Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

One of the frustrating things about studying ancient history is the very limited nature of our sources, both in terms of quantity (only bits and pieces have come down to us) and in terms of quality.  What I mean by quality is reliable and verifiable historical information (in a modern historian’s terms) regarding the figures and incidents literary sources describe.  What the ancients were interested in telling us is seldom what a modern historian wants to know.

This also holds for the study of the historical Jesus, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee.  Archeology is indispensable in providing insights into the cultural context of that peasant, but does little for solving details about what that figure said or did.   When it comes down to it, the ancient biographies known as the gospels (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) remain our principal source of evidence, along with other more recently discovered writings (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).  Yet the authors of ancient biographies, or “lives” (bioi),  had very little interest in what a modern historian looks for in studying a figure of the past.  The ancient “lives” of Jesus were instead very interested in explaining what they thought the meaning of Jesus was for those who wished to follow him, and in promoting their own particular takes on that figure’s significance.

What would help in this situation would be some non-Christian sources regarding Jesus which could be carefully compared with these ancient, insider “lives” of Jesus in order to assist the historian in reconstructing with some level of probability a picture of the historical Jesus or of certain aspects of his life.  Such sources are few and far between, so it’s important to note the ones we have.

There are two main sources which I want to mention, one by a Judean author from a priestly family in Jerusalem (Josephus) who wrote in the last decades of the first century, and another by an upper class Roman imperial official (Tacitus) who wrote in the early second.  Neither author cared much about Jesus, but each happens to mention something about Jesus nonetheless.

SOURCE 1: Josephus wrote several works, the most important of which were the Judean War (written in the decade following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) and Judean Antiquities (written in the 90s CE).  Josephus’ works (as well as some scholarly studies) are available online at the Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (PACE) site.  Figures related in some way to Jesus incidentally get mentioned three times in Judean Antiquities, including John the Baptist (Ant. 18.116-119), James (Ant. 20.200-201), and Jesus himself, who gets mentioned in one of the most important and controversial passages in all of Josephus’ writings (Ant. 18.63-64).

This passage is controversial because virtually all scholars agree that the text as it now stands (see below, including the strike-throughs) does not make sense as something Josephus would write: namely, there are no other signs anywhere in Josephus that suggest that he believed Jesus was an anointed one sent by God (“messiah”).  Josephus is actually averse to any claims that average peasants or anyone other than a member of the elite was a messiah or king or worthy of some leadership position.

A very few scholars suggest that the whole passage was later inserted into a copy of Josephus which then got re-copied and ended up in copies that have survived into the modern period.  Many other scholars would suggest that the passage was originally in Josephus’ book, but that someone (a Christian scribe) tampered with the passage and tweaked it significantly to make it sound like Josephus thought Jesus was absolutely wonderful, as though Josephus were actually a follower of Jesus.  John P. Meier has done a good job of assessing the passage and in offering what seems a likely scenario of what was added in and what, therefore, should be struck-out in using the passage to study the historical Jesus :

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.63-64; translation by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 1991], vol. 1, p. 60; bold and strike-throughs mine).

This scenario is also supported by an Arabic version of this same passage in Josephus, which does not have the struck-through material and instead has similar material grouped at the end of the passage, suggesting that the Christian-sounding material is not original.

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Raising of the Cross (1620; Louvre)

SOURCE 2: Much more could of course be said about this passage in Josephus, but for now let’s move on to the second important non-Christian source pertaining to Jesus.  Tacitus was a member of the imperial elite and senator, active in Rome, whose official positions included Roman governor of the province of Asia at one point (in 112-113 CE).   In the early second century, Tacitus wrote a history of the Roman emperors of the first century, known as Annals (written in the early second century).  There he deals with Nero’s time as emperor (54-68 CE).  Tacitus, by the way, does not like Nero at all, but he’s safe since Nero died several decades earlier, and few of the imperial elite of Tacitus’ time looked back fondly on Nero.  Tacitus’ works are available online on the Project Gutenberg site.  There’s a short biography here.

Tacitus mentions that a fire engulfed a particular neighbourhood of the city of Rome, a neighbourhood that was slotted for heavy rebuilding by Nero.  So, rumours began to spread that Nero himself had his men set the fire to clear the area and speed up the renovations.  Nero’s response?  Find someone to blame and quickly.  He chose followers of Jesus since, he heard through some source, they were sometimes disliked and viewed as anti-social.  Here is the passage from Annals 15.38 and 44:

(15.38) A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. . . (15.44) But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44; trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Annals by Tacitus [London, New York: Macmillan, 1877]; public domain; bold mine).

SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: There are many historical issues that could be explored both in Josephus and in Tacitus.  (On Tacitus and persecution, see my earlier post on the atheistic Christians).  But what is the primary significance of these passages for study of the historical Jesus?  These sources coincide with a claim made in the gospels, the claim that Jesus was executed in Judea with the most severe form of punishment available for criminals, crucifixion, and that this took place in connection with the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate.  So we have multiple sources, some non-Christian, that confirm this aspect of what happened to the peasant named Jesus.  Multiple attestation is always a key criterion in historical reconstructions (and in gospel studies, by the way).  This is the most reliable thing we know — using limited, modern historical methods — regarding that figure, Jesus.

I will soon return to a second key item that scores high on the scale of probability for modern historians: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which has other significant corollaries regarding the peasant Jesus.

UPDATE:  For those interested in reading further on some debates regarding the Josephus passage (the so called Testimonium Flavianum) on other blogs, see Stephen Carlson’s Testimonium Flavianum Series.

8 thoughts on “Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

  1. Scott Ferguson

    Of course the limitation of these citations as historical sources is the fact that each may have been influenced by exposure to Christian beliefs.

    Take Josephus. Did he learn of Pilate and the Cross from official sources or from Christians themselves? He is apparently well aware of the Christian movement and seems to express sympathy toward it. Was such sympathy accompanied by familiarity with their internal historical claims.

    On to Tacitus. He fumbles the details. He seems to be inferring a man named Christus from the term Christian when that is not the name of their founder. He could have gotten the names Pilate and Tiberius from Christian sources or inferred Tiberius from a Pilate claim. If he had been working from good, explicit imperial records I would have expected him to get Jesus’ name right.

    What we have is a testimony to the existence and spread of Christianity in the late first and early second century along with a limited window on there beliefs.

    Frustrating indeed.

  2. Phil Harland

    Hello Scott,

    Thanks very much for these further observations. A further twist on the Tacitus material is that he incorrectly calls Pontius Pilate a “procurator”, a title that was only used of the Roman governor of Judea later in the century. Pilate was actually a “prefect”. It may be suggested that Tacitus had access to imperial records for his reference to the execution of Jesus.

    As to the idea of Josephus (if that is authentically Josephus) and Tacitus getting their impressions from the Christians themselves or from Christian sources, I highly doubt that (although it’s not impossible). That would imply a higher level of knowledge about the (obscure) followers of Jesus that is not borne out by other contemporary Greek or Roman evidence. Pliny the Younger, for instance, who is a Roman governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus (northern Turkey) ca 111 CE seems to know virtually nothing about the Christians and when he interrogates it is still very little that he knows (let alone accessing the Christian writings or whatever). I would suggest that Tacitus, Pliny’s contemporary, would similarly know almost nothing about the Christians (let alone using their writings as a source or trusting that what he hears them say, if he meets any, would be reliable information to build into his Annals). The general disdain that Roman elites / officials like Tacitus and Pliny have for the “superstitions” of the lower classes would also speak against them taking the time to consult writings by such “ignorant” (from the elite perspective) people.

    One further thing to add to these somewhat random musings here: The first outside observers of followers of Jesus, like Tacitus, seem to view this as some obscure Judean group that’s just what you would expect from those rebellious and trouble-causing Judeans(who had decades before “revolted” from the Roman perspective), not as a self-standing group whose writings you might consult.

    These are just my impressions, but I also see the possible value in what you say. Either way, your point is absolutely right that we’ve got problems with even these sources!

    Thanks again, especially since this allowed me to flesh things out a bit.

  3. N. T. Wrong

    Thanks for your post on these non-Christian writers, Phil.

    One thing I wonder about is what happens to a criterion like ‘multiple attestation’ when all the sources, in all probability, derive from the one small Jesus Movement? ‘Multiple attestation’ is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, not a criterion that sits above all historical evidence, but is a generalising ‘law’ or ‘rule’ derived from historical evidence itself. The rule can only provide a cogent basis for historical argumentation when the sources are genuinely independent, and, probably, a matter of ‘public’ knowledge. So, does the rule apply to the early Jesus Movement at all, which was, after all, a small sect, defining its own beliefs? When I read Tacitus, it seems clear that he is reporting what Christians say about Jesus, such as his crucifixion under Pilate. So, in what respect does this provide ‘multiple attestation’? Josephus also reveals his familiarity with ‘the tribe of Christians’, so I wonder where he got his summary from?

    Multiple attestation is a well-supported rule for an event like the fire of Rome, but that is because the criteria on which it is based (publicly verifiable knowledge) applies. Does it do so for the Jesus Movement and its beliefs? To the same or lesser extent? Only minimally?

  4. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello “N.T. Wrong”,

    Thanks for your comment about some of the difficulties even with issues of multiple attestation. If, for example, Tacitus is dependent on Josephus for his information (they were both active as writers in Rome in similar circles), then the “multiple” in multiple attestation is reduced further. Then if we propose that Josephus simply uncritically reported what he heard from some Christian, then all we’ve got is the Christian claim.

    However, I do not think that this scenario has a high level of probability, in part for the reasons I noted in the previous comment in reaction to the suggestion that Tacitus accessed this information (execution of Jesus under Pilate) from Christians, rather than from some other source in the capital (e.g. imperial records or other imperial elites). We have no evidence that would allow us to argue for a high level of probability for this scenario. Also, this scenario pictures Tacitus and/or Josephus trusting some average Christian for information about imperial judgments, something that I would doubt. Remember that the first audiences of Tacitus and Josephus are the elite in Rome itself.

    In my opinion, the concept of multiple, independent attestatation is important for any historical study, and I would not privilege early Christianity by using another method in that case.

    There’s far more that could be said, but that’s all the time I have now. Thanks for your comment.


  5. Leon Zitzer

    You have omitted two important points about the Arabic version of Josephus’ passage on Jesus. It was preserved by a Christian writer, Agapius, writing in the 10th century and is thus a century older than our oldest Greek copies of Book 18 of Antiquities. And this Arabic version makes no mention of Jewish leaders being involved in the death of Jesus. Only Pilate is blamed. Since the Arabic does not have those other Christian emendations and since it is a Christian writer who preserved this (who would have no reason to remove Jewish leaders from the passage), then it is this version which is probably closest to the original Josephus. That means the blame assigned to Jewish leaders in the Greek version is likely a later addition like the other Christian interpolations. There are other arguments that can be advanced as well. The ultimate point is that Josephus lends no support whatsoever for the idea that Jewish leaders conspired with Rome to kill Jesus.

    Leon Zitzer

  6. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Leon,

    Thanks for these comments, Leon. This is indeed another possibility that can be drawn from an interpretation of the Arabic version.


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