Josephus, the Jewish historian
Josephus, who wrote in Greek, was a Jewish historian. He had good sources of information. Born in the 30s of the first century, and having lived in Jerusalem, he was fairly close to events. (During a war with the Romans in Judea, he switched sides to join the winning side – the Romans. He was not sympathetic to Jesus, calling him the so-called Christ who got Jews thinking his own way, which Josephus obviously didn’t like too much.) He was a contemporary of James, Jesus' brother. Josephus and James lived in Judea at the same time, and he knew of James' death in the 60s of the first century.
Tacitus, the Roman historian
Tacitus, who wrote in Latin, was a Roman historian, born in the 50s of the first century. With close ties to the Roman government, he was well placed to get information too. Early in the next century, he was an official of the Roman government in Asia and he wrote a long history of the Roman war with the Jews, which means he had spent time studying Roman records about what had happened in Palestine. He probably had access to the documents in the Imperial library in Rome. He was disdainful of Jews and Christians, calling the Jesus movement a nasty ‘superstition’.
More: What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?
Pliny, the Roman lawyer
The reliability of what these authors say
The Josephus texts: I’m referring to three. 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: 200-203, and scholars normally accept that the mention of Jesus in this is authentic.
The middle one, with more about Jesus, has to be handled with more caution. This is because the passage has in it some bits that weren’t written by Josephus but by later Christian scribes when making copies of Josephus. Anyone trained in evidence and analysis can tell you that this does not make the evidence of Josephus unusable. It just means it has to be used with more caution. That means using ancient evidence to strip out the bits added by Christians and only using the bits that are left, the bits by Josephus.
That’s what I’ve done, to err on the side of caution, in the previous blog. We can be confident which bits they are. I don’t take heed of modern naysayers and mythicists who say the whole thing is unusable and was entirely made up by Christians: that sort of thing usually comes in a package of denying every bit of ancient evidence about Jesus, and that for ideological reasons (trying to debunk Christianity) rather than for the painstaking work of writing history professionally. In any case, the passage about the death of James, with the mention of Jesus being called Christ, is undisputed except by those naysayers who will deny any evidence of Christ owing to an ideological agenda.
Thus, it is the same people who would say the entire passage in Tacitus was made up by Christian scribes when they copied Tacitus' writings. It’s not just the obvious pattern of naysayers that should make us suspicious of those who say it is all unusable. Tacitus’ words themselves are obviously not written by Christians, poisonous words calling Christians and their religion a ‘disease’, a ‘pernicious superstition’, a people ‘loathed for their vices’ who have ‘hatred for the human race’. And Tacitus links all this back to their following Christ. This is just not the sort of publicity which Christians want Christ’s name to be associated with. Tacitus wrote all these words, none of it was written by Christians. Naysayers who say otherwise are just being tendentious.
A footnote on Josephus: should he have said more?
- “destroying the synagogues”
- "issued a notice… allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war"
- "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one"
- "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures … wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks"
- "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents”
- "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers”
- “There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks” (Ant. xviii.8)
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?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
You are here - 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?