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). 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.
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 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.