Friday, March 18, 2011

The Historical Jesus

Secular Evidence

CORNELIUS TACITUS (55 – 120 A.D.) Tacitus was a 1st and 2nd century Roman historian who lived through
the reigns of over half a dozen Roman emperors. Considered one of the greatest historians of ancient Rome,
Tacitus verifies the Biblical account of Jesus’ execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate who governed Judea from
26-36 A.D. during the reign of Tiberius.
“Christus, the founder of the [Christian] name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the
reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea,
where the mischief originated, by through the city of Rome also.” 
Annals XV, 44
What this passage reveals and how it confirms the Biblical account:
  • Jesus did exist
  • Jesus was the founder of Christianity
  • Jesus was put to death by Pilate
  • Christianity originated in Judea (With Jesus)
  • Christianity later spread to Rome (Through the Apostles and Evangelists)
Skeptic Interjection: Could Tacitus have taken his information from Christian sources?Answer: Because of his position as a professional historian and not as a commentator, it is more likely Tacitus
referenced government records over Christian testimony. It is also possible Tacitus received some of his
information from his friend and fellow secular historian, Pliny the Younger. Yet, even 
if Tacitus referenced some
of Pliny’s sources, it would be out of his character to have done so without critical investigation. An example of
Tacitus criticising testimony given to him even from his dear friend Pliny is found here:
 Annals XV, 55. Tacitus
distinguishes between confirmed and hearsay accounts almost
 70 times in his History. If he felt this account of
Jesus was only a rumor or folklore, he would have issued his usual disclaimer that this account was unverified.
Skeptic Interjection: Could this passage have been a Christian interpolation?Answer: Judging by the critical undertones of the passage, this is highly unlikely. Tacitus refers to Christianity as
superstition and insuppressible mischief. Furthermore, there is not a surviving copy of Tacitus’ Annals that doesnot contain this passage. There is no verifiable evidence of tampering of any kind in this passage.
Skeptic Interjection: Why is this passage not quoted by the early church fathers?Answer: Due to the condescending nature of Tacitus’ testimony, early Christian authors most likely would not
have quoted such a source (assuming Tacitus’ writings were even available to them). However, our actual
answer comes from the content of the passage itself. Nothing in Tacitus’ statement mentions anything that was
not already common knowledge among Christians. It simply provides evidence of Jesus’ existence (a topic not
debated at this point in history) and not his divinity.
Skeptic Interjection: Does the incorrect use of title procurator instead of prefect negate Tacitus’ reliability?Answer: No. Evidence is provided in both secular and Christian works which refer to Pilate as a procurator:
It has been suggested by both Christian and secular scholars that Tacitus was either using an anachronism for
the sake of clarity or, since Judea was a relatively new and insignificant Roman province, Pilate might have held
both positions.
GAIUS SUETONIUS TRANQUILLUS (69 – 130 A.D.) Suetonius was a prominent Roman historian who recorded
the lives of the Roman Caesars and the historical events surrounding their reigns. He served as a court official
under Hadrian and as an annalist for the Imperial House. Suetonius records the expulsion of the Christian Jews
from Rome (mentioned in Acts 18:2) and confirms the Christian faith being founded by Christ.
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from
Life of Claudius 25.4
Skeptic Interjection: Because Suetonius misspells Christus as Chrestus, is it possible he was referring to
someone else?
Answer: Because Chrestus was an actual Greek name, critics speculate Suetonius may have been referring to a
specific civil agitator. I would like to present a few arguments as to why I feel this is a reference to Jesus. In
order to get as close to the author’s intent as possible, this is the passage as it exists in the original Latin:
    Iudaeos (The Jews) impulsore (the instigation) Chresto (Chrestus) assidue (upon) tumultuantis (making a disturbance) Roma (Rome) expulit (were expelled).”
  1. Suetonius seems to imply the word Chrestus as a title- not as a reference to a particular rebel. Though Ihave seen critics cite the passagas “certain/one Chrestus we can see this is incorrect by the lack ofthe word quodam in the original Latin.
  2. Suetonius uses the word instigation- not instigator. The Latin word referring to an instigator is impulsor butthe term referring to an instigation is impusore- and this is the word Suetonius uses, thus affirming the
    belief he is using the word Chrestus as a title and not as a name.
  3. It was common for both pagan and Christian authors to spell the name using either an e or an iand weknow the Christian authors were obviously referring to Jesus when they spelled the name as Chrestus.
  4. Tertullian criticises pagan disdain for Christianity and points out the fact they can’t even spell the namecorrectly. He implies the common misspelling of Chrestus by their use of the term Chrestians: “Mostpeople so blindly knock their heads against the hatred of the Christian nameIis wrongly pronouncedby you as “Chrestians” (for you do not even know accurately the name you hate)… But the specialground of dislike to the sect is, that it bears the name of its Founder. Apology, Chapter III
  5. Walso see Justin Martyr (a Christian apologist, nonetheless!using the incorrect spelling of Chrestian.First Apology IV
  6. Lactantius repeats the lament of Tertullian with his statement, “But the meaning of this name must be setforth, on account of the error of the ignorant who by the change of a letter are accustomed to call HimChrestus.” Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries
  7. Chrestus was a Greco-Roman slave name but Suetonius tells us “foreigners” were not allowed to adoptsuch names. Knowing the Jews were a close-knit community, the idea of them following the revolt of agentile slave to such an extent to get them (and only them!) expelled from Rome is quite a stretch.

Skeptic Interjection: How could this passage refer to Jesus. He was never said to have travelled to Rome.Answer: If Chrestus does refer to a title and not a specific name (as we are asserting), there is no need for Him
to have been in Rome. A leader can still be “an instigator” for a cause without being in the vicinity. There are
many causes that survived long after the lives of those who initiated certain movements.
THALLUS (~ 52 A.D.) Although his works exist only in fragments, Julius Africanus debates Thallus’ explanation
of the midday darkness which occurred during the Passover of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thallus tries to dismiss the
darkness as a natural occurrence (a solar eclipse) but Africanus argues (and any astronomer can confirm) a
solar eclipse cannot physically occur during a full moon due to the alignment of the planets. Phlegon of Tralles, a
2nd century secular historian, also mentions the darkness and tries to dismiss it as a solar eclipse. He also states
the event occurred during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness. The rocks were rent by an earthquake and many
places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History,
calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the
14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover. But an
eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other
time… Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from
the sixth hour to the ninth-manifestly that one of which we speak. 
Chronography XVIII, 47
Skeptic Interjection: Why doesn’t Pliny the Elder or Seneca mention this event in their writings?Answer: Pliny focused his writings on natural astronomical events that had physical, scientific explanations. It is
doubtful he would have found it necessary to record an event of supernatural origin. I can also find no mention of
him being in Judea at the time so it is doubtful he would have mentioned it if he did not witness the event first
Seneca focused his writings on dramas, dialogues, and tragedies but also wrote a meteorological essay,Natural Questions, composed of theories pertaining to ancient cosmology. However this was by no means a
complete scientific almanac of events- it was a
 literary work. And like Pliny, it is doubtful Seneca was in Judea
during this event.
Skeptic Interjection: Because Thallus’ and Phlegon’s works exist only in fragments, can their testimonies be
considered reliable?
Answer: This is something the reader will have to determine on their own. Africanus was an honest, qualified
author who did not alter the quotes to serve his own purpose. This is very likely considering what we know about
Africanus (See: 
here). Africanus’ methods were highly respected by his peers, he was often quoted by other
authors, and he even chastises his friend and fellow Christian, Origen, for citing information from a
spurious/unreliable source! (See: 
Africanus’ letter to Origen). It also must be noted that Thallus never said this
eclipse did not happen but instead was trying to actually come up with a scientific explanation to the eclipse
instead of assigning it divine origins.
PLINY THE YOUNGER (63 – 113 A.D) Pliny the Younger admits to torturing and executing Christians who
refused to deny Christ. Those who denied the charges were spared and ordered to exalt the Roman gods and
curse the name of Christ. Pliny addresses his concerns to Emperor Trajan that too many citizens were being
killed for their refusal to deny their faith.
“I asked them directly if they were Christians…those who persisted, I ordered away… Those who denied they
were or ever had been Christians…worshiped both your image and the images of the gods and cursed Christ.
They used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god… All the more I believed
it necessary to find out what was the truth from two servant maids, which were called deaconesses, by means of
torture. Nothing more did I find than a disgusting, fanatical superstition. Therefore I stopped the examination,
and hastened to consult you…on account of the number of people endangered. For many of all ages, all classes,
and both sexes already are brought into danger…” 
Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan
Though Pliny states some of the accused denied the charges, a recurring theme in the correspondence between
Pliny and Trajan is the willingness of the true believer to die for Christ. This would hardly be reasonable if they
knew He never existed!
Skeptic Interjection: How does dying for one’s belief verify the actual existence of Jesus? The sincerity of a
belief does not necessarily make the belief true. How does this passage specifically confirm a historical Jesus and
not just the existence of Christians in Rome?
Answer: Pliny states the Christians worshiped Christ as if he were a god. This indicates one who would not
normally be considered a god, such as a human who was exalted to divine status. Also, the early Christians
would have been in the position to know if Jesus was a historical figure or not. Though critics can claim these
martyrs took Jesus’ existence solely on faith, common sense tells us there would have been a lot more evidence
of a historical Jesus at this time than what has been preserved until today. According to early historians, Jesus’
great-nephews and other relatives were still alive as well as the associates of the original apostles. Such
individuals could easily verify His existence. Also, documents which have been lost to us were still in existence
(such as Jesus’ trial records and the census records of His birth) and were even referenced by early authors who
wrote about Jesus. These individuals had every reason to be certain of Jesus’ existence and were willing to die
because of it.
Skeptic Interjection: Pliny also states some recanted their testimony. Perhaps they did so because they knew
Jesus was a myth.
Answer: There are several rational explanations as to why some would recant their Christian beliefs:
  • Pliny readily admits to torturing some of the accused (are admissions/denials really credible undertorture!?).
  • The accused knew if they did not recant they would be put to death (fallible human rationalization: confessand go home [and work out the hard feelings with Jesus later] or suffer crucifixion?).
  • Some of the accused could have been lackadaisical Christians who half-heartedly accepted Christianitybecause of a spouse, parent, or friend (and would have had no problem reverting back to paganism upon
    facing persecution). There were half-hearted Christians 2,000 years ago just like there are half-heartedChristians today.
  • New Christians may have recanted to escape persecution if they were not familiar with or did notunderstand the severity of Jesus’ warning regarding those who deny their Christian beliefs).
  • The correspondence between Pliny and Trajan implies many of the accused were being turned in falselyby their enemies. Some were never Christians to begin with while some had already left the faith prior totheir interrogation.
  • Just because there were some who may have recanted out of fear or poor judgment doesn’t dismiss thedeaths of the other individuals who were certain of Jesus’ existence and died because of their knowledge