Historical Jesus research focuses on what we can know about Jesus with reasonable certainty and apart from faith. Stated another way, if one does not assume that the New Testament deserves a privileged position as God’s Word and approaches it historically as one would approach other ancient literature, such as Plutarch’s Lives and Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, a collection of those elements of the life of Jesus that can be established with reasonable certainty using the historian’s tools would form what scholars call the “historical Jesus.”
When conducting this type of research, scholars first determine which sources they will be using. Almost all of them, including rather skeptical scholars, acknowledge that the best sources we have for Jesus are to be found in the New Testament. But non-scholars who are unfamiliar with historical approaches often find themselves drawn toward non-biblical sources. Of course, non-biblical Christian literature is literature that did not make it into our New Testaments. Most of the time, the literature was excluded because, it was not written by an apostle or one who had worked closely with an apostle. However, some of this literature can prove valuable in a study of Jesus. For example, Clement of Rome probably knew the apostle Peter while Polycarp probably knew the apostle John. A letter from each of them has survived. Clement of Rome wrote a letter between AD 68-70 or AD 95-97, which is known as 1 Clement, and Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians was written sometime between AD 100-138. It was reported that Papias had known the apostle John and had written a five-volume work titled Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord. Unfortunately, only a very small portion of that work survives, and only in the writings of a few who occasionally quoted from it. Those portions appear in a collection known today as the Fragments of Papias. Some will give no regard to literature written by these authors either, since they were Christians and, therefore, biased. However, scholars do not go this far, since they recognize that Jewish historians writing on the holocaust and black historians writing on slavery in the United States may produce the most accurate accounts on those subjects, precisely because of the biases that drive them.
That leaves us with literature written by non-Christians near the time of Jesus and that mention him. Although not found in abundance, the few sources that have survived provide us with a surprising amount of information about Jesus. In what follows, we will take a very brief look at a few of those non-Christian sources that clearly mention Jesus and that have a good chance of being reliable sources. There are a few other non-Christian sources that could be considered. It is possible that Suetonius mentions Jesus in his Life of Claudius. However, it is not clear and, if he did, the very little he reports is chronologically impossible. Celsus mentions Jesus. However, his information is derived almost entirely from the canonical Gospels. Finally, there are numerous occasions in the rabbinic literature where Jesus may be in mind. But they are not clear and the authors of the rabbinic literature are not known to be careful to report events with accuracy. Since space limitations require brevity, interested readers will find a more in-depth analysis in chapter three of my book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).
Flavius Josephus was born around AD 37 to a popular Jewish priest in Jerusalem named Matthias. This places Josephus chronologically and geographically in a position where he could have heard about Jesus from the early Christians. Josephus appears to have been serious about his Jewish faith, becoming a Jewish priest and a Pharisee. Since his father was a priest, the Christian gospel would likely have been a topic discussed at some point around his family dinner table. Josephus fought against the Romans and was defeated. However, due to a bizarre turn of events, he later became a court historian for the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Josephus mentions Jesus on two occasions. There is much dispute by scholars over the first occurrence, since it appears that a Christian doctored the text sometime between the second and fourth centuries. However, the second mention possesses no such traits and is regarded by the large majority of scholars as being authentic in its present form. We will first look at the second reference, which has been slightly paraphrased and abridged.
From this text, we learn from Josephus that there was a man in the first century named Jesus who was called the Christ (the Greek word for Messiah) and who had a brother named James who was executed with some others by the Jewish leadership when Albinus became the Roman governor of Judea, which was in AD 62. It is also noteworthy that they were charged with transgressing the law. This likely refers to transgressing the Jewish Law, since this is something the Christians were accused of doing (Acts 6:13; 18:12-13; 21:28; 23:27-29; 25:7-8). Indeed, the earliest Christians disputed over the extent to which Christians were bound to the Jewish Law (Acts 15:5; 21:20-24; Gal. 2:11-21).
The other occasion where Josephus mentions Jesus is in Antiquities 18:63, commonly referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum. There are three general positions on this passage held by scholars: (1) the entire text is authentic, (2) the entire text is a Christian interpolation, (3) Josephus mentions Jesus in this text but it was subsequently doctored by a Christian interpolator. The first two positions have few adherents whereas the third enjoys a substantial majority. Here is the text as it appears in most manuscripts:
In the early third century, Origen of Alexandria claimed that Josephus was not a Christian (Commentary on Matthew2.10.17; Contra Celsum 1.47). If correct, it would be odd that a non-Christian Jew would say some of the things reported in this passage, such as “if indeed one should call him a man,” “He was the Messiah,” and “For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.” So, scholars tend to excise what appears to be Christian additions and reconstruct a text that reads much like the following by John Meier:
Most Josephus specialists hold to a text of Josephus that reads very close to Meier’s reconstruction. Louis Feldman, perhaps today’s leading authority on Josephus and who is not a Christian, agrees with Meier’s reconstruction. Meier’s modified text does not include Jesus’ resurrection. There are reasons, however, to prefer a modified text that is less trimmed than Meier’s and that reads something similar to the following :
This less trimmed version may be more plausible than Meier’s, since it is more closely represented in all of the extant manuscripts while allowing Josephus to write in a manner that is neutral toward Jesus and his followers. Moreover, it provides an insight concerning why the “tribe” of Christians had not died out: They were convinced that their spiritual leader had risen from the dead. A number of scholars such as Paul Maier, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, Robert Van Voorst, and N. T. Wright are quite open to Josephus’ mentioning of Jesus’ resurrection, even regarding that rendering as equally plausible to Meier’s reconstruction without it.
We do not know from where Josephus received his information. However, he seems to have been in the right places at the right times and, given his father’s position as priest as well as his own, he had a network of good contacts from which he could receive reliable news. He may also have heard one or more of the apostles firsthand as they preached in Jerusalem. After all, the Christian Church had its headquarters in Jerusalem at that time (Gal. 1:17-19; 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-2). Moreover, until the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Jewish Christians continued to meet in the synagogues and go to the temple. In addition, if Luke is correct, many of the priests and some of the Pharisees were embracing the Christian message (Acts 6:7; 15:5). Remembering that Josephus himself and his father were priests, there is a good chance they may have known some of those priests who had embraced Christianity. They would certainly have heard of the Christian teachings from many of their colleagues who were criticizing the movement. In short, Josephus had a keen interest in spiritual matters, had close connections to Jewish priests and Pharisees, grew up and spent a lot of time in Jerusalem precisely during the period when the Church was growing and a number of Jews had embraced the Christian message. So, we have very good reasons to think that Josephus had heard the apostolic proclamation of Jesus and His resurrection.
In summary, by far, the majority of scholars grant that Josephus mentions Jesus in the Testimonium. He probably mentioned Jesus as a Jewish itinerate preacher who had performed deeds that astonished crowds, that he had both Jewish and Gentile followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate at the instigation of the Jewish leadership, and that those who had followed him continued to do so even after his death. It is also possible that Josephus mentioned that Jesus’ disciples reported he had risen from the dead. Appearing a little later in the same work, Josephus mentions that Jesus had a brother whose name was James.
Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56-120) served as proconsul of Asia from AD 112-13 and is regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. The Annals, Tacitus’ last work, was written c.
AD 116/117 and contains a single mention of Jesus. Writing of the burning of Rome in AD 64 and that a rumor had spread that Nero was responsible for the fire, Tacitus reports the following, which I have paraphrased and abbreviated:
Although the authenticity of this text is occasionally questioned, the vast majority of scholars grant it in its entirety. It is difficult to know what sources Tacitus used. He may have received his information from imperial records and/or perhaps from his friend Pliny the Younger who had run-ins with Christians just a few years earlier. We can only speculate. Tacitus was not sympathetic toward Christianity, referring to it as a “deadly superstition” and an “evil.” If anything, he was biased in the opposite direction. Tacitus informs us that the Christians derived their name from Christ who had been executed by Pontius Pilate while Tiberius was emperor. He then tells us that, with its leader now dead, the Christian movement was momentarily placed in check before it began spreading once again throughout Judea where it had started and even in Rome.
Tacitus’ account is entirely compatible with what we read in the Gospels and Acts. Jesus began His ministry in Judea. When He was crucified, His disciples went into hiding. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to them over a period of 40 days and instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to be given them, after which they were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:4-8). We then read further in Acts that they began preaching the gospel boldly in Jerusalem and throughout the world after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 50 days after Passover (at which time Jesus had been arrested). And Paul’s letter to the church in Rome in the early 60s (and known by us as Romans) informs us that the gospel had been received by enough people there in order to form a congregation of believers. Elsewhere he tells us the gospel had been embraced by even some in Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22)!
Mara was a Syrian Stoic who wrote to his son from a Roman prison. Although the letter cannot be dated with any certainty, numerous scholars date it to within a few years of AD 73. It mentions Jesus only briefly: “Or what benefit did the Jews reap from killing their wise king, since their kingdom was taken away from them from that time on?” Little is known of Mara and one can only speculate pertaining to whether he had been a witness to Jesus’ execution or received his information from another source and, if so, who that may have been. But Mara is a non-Christian who mentioned that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death and lost their kingdom shortly thereafter. Mara must have been referring to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70.
Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 115—200) mentions Jesus twice in The Death of Perigrinus, written c. AD 165. He calls Jesus a sophist or wise man (Perigrinus 13). This may be a sarcastic play on the word sophia (wisdom) and could be referring to one who teaches for money or a cheat. He also reports that Jesus had been crucified in Palestine (Perigrinus 11, 13). As with all of the other ancient writers who mention Jesus, we do not know from where or whom Lucian received this information. But we can say that Lucian informs us that Jesus was known by some outside the Christian Church as a teacher who had been crucified in Palestine.
We have briefly surveyed a few non-Christian sources that mention Jesus within just over a century of his life: Josephus, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, and Lucian. From these we learn that just after the time of Jesus there was a general understanding about him held by a number of non-Christian elites: Jesus was a Jewish itinerate teacher who had performed deeds that astonished crowds, that he had both Jewish and Gentile followers, that he was crucified in Palestine at the instigation of the Jewish leadership, by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate while Tiberius was emperor. It is also possible that Josephus reported that Jesus’ disciples claimed he had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. The Christian movement was suppressed momentarily after Jesus’ death but began to grow once again when His followers began preaching Jesus’ message in Judea then to other parts of the world, even in Rome. Jesus had a brother named James who was executed by the high priest approximately three decades after Jesus’ death on the charge of being a breaker of the Jewish Law. Some linked the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as God’s punishment of the Jews for killing Jesus.
This brief outline of the life of Jesus is entirely consistent with what is reported in the New Testament literature. And it is even more impressive when we observe that it is derived solely from intellectual elites who wrote within 35-135 years of Jesus and who were unsympathetic toward Jesus and His followers, even expressing hostile sentiments in some cases.