Considering Jesus as an historical person

Considering Jesus as an historical person

I’ve shared my posts recently about the Christmas story, and why much of it cannot be verified historically. That is, when we hear the story, we are not listening to “an account of what actually happened”; no, we are hearing “a story told to help us understand our origins, the one whom we follow, the God whom we worship”.

However, as we ponder the story, and appreciate the richness of symbolism it holds, we also need to bear in mind that the baby whose birth is recounted did indeed grow to become a real adult person—Jesus of Nazareth, son of the carpenter, born of Mary, born under the law, living in the closing century of Second Temple Judaism.

The Gospels each provide narratives which locate Jesus clearly in such a context; they each elaborate and develop the story in ways that are be fitting to the situation and needs of their own community of faith, for whom, we might assume, they were writing these narratives. They each tell the story that their people need to hear.

So we need to read and understand these stories with a strong critical appreciation of their literary nature, their apologetic purpose, their faith orientation. Yet that does not mean that we can dismiss all historical aspects, pushing them aside because “this is just a story, after all”. The story does have an historical grounding, even if it has many features of literary and theological development at every point along the way.

The bedrock of historicity in these stories is that Jesus was an actual historical figure. From writers outside the New Testament—people who did not hold to faith in Jesus—we can see that there was a clear recognition, in the ancient world, that Jesus was an actual historical figure and that his followers were known in various places.

Perhaps the earliest of these references was in a letter written early in the second century by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and magistrate, who refers not to Jesus, directly, but to a group of his followers. In letter 96, included in Book 10 of his works, he writes: “They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.” (Pliny, Letters 10.96).

Pliny the Younger, statue on the facade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, Como, Italy.

Whilst we learn very little about Jesus himself, we do have here a good “character reference”, from a pagan Roman, as to the virtue of the followers of Jesus in Bithynia, the province where he was Governor. Pliny was to oversee trials of suspected Christians who appeared before him as a result of anonymous accusations; he writes to ask for the Emperor’s guidance on how they should be treated.

A little later than the time when this letter was written, another Roman politician, who is best known in our times as the historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, made reference to Jesus and his followers. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 64CE, word had it that the conflagration was started by order of Nero. Tacitus (writing in the second decade of the second century CE) observes that “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” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44).

Tacitus, statue at the Parliament building in Vienna.

Thus, a second Roman in the second century knows of the followers of Jesus, and of the name by which they were known since they were given that name, according to Acts, in Antioch (Acts 11:29). His assessment of their moral character differs from that offered by Pliny, however. He refers to them as “exitiabilis superstitio”, translated as “a most mischievous superstition”, and locates them in Judæa, which he describes as “the first source of the evil”.

However, Tacitus gives us more information, this time providing historical data which aligns specifically with the Gospel narratives. He states that “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 Pilate”. That’s a neat linkup with the references to Pilate in the canonical Gospels—and in the second part of the Apostles’ Creed, which states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”.

A third Roman writer who is relevant to this discussion is Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, who reports the persecution and suffering of early Christians. Suetonius served as the director of Imperial archives under Emperor Trajan in the 110s, and then as the official secretary to the Emperor Hadrian in the 120s. He documented that followers of Jesus were expelled from Rome in 49CE by Claudius: “because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he expelled them from Rome” (Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 25.4). Although writing about the followers of Jesus, Suetonius refers to Chrestus as a real, known person.

Suetonius also notes that “Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief” (Suetonius, The 12 Caesars, Nero Claudius Ceasar, XVI). The same comment is found in the Annals of Tacitus: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). From the point of view of these Roman writers, the early followers of Jesus held a “mischievous belief” and practised “abominations” because they abjured the many gods and goddesses worshipped across the Greco-Roman world, and worshipped only the Lord God.

Statue of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus on the terrace of the Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset.

A similar note about the fate of Jesus is made by Flavius Josephus, a complex character who was a Jewish man, born into a priestly family, trained in the skills of Pharisaic Torah-interpretation, a freedom-fighter during the war with the Romans, who was captured and transported to Rome—where, unlike many of his fellow-rebels, his life was spared, and he lived for the next three decades. (He is a complex character; the following discussion is complex, too!)

Writing an account of Jewish history for his Roman patron Epaphroditus, “a man who is a lover of all kind of learning; but is principally delighted with the knowledge of history”, Josephus makes a brief mention of the fate of Jesus which accords with both the note of Tacitus and the claims of the Gospels: “Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3).

This note is found within a paragraph in which Josephus provides the longest and presumably earliest non-Christian description of Jesus: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3).

An imaginary depiction of Flavius Josephus by Walter Whiston, 19th century.

The details provided here are fascinating; there is much correlation with scriptural claims about Jesus—including the affirmation that “he was the Christ”. That is striking, being written by a Jew, not a Christian. However, there are problems. The earliest extant text of this description is not in Greek, the language in which Josephus wrote. The earliest Greek manuscript of the whole work is an eleventh century work; there are some Latin translations of the Antiquities which are dated to the sixth century. But this particular description of Jesus, known as the Testimonium Flavianium, occurs only in a Slavonic text, discovered in Russia in the late 19th century, which scholars believe was written in the eleventh century. The passage is not found in the Greek, or earlier Latin, texts.

So the description of Jesus in this work is most likely influenced by Christian writings over the centuries, and finds its way into a medieval manuscript of the writings of Josephus. Of relevance here is that the writings of Josephus were not held by Jews—because he “went over” to Rome, he was regarded as a heretic. Only Christian medieval libraries contain manuscripts of works by Josephus.

So we can’t claim this attestation about Jesus as a late first century Jewish view of him. Nevertheless, scholars have attempted to recover “the earliest version” of what Josephus wrote—a kind of minimalist historical reference. The fact that Eusebius notes that Josephus refers to Jesus in his fourth century writing undergirds this perspective.

British scholar James Dunn proposes this text as the most likely original version that was known to Eusebius: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” It is shorter, and is missing the explicitly confessional affirmations about Jesus—more befitting an historian of the time, rather than a believer in Jesus, we would think.

In the last book of his 20-volume work, Josephus makes another reference—very brief—to Jesus, in the context of his discussion of James: “he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1). There is strong scholarly consensus that Josephus did, in fact, write these words. So he knew about Jesus, but perhaps knew very little beyond his existence.

(If your head hurts after this discussion, I understand. The list of scholars who have debated these texts is huge, and the number of competing manuscripts and reconstructions is also large!)


Other writers who were not Christians attest to the existence of Jesus as an historical figure. Stories that he performed miracles led one writer to propose an explanation: “Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god”.

This last comment sounds much like the accusation made by the Jerusalem authorities about Jesus: “he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (John 5:18). That accusation is reported by the author of John’s Gospel, a follower of Jesus. The accusation that Jesus “gave himself out to be a god” was also reported by a Christian, Origen of Alexandria. Origen was a prolific writer; amongst those many works was a whole treatise about the person who allegedly made this claim—Celsus, a philosopher who had written a work titled The True Word (Logos Alēthēs).

This work no longer survives, but Origen reported, and refuted, many criticisms made by Celsus against the Christians, in his work Against Celsus. The quote above comes from Book 1, section 28 of that work, which Origen wrote in 248 CE. Celsus had lived decades earlier, writing his work in the mid-to-late second century.

From a speculative portrait of Lucian by William Faithorne (1616–1691)

Another critic of Christianity, whose work does survive, is Lucian of Samosata, who says: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rights, and was crucified on that account … it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11–13).

Like Celsus, Lucian was writing in the mid-to-late second century. The existence of Jesus is thus attested in a number of pagan writers of that time. Lucian’s observations depict Jesus as a man, who gave his followers laws, who was a “sage”, and who was crucified. That’s a good collection of basic historical data, indeed.

So this Christmas, as our attention turns to Jesus, we can hold together the fact that Jesus did exist as a first century Jew—and that various writers in the ensuing centuries noted this—as well as reading “the story of Christmas” (and, indeed, all biblical texts) with critical awareness of their nature as myths. The two claims are not contradictory.

John Squires is the Editor of With Love to the World. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.


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