of him. See Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pp. 68–71 (hostile views) and pp. 71–74 (neutral to slightly positive views).
30. Josephus scholar Steve Mason observes, “Long after Eusebius, in fact, the text of the testimonium remained fluid. Jerome (342–420), the great scholar who translated the Bible and some of Eusebius into Latin, gives a version that agrees closely with standard text, except that the crucial phrase says of Jesus, ‘He was believed to be the Messiah’” (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, p. 230, italics his. A decades-long, simmering debate continues about whether Jerome’s translation accurately represents what Josephus wrote.).
Besides Jerome’s Latin version, other examples of variation in manuscripts that are mentioned by Mason include an Arabic rendering and a version in Syriac. The Syriac language developed from Aramaic and is the (or an) official language of some branches of Orthodox Christianity.
A passage in a tenth-century Arabic Christian manuscript written by a man named Agapius appears to be a version of the Testimonium Flavianum. Shlomo Pines gives the following translation from the Arabic:
Similarly Josephus [Yūsīfūs] the Hebrew. For he says that in the treatises that he has written on the governance [?] of the Jews: ‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
This is what is said by Josephus and his companions of our Lord the Messiah, may he be glorified (Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications [Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971), pp. 8–10).
Feldman thinks that Agapius mixed in source material from writers besides Josephus and provided “a paraphrase, rather than a translation” (Louis H. Feldman, Josephus and Modern Scholarship, 1937–1980 [New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1984], p. 701). John P. Meier tends not to attribute much significance to Agapius’s description of the Testimonium Flavianum; see Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp. 78–79, note 37.
Of the three apparently Christian portions that are italicized in the translation of the Greek text above, the first is missing, and the other two are phrased as neutral statements (“they reported” he was alive, “he was perhaps” the Messiah), rather than as affirmations of Christian faith, such as, “He was” the Messiah, “He appeared” alive again.
Mason also refers to Pines’s translation of a version in Syriac found in the writings of Michael, the Patriarch of Antioch:
The writer Josephus also says in his work on the institutions of the Jews: In these times there was a wise man named Jesus, if it is fitting for us to call him a man. For he was a worker of glorious deeds and a teacher of truth. Many from among the Jews and the nations became his disciples. He was thought to be the Messiah. But not according to the testimony of the principal [men] of [our] nation. Because of this, Pilate condemned him to the cross, and he died. For those who had loved him did not cease to love him. He appeared to them alive after three days. For the prophets of God had spoken with regard to him of such marvelous [as these]. And the people of the Christians, named after him, has not disappeared till [this] day” (Pines, Arabic Version, pp. 26–27).
Pines adds a note about the Syriac text of the sentence “He was thought to be the Messiah”: “This sentence may also be translated Perhaps he was the Messiah.”
These Latin, Arabic and Syriac versions most likely represent genuine, alternative textual traditions. “The Christian dignitaries who innocently report these versions as if they came from Josephus had no motive, it seems, to weaken their testimony to Jesus” (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, p. 231). Actually, Christians tended to make references to Jesus more glorious. Nor is there any indication that anti-Christian scribes reduced the references to Jesus from glorious to mundane, which would likely have been accompanied by disparagement. “It seems probable, therefore, that the versions of Josephus’s statement given by Jerome, Agapius and Michael reflect alternative textual traditions of Josephus which did not contain” the bold Christian confessions that appear in the standard Greek version (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, p. 231). They contain variations that exhibit a degree of the fluidity that Mason emphasizes (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, pp. 230–231). But these versions are not so different that they are unrecognizable as different versions of the Testimonium Flavianum. They use several similar phrases and refer to the same events, presenting phrases and events in a closely similar order, with few exceptions. Thus, along with enough agreement among the standard Greek text and the non-Greek versions to reveal a noteworthy degree of stability, their differences clearly exhibit the work of other hands after Josephus. (It is by this stability that we may recognize many lengthy additions and disagreements with the manuscript texts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are found in a passage sometimes called the Testimonium Slavianum that was apparently inserted into the Old Russian translation, called the Slavonic version, of Josephus’s other major work, The Jewish War.)
In the process of finding the similarities of phrases and references in extant manuscripts, one can come to recognize that the standard Greek form of the Testimonium Flavianum is simply one textual tradition among several. On balance, the Greek version is not necessarily supreme over all other textual traditions (Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, pp. 234–236). Despite a degree of stability in the text, the fluidity that is evident in various textual traditions is plain evidence that what Josephus wrote was later altered. When viewed from the standpoint of the Latin, Arabic and Syriac versions, the Greek text looks deliberately altered to make Josephus seem to claim that Jesus was the Messiah, possibly by omitting words that indicated that people called him Christos or thought, said, reported or believed that he was. Also, although of course the evidence is the crucial factor, alternative 3 also happens to have the support of the overwhelming majority of scholars, far more than any other view.
31. Almost all of the following points are listed and elaborated in Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 99–102.
32. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, p. 99.
33. “The non-Christian testimonies to Jesus … show that contemporaries in the first and second century saw no reason to doubt Jesus’ existence” (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, p. 63).
34. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, p. 15. His footnote attached to this sentence states, with reference to Justin Martyr:
The only possible attempt at this argument known to me is in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, written in the middle of the second century. At the end of chapter 8, Trypho, Justin’s Jewish interlocutor, states, “But [the] Christ—if indeed he has been born and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him and make him known to all. Accepting a groundless report, you have invented a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake you are unknowingly perishing.” This may be a faint statement of a nonexistence hypothesis, but it is not developed or even mentioned again in the rest of the Dialogue, in which Trypho assumes the existence of Jesus (Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, p. 15, note 35).
Even in this statement, in which Trypho tries to imply that an existing report of Jesus as the Christ is erroneous, his reason is not necessarily that Jesus did not exist. Rather, he might well have wanted to plant the doubt that—although Jesus existed, as Trypho consistently assumes throughout the rest of the dialogue— the “report” that Jesus was the Christ was “groundless,” and that later on, someone else might arise who would prove to be the true Christ. Trypho was attempting to raise hypothetical doubt without here stating any actual grounds for doubt. These suggestions, more likely taunts, from Trypho, which he immediately abandons, cannot be regarded as an argument, let alone a serious argument. They are simply an unsupported doubt, apparently regarding Jesus’ being the Messiah.
35. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside, pp. 133–134.
36. The chief difficulty in working with rabbinic writings that might be about Jesus is that
it is not always clear if Jesus (variously called Yeshua or Yeshu, with or without the further designation ha-Noṣri [meaning “the Nazarene”]) is in fact the person to whom reference is being made, especially when certain epithets are employed (e.g. Balaam, Ben Pandira, Ben Stada, etc. … Another serious problem in making use of these traditions is that it is likely that none of it is independent of Christian sources (Craig A. Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” in Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, 2nd impression, New Testament Tools and Studies, vol. 6 (Boston: Brill, 1998, 1994), pp. 443–444).
This article concerns the evidence put forward in favor of the suggestion that Jesus actually once existed as as a real-life, flesh-and-blood human being. For the debate on whether there likely was one single founder of Christianity, or if the early church just rallied around the myth of such a man, see our article on Jesus myth theory.
“”Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed. [...] John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all.
|—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion|
Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ) allegedly occurs in several places: the Bible; other early Christian writings (including various early churches c. 100 CE); and what could be referred to as "the usual suspects", a lineup of writers generally consisting of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger - and, on occasion, Thallus.
The only known possible contemporaneous (c. 6 BCE through c. 36 CE) source regarding Jesus is Paul of Tarsus. Paul states that he personally got his information through revelation rather than through physical contact, but also seems to suggest a physical Jesus who died, was buried and rose from the dead.
The short version of it all, essentially: all the evidence in the world (thus far amassed) hoping to lend plausible confirmation (or, at times, even general support) to the case for a historical Jesus leaves much to be desired.
Quality of evidence vs the historical debate
It has become obvious that the actual scope of this article needs to be spelled out. This article is NOT about the Jesus myth theory or Christ myth theory but about the quality of the evidence presented regarding his existence (both for and against). The debate will come up for context but this article is NOT on the debate. In fact, as the Christ Myth article shows its very definition varies so wildly that some versions would be considered historical Jesus positions.
For example, Constantin-François Volney regarded as one of the two fathers of the modern Christ Myth allowed for the confused memories of an obscure historical figure being integrated into a mythology that had formed organically, which was echoed in a 1938 Manchester University Press book. Herbert George Wood in a 1934 University Press book grouped the Christ Myth theory with the "theories that regard Jesus as an historical but insignificant figure." Many of these sound much like the current version of the historical Jesus don't they? And yet they are all examples of the "Christ Myth".
This is why people such as Sir James George Frazer ("My theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth") have been grouped among those "who contested the historical existence of Jesus".
The elephant in the room: The Two Jesuses
“”[W]e shall land in considerable confusion if we embark on an inquiry about the historical Jesus if we do not pause to ask ourselves exactly what we are talking about.
|—New Testament scholar Ian Howard Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus|
Positions on Jesus: Reductivism, Triumphalism, Jesus Myth, and Ahistorical
The biggest problem with talking about evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ is that there are two "historical" Jesus Christs forming the ends of a huge spectrum of hypothesis. Touched on by Remsberg in 1909, Rudolf Bultmann in 1941 (who Richard Carrier in 2014 used to form his definitions), and reiterated by Biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall in 2004, these two ends (italics from Marshal's original text) are:
Reductive theory (Remsburg's Jesus of Nazareth)
- Jesus was an ordinary but obscure individual who inspired a religious movement and copious legends about him, rather than being a totally fictitious creation like King Lear or Dr Who[sic]
Triumphalist theory (Remsberg's Jesus of Bethlehem)
- The Gospels are totally or almost totally true, rather than being works of imagination like those of King Arthur.
Just as there is a huge spectrum regarding the historical Jesus, there is an equally large one regarding the Jesus myth theory some of which are really reductive historical theories such as is seen with G. A. Mead and John M. Allegro who put Jesus c. 100 BCE, or Remsburg who said there was just enough to show Jesus existed as a human being but nothing to verify any of the New Testament account as being history.
- The most common criteria for a "proper" Jesus myth theory is that Jesus was originally a celestial being (deity, archangel, angel, etc) who was put into a historical framework possibly using the exploits of real world would-be messiahs to provide details.
The final position (often classified as Jesus myth theory) is the ahistorical theory where there is nothing to show that either a pre existing celestial being or single individual is behind the story.
- This is effectively the "everything else" position where Jesus is a composite character formed out of many messiahs as seen with John Robertson's suggesting that several messiahs were composited together, G A Well's position that a legendary figure of a previous century inspired Paul but an actual person in the 1st century inspired the Gospels, or the idea that the gospel account grew out of various other myths.
The Reductive (Historical) Jesus versus Triumphalist (Gospel) Jesus
Remsburg pointed out:
"A Historical myth according to Strauss, and to some extent I follow his language, is a real event colored by the light of antiquity, which confounded the human and divine, the natural and the supernatural. The event may be but slightly colored and the narrative essentially true, or it may be distorted and numberless legends attached until but a small residuum of truth remains and the narrative is essentially false.
Jesus, if he existed, was a Jew, and his religion, with a few innovations, was Judaism. With his death, probably, his apotheosis began. During the first century the transformation was slow; but during the succeeding centuries rapid. The Judaic elements of his religion were, in time, nearly all eliminated, and the Pagan elements, one by one, were incorporated into the new faith.
So even if Jesus is a historical myth (ie was a flesh and blood man) you could have the issue of the Gospel narrative being essentially false and telling you nothing about the actual Jesus other than he existed; as Robert Price puts it "For even if we trace Christianity back to Jesus ben Pandera or an Essene Teacher of Righteousness in the first century BCE, we still have a historical Jesus." The problem is that such a reductive historical Jesus is similar to Robin Hood or King Arthur, where the core person (if there ever was one to begin with) has been effectively lost, and potential candidates are presented as much as 200 years from when their stories traditionally take place.
To make Jesus more than that a researcher has to assume some parts of the Gospels narrative is essentially true. But which parts? In answering that question all supporters of a "historical Jesus" get into the confirmation bias problem of effectively turning Jesus into a Tabula Rasa on which they overlay their own views.
"The "historical Jesus" reconstructed by New Testament scholars is always a reflection of the individual scholars who reconstruct him. Albert Schweitzer was perhaps the single exception, and he made it painfully clear that previous questers for the historical Jesus had merely drawn self-portraits. All unconsciously used the historical Jesus as a ventriloquist dummy. Jesus must have taught the truth, and their own beliefs must have been true, so Jesus must have taught those beliefs."
The fact this keeps happening shows just how little definitive information on Jesus there is in Paul's writings and the Gospels.
Price points out the problem and its result:
What one Jesus reconstruction leaves aside, the next one takes up and makes its cornerstone. Jesus simply wears too many hats in the Gospels – exorcist, healer, king, prophet, sage, rabbi, demigod, and so on. The Jesus Christ of the New Testament is a composite figure (...) The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.
My point here is simply that, even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn't one any more. All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern remythologizings of Jesus. Every "historical Jesus" is a Christ of faith, of somebody's faith. So the "historical Jesus" of modern scholarship is no less a fiction."
As a result, there have been many theories put forth about what Jesus really was, ranging from Jesus actually being a Buddhist, a mythologizing of King Manu of Edessa that was eventually spun off into being a separate person,, to the idea that Jesus was actually a spaceman and his miracles being the product of super science. But these theories like all the others are simply turning Jesus into a tabula rasa ventriloquist dummy and no more give a picture of the actual man (if there was one) than the Gospels do.
Jesus is at the core of Christian theology. His existence and death is a critical point for virtually all Christians, and his life being exactly as detailed in the Gospels is important to many Christians. As a result nearly all presentations of evidence gravitate to the Triumphalist end of the spectrum: "Either side of the historicity debate will at times engage in a fallacy here, citing evidence supporting the reductive theory in defense of the triumphalist theory (as if that was valid), or citing the absurdity of the triumphalist theory as if this refuted the reductive theory (as if that were valid)".
So some basic criteria as to what a historical Jesus even is must be set down and for the sake of simplicity this article will use Carrier's criteria for a minimal historical Jesus with regards to the evidence:
- An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers in life who continued as an identifiable movement after his death
- This is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities
- This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshiping as a living god (or demigod)
"If any one of these premises is false, it can fairly be said there was no historical Jesus in any pertinent sense, and at least one of them must be false for any Jesus Myth theory to be true."
"But notice that now we don't even require that is considered essential in many church creeds. For instance, it is not necessary that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Maybe he was, But even if we proved he wasn't that still does not vindicate mysticism. Because the 'real' Jesus may have been executed by Herod Antipas (as the Gospel of Peter in fact claims) or by Roman authorities in an earlier or later decade than Pilate (as some early Christians really did think). Some scholars even argue for an earlier century (and have some real evidence to cite) "... My point at present is that even if we proved the founder of Christianity was executed by Herod the Great (not even by Romans, much less Pilate, and a whole forty years before the Gospels claim), as long as his name or nickname (whether assigned before or after his death) really was Jesus and his execution is the very thing spoken of as leading him to the status of the divine Christ venerated in the Epistles, I think it would be fair to say the mythicists are then simply wrong. I would say this even if Jesus was never really executed but only believed to have been Because even then it's still the same historical man being spoken of and worshiped."
As noted before much of the debate regarding a historical Jesus mixes a possible flesh-and-blood Jesus with the Jesus of the Gospels. Note Carrier's criteria for a historical Jesus is quite broad and allows for possible time shifting for social-political reasons such as what happened with Robin Hood, who instead of being in conflict with "King Edward" as in the earliest ballads was moved to the time of King Richard.
This actually gives one a lot of leeway. Points about Matthew and Luke being 10 years apart regarding the supposed birth of Jesus become less important than if one use a definition of a historical Jesus that requires following the Gospel account. Conversely there are many ways the criteria can fail even with a flesh-and-blood Jesus existing as outlined in "The correct Jesus to argue about and the gray area between historical and mythical (the Ahistorical realm)" section of the Jesus myth article.
Evidence, pseudoscience, and the issues regarding the "historical" Jesus
See also: Historical Method and Biblical archaeology
When discussing the quality of the evidence for a historical Jesus Christ one runs head long into the matter of how he was historical which inevitably results in the matter being pulled into the tar baby known as the Jesus Myth. As stated above this article is NOT on the Jesus Myth (which has included concepts of a historical Jesus) but about the evidence and its quality.
There is a lot of confirmation bias and pseudoscience throughout the range of the historicity debate (from totally fictional to the Gospels are historical documents), where the idea of what Jesus was being used to drive every aspect of the research to a predestined conclusion. The sad thing (in cases not concerning outright Biblical pseudoarchaeology) is that this may not even be the researchers' own fault, as much as that of the very model which they use, and its role in determining what is "acceptable data". Further, the vast tide of "armchair experts" who provide the public with outdated and/or inaccurate information does much to further muddle people's understanding of the question. This is, hopefully, where we come in.
"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"
The main issue is "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" but (and this is the important part) the burden of saying something happened or existed should always be on those who make the claim. David Kusche's criticism regarding the Bermuda Triangle is applicable regarding both the idea of "historical" (however you want to define that) Jesus and any of the Christ Myth theories:
Say I claim that a parrot has been kidnapped to teach aliens human language and I challenge you to prove that is not true. You can even use Einstein's Theory of Relativity if you like. There is simply no way to prove such a claim untrue. The burden of proof should be on the people who make these statements, to show where they got their information from, to see if their conclusions and interpretations are valid, and if they have left anything out.
As Price states in his 2011 The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems:
The silence of the sources argument at most implies a Bultmannian version of a historical Jesus whose relatively modest activity as an exorcist and faith healer would not have attracted much attention, any more than the secular media cover Peter Popoff today. It does not go all the way to imply there was no historical Jesus.
At best, all the silence of the sources argument shows is that the Gospel-Acts account is more legendary than true historical; akin to the "historical" accounts that portray Lincoln as a beloved President - actual contemporary records show Lincoln was arguably the most hated President of the United States but his assassination on Good Friday resulted in Sunday sermons that originally been to deride him being used to turn retroactively into a kind of "American Moses who brought his people out of slavery but was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land"
In addition to the silence of the sources argument pseudoscience the majority Christ Myth theories take any piece of "evidence" they think is relevant and run with it...even in the context of history the concept has no real relevance. If you want to see just how bad Christ Mythism can get (and want to kill a few brain cells in the bargain) watch Zeitgeist; everything in that thing is wrong and is the poster child of bad Christ Myth.
That all said the pro-historical Jesus side has its own set of issues. Because of the way cultures have told their religious and mythic stories over time, and based in no small part on studies of modern "new" religions (especially cult religions) and how they deify their own leaders, most scholars of Biblical history believe that the gospels of the Bible are sufficient evidence to say that Jesus, or some human seed for the stories who we may as well tag "Jesus", did exist, and his existence can be assumed from them. And if such a person existed, it is equally likely that major broad themes are based in reality; he likely would have been one of the many teachers or self-proclaimed prophets of the time and he probably ticked off the wrong people and found himself dead. It is likely the rest is highly embellished, made up, or recycled from other mythology. However, "Some joke that there are as many theories of Jesus as there are scholars to propose them" The problem with that line of reasoning is that this argument can also be made for Robin Hood, King Arthur, John Frum, and Ned Lud...and we have reason to doubt they existed as individual people.
As with Christ Mythism the pro-historical Jesus side has its own armchair brigade who produce stuff as just as nonsensical.
The poster child of that insanity is the efforts to make Matthew and Luke agree with each other by having such ad hoc nonsense as Publius Sulpicius Quirinius doing a previously unrecorded census (let's just ignore the fact he was fighting some two provinces to the east a minimum of 6-3 BCE with him being Duumvir of the area 6-1 BCE) or moving Herod's the Great's death to 1 BCE as Jack Finegan claims. Of course nothing is as bad as the totally idiotic claim 'The existence of Jesus cannot be proven scientifically' or that 'history is not a science' which of course ignores the fact that in many universities and collages either classify history as a social science or have it as part of their social science department as seen with institutions like Michigan State University, San Diego State University, and Radford University to mention a few. Prentice Hall ("nation's leading publisher of middle school and high school textbooks and technology") even printed a book titled History as social science in 1971.
Moreover, some such as Hector Avalos, a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, state that Biblical Studies in its current state doesn't properly follow the historical method, and has major systemic problems so bad that the field needs a total overhaul on how it does things. Richard Carrier in his personal blog is even more critical regarding New Testament studies stating the epistemology and methodology being used is of lower quality than that seen anywhere else in the field of history.
One only need look at the problems regarding the presentation of Thallus as "evidence" for a historical Jesus to see that the field does have some methodology issues but then again other fields (like archeology) had similar methodology issues when they were only about 50 years old.
In his peer reviewed scholarly published On the Historicity of Jesus Carrier states;
They [historicists ie historical Jesus supporters] have far too quickly assumed that various fundamental conclusions in the field are settled, which in fact are not, such as the dating of New Testament documents (as I discuss in Chapter 7). They have routinely overstated what the evidence can actually prove, conflating conjecture with demonstrable facts almost as often as mythists do, and they lack anything like a coherent methodology (both of which I demonstrated in Proving History)
A little later we get this;
As we saw in Chilton's case, and can see in the case of any other scholar claiming to know things about the historical Jesus, many theories of historicity are too speculative, some even more so then theories of myth, and most are much as or nearly so. [...] That means it's not wise to defend the historicity of Jesus by defending a particular theory of historicity. (sic)
That all said Carrier make a very important point;
But all that still does not entail the mythicists are right, any more then the similar failing of the mythists entail they are wrong. In only entails that the historicists are wrong to simply dismiss all the challenges posed by the mythicists--because the historicists still have a great deal of work to do that, so far, they are only pretending has been done. But since both houses are in a mess both have a great deal of work to do. Admitting that is the first step toward progress. [sic]
Euhemerism vs Apotheosism
Perhaps the greatest confirmation bias is the idea that the people of the Roman empire in general and those of 1st century Palestine in particular were just like us in terms of their skepticism towards historical and supernatural claims.
The reality is quite different. Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BCE), the father of history, had argued that myths were distorted accounts of real historical events. Euhemerus (4th century - 3rd century BCE) took that idea and kicked it up to the next level suggesting that all myths had some basis in historical fact  "The work is of immense importance, for Euhemerus proposes that myth is history in disguise, that deities were originally living men and women who were elevated to divine status because of heroic feats when alive."
Some people confuse Euhemerism with Apotheosism. Apotheosism is the taking of someone clearly historical and turning them into a divine being (such is what was supposedly done with the Emperor of Japan before the end of WWII). Euhemerism assumes that a deity was once an actual person.
The statement "Osiris, Attis, Adonis were men. They died as men; they rose as gods." captures the Euhemerism mindset perfectly. This is reflected in Clement of Alexandria's triumphant cry in Cohortatio ad gentes of "Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves". "Thus Euhemerism became a favorite weapon of the Christian polemicists, a weapon they made use of at every turn"
In fact, both Herodotus and Euhemerus stated that Zeus had actually been a mortal king (Euhemerus said he was buried on Crete), "Plutarch (c46 – 120 CE) sought to pin Osiris down as an ancient king of Egypt", and Eusebius in the 4th century CE accepted Heracles as a flesh and blood man who by birth was an Egyptian and was a king in Argos  This assumption of men becoming mythical gods could have been what Justin Martyr really meant when he wrote "When we say that Jesus Christ was produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter."
To be fair to those who believed in Euhemerism, they could easily point to the winners of the Olympiads who in Greek times were revered in their home towns as if they were gods ie Apotheosism. Then you have the great feats claimed for these winners who we know actually existed:
- The jumping pit in the ancient games allowed for 50-foot jumps because the jumpers used weights that they swung to lengthen their jumps. During the 110th Olympiad (c 340 BC), Phayllos of Kroton supposedly overshot the jumping pit. The length of his jump is estimated to be 55 feet; for comparison the longest jump record in the modern games is 29 ft 4 1⁄4 in. However, it's possible that the Greeks used multiple jumps. Phayllos is also credited with throwing a discus (assumed to be 11 pounds 9 ounces based on the example in the British Museum) 99 feet; the modern discus is only 4.4 pounds.
- Milo of Croton is reported to have carried a full grown bull around the stadium which he followed up by killing the animal and eating it in a single day.
- Poulydamas is said to have killed a full grown lion with his bare hands and stopped a speeding chariot by grabbing it with one hand.
- Ladas of Sparta "either jumped or flew over the stadium"
With such feats recorded for people known to have actually lived and some actually done in the Olympiad stadium itself it is small wonder that even the educated could accept the view that Zeus, Osiris, and Hercules were once real people. And once they accepted that then despite the fantastic claims regarding Jesus the go-to for him would have been that he had been a living person and the stories simply exaggerations; the very idea that Jesus might be nothing more than hallucination with no real person behind him would never occur to one with such a view. Carrier goes over Euhemerism as Element 45 in On the Historicity of Jesus.
As far as skepticism goes, Carrier demonstrated in his 1997 Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels that the people of that time were quite willing to use supernatural explanations to the point "Miracles were also a dime a dozen in this era."
Beyond the bible, the historian Josephus supplies some insights. Writing toward the end of the first century, himself an eye-witness of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, he tells us that the region was filled with "cheats and deceivers claiming divine inspiration" (Jewish War, 2.259-60; Jewish Antiquities, 20.167), entrancing the masses and leading them like sheep, usually to their doom. The most successful of these "tricksters" appears to be "the Egyptian" who led a flock of 30,000 believers around Palestine (Jewish War, 2.261-2; Paul is mistaken for him by a Roman officer in Acts 21:38). This fellow even claimed he could topple the walls of Jerusalem with a single word (Jewish Antiquities, 20.170), yet it took a massacre at the hands of Roman troops to finally instil doubt in his followers. 
So you not only have a culture that viewed the deification of once-living people as a normal part of history but they were quick to claim divine inspiration and as mentioned before you had would-be 'Messiahs', 'Sons of Man', 'Righteous Ones', and 'Elect [or Chosen] Ones' (i.e. "christs") showing up all over 1st century Palestine.
Silence and censorship
Remsburg's list contains 42 historians during or shortly after the supposed times of Jesus who should have, but did not, record anything about Jesus, his apostles, or any supposed acts that we find only in the Bible (which was improved upon in 2012 with the book No Meek Messiah, augmenting the number of "Silent Writers" to 146). Although it is often used by armchair Christ Myth proponents, it was arguing against the Triumphalist-Jesus of Bethlehem and not against the Reductive-Jesus of Nazareth. Remsberg, in fact, stated "it is not against the man Jesus that I write, but against the Christ Jesus of theology" and felt there was just enough evidence to show that the Triumphalist-Jesus of Bethlehem was a historical myth on "a real event distorted and numberless legends attached until but a small residuum of truth remains and the narrative is essentially false" side of that definition. Remsburg was not saying Jesus the man didn't exist but rather the story of Jesus in the Gospels had no more historical reality than the stories of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Davy Crockett and the Frozen Dawn, Jesse James and the Widow, or the many Penny Dreadful Dime Novels starring people like Buffalo Bill, "Wild Bill" Hickok, and Annie Oakley.
This goes into one of the strangest things about Jesus: the Christians were the ones preserving the records through copying and logically would have preserved references to Jesus. And yet we find here a total lack of material.
The early years of the Roman Empire are one of the best-documented eras of ancient history; Jerusalem was a center of education; Jesus is claimed even to have had scribes following him and that the population at large was aware of him. Yet not one single non-Christian document written before 93 CE mentions any "Jesus", or even the crucifixion of a holy leader of the Jewish people in the 29-36 CE period. This includes well-documented records from the Romans regarding criminal activities and crucifixion records. "Jesus" (or "Yeshu" or "Yeshua" or "Joshua") was a very common name, with many contemporary troublemaking preachers of that name. But even with that in mind, nothing of relevance seems to exist or if it did the Christian copyists didn't see fit to preserve it.
Numerous people who should have written about Jesus who either did not or whom the Christians did not preserve any words include:
- Philo (ca. 25 BCE - ca. 50 CE): In nearly every list of people who should have mentioned Jesus but didn't, he appears. Philo had strong connection to both the Priesthood in Judea and the Herodian Dynasty; even if he himself didn't live in Jerusalem he had communication with those who did. Eusebius in his The History of the Church even claimed Philo not only knew the apostles but met Peter himself in Rome. Philo wrote a five volume account (c40 CE) regarding his embassy to Caligula and the events leading up to it and yet the volume that covered Pontius Pilate's rule of Judea in detail was one of the three volumes not preserved by the Christians, so if Philo did mention Jesus the Christian copyists didn't preserve it.
- Damis, author of Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher and mystic who was a contemporary with Jesus.
- Seneca the Younger's On Superstition (c.40 - c.62), which covered every cult in Rome, was not preserved. The only reason we know it did NOT talk about Christianity at all is because Augustine in the 4th century complained about it. But if the book could have been as early as 40 CE then there would be no reason to expect notice of what at that time would have been a very small group. Despite this, Seneca's lack of mention was sufficiently troublesome to some early Christians that they forged correspondence between Seneca and Paul of Tarsus. Jerome, in de Viris Illustribus 12, and Augustine, in Epistle 153.4 ad Macedonium, both refer to the forged communication.
- Pliny the Elder, who wrote Natural History (77 CE), the oldest known encyclopedia. It has 37 chapters, spread over 10 books, and mentions hundreds of people (major and minor characters alike) - and yet, it contains no reference to either Christ or Christians. Pliny the Elder also wrote a history of Rome, from 31 CE to the then-present day (sometime before his death in 79 CE) with a volume for each year. This work, however, was not preserved by the Christians.
- Celsius' The True Logos (2nd-century) is known only through Origen's rebuttal in the 3rd century.
- Froto, a 2nd century teacher, friend, and correspondence to Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180), wrote 'Discourse against the Christians' which is only known through Minucius Felix's Octavius rebuttal of the 3rd century.
- Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, and Persius, Roman satirists who favored topics similar to Jesus's story.
- Cassius Dio's Roman History has the sections covering 6 to 2 BC and 30 CE missing.
- Pausanias, whose massive Guide to Greece includes mentions of thousands of names, including minor Jewish figures in Palestine.
- Historians Epictetus and Aelius Aristides, who both recorded events and people in Palestine.
- Clovius Rufus' detailed history of Nero, which would have documented the active persecution of Christians by Nero, was not preserved.
- Tacitus: the entire section covering 29-31 CE of the Annals: “That the cut is so precise and covers precisely those two years is too improbable to posit as a chance coincidence.”
- Papias (2nd century): Five volume Explanations of the Stories of the Lord (c 130 - c 150) which is known only through all too brief references and quotes. And what we do have makes him come off as very gullible and that he knew of the apostles only via people who had claimed that they knew them.
- Hegesippus: Five volume Memoirs (c 180) that covered various legends about the early churches and apostles as well as a list of the first bishops. As with Papias known only through all too brief references but enough to show that any actual history had been replaced by myth and legend.
David Fitzgerald's Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus: How the myths Christians tell about Jesus Christ suggest Jesus never existed at all goes into the reasons that Seneca the Younger, Gallio, Justus of Tiberias, Nicolaus of Damascus, and Philo of Alexandria should have written about Jesus or the events surrounding his ministry and/or crucifixion if they happened as told in the Gospels.
As Carrier mentions you have this pattern of missing works that raises a few eyebrows when you look at it closely.
Non-Biblical evidence is preferred over Biblical evidence by both apologists and scholars, because it (if it existed) is independent confirmation of Jesus, free from the taint of Christian propagandizing, among other issues.
There is no independent evidence of Jesus’s existence outside the New Testament. All external evidence for his existence, even if it were fully authentic (though much of it isn’t), cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels, or Christian informants relying on the Gospels. None of it can be shown to independently corroborate the Gospels as to the historicity of Jesus. Not one single item of evidence. Regardless of why no independent evidence survives (it does not matter the reason), no such evidence survives.
- ——Richard Carrier
Writers mentioning Jesus
The following is a list of common evidence provided by apologists in an attempt to provide historical evidence for Jesus. It is generally evidence for the existence of early Christianity, and none is evidence for Jesus per se. All of the writers were born after the Crucifixion and could not have been eyewitnesses to Jesus. Moreover in many cases our oldest copies of their works are centuries after they were supposedly written, allowing ample time for copyists to "improve" them. It should be noted that Pliny the Younger was good friends and regularly corresponded with Tacitus and Suetonius so any thing one reports that the other two don't know about is suspect.
- Josephus (ca. 37 - 100 CE; oldest Greek copy is 11th century though there is a 5th century version in Latin): The Jewish historian Josephus is claimed to be earliest non-Christian to mention Jesus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (ca. 93-94 CE) with the two references being referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum and the "Jamesian Reference". However, there is much debate regarding how much of the Testimonium Flavianum (if any of it) was written by Josephus as there is no reference to it before the 4th century  More over all of the experts that say some part of the Testimonium Flavianum is genuine are basing that conclusion on information way out of date (being 10, 20 or even 50 years old) despite discoveries that invalidate those sources. While Carrier use Bayes’s Theorem to argue that both passages are not from the hand of Josephus the consensus is that some part of the Testimonium Flavianum and all of the "Jamesian Reference" are genuine, but based on Carrier's examples of Ned Ludd and John Frum even if the entire passage as we have it was written by Josephus it would still not show Jesus existed as a human being simply because it is too brief and there is no consensus on exactly what parts of the Testimonium Flavianum are actually from Josephus. More over it has been shown that the passage as we have it has a 19 point unique correspondence between this passage and Luke's Emmaus account.
- Tacitus (ca. 55 - 117 CE; oldest relevant copy is from 11th century): In his Annals (ca. 109 CE) Tacitus gives a brief mention of a "Chrstus" (generally read as "Christus" but in reality is could just as easily be read "Chrestus"), in a passage that shows evidence of tampering and contains no source. Also, the entire section of the Annals covering 29-31 CE is missing: “That the cut is so precise and covers precisely those two years is too improbable to posit as a chance coincidence.” His account is also at odds with the Christian accounts in The apocryphal Acts of Paul (c. 160 CE) and "The Acts of Peter" (150-200 CE) where the first has Nero reacting to claims of sedition by the group and the other saying thanks to a vision he left them alone.
- Pliny the Younger (61 – ca. 113 CE; oldest copy is 5th century and only 6 of its 218 leaves still exist; next oldest copy is from 9th century): Pliny the Younger was a Roman official who wrote innumerable letters. In one (ca. 112 CE), he references "Christians" (but not Jesus), and his "Christ" could have referred to innumerable other "messiahs" that various Jews were following. Furthermore non-Christian Jews would also fail Pliny's test so at best Pliny didn't know the difference between Judaism and Christianity and at worst the passage has become corrupted.
- Suetonius (ca. 69 – after 122 CE; earliest copy is 9th century): Suetonius, a Roman historian born in 69 CE, made two statements (ca. 112 CE) that are often presented as evidence of Jesus. The first falls into the Chrestus category; the second merely references Christians, not Jesus.
- Thallus (unknown lifespan, claimed to be active in 2nd century CE): Thallus supposedly references (date unknown) a solar eclipse at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. This reference is, at best, third-hand quotation of a summary, and is not recorded in other historic records.
- Phlegon (unknown lifespan, 2nd century CE; no works survive): Phlegon was a writer who recorded (date unknown) an earthquake, which apologists interpreted as referring to the horrors on the day of the crucifixion. Other apologists rightly trashed this interpretation.
Christian apologists mostly use the above sources for their evidence of Jesus because they believe they represent the best outside sources. "Every other author is much too late to be relevant--Celsus, Lucian, and Mara bar Serapion, e.g. all wrote in the 150s or later, and no other non-Christian text mentioning Jesus predates them."
The Talmud mentioning Jesus
Perhaps surprisingly, some Christians use brief portions of the Talmud, a collection of Jewish civil and religious law, including commentaries on the Torah, as evidence for the existence of Jesus. They claim that a man called "Yeshu" in the Talmud refers to Jesus.
However, as documented by Gerald Massey, Christians themselves have claimed that this is actually a disciple of Jehoshua Ben-Perachia who lived at least a century before the alleged Christian Jesus. Epiphanius, in his 4th century Panarion 29, expressly states "For the rulers in succession from Judah came to an end with Christ's arrival. Until he came the rulers were anointed priests, but after his birth in Bethlehem of Judea the order ended and was altered in the time of Alexander [Jannaeus], a ruler of priestly and kingly stock." Abraham ben Daud of the 12th century writes "The Jewish history-writers say that Joshua ben Perachiah was the teacher of Yeshu ha-Notzri [the Nazarene], according to which the latter lived in the day of King Janni [Jannaeus]; the history-writers of the other nations, however, say that he was born in the days of Herod and was hanged in the days of his son Archelaus. This is a great difference, a difference of more than 110 years."
And regardless of how one interprets the name "Yeshu", the Palestinian Talmud was written between the 3rd and 5th century CE, and the Babylonian Talmud was written between the 3rd and 6th century CE, at least two centuries after the alleged crucifixion. In other words, even if it does refer to Jesus, it is even more recent than the gospels and even less useful as an eyewitness reference as is true of Epiphanius or the Toledot Yeshu and the second century gospel that Price cites as a third source that also put Jesus in this time frame is only slightly more useful.
A handful of people point to the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls as the source for the Talmud Jesus but there is not much on the Teacher of Righteousness available to the non scholar to confirm such a connection. Furthermore Richard A. Freund writes "The difference of opinion over the positioning of the Teacher of Righteousness leads me to conclude that perhaps all of these researchers are correct. A Teacher of Righteousness did lead the group in the second century BCE when it was established. Another Teacher of Righteousness led the sect in the first century BCE and finally another Teacher emerged in the first century CE."
Biblical & Christian evidence
See the main articles on this topic: Authorship of the New Testament and Genealogy of Jesus
Biblical & Christian evidence is ultimately the source of most actual and claimed evidence for Jesus.
There are two main problems with Primary (Biblical and Christian) evidence:
First, "(a) We have no credible or explicit record of what happened with the Christian movement between 64 and 95 CE (or possibly even as late as 110 CE). And (b) unlike almost any other cult we might consider for comparison, we know the leadership of the Christian church has been catastrophically decimated by the beginning of that period".
Second, "in Jewish and pagan antiquity, in matter of religious persuasion, fabricating stories was the norm, not the exception, even in the introduction of narrative purporting to be true."
A key point to remember is that all Christian work was propaganda; it was designed to portray Jesus, his supporters, his enemies, the Jewish community of the time, and the Romans in a particular way. Even largely historically accurate (for the time) propaganda like Frank Capra's Why we Fight series has its distortions, half-truths, omissions, and outright lies and then you have the totally fictitious propaganda like the 1567 A Discovery and plain Declaration of the Sundry Subtill practices of the Holy Inquisition Of Spain, the 1927 Tanaka Memorial, and the infamous 1903 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Only by comparing with known history and with the structure of other works of the time can one assess where a work falls on this spectrum of propaganda.
Editorial oversight and error
One factor that is often ignored (when it is not being glossed over) on the pro-historical Jesus argument is the role of editors in creating the individual books of the New Testament.
For example, each of Paul's seven epistles is actually two or more letters edited together. Carrier spends nearly a third of a page in On the Historicity of Jesus referencing works that cover the editorial 'meddling' with Paul's writings from such publishers as the Harvard Theological Review, Sheffield Academic Press, and Journal of Higher Criticism as well as Carrier's own blog.
We then get nearly another sixth of a page referring to works on the 'meddling' of the Gospels which includes two publications by Oxford University Press. This means that any argument regarding Jesus resting on one word or even a short phrase is irrational because there is no way to tell if that is the product of the original author or some copyist-editor who thought to "improve" the work.
Moreover we have evidence there was editorial 'meddling' as shown with textual variants, interpolations and rearranged passage sequences.
It should be pointed out that Christians were the ones doing the copying, and in many orders, copying the New Testament in general and the Life of Jesus (Gospels) and history of the Church (Acts) in particular was regarded as an act of veneration and even worship and so tended to be the most copied works. One extreme example of this view is the Codex Gigas (nicknamed Devil's Bible) completed 1229 which is the world's largest medieval manuscript. As documented in National Geographic: Devil's Bible the work looks to be that of one man over 20 years and in addition to the entire Latin Bible the work contains many historical documents. Some Christ mythers have used the fact that there are no original copies of most documents to claim that what little there is about Jesus are forgeries and-or interpolations -- some to the point of claiming that Paul himself was a fictional creation.
To be fair these Christian copyists did preserve the records of an Empire that fate seemed set on giving a historical lobotomy. The Great Library of Alexandria was burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and an Aurelian attack in the 270s CE before the Christians and Arabs burned it in 391 and 642 respectively. However, as James Burke related in the "A Matter of Fact" episode of The Day the Universe Changed Christian copyists had a load of problems finding what they did bother to copy.
There wasn't enough knowledge in any one monastery to separate the works into separate subjects or categories. Texts had their titles inscribed on page edges or on the first page of the book, and those titles often said little about the contents of the text. Worst of all the "library" was more often than not a spare room where anything extra got dumped: a "medieval Higgledy-piggledy" as Burke puts it. Burke's example, Sermones Bonventurae (Sermons of St. Bonaventure), shows just what kind of mess things were. This book could be
- Sermons composed by St Bonaventure of Fidenza
- Sermons composed by somebody called Bonaventure
- Sermons copied by a Bonaventure
- Sermons copied by somebody belonging to church of St. Bonaventure
- Sermons preached by a Bonaventure
- Sermons once owned by a Bonaventure
- Sermons once owned by church of St. Bonaventure
- Sermons by various people of whom the first or most important was by somebody called Bonaventure--the rest of the book? No clue.
With this kind of filing system it is clear why the claim Christians were actively destroying what had been saved from the collapse of Rome is insane...odds are they didn't know what they had in the first place. In fact it was due to the Renaissance and interest in the Classical world that many copies of Greek and Roman works that monasteries didn't even know they had were, as Burke put it, "saved from the mildew and the rats". And even then some works were missed; for example, Books IV–X of Hippolytus's Refutation of all Heresies were found in a monastery of Mount Athos in 1842!
120 CE Cutoff
Around 120 CE is a practical cutoff point because "after that time we can't reasonably expect there to have been any surviving witness in the original decade of the cult's creation (in the 30 CE), due to the the limits of life expectancy (Element 22)" and "the quantity of bogus literature about Jesus and early Christianity exploded to an immense scope, making the task of sorting truth from fiction effectively impossible (Element 44)". Of the Primary writings only Paul's seven letters, a supposed letter of Clement of Rome, and the writings of Ignatius fall before this critical c. 120 CE cutoff date. After that date the only writings of any possible use are the writings of Papias and Hegesippus somewhere between 120 and 180 CE. All writings after "this are so rife with legend and dogma as to be useless" in determining the historicity of Jesus.
So this eliminates things like the Letters to King Abgarus of Edessa (4th century) and Toledot Yeshu (6th century) from consideration as they are far too late to be of any use.
Dating methods being used...and their limits
When talking about the dates assigned to Acts, the Gospels, and Paul's writings (i.e. Romans, 1st Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians and Philemon) one must keep the concept of provenance (the place of origin or earliest known history of something) in mind.
No original texts of any part of the New Testament or supporting documents exist, only copies, and many of these copies are fragments; this has resulted in some Christ Myth theorists claiming that most works are out-and-out forgeries and Christianity is more recent than apologists claim. However, in the absence of reference to historical known events in the manuscript the arts of Textual and Historical criticism as well as paleography are used for dating purposes.
Paleographic dating deals with the forms and processes of writing, NOT the textual content of documents. As a result, paleographic dating is considered "last resort dating" and at best has a 50-year range and "the 'rule of thumb' should probably be to avoid dating a hand more precisely than a range of at least seventy or eighty years." In a 2005 email addendum to his 1996 "The Paleographical Dating of P-46" paper Bruce W. Griffin stated, "Until more rigorous methodologies are developed, it is difficult to construct a 95% confidence interval for NT manuscripts without allowing a century for an assigned date." William M Schniedewind went even further in the abstract to his 2005 paper "Problems of Paleographic Dating of Inscriptions" and stated that "The so-called science of paleography often relies on circular reasoning because there is insufficient data to draw precise conclusion about dating. Scholars also tend to oversimplify diachronic development, assuming models of simplicity rather than complexity".
Occasionally Carbon-14 dates in relationship with the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran caves) library are produced as evidence of older dates. There are two problems here. First, no work of the New Testament with dates older than those below have definitively been identified as being part of those finds. Second, Carbon-14 dates are actually a range--which is called a standard deviation and at 1σ (1-sigma) has only a 68% chance of being right. Finally, Carbon-14 dates follow the 68–95–99.7 rule so double the range to two standard deviations (2σ) gets you to a 95% chance and tripling the range to three standard deviations (3σ) gets you to a 99.7% chance.
So just seeing a C14 date without its range (a common occurrence) is next to useless. And even if you have a range if you aren't given if it is 1σ or 2σ you have no idea on how useful that range is. Due to this a good rule of thumb here is if either a paleographic or C14 date doesn't have at least the range, be distrustful of it. The Nag Hammadi Library find may also come up — but it is from the 3rd to 4th centuries, and is thus useless in terms of provenance, as there are older works.
Since grammar, syntax, and rhythm help denote the period a piece likely originated from, Textual and Historical criticism are more helpful in determining when a work was originally written. For example, if someone in the 1990s hand-copied a work from the 19th century then paleographic dating would say it came from the 20th century but Textual and Historical criticism would show the work the copyist used was from the 19th. However what we have are copies of copies, which distorts and limits the temporal placement of the hypothetical original documents.
However, there does seem to be a consistency issue regarding how Textual and Historical criticism are used to date documents. For example, one of the main reasons Mark is generally viewed as being written after 70 CE is it talks about the destruction of the Temple but then you look at something like 1 Clement which gives the impression of the Temple is still intact but is generally dated 80-140 CE. The reasoning for this inconstancy in dating based on context is not explained.
Dating of Acts, the Gospels, and Paul ("Primary Provenance")
With that said let us look in terms of primary provenance (the documents themselves) what the oldest copies of Paul, Gospels, and Acts we have are: