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"They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive."

In the first post of this blog series, I started to present what I consider to be the earliest biblical and extrabiblical evidence for the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In this post, I will continue to give the earliest extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, namely Josephus’s first reference in his work Antiquities (18.3.3), and Tacitus’s reference in his work Annals (15.44).

In the first post, I chose to begin with Josephus’s second reference to Jesus because there is no controversy regarding its authenticity. However, his first reference is actually the earliest and most informative extra-biblical reference to Jesus that we have, and we must address some of the misnomers out there to appreciate its significance.

The standard text of Josephus’s first reference (Antiquities 18.3.3) reads as follows:

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.“

The misnomer that I have witnessed people espousing is that the entire passage is inauthentic and is a Christian interpolation. This is a minority view. The large majority of scholars believe the passage contains Christian interpolations in what was original authentic material by Josephus. This view is supported by a different manuscript tradition of Josephus’s writings that dates back to the tenth century and contains a version of the contested passage that is more likely to reflect the original unembellished version of Josephus’s reference to Jesus. It reads as follows:

“At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people 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 reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.”

John P. Meier is a Biblical Scholar, author, and Professor of Theology (New Testament) at Notre Dame University. He argues convincingly that when one deletes the obvious Christian additions to the text, an authentic core remains that could easily go back to Josephus. Interestingly enough, Meier’s redacted version of the passage reflects rather closely that of the manuscript tradition mentioned above. There are several convincing reasons to think that the passage contains authentic and original material, which is why the majority of historians hold to this view. To read about them click here.

This remarkable passage by Josephus, which speaks about Jesus and his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, is corroborated by the Roman historian Tacitus, who lived in the first century and was a contemporary of the apostles. In Annals 15.44, he writes:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.“

According to Tacitus, Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome on the Christians, causing them to suffer great persecution. He says that the Christians based their belief on “Christus,” who received the death penalty by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.

All four gospel accounts record the same events recorded by Tacitus and Josephus: Jesus was handed over by the Jewish leaders to be crucified under Pontius Pilate. This multiple independent attestation is remarkable considering we are dealing with ancient history. Skeptics tend to downplay or dismiss the abundance of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus, while believing other things from antiquity for which we have much less evidence. I have also noticed that skeptics create their own unrealistic and unhistorical standard for determining the historicity of Jesus, but not for determining the historicity of other figures or events. The evidence is overwhelming and I will continue to lay it out in the next blog post in this series.

References:

1. For more information on John P. Meier and his approach to the Josephus passage, see Frederick J. Murphy, Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 370-71.

2. For further discussion of Josephus and his significance for biblical research, please see Paul L. Maier, ed./trans., Josephus – The Essential Works (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994).