Josephus’ First Reference to Jesus

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My previous post referenced the fact that Josephus wrote about Christ. The last post cited his second reference and indicated that I posted the first one previously. I looked and realized that I posted t in my “Defending the Resurrection Part 4” post. So, here is the quote:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and 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. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”

This quote has been questioned for authenticity. It is worth motif that there are no manuscripts of Josephus that omit this quote totally. There are variations, but it does appear in very existing copy. In addition, a recent discovery of Josephus’ work in Arabic is thought to be a very well preserved document textually. This is believed to be proof of Josephus’ reference in some form.

Defending the Resurrection: Part 4 External Evidence

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The previous installment of this series dealt with the various eyewitnesses to the resurrection. All of the eyewitness accounts of the event are contained in the Bible. This has been a point of contention between believers and skeptics, because it is often claimed that the all of the supporting evidence is contained in the Bible. The lack of outside confirming sources is considered by some to be a weakness to the historicity of the scriptures. The outside evidence that supports the resurrection narrative will be the focus of this post.

For starters, the argument that the lack of extra-Biblical eyewitnesses weakens the case for the resurrection is a bit of a non-starter. To understand why, it is important to know that the various accounts were not written as components of a larger collection. In fact, the authors had no idea that the books would eventually be assembled into the Bible. The original texts were written as letters and testimonies meant to transmit instructions or to attest to the life of Christ. The effort of assembling a collection didn’t begin until around 140 AD, but more on that in a later post. The exact collection of books was finally settled on in 367 AD. During the course of 200ish years, the assemblers of the Bible sought out and verified the texts that eventually became the Bible. All of the verifiable documents were included in the Bible. All of the texts that could not be verified did not make the final cut. This includes texts written by individuals who clearly did not know Christ or see his resurrection and books that were clearly pseudoepigraphical (written under a fake name claiming to be someone important like Paul, Peter, Judas, etc.). Otherwise, all of the accounts of Christ were included in the Bible itself. Most of the skeptics who encountered Jesus after the resurrection would likely have become his followers, as is the case for James, Jude and Paul. Believers who wrote books that attested to Jesus as having been risen would ultimately have had their books added to the canon. There is a natural lack of books that confirm Christ’s resurrection through eyewitness in the secular realm because the skeptics who saw Jesus alive ceased to be skeptics. One need only reflect on the words of Thomas that he needed to ‘put his finger in the holes in Christ’s hands before he would believe’ to find a mirror of the skeptics demand for still more proof.

However, that does not mean that there is no external evidence to be found or that there is no other evidence related to the documents themselves that can be considered. We will begin by looking at the external sources that offer information related to the resurrection.

Josephus: The most popular extra-Biblical source that relates to Christ is Jewish Antiquities by Josephus. Josephus was a Pharisee/priest turned traitor to the Jewish people, who aided the Romans in their (re)conquering of Israel around 70 AD. His book is a history of the Jews, and it mentions both Jesus and John the Baptist. Most scholars generally accept the Jesus quote as authentic or partially authentic as all available manuscripts feature at least some variation of this passage. The John quote is almost universally accepted as genuine. Here are the two passages in question:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and 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. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”

The reason these are important is that they are sources from outside the Bible that support the existence of two major figures from the Biblical texts. Josephus also supports several basic facts of the resurrection story: (1) the crucifixion and death under Pilate and (2) the continued devotion of his followers. If Christ were a fictional person, it is unlikely that external sources would support his existence, much less confirm the crucifixion narrative. This support is very important when defending the resurrection as historical because it trumps claims that there was no Jesus or that the crucifixion did happen.

Talmud: The next source worth considering is the Talmud. The Talmud is the Jewish collection of teaching and commentary on the Old Testament scriptures. They are notoriously difficult to interpret properly and are so expansive that it is difficult to deal with them as a layperson. The issue with dealing with the Talmud is that it is a trickier source for supporting claims about Christ. There is much debate and disagreement regarding whether or not Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud as we posses it today. This debate includes suggestions that Christians are grasping at straws in trying to find Jesus in the texts, accusations of editing the Talmud to remove Christ, difficulties related to interpreting texts, etc. That having been said, there are scholars who believe that Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud and that the texts support his existence and some of the details of his life, including the crucifixion. Of particular note is the work of Peter Schafer, Professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton. His book, Jesus in the Talmud, addresses the matter of editing in the Ancient texts. He argues that references to Jesus were edited out entirely and references to Christ completely expunged. It is important to note that the Jewish people were quite hostile to Christians during the era of the early church, as illustrated by the addition of prayers hostile to Christians in synagogue services during the second century. Christianity was a rival religion to the Jewish faith, which makes expunging of records a reasonable possibility. Please note that the expunged texts are fairly graphic and not for polite conversation. Nonetheless, the existence of these texts lends support for the existence of Christ from an early source.

Various Roman Historians: Tacitus, a roman historian, mentions Christ by the name “Christus” and describes his arrest and crucifixion for advancing a dangerous superstition. The reference is associated with Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in the mid to late 60’s. Julius Africanus, yet another historian, references the darkness that fell over all of the empire during the crucifixion, which is referenced in the Biblical account. Suetonius, another historian, references Christians in relation to a banishing from Rome that took place under Emperor Claudius. This particular reference is important because it confirms the reference in the Bible to the same event. Ultimately, this is important because it supports the scriptures, not so much because it recounts the resurrection. There are other references to Christians, but these do not really help as evidence because they only refer to Christians and we know that Christians existed. The issue we are addressing is the resurrection.

Textual Issues that Argue for Authenticity: The Biblical texts contain several oddities that argue against them being fraudulent. For example: according to the text, the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This may not seem like a big deal, but at the time women were not allowed to act as witnesses in court. This makes the opening testimony inadmissible to anyone who was from that day and age. Unless it was true, it would be as stupid opening argument. Another support from within the text is the surplus specifics featured in the story. This includes names of people who were present. If a writer were coming up with a lie they would be wise to avoid including names of people who can confirm or deny the story. Vagueness is the mark of a good lie. It is also important to note that the main characters, aside from Jesus, wind up looking pretty silly. If the texts were falsified, why make the authors look so bad? A final point of consideration is the unusual nature of the message. The scriptures offer a religious message that is quite unique to the era. The Jews found the incarnation and crucifixion totally offensive. The Greeks found resurrection to be ridiculous. The proponents of the mystery religions tried to alter Christianity to make it conform to their ideas of what ought to be true of a religion (see the gnostic gospels). There is no other faith in the ancient era like Christianity. If it were a lie, why generate the LEAST palatable story possible?

The Prophets: The final area of consideration regarding the crucifixion that argues for the truthfulness of the resurrection is the glut of prophetic writing pointing to its occurrence. These supports will not sway an ardently anti-supernatural skeptic, but are quite compelling to an open minded individual. One need only read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 to find the clear story of Christ’s death and resurrection. The trick is that Isaiah was written 700 years before Jesus was even born and Psalms even farther back. The Old Testament is rife with specific prophecies that are fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection. For a list of these prophesies type “Jesus crucifixion resurrection prophecies” into Google. Spend time reading them. Still more can be found by looking into his whole life. There are literally hundreds of them. Most folks, including a lot of Christians, don’t have any idea how specific the details are in the Old Testament. This, unfortunately does not gird the argument for the historic nature of the resurrection, however it does offer strength to the validity of the text itself.

The early church fathers: There is a collection of books consisting of roughly 50 volumes entitled “The Early Church Fathers.” These books contain the collected writings of the early scholars and leaders of the church. These texts include the work of Polykarp, who was a student of John, the disciple. Polykarp confirms the resurrection as well. Admittedly, this is hearsay, but it is a first hand source recounting what the disciple John taught regarding Christ. It is as close of a connection as we have to Socrates, the Greek philosopher. With Plato writing about Socrates and Aristotle writing as Plato’s student. We find the same with John as Jesus’ student and Polykarp as John’s student. Interestingly, almost no one questions Socrates as a historical figure, despite having fewer than half the number of eyewitnesses and almost no external witnesses. By the standards applied to every other historical figure, Christ undisputedly walked the earth, was crucified under Pilate and rose again. The only hindrance to the general acceptance of the claim is the supernatural elements of the story.

The next post will focus on the Bible texts themselves and how we can know if they are accurate to what was originally written.

Response to a comment on Part 3 of Defending the Faith Series


Yesterday, while I was at work Random Ntryrgg posted a comment on Part 3 of my Defending the Faith series. After checking out the post, I set out to write a response. However, the initial comment was vague and so a lot of material needed to be covered to respond properly. The longer it got, the more it became clear that I would need to post a blog covering the material. This is good though, because the point of the series is to help believers respond to skeptics. This is a sort of principles in action example. It was also fun to do. So, here is the original comment:

Random Ntrygg posted:

well, the reason that secular thinkers don’t accept the evidence, is because there isn’t anythe bible gospels were not written by the so called witnesses – they were written decades after and are not eye witness accounts.

none of the historians of the day wrote about Jesus – there aren’t Roman records either, which, there would be if he was such an important figure as claimed.

the only accounts of him are the bible texts, which cannot be deemed as their own evidence – they are not corroborated with any records and do not match the actual known historical events.

King Herod was dead before Jesus was born, Nazareth didn’t exist until the 3rd century and it was a Roman village – Jews were never slaves in Egypt – so the bible stories start to fall apart in several places very rapidly.
Egyptians left detailed records of their daily lives at many social levels – the pyramid builders were paid free men, not slaves.

My Response:
Well, I feel like a mosquito at a nudist camp! I don’t know where to start! I will address all of your statements in turn. Though, first I will make the point that you are making broad statements without reference to any sources that support your positions. Its easy to attack when you don’t have to cite sources, just make unfounded claims. Also, this will be kinda long, because I will try to be more specific. Generalities tend to hide a lack of real thought and information.First, scholars do use the bible as a source. Both historians and archeologists frequently use the Biblical accounts as a point of reference because they have proven to be amazingly accurate regarding the details of ancient history, geography and the details of ancient life. By “scholars”, I assume you mean skeptics.

Let’s start with the obvious ones: The pyramids aren’t mentioned in the scriptures at all, much less in connection with the Jews as slaves in Egypt. Further, it has very little to do with the story of Christ. But, for arguments sake let’  s look at the claim. The pyramids were built in the 1600s BC, whereas the timeline for the scriptural account has the Exodus taking place in the 1440s (depending on whether or not you go with the Old theory or New Theory on the Exodus) either way… the whole pyramids thing is a straw man attack. That’s without discussing the Hebrew slave settlements that archeologists have recently uncovered in Egypt dating back to the time of the Exodus. Whoever sold you this bill of goods was pretty ignorant of the texts he was attacking.

I don’t know if you did this on purpose or not, but the Gospel texts do reference Nazareth. They do so before 70 AD (we have texts that reference it from pretty early on). You accuse the writers of the Gospels as having written the texts “decades” after the events. Then you indicate that Nazareth was a Roman town founded in the 300s. Christianity was illegal in the 300s. So, how did the writers come up with a town before it came about? You even acknowledge that it was referenced in text before the town was founded. Then, why did the Romans accommodate the Bible text by forming a town that fixed the backstory of the texts BEFORE Christianity was legal? These guys were still feeding Christians to lions at the time. Your argument falls apart upon further investigation. Let’s look deeper at the claim. This would mean that the authors came up with a town, wrote about it in their texts, and distributed their writings  IN Israel before the town existed. These guys would need to be idiots of the highest order. It’d be like me saying: Hey guys, we are going to Crazy Town! It’s a little town south of Chicago! Let’s go. To which everyone responds: “Where? You made that up!” You can’t lie to people who live directly in a community about the place they live. In addition, why would the Romans name a town with such a clearly Jewish name? They had long since exported the Jews and made the religion illegal in Palestine. Why gave it a Jewish flavored name? Further, can you site a source for this claim? I research a bit when I read your response, but it’s not a common point of knowledge. I’d love to read about it.

The lack of historians mentioning Jesus is a non-starter as well. The next post I will be putting up deals with this matter more directly, but for the sake of conversation let’ s look at the issue here briefly. Josephus is the obvious first guy to mention. Josephus is a historian who is well known, read and quoted. He references Jesus, John the Baptist and James, the author of the book of James. His mention of Jesus includes reference to the arrest and crucifixion. Even if you buy into the dubious claims regarding the texts of Josephus having been edited, very few historians believe that it was entirely added and no manuscripts exist that are completely missing the lines about Jesus. After Josephus, there is Cornelius Tacitus, who mentions Jesus by name and includes details of his execution by Pilate, who he refers to in a familiar manner. Tacitus was not a Christian, mind you, so he had no reason to generate a false report. Seutonius mentions Christ, though his name is Latinized in the text. He specifically references Christ in relation to followers who were banished from Rome during the reign of Claudius. This particular account confirms mention to the same event in the scriptures. Pliney the Younger references Christ in a letter to Emperor Trajan. Not the smallest mention is the Talmud. Now, an ounce of search engine work will produce arguments against the Talmud’s mentions of Jesus. However, I’d suggest you check out Peter Schafer’s book: “Jesus and the Talmud.” Schafer is a professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton and is an expert in Jewish mysticism, ancient Jewish history and Rabbinic Judaism. His book brings forward portions of the Talmud, which had been edited to remove references to Christ. He demonstrates that Jesus was extensively written about in the Talmud and that he was the topic of much discussion amongst the rabbis. Here again we see an external source referencing Jesus and claims regarding his life. The suggestion that there is no external historical reference to Christ is simply not true. This may seem like a lean collection of references, but Israel was a backwater nowhere country. The fact that anyone from the country is mentioned at all is amazing. The fact that Jesus is mentioned several times is fairly impressive considering the fact that he was a peasant whose public life lasted a scant 3-years and that he never left his backwater country to travel to anywhere important.

The suggestion that Herod was dead before Christ was born is based on incorrect assumptions regarding the date of Herod’s death. If we go by Josephus’ reference to an eclipse that took place before the death of Herod and that Passover followed shortly thereafter, we can pin the date of his death to between March 12th and April 11th 4 BC. This date is well within the potential dates for the birth of Christ, particularly based on the census that is referenced in the Gospels. There is record of a census in 6 BC that was organized by Quirinius. If Christ was born during the census, as the texts claim, it was YEARS before the death of Herod. Now, I assume you didn’t come up with this theory based on the idea that the birth of Jesus happened in 0 AD, as this was a date approximated by monks centuries later.

Now for the bigger topic. The texts as eyewitness accounts. I am guessing you didn’t bother to read my post thoroughly, because you really didn’t look at any of the arguments, but let’s start with the obvious stuff. The Bible is a single unit now, but was not assembled in that way until much later. For the purpose of testimony, the New Testament represents 7 separate accounts of varying specificity and strength. It may not be able to self verify, but we can compare the 7 accounts and determine their truthfulness based on consistency in the accounts given. Further, if folks watched Jesus being murdered then saw Him alive again, then their account would specifically mention that they saw him alive. This makes them religious documents by your standard, and therefore, unacceptable sources. So, regardless of whether or not Paul confirms Matthew, they are both religious documents, and therefore, not acceptable. All of the 7 available witness are collected into the New Testament and were collected as such by design because part of the intent of the Bible was to present the best possible case for the life and resurrection of Jesus. However, your standard eliminates the presented evidence because it has been assembled by ancient scholars in an effort to present the best possible case.

Now, you reference the Gospels as unreliable, but the Gospels aren’t the only accounts of the resurrection in the texts. Paul clearly indicates that he saw the risen Christ. All of his books are letters. It’s one thing to manufacture a biographical account, but Paul was generating correspondence to churches he had already planted. Thus, the dating is not particularly important because regardless of 1 year or 10 years worth of time passing between writing and occurrence, he was writing a piece of material that represented a particular interest at the moment. So, Paul is a fairly strong witness. He confirms Luke as his companion, thus offering support for Luke’s work. Luke was not an eyewitness. He clearly states that he is doing the job of a historian by researching and writing based on his research. His research includes interviewing witnesses! Luke isn’t Jewish and he isn’t from Israel. He was later executed for the things he professed to believe based on the eyewitness accounts he collected. Further, Luke was no one in particular. If he were generating a false report, why pick a nobody or indicate that he was interviewing witnesses? If he was lying, it would have made more sense to go with one of the prominent disciples in order to bolster his claims. As for the death of Paul, we have the work of Clement that confirms his execution for claiming that he saw Christ risen.

John was the only disciple to die of natural causes and to live to a ripe old age. He did so in Greece, where he led a church. He wrote his Gospel account in his old age along with several other works. This is a guy who knew Jesus personally. Further, we have the testimony of Ignatius and Polykarp, who both knew him and were his students. They offer strength to the idea that John wrote the Gospel of John as an eyewitness. Here again, the later date of writing doesn’t add much to the argument against John having written the text because outside witnesses confirm it. Within the text, we have John hiding his identity as being present. He doesn’t use his name, but rather refers to himself as the disciple that Jesus loved. If the author of John were fabricating the text, why take on the persona of John, then hide it? That goes against the pattern of pseudoepigraphs from the ancient world. The reason you use a pen name is to give notoriety, not try to hide your identity.

As for Mark, we know it’s not an eyewitness account. Mark wrote what Peter told him. Peter was an eyewitness. We can connect Peter to Mark through Peter’s own writing, again in a letter. Mark is attributed as the author of Mark by Polykarp and the tradition of the early church. Luke’s history indicates that Mark met Peter decades after the resurrection. So, it’s unlikely that Mark could write Peter’s account earlier. This doesn’t negate the writing he did. Again, we have confirmation from outside sources that Mark wrote his Gospel based on Peter’s testimony.

Matthew was the first Gospel text written. Some scholars attribute it to a date as early as 40 AD, though some time in the 50s seems more likely. One interesting supporting argument for the position is that Matthew doesn’t reference the destruction of the Temple, but does include prophecies of it happening. An anti-supernatural bias would dictate it’s writing after 70 AD based on the references to the destruction of the temple. However, the same logic would require Isaiah to have been written after Jesus because he displays knowledge of Jesus’ life 700 years before Christ was born. An objective perspective would argue that Matthew’s prophetic references to the destruction of the temple ought to be accompanied by pointing out that the temple had been destroyed! Or that Matthew’s pattern of subjects as presented in the Sermon on the Mount were reflected in the work of Paul and James. Both Paul and James were dead by 65 AD, thus dictating that they referenced Matthew’s work before they actually died, mainly because it’d be a real trick to pull off after being beheaded. Ultimately, your accusation at Matthew was written decades later is weak at best. On the long end, it was a little over a decade later, on the short end it was a couple of years. However, proximity of writing doesn’t equal authorship proof, as I have demonstrated with the previous 3 Gospels. I would argue that every early source points to Matthew as the author of the text, particularly Polykarp (who hung out with John). This is FAR more proof as to the authorship of Matthew than can be offered for an anonymous author. Ultimately, this theory didn’t show up until the uber-liberal German rationalists came along in the 1800’s. They offered NO proof from history to support their claims. All they had was guesses base on leaps of logic from suppositions grounded in speculation resting on a foundation of skepticism.

Now, let’s look at the broader problem with your accusations. How exactly did Christianity get rolling without any eyewitnesses? In particular, this took place where Jesus actually lived and taught. If it was all made up, how did they garner such success in the town where it all began? Wouldn’t the locals simply indicate that it was all made up? I could see if they did it in Greece exclusively, but in the capital of Israel where Jesus was crucified and resurrected!? Also, how did the authors of the 4 Gospels manage to generate accounts consistent on the major details, but spread out all over the world and written by guys with no direct connections to the event? If they colluded, how did they mess up minor details? Further, if Biblical Christianity was an invention of individuals decades after the fact, how did Christianity become so widely spread that by the 60s Nero was able to target a large community of Christians for persecution? Or Claudius a decade before? There had to have been a solid teaching about Jesus to distribute from early on. The most obvious option is Matthew, because of his influence on Paul and James. This requires a very early authorship of his book. It also accounts for the widespread usage of his book and the broad consensus regarding it’s origins. If another book had been the source of information regarding Jesus, it would certainly have survived antiquity.

I would also welcome you to have a look at the proximity of the writing of the scriptures to ANY other ancient account of events. The New Testament accounts were generally written very close to the events they refer to by ancient standards. Further, there are more manuscripts that date closer to the original documents than with any other ancient texts. By your standards most of ancient history is in question.

Also, the councils that assembled the full Bible, did so after extensive research. They set about creating the canon in 140 AD. They then researched the origins of the texts for 200 years. This research had the advantage of being much closer to the events of the scriptures and therefore it had resources we don’t. They were able to go the the churches and ask where they got their manuscripts and were able to prove that some ancient texts were psuedononymous. The assemblers of the canon demonstrated great care and high standards in dealing with the texts to ensure the apostolic authorship of the books and their authenticity. Books were carefully removed based on questionable authorship and inaccuracies to history. But hey, those guys believed what they were doing was a big deal and that doing it wrong put them in danger of hell, so naturally they would have falsified the documents to forward a fake message. Oh wait… that doesn’t seem right. That might work as an incentive to do it legitimately. Heck, they even excommunicated guys they discovered to have generated texts under false pretenses. I assume you discount their research because they believed in stuff.

I welcome responses. Please use sources next time, so it’s not like yer making it up off the top of your head. Thanks for responding as well! This was fun!!