Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History

By Maurice Goguel (1926)



The most ancient non-Christian testimony concerning Jesus is—or rather would be, if it were authentic—that of Josephus. In his works, as we read them, Jesus is mentioned twice,[2] in the eighteenth and the twentieth book of Jewish Antiquities.

The first of these reads thus: "At this time Jesus appeared—a wise man, if He can be called man. For He accomplished marvellous things, was the Master of those who received with joy the truth, and led away many Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. Upon the denunciation of the leaders of our nation, Pilate condemned Him to the cross; but those who had loved Him from the first ceased not to revere Him, for He appeared to them on the third day, raised again from the dead, as had announced the divine prophets, as well as a thousand other marvellous things concerning Him. There still exists to-day the sect which, after Him, received the name of 'Christians.'"[3]

[1] K. Linck, De antiquissimis quae ad Jesum Nazarenum spectant testimoniis, Giessen, 1913.

[2] The best edition of Josephus's works is that of Niese (Berlin, 1885-95) in six volumes. A French translation is appearing under the direction of Th. Reinach (Paris, 1900). Concerning Josephus see Schürer (Gesch., i, pp. 74-106), with very complete bibliography.

[3] Ant. Jud., xviii, pp. 63-4.

To the bibliography given by Schürer must be added the following : Burkitt (Josephus and Christ), Harnack (Der judische Geschichtschreiber Josephus und Jesus Christus), Smith (De Katholieck, as regards authenticity), Batiffol (Orpheus et l'Evangile), K. Linck (op. cit.), Norden (Josephus und Tacitus über Jesus Christus und Messianische Prophetie), Seitz (Das Christuszeugniss des Josephus Flavius), Jacoby (Jesus bei Josephus), Ed. Meyer (Ursprung und Anfänge des Christentums, for authenticity), Goetz (Die Ursprüngliche Fassung des Stelle Ant.), Corssen (Die Zeugnisse des Tacitus und Pseudo-Josephus über Christus), Goethals (Mélanges d'histoire Chrétienne), Brüne (St. u. Kr., unauthentic text, but substituted for a text in which Josephus spoke of Jesus), R. Laqueur (Josephus, passage added afterwards by Josephus himself).


This text is given by three known manuscripts, of which none, it must be admitted, goes farther back than the eleventh century. Eusebius (H., i, p. 11, and Dem. ev.) knew of it. But Origen seems to ignore it, for upon two occasions he quotes the praise given by Josephus to James, whilst remarking that nevertheless Josephus did not admit Jesus to be the Christ (Comm. in Matt. x., c. 17, also Contra Celsius, i, 47).

From the point of view of external criticism, the passage is therefore strongly suspected, at least, to be an interpolation.[1]

The arguments from internal criticism appear to be still more convincing. If Josephus had said of Jesus, "if He can be called a man" and "He was the Christ," if he had spoken of resurrection, of miracles, of the fulfilment of prophecies, he would have been a Christian.

From the sixteenth century the authenticity of this passage has been questioned, specially by Osiander; one feels a certain difficulty in understanding how such a critic as Harnack has been able to defend it.[2]

The passage that we read betrays with evidence a Christian hand, but has not the interpolator confined himself to retouching that which Josephus had written?[3] And if this hypothesis be accepted, is it possible to reconstruct the original text? Or is one simply to maintain that he spoke of Jesus, which in itself would be a fact of importance? Schürer has observed that if the expressions and phrases whose origin is certainly Christian are put aside, the remainder is very insignificant. But the interpolator could easily have mutilated the primitive passage at the same time as he exaggerated it. Norden remarks that the account of Pilate's government in the eighteenth book

[1] The text of Josephus seems to have existed under another form, for in an apocryphal dialogue concerning a religious discussion at the court of Sassanides we read: "Josephus spoke of the Christ as a just and good man manifested by Divine Grace by means of signs and miracles, and who did good to many." (Bratke, Das sogenannte Religionsgespräch am Hofe der Sassaniden).

[2] Among the most recent defenders of authenticity we may cite Bole (Flavius Josephus über Christus und die Christen in den judischen altertümern), Kneller (Flavius Josephus über Christus, Stimmen aus Maria Laach), Burkitt, Harnack, etc.

[3] The thesis of unauthenticity is admitted, besides authors quoted, by Schürer, Niese (De testimonio christiano quod est apud Josephum); that of interpolation by Reinach (Josephe sur Jésus), etc.


of the Antiquities consists of a series of episodes presented as troubles which arose amongst the Jews, the word qoruboV (noise, clamour, disturbance) being the leit motif of the account.

The general plan is interrupted by paragraphs 63 and 64, which speak of Jesus. If these are removed, paragraphs 62 and 65 are in perfect connection with each other. The bond between them is broken by what is said of Jesus. Norden therefore considers this fragment to be quite unauthentic. But Corssen replies against this that the general plan of the account is artificial. The events related are not all, in the strict sense of the word, troubles. There is, for instance, in paragraph 62 a reference to an incident which happened in Rome and in which the Jews were not implicated, and in paragraph 65 it is not a question of troubles among the Jews, but of measures directed against them. It might therefore be supposed, if the original passage had contained anything about Jesus, that His history would equally have been presented as that of an agitation. The reasoning which Corssen uses against Norden's theory seems to us decisive, but still it only establishes a mere possibility. Is it possible to go farther? In the retouching of a passage there very often appear certain peculiarities of the primitive form. According to Corssen this is the case in the passage we are concerned with. The expression "receive with pleasure" is a formula that Josephus is very fond of, and which he uses no less than seven times in the eighteenth book of the Antiquities. The words, "the chief among us" are also quite his style. It would be possible to say as much of the epithet "wise man," as applied to Jesus ; it would be difficult to understand from the pen of a Christian, whilst it accords well with the tendency of Josephus to class as philosophical schools such Jewish movements, essentially religious, as those of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. The idea of the Greeks allying themselves with Jesus is also very characteristic. It may be that the Christian editor of our passage took pains to imitate the style of Josephus; it is nevertheless difficult to suppose that he succeeded so well in it. The passage might therefore be the retouching of one written by Josephus himself. This conclusion seems confirmed by the fact that in the passage in the twentieth book, where the death of James is referred to, the latter is presented


as "the brother of Jesus, surnamed the Christ," which would seem to indicate that this Jesus was a personage already known to the readers, of whom therefore Josephus must have made mention.

Is it possible to reconstruct, by surmise, the original passage of Josephus? Theodore Reinach thinks it is, and, eliminating that coming from a Christian hand, he restores the following passage: "At this time there appeared Jesus, called Christ, an able man (for He was a worker of miracles) who preached to those eager for novelties, and He led away many Jews and also many Greeks. Albeit that Pilate upon the denunciation of the leaders among us, condemned Him to the cross, those who had loved Him from the beginning (or those whom He had deceived from the beginning) ceased not to be attached to Him, and to-day there still exists the sect which from Him had taken the name of Christians." Here is nothing more than a conjecture, for if it is easy to recognize in the actual text that which comes from a Christian hand, it is not so easy to guess at what the portions suppressed by the interpolator might have contained.

In the twentieth book of the Antiquities (paragraph 200) there is another mention of Jesus. It is found in the account of the death of James whom the high-priest Annas caused to be tried, and put to death by stoning, during the period between the death of Festus and the arrival of his successor, Albinus. At this time Roman authority seemed to be somewhat lax at Jerusalem. "Annas," says the text, "called the Sanhedrin together, and summoned to appear before it the brother of Jesus, surnamed Christ, and certain others under the charge of illegality, and caused them to be stoned to death." Eusebius cites this passage (H., II, xxiii, pars. 21-4), but Origen, who on three occasions[1] establishes (following Josephus) a relation between the death of James and the destruction of the Temple, has read the passage in a text retouched by a Christian.

Schürer (Gesch., i, p. 581) concludes from this that the existing text is also to be suspected of interpolation. This conclusion goes too far.

Admitting that this passage is among those that the Christians might have been tempted to exaggerate, it does not at all follow

[1] Origen, Comm. in Matt. 17 and Contra Celsum, i, 47 ; ii, 13.


that they did it. Besides, between the expression "Jesus, surnamed Christ," and the categorical declaration "He was the Christ" of the eighteenth book there is a great difference. The words may then be authentic.[1] Mgr. Batiffol[2] has believed it possible to deduce from this passage an important conclusion. The accusation brought against James and his associates is couched in ambiguous terms which may just as well refer to the violation of Roman laws as to that of the Jewish Law. In order to admit that the ground of the charge against James was revolt against Roman law, it would be necessary to attribute to the high-priest and the Sanhedrin a scrupulous loyalty to the Roman power which seems very far from likely to have been the case. On this hypothesis it would be difficult to understand why (as Josephus says) they were accused of this before the Governor by the Jews.[3]

What, asks Mgr. Batiffol, would constitute a revolt against religion if it were not the Christianity of the accused? This argument is in conflict with a difficulty, for tradition presents James as a very strict observer of the "Law."

The text of Josephus seems to us too concise to allow us to maintain that there could have been no other motive of opposition between the high-priest and James other than Christianity.[4]

Even if it be recognized that the silence of Josephus concerning

[1] This, for instance, is the opinion of K. Linck.

[2] Batiffol, Orpheus et l'Evangile.

[3] Mgr. Batiffol adds that the punishment inflicted—stoning to death—presupposes a crime of a religious character. This is not convincing, for it does not appear that blasphemers alone were stoned to death.

[4] A Slavonic version of the De Bello Judaico contains various additions to the Greek text in which Jesus is referred to. It will suffice to establish its character of secondary importance to summarize what is said of the death of Jesus in the first portion: Jesus remains on the Mount of Olives and refuses to humble Himself as He is ordered by Pilate and the Roman authorities. The Jews accuse Him then of formenting a conspiracy, in the presence of the Procurator. The latter, after having massacred many innocent persons, seizes Jesus, and finding that He is no malefactor sets Him free, after having obtained from Him the healing of his wife. The Jews, jealous of this success, give thirty pieces of silver to Pilate, and so obtain the right to crucify Jesus. It is difficult to understand how the first editor, A. Berendts (Zie Zeugnisse von Christo im Slavischem De Bella Judaico des Josephus) has been able to find in such accounts the authentic elements that Josephus made away with in translating his work from Aramaic into Greek.


Jesus and Christianity is not so complete as was formerly said, the extremely brief character of the allusions found in his work (under even the most favourable hypothesis) is none the less striking. How explain it, seeing that the work of Josephus deals precisely with the environment and the epoch in which Christianity was born and began to develop? Is it not surprising that an author who spoke of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Samaritans has said nothing, or has said so little, about the Christians? So complete a silence is perhaps more embarrassing for the mythologists than for their opponents. By what right, indeed, should it be permissible to conclude from it that Jesus never existed, and not permissible to deny that a Christian movement existed in Palestine prior to the year 70? Since Josephus has been silent not only concerning Jesus, but also concerning Christianity, how is his silence to be explained? Uniquely by his character and the object of his work. The writer desired to flatter the Romans and gain their good graces. To do this he expunged from the picture he drew everything likely to offend or excite their apprehension. Thus it is that he has scarcely at all spoken of the Messianic cult which nevertheless constituted the centre of Jewish thought in the first century. That he did so was because this cult was a menace to Rome, for the Kingdom of the Messiah could only be built upon the ruins of the Empire.

Josephus portrays John the Baptist as a moral preacher, and passes by unnoticed everything which presented him as the prophet of the Messiah, the one to announce the baptism of fire (Antiquities, xviii. pp. 116-19). The preaching of repentance is thus deprived by him of everything lending its support and giving it any signification. The little that Josephus preserves of Messianism is used by him to flatter basely authority in connecting the Messianic prophecies with Vespasian.[1] It was not possible to speak of Christianity whilst amputating it from Messianism. Josephus therefore maintained silence on the subject.

It might besides have been determined by another reason.

[1] De Bello Jud., vi, pp. 310-14. The same thing is found in Tacitus (Hist., v, p. 13), and in Suetonius (Vesp., p. 4), who have probably borrowed in this matter from Josephus.


At the time he wrote—and at least since the persecution by Nero—Christianity was separated from Judaism. Josephus could thus consider it as outside the history that he wished to write.[1] Doubtless the same thing was not the case as regards Palestine Christianity, but Josephus could not have spoken of it without exposing Judaism to the accusation of a compromising solidarity with a dangerous movement, odious to the governing class, and to which, it has been supposed, he had contributed to draw the attention of the court of Nero.[2] The silence of Josephus is not therefore the silence of ignorance; it is the silence of prudence and fear—a silence actuated by interest. Far from proving that Jesus and the Christian movement did not exist in Palestine in the first century, it only proves that Josephus did not wish, by speaking of it, to compromise himself, and with himself the Jewish people.[3]

The reasons which explain the silence or the discretion of Josephus account also for the fact that, according to Photius (Codex 13), Justus of Tiberiade (author of a chronicle and a history of the Jewish war, written at the same time and in the same spirit as the work of Josephus) has not mentioned Jesus or Christianity either.

As regards Philo, astonishment is sometimes expressed that in his works no mention is found of the Gospel. But it suffices to remember that he died shortly after the year 40,[4] and there is nothing to prove that Christianity had reached Alexandria before this date. That the Talmud and other Jewish sources[5] say nothing about Jesus which is not the distortion of Christian tradition is sufficiently explained by the date of these documents

[1] Ed. Meyer, Urspr. und Anfäng, i, p. 211.

[2] So Corssen thinks (Z.N.T.W., xv, p. 135), who points out that Josephus was in Rome at the time of the fire, and that he was in relation with the Empress Poppoea.

[3] Joh. Weiss, Jesus von Nazareth, Mythus oder Geschichte, p. 89.

[4] Philo was one of an embassy sent to Rome by the Jews of Alexandria in A.D. 40, and he was then very old. He speaks of himself as an old man (Leg. ad Gaium, par. 28). The account of this embassy was written immediately after.

[5] Concerning this literature see H. Laible (Jesus Christus im Thalmud), an English edition published in Cambridge (1893), with additions of Dalman and Streeter (Jesus Christ in the Talmud, etc.). See also R. T. Herford (Christianity in Talmud), A. Meyer (Jesus im Talmud), H. L. Strack (Jesus die Häreteker, Leipsig, 1910).


and the fact that those who compiled them were governed by entirely polemical considerations. Their sole object was to combat the Christians; they were not interested in writing the history of their religion. The first mention of the Christians in this Jewish literature is the curse contained in the "Schemonè Esrè," the daily prayer of the Jews (at close of the first century), "May the Nazarenes and the Minim perish!"


The first Latin text to mention the name of Christ is dated A.D. 110. It is the letter from Pliny to Trajan concerning the conduct to be observed towards the Christians.[1] He recounts his methods of action, punishing those for obstinacy, who, after two or three interrogations, persisted in the confession of Christianity, releasing those, who denounced as being Christians, denied the charge, and who in the Governor's presence invoked the gods, offered wine and incense before the statue of the emperor, and cursed the name of Christ. The case of those who confessed they were formerly Christians, but declared they were so no longer, caused Pliny some embarrassment; he had questioned them, and compared their replies with information obtained by putting two deaconesses to the torture. He had only discovered, he declares, a coarse and exaggerated superstition. From what he states concerning Christian practices one point may be noted: The Christians were in the habit of meeting upon a certain day and singing a hymn (carmen dicere), or, in other words, invoking Christ as a God.

This text is evidence of the cult of Christ, but it does not say explicitly whether He was conceived to be a personage having lived on earth or a being of entirely spiritual nature. The expression "Christo quasi Deo" appears to mean, however, that for Pliny, Christ was not a God like unto others. Was not the

[1] X, p. 96. The authenticity of this text has often been challenged since Semler. It is, however, generally admitted. See E. C. Babut (Remarques sur les deux lettres de Pline et de Trajan relatives aux Chrétiens de Bithynie), Linck (pp. 33-60), Reinach (Orpheus, p. 371), Couchoud (Le Mystère de Jésus). There may be in Pliny's letter some Christian interpolations (cp. Guignebert, Tertullien, pp. 77 seq.), M. Goguel (L'Eucharistie des origens à Justin Martyr, pp. 259 seq.). From our sent point of view we may neglect them.


fact that He had lived on earth, that which distinguished Him from others? The testimony of Tacitus in the Annales, written between 115 and 117, is more explicit: "To destroy the rumour [which accused him as guilty of the burning of Rome] Nero invented some culprits, and inflicted on them the most excruciating punishments; they were those who, detested for their infamies, were called by the populace, Christians. The author of this name, Christ, had under the reign of Tiberius been condemned to death by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. This execrable superstition, held in check for a time, broke out anew, not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but also in the city in which all atrocities congregate and flourish."[1]

There are two remarks in this passage whose authenticity is certain.[2] The first concerns the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians; the second concerns the Christ.[3] The first reflects the point of view of the contemporaries of Tacitus. It is a question of the hatred and contempt excited by the Christians and the infamies with which they were reproached, whilst it is precisely the accusation launched by Nero against them which seems to have unchained this hatred and contempt. The second must originate in some documentary source, since it contains no such word as "dicunt" or "ferunt," which would authorize us to suppose that Tacitus is only relating gossip. There is in this remark a characteristic idea—namely, that Christianity had been crushed out by the death of Christ, and had only reappeared about the year 64, simultaneously in Rome and in Judea. This resurrection of the execrable superstition in Judea can only be understood if we suppose that Tacitus does not make any distinction between the two manifestations of Messianism—Christianity and Judaism.

[1] Annales, xv, 44. See further certain studies cited respecting Josephus, Linck, pp. 61-103; also Batiffol (Orpheus et l'Evan., pp. 44-7).

[2] It is admitted without any reserve by S. Reinach (Orpheus). Hochart, after discovering in this passage an interpolation (Études au sujet de la persecution des Chrétiens sous Neron), maintains that the entire work of Tacitus was an invention of the fifteenth century (De l'authenticité des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite). Hochart's theory has only been admitted by Drews (Die Christusmythe).

[3] Corssen, Z.N.T.W., xiv, 1913, p. 135 (Zeitschrift für die Neustestamenliche Wissenschaft).


The words "not only in Judea" would imply, then, the sudden outbreak of nationalism which caused the revolt and the Jewish war.[1]

We can here form an idea of the character of the source: it was not Christian, since it presumed an eclipse of Christianity after the death of Jesus[2]; neither was it Jewish, for no Jewish document would have called Jesus "Christ," nor would it have presented Judaism as solidary with Christianity.[3]

The hypothesis which asserts that Tacitus could have consulted official documents preserved in the imperial archives can only be mentioned to be passed by, seeing that these archives were secret, and there is nothing to authorize our supposing that any exception to a general rule was made in the historian's favour. The dependence of Tacitus upon Josephus, as supposed by Harnack, has generally been discarded, particularly by Goetz, Norden and Corssen.

The fact that in the account which he gives of the Jewish war, Tacitus has utilized the De Bello Judaico of Josephus[4] is hardly conclusive, because if it were difficult for Tacitus to ignore so important a document as Josephus's account of the war, there is no reason at all to suppose that Tacitus, for whom Judaism was an object of the most profound contempt, had read the Antiquities of the Jews, and that he had sought therein any information to complete his account of the burning of Rome. Between the text of Tacitus and the passage of Josephus there are, besides, appreciable differences. The text of Josephus states

[1] Corssen, Z.N.T.W., xiv, 1913, p. 123.

[2] In this argument the hypothesis of Meyer (who thinks the details made use of by Tacitus relate to a form of confession of the Christian faith) is invalidated. Meyer thinks that Tacitus was obliged to occupy himself with the Christians during his government of Asia, and that he had made an inquiry into the origin of their movement. Meyer thinks ne can recognize an affinity between the phrase of Tacitus, "per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus," and that found in Timothy, "He bore witness before Pontius Pilate." He also supposes that Tacitus became acquainted with the Christian faith by his examination of those who were persecuted. Besides what has already been said, it must be replied against Meyer's opinion that on one side it is merely a question of a condemnation pronounced by the Procurator, and on the other side the profession of faith of Jesus. The two things are far trom being equivalent.

[3] These two points have been well emphasized by Batiffol.

[4] History, v, 13, depends upon De Bello Jud., vi, 310-14.


that Jesus' death was not the cause of a cessation of faith among his disciples; Tacitus, on the contrary, supposes that Christianity temporarily disappeared after the death of its founder. The judgment of Josephus upon Christianity is upon the whole a favourable one; that of Tacitus was one of supreme contempt. Finally, Tacitus appears to accept the word Christ as the name of the founder of the sect, whilst Josephus is aware that this founder was called Jesus, and that the word Christ designates the dignity to which he laid claim.

Goetz[1] has surmised that Tacitus obtained his information concerning Christianity from his friend, Pliny the Younger. The two writers certainly contemplate Christianity from the same point of view—that of the police—but this fact is characteristic of all the Romans. On the other hand, between Pliny and Tacitus there is an important difference. If they are in agreement in only seeing in Christianity a superstition, the first considers it an innocent one, the second calls it execrable, and appears to endorse the infamous accusations brought against the Christians. Mgr. Batiffol,[2] dwelling on the fact that Tacitus made use of the history of Pliny the Elder, has surmised that he borrowed from it his notes about the Christians. That is a supposition which in its nature one is unable to verify. But one fact is certain, and that is, Tacitus knew of a document, which was neither Jewish nor Christian, which connected Christianity with the Christ crucified by Pontius Pilate. The importance of this observation does not require to be emphasized.

In his Life of Nero (Chap. xvi) Suetonius mentions the persecution of the Christians, but he says nothing concerning their teachings. In the Life of Claudius (xxv, p. 4) he refers in passing to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, to which the book of Acts also makes allusion (xviii. 2): "Judaeos, impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes, Roma expulit" (He expelled from Rome the Jews, who under the impulsion of Christ did not cease to make tumult).[3]

[1] Goetz, Z.N.T.W., xiv, 1913, p. 295.

[2] Batiffol, Orpheus et l'Evangile, p. 46.

[3] Here again Hochart has in a very arbitrary way suspected a Christian interpolation. This thesis is indefensible, for no Christian would ever have expressed himself as Suetonius does.


Is one obliged to see in "Chrestos"[1] an unknown Jewish agitator, as do certain critics,[2] and thence conclude that the text does not relate to the Christians? Or, stressing the fact that at Rome the Christians seem to have been called "Chresitanoi" and not "Christianoi,"[3] must we suppose that it is Christ who is referred to, and that it was the disputes concerning Him which stirred up the Jewry of Rome and provoked the action of Claudius? The fact that Suetonius mentions Chrestos as a known personage without joining to his name quodam or aliquo[4] is favourable to the second interpretation, and it is also the one generally accepted.[5] The text of Suetonius tells us only that Christianity had reached Rome under the reign of Claudius, and that it was considered to have connection with a personage of the name of Chrestos. But Suetonius could have believed that Chrestos had come to Rome in the time of Claudius,[6] and this proves how slightly the Romans interested themselves at the beginning of the second century in the traditions which the Christians invoked.

What the Roman authors say about Jesus and Christianity amounts to very little indeed. Only the testimony of Tacitus is plainly incompatible with the theory of a Christ entirely ideal. The rarity of the details furnished by the Latin authors is, however, striking. One is aware how prudent one must be in handling the "argument from silence" (ex silentio). To make it convincing it requires two conditions which are not satisfied in the case before us. In the first place the silence must be complete, which it is not, without taking any account of what the portion

[1] Linck gives a list of more than eighty inscriptions at Rome in which the name of Chrestos is found.

[2] Linck, also Reinach and Couchoud, consider this interpretation possible.

[3] Tacitus, Ann., v (Codex Mediceus), has the form "Chrestianos." In the three passages only in the New Testament where the word "Christians" is found (Acts xi. 26, xxvi. 28 ; 1 Peter iv. 16), the first copy of the Sinaiticus has Crhstianoi. The MS. (B) Vaticanus has Creistianoi. Compare with Justin (I Ap. 4), Tertullian (Ap. 3). The form "Chrestianoi" is frequent in the inscriptions. Compare with Linck.

[4] Batiffol, Orpheus et l'Evangile, p. 43.

[5] Meyer, Urspr. u. Anf., iii, 463.

[6] Preuschen (Chresto impulsore) supposed that some connection letween the details given by Suetonius and the tradition that Jesus died under Claudius. (See Chap. X, Section III.)


not preserved of contemporary literature might contain. In the second place the silence must have a real signification; in other words, the authors considered must have been obliged to mention, had they known them, the facts of which they say nothing. Now this second condition has not been satisfied either. Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius agree in seeing in Christianity only a contemptible superstition. It only interested them just so far as it was a cause of social disturbance. They only mention it to relate the measures directed against it, not to inquire into its origin, and still less to write the history of its real or supposed founder.

The importance that Christianity eventually reached leads many modern minds to commit a strange error in perspective. Because the birth of Christianity appears to them as the most pregant fact in the whole of first-century history, they find it difficult to understand that the ancients did not see things from the same point of view, and only paid any attention to Christianity at the happening of certain events which had no essential importance for its development.


There is no reason to suppose that there has ever existed in Rome any official document which refers to the condemnation of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.[1]

It is true that in two passages in his Apology, addressed (towards the middle of the second century) to Antoninus the Pious, to Marcus Aurelius, to Lucius Verus, to the Senate and all the Roman people, Justin Martyr invokes (to confirm the account he gives of the Passion and miracles of Jesus) the "Acts of Pontius Pilate" (I Ap., xxxv, 48).

Tertullian also in his Apologeticum, dating from 197, mentions a report that Pontius Pilate, already a Christian in his inner conscience ("jam pro sua conscientia christianus"), had sent to Tiberius.

Eusebius, who cites Chap. v of the Apologeticum, does not

[1] Concerning an examination of documents and archives which, according to S. Reinach, was made at Antioch in the time of Ignatius, see later (Chap. IV).


appear to know the document of which he speaks, whilst in another passage he refers to the "Acts of Pilate" as forged by the pagans as an arm against Christianity. There has existed a whole literature of "Acts of Pilate," which (particularly in the form it has assumed in the Gospel of Nicodemus) enjoyed great favour in the Middle Ages.[1] Critics are in agreement in considering this literature, in the form in which we know it, to be of a later age, and in any case not older than the fifth century, but it is not certain that its primitive element does not go farther back, since Epiphanius (fourth century) knew of the "Acta Pilati " (Haer., 50-1).

The narratives for which Justin and Tertullian invoke the authority of the "Acta Pilati," or of a report sent by the Procurator to the Emperor, rest on evangelical tradition, and merely accentuate its tendency to portray Pilate as well disposed towards Jesus and convinced of His innocence.[2] The documents designated by them would therefore be of Christian editing, but is it certain that they were acquainted with them or had done anything more than suppose their existence?

Justin would not have expressed himself other than he does if he had merely heard the "Acts of Pilate" spoken of or had presumed their existence.

Many writers have therefore considered that these "Acts" did not exist in his time,[3] and the fact that in another passage of the Apology (I, xxiv, p. 2) he quotes in the same way the census registers of Quirinius confirms this opinion. It has been objected that Justin cited the "Acts" not only to support his narration of the Passion, but also to support the account he gives of the miracles of Jesus. He must, therefore, it is thought, have known this document, or at any rate something about its contents.[4] But the first hypothesis is excluded by the somewhat vague way in which the "Acts" are cited; the second is not without

[1] Concerning this literature consult R. A. Lipsius (Die Pilatusakten), Harnack (Gesch. des altchristlichen Litt. bis Eusebius), Bardenhewer (Gesch. des Altkirchlichen Litt.), A. Stuelken (Pilatusakten) in Hennecke (Handbuch Neutestamentischen Apokryphen).

[2] Concerning this tendency see M. Goguel, Les Chrétiens et l'Empire Romain à l'Époque du N.T.; Juifs et Romains dans l'histoire de la Passion.

[3] This is the opinion of Lipsius, Harnack, Bardenhewer, and also of Mgr. Batiffol.

[4] Stuelken (Handbuch).


some difficulties. If such an important document had existed, how is it that Justin should only have known it by hearsay? It is doubtless by mere conjecture that he supposed the "Acta Pilati" must have narrated both the trial and the career of Jesus.

Certain authors, however, following H. von Schubert,[1] have thought that a trace of the primary elements of the "Acta Pilati" was to be found prior to Justin's period.

They rest their case upon the fact that the Gospel of Peter and Justin (I Apol., xxxv) state that, to mock Him, Jesus was made to seat Himself in a chair, and invited to act as a Judge.[2] Seeing that the hypothesis of a direct connection between the Gospel of Peter and Justin encounters certain difficulties, it has been supposed that both were dependent upon a common source. But even if this were so, there is nothing to prove that this source was anything other than a mere extra-canonical tradition.

As regards Tertullian, Harnack considers that he has simply made use of what he found in Justin, and that it is his work which suggested the composition of the letter from Pilate to the Emperor which is found in Chaps. xl-xlii of the Acts of Peter and Paul.[3] The last words of this letter reveal, indeed, its polemical character, and show that it must have been compiled to combat the pagan Acts spoken of by Eusebius.

Nevertheless, Justin and Tertullian do not invoke the testimony of Pilate in reference to the same facts, and the document is presented by Justin as the acts, and by Tertullian as a letter of Pilate to the Emperor. Tertullian, for his part, only makes one allusion, somewhat vague, to the document, and he does not know it at first-hand. At the most he has heard it spoken of, if he does not altogether guess at its existence.

As neither Origen nor Eusebius make any allusion to the "Acts of Pilate,"[4] it may be considered that the work did not exist in their time.

[1] H. von Schubert, Die Komposition des pseudopetrinischen Evangelien-fragments.

[2] There is no trace of any such episode in the canonical Gospels unless, perhaps, in John xix. 13, if there is given to the verb a transitive sense. But even thus the scene would have quite another character than in Justin and the Gospel of Peter.

[3] Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha (edition Lipsius and Bonnet, 1891).

[4] The silence of these two men is important owing to their vast erudition. That of Eusebius is particularly significant. There are at least three passages in his Ecclesiastical History where it was difficult to avoid mention of the "Acta Pilati"—had he known the work. These are: i, 9 (concernmg Pilate), ii, 2, (quoting Tertullian's Apology), ix. 5-7 (quoting the pagan "Acta Pilati").


What is the interpretation of this absence of testimony from Pilate concerning the punishment of Jesus?

For M. Salomon Reinach it is decisive:

"There was no official report, whilst there ought to have been one," he says. "The conclusion which is forced upon one is assuredly not favourable to the historicity of the Passion."[1]

So radical a conclusion appears to us unwarranted. From the fact that spurious "Acta Pilati " have been fabricated as well by Christians as by their opponents, it does not follow that an authentic work never existed. The conclusion is simply that these "Acts," if they existed, were not at the disposal of those whose interest it was to consult them. We know that the archives of the emperors were not accessible to the Senate. Tacitus himself, notwithstanding his relations with Nerva and Trajan, seems to have been unable to obtain access to them.[2] Still less reason existed to permit access to them by private persons, and Christian apologists could make no examination of them. If their opponents had been more favoured and authorized to make researches which remained fruitless, they would have made a point about it in their polemic. Because an official document has not been produced, no one is authorized to conclude that it could not have existed. But, even if it were proved that no report was made by Pilate to Tiberius, what would be the significance of this fact? Justin, who had presumed the existence of a report, says M. Salomon Reinach, was in a better position than we are to estimate the obligations of a Procurator. But the death of Jesus was in his eyes an event of such capital importance that it was difficult for him to see that for Pilate it may only have been an incident without importance. Besides, Justin is influenced by the tendency to make of Pilate a witness favourable to Jesus and opposed to the Jews. Everything that we know concerning Pilate shows him to us as a cruel and unscrupulous man, for whom the lives of those under his jurisdiction had but little importance; he had no hesitation in sending to

[1] S. Reinach, A propos de la curiosité de Tibère.

[2] Ph. Fabia, Les sources de Tacite, p. 324.


execution whomsoever resisted him or became a pretext for agitation. Jesus was certainly not the sole victim of his procedure of summary justice. To condemn to death was for him merely an act of administrative routine. Is it to be supposed that in each particular case he considered it necessary to send a report to the Emperor, and in so doing furnish arms to his enemies by allowing them to accuse him of cruelty and injustice? No more than the almost complete silence of Josephus, or the rarity and paucity of the details furnished by the Latin historians, does the absence of any report from Pilate to the Emperor constitute an objection against the historical character of Jesus.

Go to the Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History by Maurice Goguel table of contents.