Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?



Before I tell you what my source is, see if you can guess where the following story details are taken from. You may think the answer is obvious, but it isn’t. Here are the story details.

  • A man called John the Baptist lived in an area under Herod’s jurisdiction.
  • John told Jews to live good lives and baptised them.
  • Herod feared John would trigger a revolution, and so he had John arrested and killed.
  • It was in Judea that people began following Christ, some time before his death.
  • Jesus was a teacher who brought many Jews over to his way of thinking.
  • Jesus performed amazing feats.
  • Some senior Jews complained to the Roman Governor Pilate about Jesus.
  • Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.
  • The crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
  • The Jesus movement was only stopped for a moment, and broke out afresh in Judea.
  • So despite Jesus’ death, his followers carried on regardless for decades on end.
  • In the 60s, James the brother of Jesus – the Jesus who was called Christ - was stoned to death, and others were killed too, because some Jewish leaders did not like his attitude to the Jewish law.
  • By the 60s, Jesus’ followers had also spread to Rome, where some called them Chrestians, but really they were named after Christ.
  • The Jesus movement spread through rural areas and cities.
  • Christians had a regular day to meet and eat and sing to Christ as if to a god.


Did you guess where those details are from? If you said it was from the gospels, or from anywhere in the Bible – wrong! In those same early decades, three interesting men were born, men who frankly stood against what these Christians stood for, and it’s from those three men that I get this information. These men were Josephus, who was born in the 30s, Tacitus who was born in the 50s, and Pliny who was born in the 60s about the time that Peter and James died. We have these men’s own words, just as we have Paul’s own words. These men all spent some time living out east. They will have had interesting sources of information. All three served the Roman Empire, the Empire that had killed Jesus according to their information. They weren’t sympathisers of Paul. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, they never even heard of Paul.

Here is the same information as before, but this time with the names of Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny shown next to that information, so you can see who I got it from.

  • A man called John the Baptist lived in an area under Herod’s jurisdiction (Josephus)
  • John told Jews to live good lives and baptised them (Josephus)
  • Herod feared John would trigger a revolution, and so he had John arrested and killed (Josephus)
  • It was in Judea that people began following Christ, some time before his death. (Tacitus)
  • Jesus was a teacher who brought many Jews over to his way of thinking (Josephus)
  • Jesus performed amazing feats (Josephus)
  • Some senior Jews complained to the Roman Governor Pilate about Jesus (Josephus)
  • Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified (Josephus)
  • The crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Tacitus)
  • The Jesus movement was only stopped for a moment, and broke out afresh in Judea (Tacitus)
  • So despite Jesus’ death, his followers carried on regardless for decades on end (Josephus)
  • In the 60s, James the brother of Jesus – the Jesus who was called Christ - was stoned to death, and others too, because some Jewish leaders did not like his attitude to the Jewish law (Josephus)
  • By the 60s, Jesus’ followers had also spread to Rome, where some people called them Chrestians, but really they were named after Christ (Tacitus)
  • The Jesus movement spread through rural areas and cities (Pliny)
  • Christians had a regular day to meet and eat and sing to Christ as if to a god (Pliny)


What is interesting here is that all of the things they say exactly corroborate information in Paul’s letters and the gospels. Things that fit with what Paul said are obviously these:

  • Jesus had a brother named James and other followers.
  • Jesus was in Judea, the homeland of the Jews till he died there.
  • Jesus was killed because of the influence of certain Judeans.
  • He was mortal, and died.
  • It was death by crucifixion.
  • He was in actuality killed by the Romans.
  • But the Jesus movement still broke out in Judea after Jesus’ death.
  • In Jerusalem was to be found James, Jesus’ brother.
  • Issues about the Jewish law dogged James in particular.


There is plenty of information here to help historians. For instance, we know from the Romans that Pontius Pilate was in charge in Judea between 26-36AD, so that means we know that Jesus’ crucifixion happened between 26-36AD. Other information narrows it down to 30 or 33AD, but that will do for the moment.

Because of the total destruction of the records of Roman Judea, it is with such material as this that historians have to work, alongside the texts that were later collected and called the New Testament. 

Josephus

More about Josephus' evidence is in another blog about these three authors (Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus) and another devoted to Josephus. What many don't realise is that we are actually talking about three different passages in Josephus that tell us about John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus' brother James.
 
  • The one about John the Baptist is Ant. 18.116-119.
  • The one telling about Jesus is Ant. 18:63-64.
  • The one about James’ death is Ant. 20: 9:1 (a.k.a. 20:200) with an extra blog about this

I will focus here on the last of the three, with this brief excerpt: "Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others".

Whereas Paul speaks of Jesus Christ, he was only "called Christ" as far as Josephus was concerned. This would matter to Josephus. This is because Christ meant "Messiah", the Jewish Messiah who would defeat the Romans. Jesus had done no such thing. So, Josephus' put-down is that he "was called Christ" by mistaken people. Josephus is not being positive about Jesus.




Corroborating evidence

My main point here is this. Any historian can tell you that when you have one source (for example, Paul), and then other witnesses who would be opposed to him (against Paul), it’s really interesting when their information agrees. So some information Paul got about Jesus agrees with some information that enemies of Christians got about Jesus. That makes these details historically very good believable information about Jesus. Paul’s information is corroborated by these opponents of Christians. These are all people who lived in the first century, and they would have had a range of sources of information. In another blog, I say more about Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny.

Outside the Bible: other Christians

For whatever reasons - and that's another story - there are texts from the first hundred years of Christianity that were not put in the Bible. Although not in the Bible, they too mention Jesus.


So, as well as Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny, we have the following five. If Jesus wasn’t a historical person, someone forgot to tell them that!

Papias (interviewed people late in the first century and wrote about it early in the second century). Papias interviewed people who knew the 'elders' who were still living and had known the disciples Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew. He did the interviews to get from them the disciples' accounts of Jesus' teachings. (That these elders, still living, had known the disciples puts these interviews in the late first century.) The point of his interviews is that these earlier disciples had direct access to Jesus' teachings, that was not possible for later Christians such as himself and the readers of his book. This does not make sense unless Jesus was known to be a real person by Papias' contacts, and that Jesus lived when Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew were alive.

Secondly, Papias tells us something important in saying that Mark wrote an account of Jesus' work and teachings. He says that Mark didn't accompany Jesus but accompanied Peter. That Papias needed to say this at all tells us that they knew of Jesus as a real person who could be accompanied. Papias also recounts a conversation between "the betrayer Judas" and Jesus. None of these things make sense unless Jesus was known to be a real person by Papias' contacts, who had a direct line back to the disciples.

On those points, I am indebted to Jake O'Connell's "Papias' Testimony to the Existence of Jesus" in Shattering the Christ Myth, ed. James Patrick Holding, Xulon Press, 2008; 73-86.



The Didache’s authors (first version probably before 70AD, possibly as early as 50AD[1]), extant version mentions Jesus as the one who taught what we call ‘the Lord’s prayer’ in ‘his gospel’ (Didache 8:2).


1 Clement (from around 95AD[2]) says Jesus, along with kings and leaders in the royal line of Judah, was a descendant of Jacob (1 Clement 32:2), and quoted him (46:7-8), and said Jesus in death gave his flesh and blood. ‘his flesh for our flesh’ (49:6).


Ignatius in his letters (around 110AD[3]) says that Jesus’ mother was Mary, and that he was born and baptised (Ign. Ephesians 7:2, 18:2), and that his suffering was when Pontius Pilate was governor (Ign. Magnesians 11). He also says Jesus, ‘was from the race of David and from Mary, who was truly born... was truly persecuted at the time of Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died’ (Ign. Trallians 9:1). He also says, ‘In the time of Pontius Pilate and the Tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh’ (Ign. Smyrneans 1:2).

Polycarp (probably about 110AD[4]) says Jesus died (Polycarp 1:2), and quotes Jesus in the manner Jesus is presented speaking in the gospels, where he is of course a historical figure (ditto 2:3, 7:2).


Christian belief, as it was passed on - and you can see Christian traditions passed on there - obviously treated Jesus as a real historical figure. That's what he was to all these people. No-one was trying to tell anyone anything different in any of the evidence. The simplest explanation for that is that it is because Jesus was a historical person. And the simplest explanation that accounts for the evidence is usually the most truthful explanation.




[1] Professor Tom O’Loughlin, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians, 26.
[2] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 302.
[3] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 325.
[4] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 348.







Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?




Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

















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