You would think that after all this time on the Internets, I wouldn’t succumb to the temptation to engage Christian apologetics. But sometimes I can’t help myself. And so I found myself stumbling across a guy who claims that there are plentiful contemporaneous, extrabiblical and non-Christian documentations justifying the existence of Jesus and the reports of his resurrection. Since this was news to me, I asked for references to his sources.
I was a little surprised that he identified them. To his credit, the apologist has set out his sources. In so doing, he allows someone else to go back and check the work, which is what I’ve done here.
My method in response was, by using simple Google searches, to determine first what claim is made by a particular passage and then to determine when and by whom it was written. You’ll all be very deeply surprised to discover that I find the cited evidence wanting. Because this is all rather detailed work, I’ve put the rest after the jump; those of you who do not want the blow-by-blow analysis can skip over this and get the summary: The earliest work cited was at least forty years after the crucifixion would have taken place, the bulk of it was written centuries later, and the best you’ll get out of a lot of really bad scholarship it is that two generations after the events in question, some people said that there was a guy named Jesus. But, if you want to read the details, I’ve got them for you after the jump.
Because they are more commonly-used, I will use the dating system AD and BC rather than CE and BCE although I think the reference to “Common Era” is probably a better descriptor. I also assume herein that Jesus, if he existed at all (which I do not particularly doubt) would have been executed at the hands of the Roman authorities and the instigation of local religious figures (which I do question) between 30 and 33 AD – the range of time usually given for the crucifixion.
Lucian of Samosata:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man, the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites and was crucified on that account.” Lucian of Samosata – (The Death of Peregrine), 11 – 13.
Lucian of Samosata was a scholar from what is now southern Turkey. He was born in about 125 AD and died some time in 180, the exact dates are uncertain. This man was hardly a contemporary of Jesus; he worked at least five generations after the events described in the Gospels.
Lucian wrote The Passing of Peregrine (“Death” instead of “Passing” is a fair enough translation) to at once honor a colleague and friend who had recently died and to poke fun at people telling tall tales. The entire novel – Lucian was one of the first true novelists in the Western tradition – consists of a series of ever-more unbelievable stories and pokes fun at the tradition of telling tall tales. Lucian uses the story to show Peregrine taking full advantage of the gullibility of Christians. Lucian’s description of Christians is neither flattering and is cynically dismissive of the truth of their religious beliefs, which Lucian finds risible.
The fact that the authority cited here was written for the very purpose of serving as a humorous cautionary tale about not believing everything you read is poignant indeed.
“Nero fastened the guilt of the burning of Rome and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, Called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Tacitus – Annals 15.44
Tacitus was born about in AD 56 and died in about AD 117. He wrote the Annals towards the end of his life. It would have been very unlikely, at the time he wrote the Annals, that he either would have had or even sought access to eyewitnesses of Jesus’ execution. Nor would it have been important to him to have done so; the point of the narrative is to point out that Nero persecuted Christians, and the validity of the Christians’ beliefs is insignificant to that.
I note also that the apologist I’m taking on here points to this exact same passage from Tacitus later and appears to count that passage twice as a separate, contemporaneous account supporting his proposition. You only get to count the same passage once, dude.
Problematically, the translation of Tacitus used refers to Pontius Pilatus as a “procurator.” In fact, he was a “prefect.” These were different titles and they carried different responsibilities. Tactius, who rose through the ranks of Roman civil service himself, would have known the difference and would have been unlikely to have made such a mistake. However, the men who copied his work by hand, and who translated it into other languages, can easily be imagined to have not have been so careful with their phrasing. What this suggests is not that Tacitus didn’t acknowledge the existence of Christians, but that what we have today is not necessarily a reliable rendition of what he intended to write. So maybe we can overlook this, although it is a problem from an authenticity perspective.
In context, Tacitus says nothing about the authenticity of the Christians’ beliefs – only that they had them. At best for Christians, Tacitus offers support that Christians in Rome claimed that the founder of their religion had been executed on Pontius Pilatus’ orders, and Tacitus saw no reason to attempt to refute that claim.
“When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified.” Josephus – (Fides et Historia) 13
Josephus was born in 37 AD and died some time around 100 AD. He was a Jew who spent most of his later life as a Jewish apologist, attempting to integrate Jews into accepted Greek and Roman society. He is viewed by some as a traitor – he had been a leader in the Jewish revolt against Rome, and when his unit was captured he tricked his men into suicide but failed to take his own life and instead surrendered, thereafter ingratiating himself into the emperor Titus’ entourage and was eventually awarded a respectable if not extravagant pension by the government for his efforts. He wrote two significant works – a chronicle of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule that resulted in the Diaspora, which he published in 75, and a history called The Antiquities of the Jews which he published in 94 – and a few minor texts.
Normally, the passage from Josephus referred to for support by Christian apologetics is found in The Antiquities of the Jews, and this is widely thought to have been a fourth-century insertion by the Christian scholar Eusebius. And indeed, thoughtful Christian scholars are willing enough to point out that Josephus’ reliability is questionable whether or not his words were supplemented by zealous “editors.” It does seem odd that for more than 200 years, none of the myriad historians cited Josephus for the remarkable proposition that there had been a resurrection. One wonders, further, how Josephus, who was himself a Jew, would have believed that Jesus was the Christ – one of many contemporary recipients of that title – and who had accomplished the decidedly remarkable task of returning from the dead, would have chosen to instead remain in the comfortable service of the Roman emperor rather than following Jesus. Yet there is no evidence at all that Josephus ever became a Christian himself.
Notably, the authority cited by the apologist is something called Fides et Historia. Although this is passed off by the apologist as an original writing by Josephus, in fact this is a contemporary scholarly journal published under the auspices of Huntington University, a Christian college in Indiana. I have found no evidence that Josephus ever wrote anything entitled “Fides et Historia.” So this is not a citation to a classical writing – it is rather a reference to a modern secondary source. In fact, the work in question is actually a snippet from the disputed passage in Antiquities. This by itself suggests some rather careless scholarship by the apologetic referring to it. The quoted language is, after all, a passage from Antiquities of the Jews.
Now, setting aside the questionable provenance of the surviving translations of Josephus, and further setting aside Josephus’ own poor reputation for reliability, we are still left with the raw words credited to him, which would have been written nearly sixty years after the events he was reporting. Josephus himself was obviously no first-hand observer of Pilate having Jesus executed; he hadn’t been born yet. In 94 and the several years preceding this, Josephus would have been on the Roman imperial dole for nearly two decades and would have had good political reason and a strong personal financial incentive to whitewash conflict between Jews and Romans, including the execution of the leader of what was at the time regarded as a sect of the Jewish religion. And if we set even that aside and take Josephus at face value, again all we get (from this snippet, at least) is Pilate executing Jesus.
Mara bar Serapion:
“Or what advantage came to the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?” Mara Bar Serapion, in a letter to his son from prison.” – Fragment currently at the British Museum, Syriac Manuscript
Mara Bar Serapion is a figure that is ambiguous at best. The earliest date attributed to him for this writing is 73 AD, and the latest is in the third century – so there may well have been more than one ancient writer of that name. So the earliest we get here is a writing forty years after the crucifixion, with a margin of error going forward another two centuries after that.
Let’s assume the earliest possible date, and then take a look at what Mara wrote, in context:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.
So we don’t know who this “wise king” was, and we know that according to Mara, he lived on in his teachings – with no mention whatsoever of his bodily resurrection, something that one would think would have merited at least a squib.
This is not a reference to Jesus or to Christ, it was written at minimum forty years after the crucifixion, and it fails to mention the most important fact imaginable about the Jesus story, which is that the guy came back from the dead. This is not even contemporaneous evidence of Jesus’ existence if taken at face value.
The Babylonian Talmud:
“On the eve of the Passover, Yeshua was hanged on a cross.” The Babylonia [sic] Talmud – Sanhedrin 43a – I. Epstein Editor and translator, London
AND A HERALD PRECEDES HIM etc. This implies, only immediately before [the execution], but not previous thereto. [In contradiction to this] it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! — Ulla retorted: ‘Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him? With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential].’
A footnote indicates that “Yeshu” is in some earlier documents referred to as “the Naserean.” That sounds, to modern earns, a little bit like “Jesus of Nazareth.” Note, though, that the word “Nasi” is translated as meaning “prince,” and “Naserean” sounds like a derivative of that word, too.
Nothing in the rest of this passage sounds like what we’re told of Jesus. Practicing sorcery? Enticing Israel to apostacy? Jesus didn’t do any of that. According the gospels, he performed miracles of healing; was that “sorcery”? Nor is there any mention of Jesus having any connection with the government – he is described in every Christian text I have ever read or heard of as being an outsider to the corridors of power. Whoever this “Yeshu” was, he was a dude of some political importance.
Not only is this a twentieth-century work, it does not appear to refer to the Biblical Jesus at all. It’s also interesting to note that the work describes the four manners of execution that the Sanhedrin claimed authority to carry out – and these were stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation. Charming stuff, to be sure, but importantly, crucifixion is not on the list – and for good reason, since the Romans reserved that manner of execution to themselves, for purposes of publicly executing those who posed a threat to the government of Rome itself.
Clement of Rome:
“Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come. Jesus’ apostles were fully assured by Jesus’ resurrection. Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time, and when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles.” Clement of Rome – (1 Clement ) 47
This was one of the early apostolic fathers of the Christian church in Rome – Clement I is included in canonical lists of Popes as, variously, the first, second, or third successor to the apostle Peter. The letter cited is an epistle to the Christian church in Corinth, in which Clement’s primary objective was to assert the authority of his own bishopric in Rome over that of the church in Corinth. The letter was written in 96 AD.
Clement himself admits of never having seen Christ and to have only heard from Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who himself was not an eyewitness to any of the events in the Gospel but instead heard them from people who claimed to have met Christ. Polycarp is, in fact, described as a disciple of John the Evangelist, who despite being traditionally credited with being one of the twelve Apostles, could not have been himself a contemporary of Jesus, with a known death date of 110 AD, he would have been about 110 years old – and people just plain didn’t live that long back then. So Clement’s letter is thirdhand reporting of the Gospel events at best (and that’s crediting John with having been an apostle of Jesus, which as I’ve noted above is doubtful in the extreme).
“Bishop Clement has conversed with the apostles to the extent that it might be said he had their preaching still echoing and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there are many still remaining alive who had received instructions from the apostles. When I was still a boy I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favour. I remember where Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds and how he reported his discussions with John the apostle and others who had seen the Lord. He taught what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching, things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitness of the word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture.” Irenaeus – (To Florinus) 5.20
Irenaeus was the bishop of Smyrna at the very end of the second century. He died in 202 AD; he was born at some point in the second century in what is today Izmir, Turkey. This is nearly two centuries after Jesus’ execution – the recollection of an old man recalling the recollections of another old man that he had heard in his youth, who was himself recalling the recollections of still another old man describing hearing, as a youth, the recollections of a fourth old man. At some point do these successive layers of hearsay start to lose credibility and start to become legends. By the time we get to fourth-level reporting about “the good old days” I’m pretty sure we’ve past the point that we can assume credibility.
“For this is the manner in which the apostolic Churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein, by John the apostle; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter.” Tertulian – (The Prescription Against Heretics) 32.
Tertullian (the apologetic misspells his name) lived from about 160 to about 220. This is not a contemporaneous account; we’re off by nearly a century. Oh, and there’s not a word here about Jesus at all. This is a description of the political organization of the early churches.
“Paul himself and the other apostles, for they did not love the present age, but Him who dies for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God.” Polycarp – (To the Philippians)
Again, not a contemporary account; Polycarp’s evidence is secondhand at best and more likely thirdhand, and he’s writing more than a century after the events described in the Gospels.
There isn’t actually any source material cited or quoted here. Instead, Celsus is described as “a critic of Christianity wrote strongly against the resurrection but admitted that the tomb was empty and that no body was found anywhere. He was forced to propose magic or deception i.e., lies. This type of claim shows that critics like Celsus had to respond to the reality of the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
Celsus was a Greek philosopher who was active in the late second century. It is certainly true that Celsus was an intellectual opponent of Christianity. I haven’t found any reference to any of Celsus’ writings in which Celsus concedes that Jesus’ tomb was ever found empty. I can find reference to Celsus claiming that Jesus’ real father was a Roman legionary named Panthera; a tomb of a soldier so named is found in Germany, and there are records indicating that Panthera had been stationed in Palestine at around the time of 1 AD. This proves nothing, of course; Celsus leveled a lot of polemics against Jesus in his attacks, and there is no reason to credit Celsus’ polemics any more than there is to credit the allegedly supportive documents.
The apologist makes several references to Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, again not specifying a particular area or passage. Suetonius himself was born some time around 70 AD and died about sixty years later. He was an academic most of his life but had a fairly successful stint as the secretary to the emperor Hadrian.
I’ve read and enjoyed his De vita Caesarum on many occasions. The passage referring to Jesus comes from the Life of Nero, which draws from Tacitus as its source material and therefore repeats basically the same information discussed above with respect to Tacitus.
Pliny the Younger:
Again, no specific passage of Pliny the Younger is identified, but he is included in this generalization: “Pliny the Younger, . Suetonius, Tactus, and Celsus were all enemies of Christianity yet attested to the historicity of Jesus.” It’s worth reading Pliny’s famous exchange of correspondence with the emperor Trajan on the subject of how to interrogate and punish Christians. This would most likely have been written while Pliny was dispatched to be procurator of Bithnyia, which is on the southern shore of the Black Sea, placing the letters as having been written in 103 AD, at least seventy years after the events of the Gospels.
Pliny was positively merciful to the accused Christians by the standards of his day, which is why he earned Trajan’s praise. Which is not to say that I morally approve of what he was doing; quite the opposite, it is horrifying by modern standards. But the point here is that Pliny’s description of how he dealt with the Christians does not acknowledge or report anything other than the fact that they exist. Pliny does not report their beliefs and does not claim to provide any contentions of any contemporaries of the founder of this sect.
The Rest of It:
After this the apologist offers what he calls “Extra Biblical documentation from the time of Jesus and / or his disciples: Regarding the suffering and martyrdom of the disciples:” which does not even purport to be contemporaneous evidence of Jesus but rather of the disciples, so I’m going to skip all of that. He also points to some modern scholarship that he finds favorable, but that isn’t the focus of this analysis – I don’t care what a modern scholar says, the issue was whether there was contemporaneous evidence of Jesus’ mere existence, much less of the extraordinary and miraculous events described in the Gospels.
Contrary to the apologist’s claims, these are quite simply and demonstrably not “multiple, very early and eyewitness testimonies to the disciple’s claims of witnessing the risen Jesus.” These are accounts written a hundred or more years after the alleged events; they are of highly suspect provenance; they in some cases they do not refer to Jesus at all but at best only to the people who followed his sect well after his death.
So, do we have contemporaneous evidence of Jesus’ existence? It will frustrate the apologetic to read this, but I have to conclude that this sure isn’t it. Even if we concede that Jesus existed, we don’t have proof that he was executed by the Romans here; even if we concede that, there certainly isn’t any evidence here that is worthy of significant credibility.