Today, while perusing my Twitter account, a font of wisdom, or at least links and information, I came across a Tweet noting that Jesus was a real live flesh and blood human being, with a link to an article from October 2010, “Is There Evidence For Jesus Outside The Bible?” Earlier this week I wrote about the date of Jesus’ birth and the fact that I do not think we can know it with certainty and that it does not matter whether we know it. I noted in an offhand manner that the reality of Jesus' life ought to be accepted and that only the most skeptical of historians, unfit to be called historians by my measure, would doubt his actual existence. I base this assertion on the evidence of the Church, contained in the Gospels and the other New Testament documents, and the living witness of the followers of Jesus. I do not, however, think there is much evidence for the life of Jesus outside of the Church’s witness, at least not good historical evidence, and I think that claiming this is the case creates problems. The reason it creates problems is simple: it is not true.
Now the blog post I ran across at Defenders of the Catholic Faith was problematic for another reason, namely, they did not offer any ancient evidence for the assertion that there is evidence for Jesus’ life outside of the New Testament. The claim was made that there was such evidence and that the author had a number of books which contained this evidence, but he did not produce any of this data. The author, who I assume to be Stephen Ray, writes,
“But even though the Bible is certainly adequate to affirm the existence of Jesus, there ARE other sources that confirm his historical existence.
Below are a list of books and websites that address this issue head-on. There is evidence of Jesus’ existence outside the Bible and these are books I have in my library that provide the evidence. No one has to doubt his historical existence, that is for sure.”
As I said, I agree that the biblical evidence is sufficient to warrant belief in the historical existence of Jesus, but if you want to claim there is good, extra-biblical historical evidence, you should produce some of it or at least link directly to some of it.
Since the sources are not directly cited, I must assume to which sources the author could be referring, as there are only a few ancient texts upon which one could base such a claim. There are notices of Jesus in the writing of Josephus, the Jewish historian, the Talmud, Pliny, Tacitus, and a possible reference to Jesus in by Suetonius. These references to Jesus are of varying historical value, but any value they have is limited to indirect support of the Christian claims about the life of Jesus, I would argue, and none of them give us direct historical data or indirect historical data of the first order, that is, information that is based upon the eyewitness evidence and knowledge passed on to someone else who compiled a historical record.
It is the Gospels and other early Christian literature that are either based upon the reports of those who lived with and talked with Jesus directly, such as the Apostles and other disciples, or the information of those who knew the people who had lived with Jesus and passed that information on to others, an example of which would be the Bishop Papias. For what it is worth, I do not think the pagan evidence tells us much except that there was a group called Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries, and it is debatable whether the Suetonius citation tells us even that much.
As to the Jewish references, I do not put give much historical credence to the Talmudic references, which I think are late and polemical, but I do grant some historical heft to the Josephus references, which were written in the late 1st century A.D., even though they were probably edited by Christian copyists at later times.
Especially significant is the quotation from the Jewish Antquities 20.9.1
"And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. 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; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest." (My Italics.)
Please look at Peter Kirby's entire discussion of this passage, and the other Josephan passages concerning Jesus, which is thorough and fair in its review of the evidence and the arguments of scholars. Kirby concludes, "If Josephus referred to James as the brother of Jesus in the Antiquities, in all likelihood the historical James identified himself as the brother of Jesus, and this identification would secure the place of Jesus as a figure in history." At the most, though, Josephus supplies us with the evidence that he knows and believes that Jesus was an a historical figure in Judea and Jerusalem in the 1st century on the basis of the witness of someone who knew him, but then, there is no reason to doubt that, is there? Is that not what the Gospels offer to us more directly?
In later posts I will discuss some of the chapters I am writing for a book on the historical Jesus, especially about how to consider historical evidence in general and historical evidence about Jesus in particular in the early Christian sources.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens