The Historicity of Jesus

By Shirley Jackson Case (1912)


Even in the New Testament not all writings are equally important witnesses for the historical personality of Jesus. Yet all proceed upon the assumption that the primitive testimony to his existence is unquestionably reliable. While none of the New Testament books supplies any more original evidences than are found in Paul's epistles and the gospels, they all have a corroborative value, and testify to the pervasiveness of belief in Jesus' historicity. Of the same type is the evidence derived from the non-canonical gospel fragments.[1] Regardless of the judgment we may pass upon the historicity of the details the apocryphal gospels narrate, they show that the notion of an earthly Jesus was uniformly accepted as a basal fact with which all varieties of interpretation had to reckon.

[1] These confirm such realistic items in Jesus' career as his baptism by John, his association with disciples, his habit of teaching, and his violent death. Cf. Preuschen, Antilegomena (Giessen, 1905); W. Bauer, Das Leben Jesu im Zeitalter der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen (Tübingen, 1909).


The same thing is true of the Apostolic Fathers, though they never offer anything like a sketch of Jesus' life. They take the reality of his earthly existence for granted, in this respect following the current Christian tradition both in its historical and in its interpretative characteristics. Though belief in Jesus' pre-existence and heavenly exaltation are stress points for interpretation, the fact of his appearance upon earth remains fundamental for the Christian gospel. Thus Clement of Rome, near the end of the first century, writes:

The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God and the apostles are from Christ. Both therefore come of the will of God in the appointed order. Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in the word of God with the full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come.[1]

By the close of the first century and continuing on into the second, when the Apostolic Fathers and the writers of the apocryphal gospels were doing their work, the tradition of an actual earthly career of Jesus was uniformly

[1] Ad Cor., 42:1-3.


accepted. This is, of course, what one would expect in Christian circles as the natural outcome of the teaching of Paul and other early missionaries. While this testimony can therefore have only secondary value, it does show that belief in Jesus' historicity was never the pièce de résistance of controversy. Even the heretics whom Ignatius condemns were not questioning the fact of Jesus' actual appearance upon earth, but only the reality of his human nature. Against these Ignatius exhorts his readers to adhere to the primitive faith, being "fully persuaded concerning the birth and the passion and the resurrection, which took place in the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate."[1] This is the uniform Christian tradition, beginning with the earliest times, when personal companions of Jesus were still living, and extending on through the first and second centuries until finally incorporated into the official creed of the church.

When we follow the history of Christianity, as described in its own documents, down to about the middle of the second century for example, it would seem to have been the world-stirring movement of the age. The Roman official is

[1] Mag., 11.


called upon to execute Jesus; Paul is frequently brought before the civil authorities in defense of the new religion until finally he lands in prison in the capital; Christians attract attention and are persecuted in different parts of the empire before the close of the first century; Clement of Rome mentions similar experiences undergone by the Roman church in earlier and in more recent times; when Ignatius writes his epistles he is en route to Rome whither he is being transported as a prisoner under condemnation on account of his religion, and about the middle of the second century Justin addresses an apology to the Emperor "in behalf of those from every race of men who are hated and abused."[1] It would seem that Christianity had early come to the notice of the imperial authorities, who had strenuously but vainly endeavored to stay the progress of the new religion which was destined to spread itself rapidly over the Roman world.

This is the way the situation looked to Christians. But from the contemporary Roman point of view the outlook was apparently quite different. The secular writers who record the history of the period either ignore the new

[1] Apol., I, 1.


religious movement, or mention it only casually; and as for its founder, whose personality was so unique according to Christian tradition, he is hardly so much as known by name. But one may easily overestimate the significance of this silence. In the first place it must be remembered that our available sources of information from the Roman side are scanty. Moroever the secular historian as a rule had no interest in the various religions throughout the empire so long as their devotees did not take an openly hostile attitude toward the state. For some time the Jews had been looked upon with suspicion for their refusal to identify themselves with heathen society, and as Christians took practically the Jewish position in this matter, they introduced no novelty into the situation so far as the casual Roman observer was concerned. It was perfectly natural for a heathen writer to fail to differentiate Christianity from Judaism, and so to pass it by without more specific designation. Its founder would seem no more deserving of attention than any other Jewish rabbi or prophet.

While Roman sources are very scanty, they do furnish a few items of importance. Pliny, when governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan


concerning the proper method of dealing with Christianity. The date of the letter is commonly set at 112 A.D. The Christian "superstition" is said to have spread like a contagion not only through the cities but also into the villages and country regions. The temples were almost forsaken and the trade in sacrifices had fallen off deplorably. But the movement was not a new one in Pliny's time. One person confessed that he had abandoned it twenty years before. Although Pliny was somewhat disturbed by the situation, he felt that the first enthusiasm was safely passed and the tide of return to the national religion had set in. He found some who had formerly been drawn away by the superstition now ready to offer incense to Caesar's image and to curse Christ. Other accused persons denied that they had ever been Christians. Yet the wide extent of the movement is shown even in Pliny's optimistic outlook.[1] Making due allowance for possible exaggeration, it is still certain that

[1] To cite only the closing sentences of the letter: "certe satis constat prope iam desolata templa coepisse celebrari et sacra sollemnia diu intermissa repeti pastumque venire victimarum, cuius adhuc rarissimus emptor inveniebatur. ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sit paenitentiae locus."


Christianity had gained a strong foothold in the regions governed by Pliny, where it had been in evidence for several years.[1]

Of the founder of the movement Pliny tells us nothing. He knows that Christians reverence one called Christ to whom they sing hymns in their assembly and whom they refuse to curse, but nothing more is said of this individual. The subject would have no probable interest for a Roman official. Even for a historian like Suetonius, Christian origins appear to have been of little moment, and his references to Christianity itself are very obscure. About 120 A.D., in his lives of the Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian, he twice makes statements which have been taken to refer to Christianity. He says Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because they raised a constant commotion at the instigation of a certain Chrestus.[2] Again in writing of Nero he remarks that this emperor punished the Christiani, who were adherents of a "new and odious superstition."[3] The latter statement is easily understood, for we are

[1] The genuineness of the reported correspondence between Pliny and Trajan has not always passed unquestioned, but critical opinion at present is in favor of holding to its authenticity. Cf. Goguel, L'Eucharistie (Paris, 1910, pp. 259 ff.).

[2] Claud., XXV.

[3] Nero, XVI.


familiar with the idea that Nero persecuted the Christians. But the reference to Chrestus who incited a disturbance among the Jews is not so clear. The confusion of Chrestus and Christus by the heathen we know to have been a fact,[1] but certainly Jesus (Christus) of the gospel narratives could not have been in Rome in the time of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). We also know from various sources that the Roman emperors did on occasion expel Jews from Rome,[2] but the question here is whether Chrestus is an inaccurate reference to Christianity and its founder. The natural meaning of impulsore Chresto is that a disturbance was caused by a Jew named Chrestus living in Rome at the time. Perhaps it is precarious to force any other meaning from Suetonius' language, and it may be that we have here to do with the work of some messianic enthusiast of the Zealot type. On the other hand, it is also

[1] Cf. Tertullian, Apol., III; Lactantius, Instit., IV, 7; Justin, Apol., I, 55.

[2] About 19 A.D. Tiberius ordered an expulsion, according to Josephus, Ant., XVIII, iii, 5; Tacitus, Annal., II, 85; Suetonius, Tiber., XXXVI. The statements about Claudius' action are conflicting. According to Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Claud., XXV; Orosius, VII, 6, 15, an edict of expulsion went into effect. Dio Cassius says Claudius merely prohibited the Jews' assembling together.


possible that Suetonius did not distinguish sharply between Jews and Christians, and knew so little of the actual situation as to make his reference to it thus unintelligible. If the disturbance was really due to a controversy between Jews and Christians, this is evidence of the spread of Christianity to the capital of the empire by the year 50 A.D. Paul's letter to the Romans less than ten years later also presupposes an early date for the planting of the new faith in Rome.

Tacitus' information is much more explicit.[1] According to his definite statement, the Christians whom Nero persecuted were named from "Christ" who had been put to death by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Here we at last find a Roman historian (writing before 115 A.D.) bearing unequivocal testimony to the existence of the Jesus of gospel history. Is this passage a genuine part of the original author's

[1] His most important sentences are: "ergo abolendo rumori [that Nero had himself burned Rome] Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis affecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio affectus erat, repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat non modo per Judaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque." Annal., XV, 44.


work? And, if so, is it a source independent of gospel tradition? The preponderance of critical opinion answers the former question affirmatively; the answer to the latter is less certain. Those who deny Jesus' historicity make much of Hochart's protest against the genuineness of Tacitus.[1] The French scholar extended his doubts not only to cover the whole chapter in question but also much more of the alleged writings of the Roman historian. He would make Poggio Bracciolini, who brought our most important manuscript of Books xi-xvi of the Annals to light in 1427, in reality the author of the work. This extreme skepticism has failed to win any substantial approval,[2] nor are we able to accept the arguments sometimes urged against the sentence which refers particularly to Jesus' death under Pilate. Apart from a-priori considerations, the main objections

[1] Hochart, Études au sujet de la persecution des Chrétiens sous Néron (Paris, 1885), De l'authenticité des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite (Paris, 1890), Nouvelles considérations au sujet des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite (Paris, 1894). Cf. also Ross, Tacitus and Bracciolini: The Annals Forged in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1878). Ross questions the Annals only, but Hochart rejects also the History.

[2] Cf. the refutation by C. F. Arnold, Studien über die neronische Christenverfolgen (Leipzig, 1888); Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus (Oxford, 1896, I, 8-12).


lie in the two phrases, Tiberio imperitante and per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum. The former is said to be un-Tacitean; Tacitus would have written princeps in speaking of Tiberius. But much as one might think he should have used the latter term, it cannot be denied that he might not have used the former, which occurs several times in the writings usually credited to Tacitus. The further contention, that "the procurator Pontius Pilate" needs closer definition, is more in point. Over what country was he governor? But the answer is near at hand, for we are informed at once that Judea is the source whence this "malady" sprang.

Accepting the genuineness of Tacitus, it is still a question whether his testimony is based on anything other than current Christian tradition. He may have had access to official records in which the facts he records were mentioned, yet in the present state of our information this is purely a matter of conjecture. On the other hand, we have already seen that gospel tradition by the year 115 A.D. had taken the form in which it is at present known, and had been carried broadcast over the Roman Empire by word of mouth if not in written


documents. And the death of Jesus under Pontius Pilate was one of its most persistent items. Tacitus' reliability does not suffer by admitting that he may have had his information from current Christian tradition; this possibility merely robs us of the convenience of citing Tacitus as an independent witness.

More satisfactory results might be expected from an examination of Jewish writings of the period. Of these however only the works of Philo and Josephus have been preserved at all fully. The latter frequently speaks about a certain contemporary named Justus[1] who also wrote a history of the Jewish war, a work which Josephus criticizes very unfavorably. In the latter part of the ninth century Photius,[2] patriarch of Constantinople, refers to Justus' "chronicle of the Jewish kings" from Moses to Agrippa II. This is pronounced by Photius to be very brief and to pass over many important and necessary things, among them the appearing of Christ, the fulfilment of prophecy in him, and the miracles he wrought. Hence if Justus' work was still extant there is slight probability that it would yield anything for

[1] Josephus, Life, 9, 12, 17, 35, 37, 54, 65, 70, and 74.

[2] Cod., 33 (Migne ed., CIII, col. 65).


use in this connection. Philo also has nothing to offer, since, as already noted, his treatise on the Therapeutes has no reference to Christianity.

Josephus only remains. Twice in his Antiquities he mentions Jesus. In the midst of an account of calamities suffered by the Jews in the time of Pilate, we read:

At this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is proper to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of men who receive the truth gladly, and he won to himself both many Jews and many Greeks. This was the Christ. And when Pilate, on the indictment of the chief men among us, sentenced him to crucifixion, those who loved him at first did not cease loving him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day as indeed the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonders concerning him. And even to this day the race of Christians named from him is not extinct.[1]

On another occasion, in speaking of the high priest Ananus, Josephus says: "So he [Ananus]

[1] The original of this very important passage is, according to the Niese text: Ginetai de kata touton ton cronon Ihsous sofoV anhr, eige andra auton legein crh: hn gar paradoxwn ergwn poihthV, didaskaloV anqrwpwn twn hdonh talhqh decomenwn, kai pollouV men IoudaiouV pollouV de kai tou Ellhnikou ephgageto: o cristoV outoV hn. kai auton endeixei twn prwtwn andrwn par hmin staurw epitetimhkotos Pilatou ouk epausanto oi to prwton agaphsanteV: efanh gar autoiV trithn ecwn hmeran palin zwn twn qeiwn profhtwn tauta te kai alla muria peri autou qaumasia eirhkotwn. eis eti te nun twn Cristianwn apo toude wnomasmenon ouk epelipe to fulon (Ant., XVIII, iii, 3).


assembled the sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-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."[1]

Each of these passages contains a perfectly clear reference to the Jesus of gospel history, but the genuineness, particularly of the former, is commonly doubted. The grounds of this doubt are, first, the difficulty of ascribing statements of this sort to a Jew. One would expect a Jewish writer either to refute or to ignore the claims made by Christians for Jesus' uniqueness. It is especially difficult to imagine that Josephus would emphatically assert the messiahship of Jesus. Josephus has little to say about the messianic hope, that item in Jewish faith which had been the source of so much trouble for the Roman authorities. For his part he would set the Roman mind at rest by identifying Vespasian with the promised Messiah. He makes this statement in his War

[1] This reads: ate dh oun toioutoV wn o AnanoV, nomisaV ecein kairon epithdeion dia to teqnanai men Fhston, Albinon d eti kata thn odon utarcein, kaqizei sunedrion kritwn kai paragagwn eis auto ton adelfon Ihsou tou legomenou Cristou, IakwboV onoma autw, kai tinaV eterouV, wV paranomhsantwn kathgorian poihsamenoV paredwke leusqhsomenouV (Ant., XX, ix. 1).


(VI, v, 4) and it is hardly conceivable that he would later in the Antiquities come out with so bold an assertion of Jesus' messiahship. It would seem that we have here either an out and out fabrication, or a radical recasting of some statement whose original import was less favorable to Christianity.

Each of these opinions has been advocated.[1] The former is more commonly adopted nowadays, yet the latter still has adherents. Goethals[2] would rewrite and so interpret the language as to make Josephus take a somewhat liberal yet distinctly Jewish point of view. In particular, the sentence "this was the Christ" is thought originally to have read "the Christ as many supposed" [o cristoV wV polloiV enomizeto]. J. Weiss also holds it quite unnecessary to reject the passage outright.[3] He would understand "this was the Christ" to mean this Jesus was the one whom the Christians today, as everyone knows, honor as the Christ; and similarly the reference to the

[1] On this much-discussed question see Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (3d and 4th ed.), I, 544 ff., where citations of literature to 1901 are given.

[2] Josèphe témoin de Jésus (Mélanges d'histoire du Christianisme, I, Bruxelles et Paris, 1909); cf. Soltau, Wochenschrift für klassische Philologie, 1910, N. 24.

[3] Jesus von Nazareth, pp. 88 f.


fulfilment of prophecy would be an objective representation of Christian opinion. But none of these solutions quite disposes of one serious difficulty, namely the foreignness of the passages to its context. Its motive is neither to record a sample of Jewish "sedition," nor is it a "calamity which put the Jews into disorder"—the topics treated in the context. It is rather a distinctly biased note aiming to glorify Christianity, a note such as a Christian might write on the margin or a scribe insert into the text. This is all the more probable since it is not so much to Jews—who looked upon Josephus with suspicion after his part in the war with Rome—as to Christians that we are indebted for the preservation of Josephus' works. In fact the earliest Christian references to Josephus are against the originality of the paragraph in question. Twice Origen affirms that Josephus did not acknowledge the messiahship of Jesus,[1] and in each instance the phrase "Jesus, the so-called Christ" (from Antiquities, XX, ix, 1) is the ground of Origen's statement. Evidently he is not acquainted with the earlier paragraph, since so outspoken a testimony to Jesus' messiahship from the Jew, Josephus,

[1] Com. on Matt., X, 17 (Migne ed., XIII, col. 877), and contra Celsum, I, 47.


would have been a deadly weapon to employ against the Jew, Celsus. This weapon was, however, forged not long after Origen's day, for Eusebius cites the paragraph on two occasions and evidently thinks it genuine.[1]

There is less reason to doubt that Josephus himself mentioned James, "the brother of the so-called Christ." This is attested by Origen on three occasions.[2] Yet Schürer thinks the authenticity of this passage in Josephus is also very doubtful. He infers this from Origen's statement that Josephus thought the fall of Jerusalem to be an expression of the divine displeasure on account of the killing of James.[3] Since none of our manuscripts of Josephus support this reading Schürer concludes that the text used by Origen had already undergone Christian revision, and it is therefore doubtful whether even the reference to Jesus in this connection should be retained. But can we dispose of Origen's testimony so easily? This reading

[1] Hist. Eccl., I, 11, and Dem. Evang., III, 5.

[2] In addition to the two references given above, see contra Celsum, II, 13.

[3] As cited in Origen, Com. on Matt., X, 17, Josephus said: "The people thought they suffered these things for the sake of James." In contra Celsum, I, 47 and II, 13 this opinion is credited to Josephus himself.


was not peculiar to Origen;[1] it is also attested by Jerome.[2] Moreover it is not easy to discover a motive which would prompt the Christians to connect the fall of Jerusalem with the death of James, when they seem to have been uniformly of the opinion that it was a punishment upon the Jews for their rejection of Jesus. It would have served Christian interests better to remove this statement from Josephus.[3] Nor is it intrinsically improbable that many Jews entertained a good opinion of James, in spite of his adherence to Christianity. Even in the New Testament he is reputed for his loyalty to the law. We also know the Jews were much displeased with the Sadducean high priest, Ananus, and petitioned Albinus to restrain him in his rash conduct.[4] Evidently

[1] Schürer says of it, "ohne Zweifel eine singuläre, in den Vulgärtext des Josephus nicht übergegangene christliche Interpolation."

[2] de vir. illus., 13.

[3] Note Origen's query: eiper oun dia Iakwbon legei sumbebhkenai toiV IoudaioiV ta kata thn erhmwsin ths Ierousalhm, pwV ouci eulogwteron dia Ihsoun ton Criston touto faskein gegonenai; (contra Celsum, I, 47; cf. II, 13).

[4] It is true that Hegesippus, according to Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., II, 23, blames the "Jews and Scribes and Pharisees" for James' death, but Hegesippus is much less likely to have been well informed on this subject than is Josephus.


the charge of lawbreaking which Ananus brought against James was not an expression of popular Jewish opinion. To many Jews Ananus himself was the real lawbreaker.[1] A favorable reference to James, like the similar reference to John the Baptist,[2] may well have been original with Josephus. And it was not unnatural to identify "Jacobus" more closely by indicating his relationship to Jesus, who in turn is distinguished from various other persons of the same name by reminding Roman readers that they commonly called this individual "Christ."[3] It seems quite possible that Josephus did mention in this incidental way "Jesus, the so-called Christ."

A new interest in Josephus as a witness for Christianity has recently been awakened by Berendts' work on the Slavonic version of the Jewish War.[4] According to this translation Josephus had said many things, not contained in the ordinary text, about John the Baptist

[1] Cf. Josephus, Ant., XX, ix, 1.

[2] Ant., XVIII, v, 2.

[3] Cf. Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus.

[4] Die Zeugnisse vom Christentum im slavischen "de bello judaico" des Josephus (Texte und Untersuchungen, XXIX, 4, Leipzig, 1906); "Analecta zum slavischen Josephus" in the Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, IX (1908), 47-70.


and Jesus. These Slavonic additions have usually been treated as unauthentic interpolations, but Berendts asserts that they are from the hand of Josephus himself. His view in brief is this. Starting with Josephus' own statement that he had first written his account of the war in his native tongue and dedicated it to the "upper barbarians," Berendts infers that the Greek rendering which Josephus later made, and which has become the standard text, was really a revision of the earlier work. This first draft, prepared for the "upper barbarians," had also been translated into Greek, and became the particular source of the present Slavonic rendering. In this Josephus had spoken of Jesus several times, but in preparing a version for Roman readers he exscinded these passages.

If Berendts' theory were established, Josephus would be a very substantial witness for the historicity of Jesus. In the Slavonic version the story of Jesus' life is told in outline, his superhuman nature is clearly acknowledged, his marvelous deeds and wonderful teaching are mentioned, and such items as the betrayal, crucifixion, watch at the tomb, and resurrection are attested. One naturally asks whether all


this may not be the work of a Christian hand, and whether the data are not derived from the gospels. Berendts answers both questions negatively. He finds the Slavonic material to be different from the Christian interpolation in the accepted text of Antiquities, XVIII, iii, 3. The former does not speak of Jesus' messiahship, nor refer to his fulfilment of prophecy. Arguments from interruption of the context, foreign style, and Origen's assertion that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus' messiahship, urged against the passage in the Antiquities, are thought to have no force here. Furthermore, we are reminded that Josephus did not belong to that side of Judaism which would be most hostile to Christianity, so his appreciation of Jesus as a wonder-worker cannot, on merely a-priori grounds, be denied. The argument for dependence upon the gospels is met by noting that the contents and point of view in the Slavonic material do not correspond closely with the gospel narratives, but are at times so different that they can hardly be accounted for on the basis of these sources alone. Nor do any apocryphal writings seem to furnish these data. Further, Berendts contends that no Christian who had the gospels


would be interested in creating the accounts which appear in the Slavonic version. They must come from a Jew, and even he could hardly have written as he did later than the first century A.D. That is, the author most probably was Josephus himself, so Berendts concludes.

These arguments are scarcely forceful enough to justify us in accepting the data of the Slavonic work as Josephus' own testimony to Jesus. In the first place, the language is too appreciative of Jesus' uniqueness and superhuman character to have come from anyone who was not a Christian. While Jesus is said to have been human in nature and form, his appearing was more than human and his works were divine, so that he could neither be called a man nor an angel. He is the unique wonderworker sent forth from God. This surely is Christian language, and not altogether unlike some ideas in the Fourth Gospel. Failure to call Jesus the Messiah seems to be due merely to the feeling that he is too unique to be measured adequately by the messianic concept. Again, wide variations from the gospel narratives, even contradictions of these narratives, cannot establish priority for the variant version.


The apocryphal gospels show clearly that Christian writers familiar with gospel tradition could depart from it widely. We cannot believe that we are here dealing with direct testimony from Josephus.[1]

Thus Josephus proves to be of only slight value as a source of information about Jesus. He appears to have known of Jesus' existence, yet he mentions him only casually and on but one occasion. This comparative inattention to Christianity and its founder has occasioned frequent comment. Josephus records the activity of certain other individuals who figure only incidentally in Jewish history, for example, Judas of Galilee,[2] John the Baptist,[3] Theudas,[4] the Egyptian,[5] and Jesus who prophesied the ruin of Jerusalem.[6] Why should he not speak

[1] For a more extended criticism of Berendts' position, see Schürer in the Theologische Literaturzeitung, XXXI (1906), 262 ff. He thinks the Slavonic work is originally a Christian interpolation made by a patripassionist who used the gospels as his only sources of information. Other critics would save a part of the material for Josephus, or at least would take it to represent primitive Jewish tradition. E.g., Goethals, op. cit., and Jean précurseur de Jésus (Bruxelles et Paris, 1911); Frey, Der slavische Josephusbericht über die urchristliche Geschichte nebst seinen Parallelen kritisch untersucht (Leipzig, 1908).

[2] Ant., XVIII, i, 1 ff.; War, II, viii, 1.

[3] Ibid., XVIII, v, 2.

[4] Ibid., XX, v, 1.

[5] Ibid., XX, viii, 6; War, II, xiii, 5.

[6] War, VI, v, 3.


more at length of the gospel Jesus whose followers, like those of Judas, believed their master was the Messiah; whose preaching to some extent resembled John's; whose reputed prophecy of Jerusalem's fall was not wholly unlike that of the other Jesus?

Possibly Josephus deliberately excluded this subject. Messianists from time to time had caused the Roman authorities trouble, consequently Josephus may, as seems likely in his treatment of Daniel, have purposely slurred over the messianic hopes of the Jews. He can speak of messianic agitators, like Judas, Theudas, and the Egyptian, who have failed in their claims, and he can dismiss the Jewish messianic prophecies by implying their fulfilment in Vespasian, but how will he dispose of this new messianic movement, Christianity, which the Romans of his own day regard with disfavor and associate closely with the Jews? He might protest against linking this "superstition," as the Romans called it, with Judaism; yet he could not deny that its sources were Jewish, as were also its traits and many of its adherents. Silence was the more practical policy. To recall that Christianity, at the time an unpopular movement in the eyes of the Roman authorities,


was of Jewish origin, would not have added to the respect for his ancestors and their religion which Josephus sought to inspire in his readers. This is the explanation commonly given for Josephus' reserve in speaking of Jesus and Christians.[1]

But may not indifference on Josephus' part have been the main reason for his "silence"? To this politician, historian, and Jewish apologist, Christianity is not likely to have seemed particularly significant. Jesus' career had been of relatively slight importance for general Jewish history. His contact with the politics of his day was not so close as that of Judas or Theudas, or even of John the Baptist. Jesus had not figured as a messianic claimant, at least not in any sense which would appeal to Josephus as real. While Jesus seems to have been condemned on the formal charge of claiming

[1] E.g., Jülicher says: "Von ihnen zu schweigen war klügere Taktik, als sie mühsam von den Rockschössen abzuschütteln."—Hat Jesus gelebt? p. 19. Similarly Weinel: "Der Grund liegt aber nicht im Christentum oder in der Nichtexistenz Jesu, sondern bei Josephus, der übrigens auch von Johannes dem Täufer und von der ganzen messianischen Bewegung in seinem Volk in einer Weise erzählt, die den Römern die Juden als möglichst harmlose und ruhige, philosophische Staatsbürger darstellen soll."—Ist das "liberale" Jesusbild widerlegt? p. 107. J. Weiss, on the other hand, finds in Josephus' comparative silence a mark of his friendliness toward the Christians (Jesus von Nazareth, p. 91).


to be Messiah, we may be sure it was not this feature in his career which had primarily aroused enmity. The Jews were not treating their messianic aspirants that way. Jesus refused to be a messianic agitator and thus he became, from a standpoint such as Josephus is likely to have taken, a negligible factor in Jewish history. Even for Christians themselves Jesus was primarily the coming Messiah; and the notion of his messianic dignity upon earth was not at first, and perhaps did not for some time become, a fixed idea with definite content. Hence for Josephus he is the one "called Christ"—not a messianic claimant of the past whose career has any important relation to the religion, politics, and life of the Jews. And as for the Christian movement in Josephus' own day, that too may have seemed of little account. So far as it had come to public notice it was doubtless confined mainly to the lower classes of society with whom a contemporary historian would have little concern. This would be particularly true of a Roman, and we must remember that Josephus had schooled himself to take the Roman point of view.

This indifference of Josephus is not so surprising when we remember that he does not


represent the phase of Judaism with which primitive Christianity came into closest contact. If we had access to the life and thinking of contemporary rabbinical Judaism possibly we should find more frequent reference to Jesus. Unfortunately there are no contemporary documents to supply this information; but there are three main sources of late date where one might conceivably find earlier materials embedded. These are (1) Christian references to Jewish opponents, (2) Talmudic statements about Jesus, and (3) the so-called Toledoth Jeshu stories.

The New Testament shows Christianity and Judaism in conflict with one another even as early as Paul's day, a situation which seems to have perpetuated itself, at least so far as conditions on gentile soil were concerned, all through the New Testament period. We know that the opposition between the two was also bitter at an early date in Palestine, and it may have continued so, even though literary evidence for the later situation is now wanting. The New Testament writings do not state with any fulness the specific grounds of Jewish hostility. Why was Paul so bitterly persecuting the Christians, pursuing them even to


Damascus? He says he was exceedingly zealous for the traditions of the fathers.[1] It is not improbable that Christians, especially among the Hellenists, may have manifested some laxity toward the ritual law; but this will scarcely have been so prominent a feature of the new movement at this early date that it can have been the sole ground of Paul's hostility. Moreover Paul's enthusiasm was of a distinctly religious type; he was seeking to do the will of God in order to obtain salvation. But his conversion to Christianity meant that he now found the way to salvation in that which had formerly been the greatest of stumbling-blocks. Hence when he states the chief ground of his hope as a Christian, he probably reveals the item in Christian teaching which had formerly incensed him most, namely, the confession of Jesus' lordship as the result of belief in Jesus' resurrection.[2] It is this confession of Jesus' lordship, based upon the resurrection faith and issuing in the belief that Jesus will

[1] Gal. 1:14.

[2] Cf. Rom. 10:9. We have pointed out in the Journal of Biblical Literature, XXVI (1907), 151-61, that belief in Jesus' lordship was characteristic of Christianity even before Paul's day. This view is still further substantiated by Bacon, "Jesus as Lord" in the Harvard Theological Review, IV (1911), 204-28.


in future appear in messianic glory, that constituted the basis of controversy between Jews and Christians. The latter worked up their side of the argument by dwelling upon Jesus' miracle-working ability, his pre-existence, his miraculous birth, and the like. Jews, on the other hand, taking their cue from the Christians' preaching, sought to cast doubt upon Jesus' resurrection, pronounced his miracles to be merely the practice of Egyptian magic, and converted the story of his virgin birth into a charge of illegitimate parentage.

These are the problems confronted by Christian apologists in the days of Justin and Origen, but in all probability similar questions were debated at a much earlier date. They too are the points about which the Talmudic references to Jesus revolve.[1] Though the Talmud in its present form does not carry us back beyond the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the Mishna probably reflects views of earlier rabbinical opponents like Rabbi Akiba, who, in turn, may have perpetuated arguments and criticisms already in vogue at an earlier date. The Toledoth Jeshu, however, is a much later

[1] We may pass this material by thus briefly, since Strack's Jesus, die Häretiker und die Christen makes it so easily accessible.


product, which it seems vain to attempt to connect with primitive tradition.[1] The one fact which impresses us in this conflict of argument between Christians and Jews is the common acceptance of belief in Jesus' earthly existence, and the offense taken by the Jews at the reverence rendered him by Christians. In this respect Jewish sources corroborate the early Christian testimony to Jesus' existence.

It may be urged by the radicals that this whole survey of the extra-biblical sources yields no testimony which is independent of Christian influence. Tacitus may have taken his information from Christian tradition, it might also be said that Josephus knew of Jesus only through Christian sources, and the early Jewish opponents of Christianity admittedly created their polemic as an offset to Christian preaching. Yet it does not follow that this testimony is wholly valueless, much less that its relative scantiness and secondary character is a positive argument against Jesus' historicity. As we have often remarked, this testimony, so far as it goes, is all corroborative

[1] S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen (Berlin, 1902) edits and translates this material. Cf. also E. Bischoff, Ein jüdisch-deutsches Leben Jesu (Leipzig, 1895).


of, and never contradictory to, Jesus' historicity. And as for its scantiness, that is determined by the particular circumstances under which the literature took shape and the purpose it was intended to serve. To admit that it may all be secondary to New Testament data is a chronological necessity, since the sources examined are all of later date than the earliest oral or written Christian tradition.

But it cannot really be a matter of any great importance that a Roman historian of the second century A.D., or Josephus at the end of the first century, and the Talmudists of a still later date have so little to say of the earthly Jesus. In the nature of the case they could not speak at first-hand, and such information as they would have been able to gather from non-Christian sources can hardly have been marked by anything like the intelligence which would characterize the information given by personal associates and friends of Jesus. To suppose that contemporary non-Christian sources would give us a more purely judicial estimate of the facts is to presuppose that non-Christian writers of the day were exponents of modern critical methods of historical research. This we know not to be true.


The evidence for Jesus' existence is derived mainly from Christian sources. If it is urged that his existence cannot be "proved," as a mathematical theorem perhaps it cannot. But it is equally true that such a proof of his non-historicity is also out of the question. In matters of history "proof" can only mean a reasonable certainty based upon the available data; and, after all, mathematical demonstration has no more ultimate criterion of validity than that of reasonableness. The New Testament data are perfectly clear in their testimony to the reality of Jesus' earthly career, and they come from a time when the possibility that the early framers of tradition should have been deceived upon this point is out of the question. Not only does Paul make the historical personality of Jesus a necessary preliminary to his gospel, but the whole situation in which Paul moves shows a historical background in which memory of this individual is central. The earliest phases of gospel tradition have their roots in Palestinian soil and reach back to the period when personal associates of Jesus were still living; while primitive Christology shows distinct traces of Jesus the man of Galilee behind its faith in the heavenly Christ. The disciples'


personal memory of this Jesus of real life is also the fountain from which the peculiarly forceful type of the new community's vitality takes its start.

Go to The Historicity of Jesus by S.J. Case table of contents.