This blog post is part of the ‘The Resurrection of Jesus’ series. In this series, evidence that has been put forward by Christian apologists in support of the idea that Jesus was resurrected will be explored and critically examined. As we shall see, most of this evidence isn’t even good evidence in the first place, and they are insufficient to justify the conclusion that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is true.
The following are names of some of the Roman historians of antiquity who lived in and around the Mediterranean region, including some of the very places that Jesus and his apostles are said to have moved about.
Aulus Persius (60 AD)
Plutarch (c. 46-c. 119 AD)
Columella (1st cent. AD)
Pomponius Mela (40 AD)
Dio Chrysostom (c. 40-c. 112 AD)
Justus of Tiberius (c. 80 AD)
Quintilian (c. 35-c. 100 AD)
Rufus Curtius (1st cent. AD)
Livy (59 BC-17 AD)
Quintus Curtius (1st cent. AD)
Lucanus (fl. 63 AD)
Seneca (4 BC?-65 AD)
Lucius Florus (1st-2nd-cent. AD)
Silius Italicus (c. 25-101 AD)
Petronius (d. 66 AD)
Phaedrus (c. 15 BC-c. 50 AD)
Philo Judaeus (20 BC-50 AD)
Pliny the Elder (23?-69 AD)
Valerius Flaccus (1st cent. AD)
Valerius Maximus (fl. c. 20 AD)
Not a single one of these historians ever even mentions the existence of Jesus Christ, a man who was supposedly performing miraculous wonders and drawing crowds by the thousands, inciting the Jewish populace, aggravating the Roman authorities, and resurrecting from the dead. For if there were such a man, and he did the things the gospel writers claimed he did, is it possible for him to have gone unmentioned in Roman records? It is noteworthy that Jesus is not even mentioned anywhere in the official Roman historical records of the events in Palestine during the time of he is said to have existed.
As such, there are no contemporaneous (i.e. within his life time) historical records of Jesus.
The only historical records in existence having to do with Jesus were written several decades after the events of the life of Jesus as alleged in the gospels. The funny thing is, those records aren’t even really about Jesus at all, but about the followers of a Jewish religious sect that came to be known as “Christians”, in the Roman Empire.
The few historians of antiquity to whom writings about this Jewish sect have been attributed include Josephus Flavius (93AD), Pliny (110AD),Suetonius (110AD) and Tacitus (107AD). The writings of these historians are, strangely, presented by apologists as extra-biblical confirmation of the accounts of the gospels.
Josephus’ passage regarding Jesus is part of his historical document entitled ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ which he wrote in 93AD (over fifty years from the time of the supposed life of Jesus). From this document is derived the famous passage, known as Testimonium Flavianum. It reads:
About this time came Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is appropriate to call him a man. For he was a performer of paradoxical feats, a teacher of people who accept the unusual with pleasure, and he won over many of the Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease [to follow him], for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvelous things concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
There are two reasons why this passage cannot be treated as proof of Jesus’ existence, or proof of the veracity of the gospel accounts of this person called Jesus (assuming he existed).
First of all, being a document written well over half a century after the events of the gospels, Josephus writes not as an eye-witness of the supposed events, but as someone simply reporting the fact that there existed people who were called Christians, and that they believed in a resurrected Jesus. He is reporting what he has heard regarding Jesus, from the early Christians. No one disputes that in the first century there were Christians in the Roman Empire. What is in dispute is whether what early Christians were saying about a person named Jesus is true or not, which Josephus cannot, and is in no position to corroborate.
For example, imagine receiving a letter from your cousin in Nairobi that says:
Hi Gerald, Nairobi is the same as always. Oh, guess what? Last week an American evangelist was in Mombasa. People saw Jesus standing right next to him throughout his crusade…
The cousin who is writing this letter is clearly not an eye-witness, and is merely reporting what he has heard. Therefore when he says people saw Jesus standing next to the preacher – it cannot be regarded as fact – but merely hearsay. The same can be said of the Josephus passage. The same can also be said of those that Josephus heard about Jesus from, for even they could not have been eye-witnesses to the events themselves, but were only reciting what they had also heard from tradition.
Secondly, one needs to look no further than the Catholic Encyclopedia. It says of Josephus Flavius, regarding Testimonium Flavianum, ‘the passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations’. (Interpolations are later insertions made by other writers to an original text). In other words, even the Catholic Church concedes that this complementary passage about Jesus in Josephus’ document, were added on later by Christians. Its authenticity has been disputed since the 17th century, and by the mid 18th century the consensus view was that it was a forgery.
In Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Roman Historian Suetonius (c. 69–140) wrote about riots which broke out in the Jewish community in Rome under the Emperor Claudius:
"As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome"
Here, Suetonius is describing events that took place about 30 years after Jesus’ death. He himself was not even born by then.
No one disputes that in the first century there were Christians in the Roman Empire. What is in dispute is whether what early Christians were saying about a person named Jesus is true or not, which Suetonius cannot, and is in no position to corroborate.
Tacitus writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and Christ. In describing Nero’s persecution of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome, he wrote:
Nero fastened the guilt [of starting the blaze] 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 [14-37] 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.
This passage is from a document written in the second century, over 70 years since the time Jesus is said to have been killed. Again, similar to the passages of Josephus and Suetonius, Tacitus is simply reporting the fact that there existed Christians, and how they got their name. He says, ‘Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origin….’. This cannot be used as evidence that the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are true, but rather as evidence that there were people at the time who believed in someone they claimed to be called the Christ, and from whom the term ‘Christian’ was derived.
No one disputes that in the first century there were Christians in the Roman Empire. What is in dispute is whether what early Christians were saying about a person named Jesus is true or not, which Tacitus cannot, and is in no position to corroborate.
Pliny the Younger:
In a letter to Emperor Trajan (who ruled the Roman Empire from the year 98 to 117), Roman lawyer, magistrate, and author Pliny wrote:
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
Even though there seem to be reports on the activities of the early Christians by these historians, it cannot be assumed that the Christian tradition required a historical Jesus to have actually lived in order for it to exist. Otherwise by virtue of the fact that there also exists in the historical record traditions of the worship of pagan gods Horus, Zeus, Perseus, Hercules, Osiris,Dionysus, Attis and Mithras – these pagan gods were real also, and must have existed.
Of course, no one today believes that these gods ever existed, or exist today in reality – and with good reason.
There isn’t evidence to justify such beliefs.
While it is, in principle, possible that a socially and politically controversial Jew called Yeshua or Jesus existed, had followers during that period, and died at the hands of the Romans (there were many such individuals and movements in the region during that time in history), it still wouldn’t mean the stories about him written in the gospels are true.
Even in this day and age there are numerous alleged ‘first-hand eye-witness accounts’ of miracles performed by ‘Godmen’ and witchdoctors (see: Jesus Christ vs. Sathya Sai Baba and The Banda Witchcraft Saga) but we do not believe them to be true, with good reason. The reason being that we are aware of the human propensity to lie, fabricate (whole or in part), exaggerate, misreport, misrepresent, misinterpret, mythologize, etc.. and the evidence at hand simply isn’t sufficient to rule these out, in favour of a supernatural explanation.
In fact, the evidence available points to the strong likelihood that stories like these are the result of either lies, fabrications (whole or in part), exaggerations, misreporting, misrepresentation, misinterpretation, mythologizing, etc.. rather than anything supernatural.
Issue of Historicity:
The majority of biblical scholars believe that there was a man called Jesus who existed, though they do not think he was divine. The most common theory among bible scholars today is that Jesus was a teacher of some kind, and there are others who consider him to have been an apocalyptic prophet. The minority view among bible scholars is that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is the actual Jesus.
The most we can learn from what these Roman historians (Josephus, et al) wrote is that there existed a Jewish religious sect that came to be known as “Christians” during the first and second centuries. History tells us that there is nothing particularly unusual about this, as there were several other Jewish religious sects also making waves at the time.