Corroboration from Non-Christian Sources – Objections and Answers

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And what about Justus of Tiberias?

Justus was a Jewish historian of the first century. His name doesn’t appear in the list of possible sources because there are no surviving copies of his work. However, Photius, a 9th century Patriarch of Constantinople, tells us that he made no mention of Jesus. This statement is often distorted by citing only half a sentence and claiming it was an expression of ‘surprise’ on the part of Photius: but, as the full text shows, it is nothing of the sort.

“I have read the chronology of Justus of Tiberias, whose title is this, [The Chronology of] the Kings of Judah which succeeded one another. This [Justus] came out of the city of Tiberias in Galilee. He begins his history from Moses, and ends it not till the death of Agrippa, the seventh [ruler] of the family of Herod, and the last king of the Jews; who took the government under Claudius, had it augmented under Nero, and still more augmented by Vespasian. He died in the third year of Trajan, where also his history ends. He is very concise in his language, and slightly passes over those affairs that were most necessary to be insisted on; and being under the Jewish prejudices, as indeed he was himself also a Jew by birth, he makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ, or what things happened to him, or of the wonderful works that he did. He was the son of a certain Jew, whose name was Pistus. He was a man, as he is described by Josephus, of a most profligate character; a slave both to money and to pleasures. In public affairs he was opposite to Josephus; and it is related, that he laid many plots against him; but that Josephus, though he had his enemy frequently under his power, did only reproach him in words, and so let him go without further punishment. He says also, that the history which this man wrote is, for the main, fabulous, and chiefly as to those parts where he describes the Roman war with the Jews, and the taking of Jerusalem.” (Bibliothec, Code 33)

Three points should be particularly noted:

  1. All this really tells us is that a 9th-century copy of Justus’ work contained no reference to Jesus. Given that anti-Christian sentiments are known to have been excised from other Jewish sources, we cannot be sure that Justus’ work had not suffered the same treatment.
  2. Some ill-informed critics confuse Photius with a fifth-century bishop of Tyre, and claim the Christians destroyed Justus’ work after the conversion of Constantine. Clearly, this is not the case, as Justus’ work is still available as late as the 9th century. More probably, there were just not enough copies made to withstand the ravages of time.
  3. Photius has the integrity to record the fact that he found no reference to Jesus. Are we then to dismiss his other comments regarding the objectivity of Justus’ work, particularly as they are supported by Josephus himself, in the Appendix to his 2nd Edition of the Antiquities?

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As a result, we are forced to rely on secular sources of a slightly later date. How Convenient!

Far from it! Censorship has always been one of the greatest barriers to truth, and silence is often seen as one of the most effective ways of suppressing views with which one disagrees. Sadly, however, it has to be admitted that later Christians were also culpable in this matter. It is known that many early references to Jesus in Jewish writings were hostile to the point of being openly abusive: and as Christianity gained the upper hand in the Empire, many of these were deliberately suppressed. To them, the issue was not historical (at that time no-one doubted the historicity of Jesus); it was seen as a simple matter of preventing blasphemy. Nowadays, we wish they had been less successful!

It was the systematic destruction of non-Christian literature by Christians that took us into the Dark Ages.

In fact, although there was some destruction of pagan literature under certain Christian emperors, these actions were directed mainly at specific heathen practices or Christian heresies and do not appear to have had any great efffect on the availability of classical literature. Also, it was significantly less systematic than the destruction of Christian literature by non-Christian emperors. In general, classical writings were highly valued and their preservation was in large part due to the collections maintained in a variety of Christian institutions. In the West, the loss of texts was primarily the result of the political and social turmoil that accompanied the break-up of the Roman Empire. In the Orthodox Christian East, they were always freely available, both under the Byzantines and subsequently under Moslem rule; and it was from there that the documents that fuelled the Renaissance chiefly came.

The worst single example was the burning of the great library of Alexandria.

This is another common piece of misinformation. The Library of Alexandria was already in decline in 48 BC when it suffered its first major fire during Julius Caesar’s invasion of the city. Most historians believe that the majority of its documents perished at this time. Some of those that survived were taken to libraries in Rome during the first century AD. The main Museum and library was totally destroyed, along with much of the city, by the Emperor Aurelianin in 273 AD. Further damage was later inflicted on the city by Diocletian. All of this predates the rise of Christianity to power under Constantine.

A small daughter library, known as the ‘Serapeum’, may have survived until or even beyond 391 AD, when the pagan temple in which it was housed was destroyed by Patriarch Theophilis on the orders of the Emperor Theodosius; but this is conjectural, as there is no explicit mention of the library’s fate.

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He also calls Christianity a deadly superstition, and says Christians were guilty of abominable crimes!

That was the generally-accepted perception of Christianity in Roman society; and at that time, only a brave man would contradict it openly. Nero’s savage persecution in 64 AD, was followed by that of Domitian in 96 AD, and even when not facing out and out persecution, Christians continued to be regarded with disfavour for their refusal to worship Caesar or the gods of Rome.

This comment is, of course intended to plant a seed of doubt that maybe Christianity evolved into its present form from more questionable beginnings. That, if anything, the reverse was the case may be seen from the Letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, dated c. 96AD:

“… we have been slow in turning our attention to … that disgraceful and unholy division, which is so alien to the spirit of the elect of God, and yet has been kindled by a few headstrong and reckless persons to such a pitch of folly, that it has caused very evil things to be spoken of your name, once so widely honoured and so rightly beloved of all men. … For who ever sojourned among you and did not prove the virtuousness and firmness of your faith or marvelled not at the sobriety and respectfulness of your Christian piety? or did not tell of your noble disposition of hospitality? … All that you did was without partiality as to persons; … you submitted yourselves to your rulers … Upon the young men you enjoined sober and seemly thoughts; the women you enjoined to fulfill all their duties with a blameless and seemly and pure conscience, rendering to their own husbands the love that was due to them …”

However, we are not wholly reliant on Christian evidence to confirm that Christians were not the villains this propaganda made them out to be. Both the writings of Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata (which we will reviewing later in this section) confirm the upright moral character of the early Christians. Their only real errors, from a Roman standpoint, were their so-called ‘superstitions’ of believing in the resurrection of the dead and the Divinity of Christ, and their ‘atheistic’ denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of Caesar.

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But the Imperial archives would never call Jesus, ‘Christ’, and Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator.

Surprisingly, some scholars cite this as if it were serious evidence of Christian interpolation. But no-one is suggesting the imperial archives did call him Christ; and Tacitus could hardly explain the derivation of ‘Christians’ without using the name, could he?

As far as the term ‘procurator’ is concerned, although it generally referred to the financial officer of a province, it was also used to describe the governor of a third class Roman province, such as Judaea. Josephus, for example, habitually uses the term in this manner. (The passage on ‘James the Just’ begins, “And now Caesar, upon hearing of the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator.”) However, none of the New Testament writers use this term, preferring to describe him as ‘governor’; so, if anything, this argues against it being a Christian interpolation.

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All Tacitus’ books dealing with the period after the siege have mysteriously disappeared. Why? Sulpicius Severus, in the 5th century, says the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple to prevent it being an inspiration to Jews and Christians. How did he know? Were they destroyed to suppress the knowledge that Christians were associated with the Jews and fought beside them in the Jewish War?

Very fanciful! Since the book of Acts tells us that, before the destruction of the temple, there was a strong Jewish Christian presence in Jerusalem, that their worship was temple-oriented, and that a fair measure of mutual tolerance had developed under the influence of James the Just, what was there to suppress? Christians may have sided with the Jews in the early days of the revolt. However, when the Roman forces advanced on Jerusalem the Christians, mindful of Jesus’ prophecies, abandoned the city. The Jews viewed them as traitors for this, and Jesus became a hated name. Thus, if there had been any mention of Jewish-Christian collaboration by Tacitus, it would have to have been before the siege, not after it.

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The … Testimonium Flavianum … appears in all extant versions of Josephus …

Oh no it doesn’t! It’s a Russian forgery!

This is a very common piece of misinformation. The so-called Russian or Slavonic Josephus passage is something quite different. It is a lengthy interpolation found in a few Russian and Rumanian versions of ‘The Jewish War’ – not the ‘Antiquities’ (in all known copies of which the Testimonium Flavianum may be found). It echoes the text of the Testimonium (one possible cause of confusion between the two) but with quite a few additions of plainly Christian flavour. A few scholars have suggested it may have been based on an older source: but there is little evidence to support this; and the prevailing view is that it was added in about the 10th or 11th century.

The Testimonium Flavianum itself is known to have existed in its present-day form since the 4th century AD, when it was quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. There is only one known variant. A 10th century Arabic history of the world, “Kitab al-‘Unwan”, written by Agapius, the Christian Melkite bishop of Hierapolis, in Asia Minor, attributes to Josephus the following rendering:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

This version is much less obviously Christian. Some scholars suggest it may even reflect Josephus’ original wording: but others consider the suggestion ‘he was perhaps the Messiah’ indicate it has also been edited. However, as nothing else is known about the version of Josephus from which Agapius drew this quote, scholarly discretion dictates that we should focus our analysis on the standard text, whose pedigree can be traced 6 centuries earlier.

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Cunning, wasn’t he?

Cunning? And yet naive enough to include such blatantly obvious Christian insertions as, ‘if indeed one ought to call him a man’, ‘He was the Christ’ and, ‘he appeared to them on the third day, having life again, as the prophets of God had foretold’? To make this seem even slightly plausible you have to hypothesise at least two interpolators – the first being incredibly devious and clever, and going to a great deal of trouble merely to record for posterity that Jesus was the leader of a Messianic sect, killed on Roman orders, who was barely worth a mention. (Read on in the main article to see what the Testimonium looks like without the obvious interpolations). Not really very clever at all, when you think about it!

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Josephus’ original reference was probably much less complimentary!

Maybe so: but there is no evidence of tampering in the passage on James, and the context of the comment doesn’t really offer much scope for the inclusion of derogatory remarks about Jesus, as it would detract from the main narrative. If he had said something like, ‘the so-called Christ’, or ‘who called himself Christ’, when was it changed, and by whom? As previously noted, it was known in times before Christians had control over the content of Jewish and Roman sources. Also, and as we can see from the Testimonium, if the interpolators of Eusebius’ time had taken it upon themselves to amend the passage, it is unlikely that they would have been content to leave it as a mere, ‘who was called Christ’. It is far more plausible to conclude that the Testimonium itself was the less complimentary reference.

The testimonium could have been much less complimentary than your edited version suggests!

Yes, that’s possible. We know from the New Testament that some Jews said very uncomplimentary things about Jesus.

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If the historicity of Jesus had been an issue, why is it that none of these early Christian citations use Josephus for this purpose?

So you say!

OK, let’s look at this in detail. Origen mentions Josephus’ reference to James three times:

“And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.” (Commentary on Matthew 10.17)

“Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless – being, although against his will, not far from the truth – that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ, – the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure.” (Contra Celsum 1.47)

“But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but in reality, as the truth makes clear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” (Contra Celsum 2.13)

As you can see, the first citation is purely a commentary on the high regard in which James was held by the Jews. The other two occur in the context of a discussion on the reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem (which Josephus had apparently, in a reference now lost, ascribed to Divine judgement for the wrong done against James). In both these cases, Origen’s main point is that, if this was a judgement for the death of James, how much more it was really a judgement for the death of Christ. Not once does Origen use Josephus as evidence for Jesus’ historicity; his concern is with what people think of Jesus: not whether or not they believe He existed.

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So if the passage did exist, why doesn’t Origen mention it?

He does, by admitting that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as Christ. But, as it appears that the original passage contained nothing of any use to him, and its tone was generally dismissive (and therefore offensive, from a Christian standpoint), what reason would he have had to quote it? Its only value is as an external confirmation of the basic historicity of Jesus’ life: and in his day that was simply not an issue, as discussed previously (scroll up to review this).

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The fact is, early Jewish records portrayed Jesus as an illegitimate child, an insurrectionist and a sorceror!

Since the gospels tell us that Jesus’ opponents levelled such charges against him, we would have more cause to doubt the historical record if such references had not existed. We know that they did, although most have been lost. However, the bulk of them arose after the schism between Judaism and Christianity, following the destruction of the Temple. By this time historical objectivity had fallen prey to partisan sentiment.

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Precisely! Early Christianity was just a collection of superstitious tales! Not the systematic faith that the church later evolved.

‘Fraid not. It is now generally acknowledged that the bulk of the New Testament was written by 70 AD, including the letters of Paul, so the essential theology of the Christian faith was already clearly defined within the lifetimes of the living witnesses. References to Christianity as ‘superstition’ by secular writers has to be seen in the light of their own belief systems. To the Romans, Christians were ‘atheists’, because they rejected the generally-held view that Caesar was a god, and ‘superstitious’ because they believed in resurrection from the dead.

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Origen claimed that Jesus took the name from his grandfather, Joseph’s father, who was said to have been called Panther.

Except there’s no proof of such a practice – and even then it would have had to be his maternal grandfather.

The practice is documented in the Babylonian Talmud: Yebamoth 62b. You may be thinking that they would have assumed illegitimacy and therefore used the genetic line through Mary, or recalling the later practice of tracing all Jewish descent through the female line. But the custom at that time was to follow the male lineage.

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But why did the rumours specifically say the father was a Roman legionnaire?

Have you never heard the stories about girls and soldiers?

I have indeed and it sounds to be a much more likely possibility if you do not buy virgin birth!

No doubt. And the folk at Nazareth probably didn’t buy the idea of the virgin birth.

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