This is a fairly typical objection that skeptics forward against the Gospels. Some skeptics think since references to Jesus’ Resurrection (and other miracles) appear sixty years after Jesus died, that these are only reports of what Christians at the time believed.
The problem with that notion is that Christians haven’t exactly had the political clout that we’re accustomed to seeing nowadays. Christians were persecuted in the early days, and the powers that be had every interest in making Jesus disappear from the public memory. If any conspiracy existed surrounding the life of Jesus, it wasn’t the Christians trying to insert an idealized version of their Savior into the historical record. It would have gone the opposite way: an attempt by the ruling authorities to write into history a permanent “reality check,” putting a stop to messianic claims from Jesus’ followers.
Let’s look at the secular sources for Jesus’ life. Josephus is the primary one, but Tacitus is right up there in importance. Both are neutral to Jesus, leaning toward hostile. Outright hostile sources like Lucian or Mara bar-Serapion are of secondary importance, if we should even weigh them at all, but remember that hostile sources don’t win points with their audience by admitting that Jesus did miracles or that he is worshiped as one worships God. Secular sources of the day admit to Jesus being a real person and a worker of miracles, things that you wouldn’t expect to see unless they were incontestably true.
Finally, a quick look at the reality of the first century Christian’s experience should end any notion that this rag-tag group could have pulled off a conspiracy to insert a fictitious founder into the historical record that stands up to 1800 years of scrutiny. They simply didn’t have the resources or political clout to do something like that.
SECULAR SOURCES FOR JESUS' LIFE
There are essentially two main secular sources for Jesus’ life. Flavius Josephus, a former Jewish general during the brief uprising in 70, he turned historian at the behest of the Roman Empire. Also of interest is Cornelius Tacitus, a second century historian praised across the board for his incredibly accurate detail.
Around the time of Jesus’ life, the rabbis of the day wrote some polemics against him in the Talmud. There is little of historical value in these writings, as they are only written in reaction to Christian claims. However, it is worth noting that they provide evidence in favor of Jesus’ existence, as the writings assume he exists and even confirm some undisputed historic details.
Josephus wrote two works, but of primary concern to the question of Jesus is the Antiquities. There is no question that Josephus is generally considered a reliable historian. The questions surrounding the historical Jesus with regard to Josephus never focus on the overall accuracy of his work, but only on the authenticity of the passages mentioning Jesus.
In Antiquities, there are two references to Jesus. The one called Testimonium Flavium, is the most hotly contested. The Testimonium is seriously doubted to be authentic even by Christian scholars. The second passage (in Antiquities 20.9.1), however, is unquestionably authentic. It reads:
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
This confirms the martyrdom of James the Just (also mentioned by Luke in Acts), and calls him “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” which further confirms Jesus’ name and title. The early Christians referred to James as “the brother of our Lord,” so Josephus adds the title “brother of Jesus” for James in a sort of mocking tone.
The first mention of Jesus in Antiquities is regarded dubiously, even by Christian scholars. It is likely authentic in some respect, however. The later reference assumes some previous mention of Jesus in Antiquities, and this is the only other mention. The most practical solution to the problem seems to be “splitting the baby, by admitting that the passage is authentic, but with some Christian interpolation. I’ll reproduce the passage, from Antiquities 18.3.3, and put a line through what is likely the Christian additions:
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.
Read without the cross-outs, the passage still makes perfect sense. Likely, this passage was doctored at some point by a Christian. However, much of the anti-Christian sentiment still rings through and therefore this passage is probably authentic otherwise.
Tacitus is best known for writing the Annals. His work garnered quite a bit of critical praise for its accuracy, so it’s a pity that much of his work has been lost to the ages. Tacitus wrote a passage of relevance to the debate of the historical Jesus in Annals 15.44:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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 Judaea, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
This is an under-appreciated quote. First, it confirms the existence of Christians in the time of Nero (ruled 54-68), and it tells us that since they were hated by the people, Nero used them as scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome in 64.
Second, it confirms that the founder of Christianity was “Christus,” which refers to Jesus Christ. Most Tacitean scholars, even non-Christian ones, believe this is a genuine reference to Jesus. Remember that the New Testament refers to Jesus as “Christ” quite often, therefore Tacitus was likely using the title with which his readers would be most familiar.
Third, it confirms the Gospel details that Jesus was executed by Pontius Pilate. By referencing the same governor (Tiberius) that Luke does in the opening of the Gospel, Tacitus also confirms Luke’s timeline.
Fourth, the mention that Jesus’ execution “checked” the “mischievous superstition” “for a moment,” but it “again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome” is an oblique reference to the Resurrection. The crucifixion quieted Jesus’ disciples down, but the Resurrection (and later, Pentecost) started the fire anew and the apostles were able to garner many more followers than Jesus did, and over a much wider area in a relatively short period of time.
Finally, this passage relays the sad truth that Christians were merely arrested for being Christians, and their mission was perceived by the secular authorities as dangerous and evil.
In chapter six of the letter to the Hebrews, the writer gives a stark warning that anyone who betrays the faith will never be welcomed back into it. That is likely a reference to this very event. Tacitus says that those arrested often gave information that led the authorities to others.
The rabbinic writings from the first century are not useful for gleaning details of the historical Jesus, and not even the most liberal academic think-tank uses these sources for that purpose.
However, the rabbinic writings do confirm that Jesus existed, had disciples, worked miracles, and was executed on the eve of Passover. The material in the rabbinic writings, however, was included to cast dispersions on Jesus’ character. This means that much of what appears may not actually be true. The rabbis probably were not concerned with accuracy in this regard.
Given that there is nothing in these vehemently anti-Christian sentiments that indicate that Jesus’ life was fictionalized by Christians or that his miracles are phony, it can be accepted with some caution that it was widely believed and attested that Jesus did perform miracles.
OTHER SECULAR WRITINGS
Of course, those aren’t the only secular witnesses to Jesus. There are several others of varying reliability.
Lucian was a satirist living in the second century, who wrote a play about an unscrupulous man who became a Christian leader and then reverted to his former cynicism. The play mocks Christians for worshiping a mere mortal crucified in Palestine for setting up a cult (in other words, Jesus) as a god. This confirms two things. First, that secular folks believed Jesus existed and was crucified in Palestine as the other historical records indicate. And second, that early Christians worshiped Jesus as God.
Mara bar-Serapion refers to Jesus in a letter most probably written between 135 and 165. This isn’t a particularly useful reference, but it does confirm several details of Jesus’ life that we already know from other sources. At the least, it testifies to the existence of Jesus and to the widespread belief that he was wise and taught great things. Otherwise, it is nothing more than the opinion of a pagan about whom we know nothing.
Pliny the Younger wrote a correspondence in 106 to Emperor Trajan in which he described the tortures he inflicted on Christians. He also confirms that Christians meet once per week, sing hymns to Jesus as if to a god, and strive to follow a code of ethics: avoid evil, commit no fraud, no theft, no adultery, never lie, and maintain the utmost integrity always. The younger Pliny used to be a priest, and so likely knew a little bit about every religion in the empire. Therefore, his assessment of Christian beliefs, though second hand, should be regarded as reliable.
Suetonius makes two probable references to Jesus, however he doesn’t add any information that we couldn’t glean from Tacitus, whom he used extensively as a source. Skeptical and Christian scholars alike regard these references as worthless.
It is reported that Thallus makes mention of the midday darkness that the Gospels report during the crucifixion of Jesus. We only have a handful of surviving fragments of Thallus’ writings, and the midday darkness reference occurs as a quote from the Christian Julius Africanus in the third century. Thallus allegedly made mention of the darkness but explained it as an eclipse of the sun. However, both the Gospels and the Talmud confirm Jesus was executed on the eve of Passover–during a full moon. That means that the darkness couldn’t have been a total solar eclipse as Thallus reports. This is the same conclusion that Africanus reaches in his apologetic against Thallus.
With all of these mentions, even considering the ones of dubious reliability, it is difficult to deny that Jesus existed, and that he performed the miracles attributed to him. The Christian sources aren’t the only ones that mention his wise words, integrity, and miraculous deeds. No first or second century critic of Christianity even tries to rebut the existence or the miracles of Jesus. In fact, the extant secular witnesses actually seem to confirm that Jesus did these wonderful things.
It’s odd that these sources would confirm the miracles, considering that a hostile source trying to convince people Jesus was nothing more than a man would actually lose ground in an argument by admitting that Jesus could perform miracles. The simplest solution to the problem is that the miracles of Jesus were believed genuine, even by non-Christians, but viewed in some other manner than being a sign that Jesus was the Son of God.
REALITY OF CHRISTIAN LIFE
Hilariously, many skeptics make horrendously false claims when it comes to the life of the Christian in the first century. Since Christians make up one-sixth of the world’s population, form the largest monotheistic religion, wield unparalleled political influence, have the central figure in the largest denomination recognized as a sovereign head of state, and dominate the philosophical foundations of Western thought, it is forgivable if the skeptics think that this has always been the case.
In reality, just studying the brief reference in Tacitus above should be enough to enforce a major reality check. Christians were hated by the world at large in the first century. They were marginalized by the Romans and the Jews. They were hated so much, and seen as such an evil and destabilizing force so universally, that Nero was easily able to use them as scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome in 64.
Christians in the early church had to take great pains to hide their affiliation with the newly formed church, otherwise they faced loss of job, status, property, family, welfare, ability to buy and sell in the marketplace, and (most importantly) their life. And the death they faced was neither merciful nor quick.
Sometimes, Christians were used as lighting for night games at stadiums. They were hoisted aloft and burned in lieu of the powerful lamps that blind us in modern stadiums. Other Christians were fed to lions for entertainment. Many were tortured so that the authorities could ascertain the location of the house-church to which they belonged, and they were forced to disclose the identities of other attendees.
The point of recounting this is simple. In order for most of the skeptical theories of the early formation of Christianity to be true, a massive conspiracy would have to be in place, capable of altering every extant copy of historical documents and silencing any competing oral traditions running contrary to the alterations. Someone would have to plant numerous evidences in the historical record that propagated for 1800 years until they were questioned for the first time during the Enlightenment. These evidences would have to be able to withstand even the Enlightenment scrutiny so well that a handful of unbiased 21st century scholars would still regard them as authentic.
Whoever pulled that off would have to literally be an evil genius on par with the best James Bond villain.
Another cornerstone of skeptical argument is that everyone in the first century is dumber than a box of rocks. Simply put, since many people believed in the Resurrection, which we all know is impossible, these people must be ignorant rubes. It’s the only logical explanation.
But how does an ignorant rube plan, organize, and execute a conspiracy of such massive proportions that it defies detection for 1800 years? You can’t simultaneously be an evil genius and mouth-breathing redneck who uncritically believes everything. That defies logic.
The historicity of Jesus was never in question until the nineteenth century. All first century polemics against Christianity revolve around Sonship and variation from Greek philosophy. Justin Martyr, the first Christian apologist, tired to synthesize Greek philosophy and theology with Christianity to show similarities in belief, and thus that the Christian position was at least as reasonable as the Greek. You see the same type of thing with Paul in Acts 17 and his sermon about the Unknown God. There was never a question about Jesus’ existence or his miracles from opponents, only the meaning of his teachings and his Sonship.
The other problem is that Christians universally believed that truth was on their side, and they further held to the highest standards of fidelity and integrity. It just doesn’t make sense for someone who believed that they had truth in Christ to initiate a campaign of misinformation and cover-up to bolster this truth. If it were found out, it would ruin any claim that they had to truth, since it would have been founded on lies. It doesn’t make any sense.
But how reasonable is a conspiracy of misinformation like that? Any conspiracy initiated by Christians to insert a fabricated person into the historical record and add breadcrumbs that lead reasonable modern historians to conclude that the Resurrection is at least a possibility would have been quashed immediately by Roman authorities. Truth is the only reasonable defeater of these powers that be, so it appears that the Christian has truth on his side. Believing in Jesus, miracles and all, is infinitely more reasonable than any skeptical explanation offered thus far.
Holding, James Patrick. “Secular References to Jesus: Josephus.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “Secular References to Jesus: Lucian.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “Secular References to Jesus: Mara bar-Serapion.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “Secular References to Jesus: Pliny.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “Secular References to Jesus: Seutonius.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “Secular References to Jesus: The Talmud.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
_____. “The Testimony of Tacitus.” Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry. 5 Nov 2010 .
Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. The Flavius Josephus Homepage. 29 Apr 1993. 5 Nov 2010 .
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals. Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. The Internet Classics Archive. 5 Nov 2010 .
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