Part 4: Jewish silence about Jesus. References
about Jesus by Josephus and
The Jewish Silence:
Among early Jewish writers there is silence about Jesus. Philo Judaeus (20 BCE – 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, who was a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, wrote many philosophical treatises about the divine Word as a force of God (see the Gospel of John, chapter 1). He also noted the teachings of religious sects (e.g. the Therapeutae and Essenes) and followed political events in Palestine. He also had family relations with the Herodians (his nephew was married to Bernice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa - see Acts 25: 13, 23). He was very familiar with the career of Pontius Pilate whom he wrote about in c. 39 CE as “a man who was of a very obstinate disposition, very merciless, as well as very inflexible” (On the Embassy to Gaius, 38/301). Yet, incredibly Philo makes no mention of Jesus, the “famous” holy man having been executed at Pilate’s command.
Nor does the Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias record anything about the Bible’s Jesus. He wrote his history of the kings of the Jews in about the year 80 in Galilee where Jesus supposedly preached and performed great miracles, and who was crucified for claiming to be king of the Jews. Nor can we find Jewish rabbis of the first century referencing Jesus in written traditions as the long awaited Messiah (Christ) or heretic, depending on one’s viewpoint. Such silence points to the historical Jesus being invented decades after his supposed life on earth.
A debateable first Jewish reference to Jesus:
The first Jewish reference to Jesus occurs in two passages in the writings of Flavius Josephus (37 CE - c. 100 CE), who was a passionate defender of Judaism. The reliability of these passages is in question, as parts (or all) appear to be later insertions by Christian interpolators (forgers) in the late second or third centuries. Josephus’ positive Christian references are not referred to by early Christian writers such as Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, and other Church Fathers from the mid-2nd century to mid-3rd century as they defended the new faith. Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews, in about the year 94, by which time eye-witnesses to Jesus would have been dead if the Gospels’ timeline were true. In the part known as the “Testimonium Flavianum” (Book 18, chap. 3, para. 3) we read:
“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.”
Another improbable reference in Antiquities (Book 20, chap.9, Para. 1) refers to:
“... the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James”.
Yet remarkably Josephus makes no reference to James (the Just) being the head of the church in Jerusalem for thirty years until he was stoned to death (c. 62 CE) by order of the high priest. Both these passages attribute words to Josephus that make him appear as a believer in Christ (i.e. the Messiah) although Josephus certainly was not. If the pro-Christian phrases are excised from the accounts, he may be referring only to Christian hearsay and early Gospel stories, and not from independent accounts.
(For a comprehensive discussion of the veracity of Josephus’ references to Jesus the Christ, see: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com).
Roman accounts of the historical Jesus are also lacking:
Of the many Roman writers interested in political and ethical/religious issues and who were contemporary to Jesus or writing in the first few decades after his supposed earthly death (e.g. Seneca the Elder, Rufus, Nonianus, Seneca the Younger, Petronius, Pliny the Elder, and Plutarch), there are no extant records that mention the famous messiah and details of his life. If these writers did reference the teachings and works of Jesus, it is most likely that Christians would have preserved their observations for future generations.
Some modern Christian apologists refer to the historian Tacitus as an independent witness to the historicity of Jesus. However, his Annals were written c. 116 CE, after the Gospels were in circulation and thus it is most likely he relied on Christian second hand reports about the faith rather than any independent evidence from the early first century (his focus was on Roman history and political careers). Explaining how Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for starting the great fire of Rome in 64, Tacitus notes in Annals 15 that Christians derived their name and origin from Christus who in the reign of Tiberius, was put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate. This is the first Roman reference to Christ and Pilate. It is notable that Tacitus does not explain that Christ is a title, nor does he explain that it was a troublemaker named Jesus, identified as King of the Jews, who was crucified.
It is significant that no Christian writer for three centuries (e.g. Tertullian (died c. 225), Eusebius (d. 340) and Jerome (d. 420), among others) references Tacitus’ account as they defended the faith, and this has led some analysts to suggest that it may have been a later interpolation.
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, (c. 70 -140) writes in 121 CE in his Life of Claudius that the emperor “banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus” (chap. 25). Chrestus (a common name) cannot refer to Christus, because this event took place about 20 years after Jesus’ death. Moreover, Jesus never was in Rome. Suetonius also knew the difference between Jews and Christians, for he wrote earlier in his Life of Nero that “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (16.2).
Outside the writings of Christians about their new faith, we look in vain for early first century Jewish or Roman references that an historical Jesus ever existed. Passing references to Christ in non-Christian, late first century documents, if they are original and not interpolations, are more likely to be hearsay, based on what Christians alone are proclaiming to the world. In other words, there are no independent historical witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the cosmic Christ found in the New Testament Epistles and the earthly Jesus found in the Gospels. This Jesus of the Gospels, so familiar to Christians of today, was unknown to Paul and other epistle authors as well as secular writers of the time. The conclusion is that Christianity did not begin with the Gospels’ version of Jesus, and that the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels is in serious doubt.
The Christian faith most likely began with a core group of messianic believers based in Jerusalem. Their faith was based on them discerning from Hebrew Scriptures knowledge of a spiritual Christ living in the heavens, crucified and resurrected there to bring salvation and eternal life to believers on earth. In their minds, this faith was confirmed by visions/revelations from God to key apostles about the heavenly Christ (a spiritual being, but with a human likeness – see Philippians 2:6-9; 3:20-21). This was the faith that Paul and other apostles preached.Belief in the strictly heavenly Christ, conceived in the early decades of the first century, was soon influenced by competing Christ sects and theologies. The cosmic Christ eventually morphed into the historical Jesus of the Gospels after the cataclysmic Jewish revolt, mass killings and the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the years 66-70. There was at that time a need to re-establish certainty, order and uniformity among bewildered believers facing competing visions/revelations and interpretations about Christ’s nature, salvation and the end times. By a selective reinterpretation of Old Testament ideas, heroes and sayings, the Gospel authors created a biography for a Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This “historical” Jesus could be shaped to appeal to the masses in more concrete ways than the strictly spiritual Christ. Also, a written history of the earthly life and teachings of this god-man Jesus, verified by his disciples and their apostolic successors in the Gospel stories, could be used by the nascent Church to promote one orthodox theology about him.
Was Jesus real? No doubt he was real in the minds of the early believers and Christian authors of the first century. But in what sense was he real – as a heavenly being or a human being? Was Jesus a spiritual Savior dwelling exclusively in the heavens and known primarily through visions, or a god-man incarnated in ancient Palestine who was resurrected from death and physically ascended into outer space (i.e. heaven)? The Jesus of veridical history remains a real question, for how does one verify personal visions and revelations of the divine Son, and how does one confirm an “historical” biography artificially deduced from ancient Scriptures, but unknown to the Christian authors of the Epistles and to Jewish and secular writers of the time? Are we then to conclude that Paul’s Christ and Mark’s Jesus were based more on religious myths than reality.
(Note: I am indebted to the books and online writings of Earl Doherty, Richard C. Carrier, Robert M. Price and others for information used in this essay.)
Originally posted: 2014-NOV-12
Last updated 2014-NOV-12
Author: R.C. Symes