In the previous episode we looked at the Christian sources for the life of Jesus, but what did non-Christians have to say about this Jewish Carpenter and his followers? That’s what we’re finding out today.
Jesus himself was a Jew, and so were his earliest followers, which means the earliest writings about him were from Jews. The first non-Christian Jewish writer who wrote about Jesus was the first century historian Flavius Josephus. If you want to know more about Josephus, I have a video about him.
Sometime after the First Jewish Revolt Josephus wrote a history of the Jews for his Roman Patrons titled The Antiquities of the Jews. In that book Josephus references Jesus twice. The first reference occurs in Book 18, in a passage commonly referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum, or the Testimony of Flavius Josephus. The text refers to him like this
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure… He was the Christ, and when Pilate… had condemned him to the cross… he appeared to them alive again the third day.”
This particular passage is quite controversial, and it is one of the main points of focus for Mythicists in discrediting the historicity of Jesus. As mentioned in my video on Josephus, Josephus was a life-long Orthodox Jew, but this passage says a lot of things about Jesus that a practicing Jew would not have said. He would not have referred to Jesus as Christ, or admitted that he came back to life after the crucifixion. I don’t want to go too deep into this particular issue right now because there’s going to be a video dedicated to it later, but suffice it to say that although most historians believe that the text was altered at some point by a Christian scribe, most don’t believe it is a forgery in its entirety, whereas Mythicists usually do.
The second reference to Jesus in the Antiquities, however, is almost universally recognized by historians as legitimate. In Book 20, there is a passing reference to Jesus.
“he assembled a council of Judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James.”
In this passage, Josephus was referring to James, who was Jesus’s brother by way of Joseph and Mary. As you can probably tell, this passage is far less controversial because he refers to Jesus as the “So-Called” Christ, rather than as Christ. This less flattering description of Jesus makes scholars believe that this passage has remained unedited. It also leads them to believe that the reference to Jesus in Book 18, although undoubtably edited, must have been there in some capacity if he’s going to refer to another person as Jesus’s brother in a later passage. However, Mythicists also find problems with this passage as well, and those will be discussed in a later episode dedicated to it.
There are also references to Jesus in the Talmud, or more accurately, there are references to someone who might have been Jesus, but using the name Yeshua instead. In Sanhedrin 43a it says
“On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that Yeshu is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him. But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover.”
The means of execution may be different, but all the other details seem to be consistent with most of the traditional narrative, the main difference being the negative portrayal of Jesus that would be expected from Jews of the time.
Of course, the reliability of this text depends heavily on the time in which it was written. Some believe that the text is from the Tannaitic period of the Talmud, which are documents from the first and second century CE. If it was written closer to the mid first century, then the text would be fairly reliable as a reflection of what Jews contemporary to Jesus thought of him and his followers were. However, if this passage was written closer to the end of the Tannaitic period it is far less reliable. There’s also the possibility that this passage was actually from the Amoraic Period, which goes from 200 to 500 CE, which would make it even less reliable. There are other possible references to Jesus in the Talmud, but most of these are dated far too late to be useful for scholars looking to put together a biography of Jesus.
Beyond Jewish references there are also Pagans writing about Jesus, but with them we run into similar problems as the Jewish and later Christian writings. The most frequently cited pagan text is the Annals by the Roman Historian, Tacitus. In Book 15 of Annals Tacitus references Jesus and his execution by the Romans,
“Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea in the reign of Tiberius.”
This quote comes from a passage about the fire of Rome during the reign of Tiberius in 64 CE, for which the Christians were fraudulently blamed. Like the reference to Jesus in Book 18 of the Antiquities, some Mythicists claim that this text has been edited, however you would be hard pressed to find any Classicist who believes this. Just like with Josephus we’re gonna cover this text in a later episode.
Tacitus wasn’t the only Roman to write about Jesus and the early Christians. Pliny the Younger was the Roman Governor Bithynia in the early 2nd century CE, and he writes about the Christians and his punishments for them to emperor Trajan, and how he forced them to;
“curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do… They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god.”
We see another reference to early Christians in Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In his writings on emperor Claudius he writes about the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome around the year 49 CE. This event is believed to be the same expulsion of Jews mentioned in the Book of Acts, however Suetonius’s wording implies that Jesus, or as Roman Historians tended to call him, “Christus”, was still alive and actively inciting revolt. Some believe that this means that the Jews of Rome were reacting to a different figure. But this mistake could simply be a lack of information on Suetonius’s part.
There is also a possible reference to Jesus in a letter written by the first century stoic philosopher Mara bar Serapion. In this letter Mara refers to three wise men who were treated unjustly by their respective governments. The first of these men was Socrates, who was poisoned by the city of Athens. The second was Pythagorus, whom I hope to make a video on at some point because this guy was nuts. And the third person he referred to as the “King of the Jews.” Most scholars don’t doubt that he was referring to Jesus in this passage, but there is debate as to whether Mara was a Christian himself, or a pagan monotheist.
Now, none of these non-Christian sources knew Jesus personally, but it is reasonable to believe that they had either met people who had, or had access to the writings of those who did. The reason many of these writers are important in assessing the historicity of Jesus is that it proves that there were people called Christians in the mid to late first century CE, these people were worshiping Jesus as a god, and that they understood Jesus to have been a living person of flesh and blood at some point. This is important because there are certain strains of Mythicism that argue that the early Christians were worshiping a celestial being, and never believed he was a real person.
There are other possible sources, both Christian and non-Christian, that could be consulted for creating a biography of Jesus, but most of the ones outside this and the previous video are not as clear cut in their possible references to Jesus. I’ll be including those particular sources in this series as needed.
So now that we know what sources can be used for the life of Jesus, how on earth did we go from everyone, including the people who tried to kill his early followers, believing Jesus existed, to a group of people arguing and creating a whole community based around the idea that he didn’t exist? We’ll look into that over the next several episodes as we cover the origins and history of the Christ Myth Theory. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.