I will attempt to separate the truth from fiction/hearsay in examining historical narratives of the historicity of Jesus Christ. I will highlight, in bold, what I believe are the essential points to consider in our deliberations.
Thalus and Julius Africanus
Thallus, a Samaritan-born historian who lived and worked in Rome about A.D. 52, wrote to offset the supernatural element
which accompanied the crucifixion. Though the writings of Thallus are lost to usJulius Africanus, a Christian chronographer of the late second century, was familiar with them and quotes from them. In a comment on the darkness that fell upon the land during the crucifixion (Mark 15:33), Africanus says that “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun.” [F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, Eerdmens, p. 113.]
“Most of his work, like the vast majority of ancient literature, has been lost, although some of his writings were quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus in his History of the World.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thallus_(historian)
If it is acknowledged that, “the vast majority of this ancient literature has been lost.” It was lost- period. Any reference to the writings of Julius Africanus could not possibly be accepted as authentic no matter how familiar Julius Africanus might have been with the works. Thus anything written by Julius Africanus must strictly be the figment of Africanus’ imagination. No one can give any credence to the authenticity from such a source.
That takes care of the works of Thallus and Julius Africanus.
The Roman historian and senator Tacitus referred to Christ, his execution by Pontius Pilate and the existence of early Christians in Rome in one page of his final work, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.
Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to be both authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus. However, Richard Carrier has suggested that the ‘Christ, the author of this name, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius’ line is a Christian interpolation.
No original manuscripts of the Annals exist and the surviving copies of Tacitus’ works derive from two principal manuscripts, known as the Medicean manuscripts, written in Latin, which are held in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. It is the second Medicean manuscript, 11th century and from the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, which is the oldest surviving copy of the passage describing Christians. Scholars generally agree that these copies were written at Monte Cassino and the end of the document refers to Abbas Raynaldus cu… who was most probably one of the two abbots of that name at the abbey during that period.
No original manuscripts of the Annals exist and the surviving copies of Tacitus’ works derive from two principal manuscripts, known as the Medicean manuscripts, written in Latin, which are held in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. It is the second Medicean manuscript, 11th century and from the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, which is the oldest surviving copy of the passage describing Christians.Scholars generally agree that these copies were written at Monte Cassino and the end of the document refers to Abbas Raynaldus cu… who was most probably one of the two abbots of that name at the abbey during that period.
Suggestions that the whole of Annals may have been a forgery have also been generally rejected by scholars.
Although the majority of scholars consider it to be genuine, a few scholars question the authenticity of the passage given that Tacitus was born 25 years after Jesus’ death.
Some scholars have debated the historical value of the passage given that Tacitus does not reveal the source of his information.Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz argue that Tacitus at times had drawn on earlier historical works now lost to us, and he may have used official sources from a Roman archive in this case; however, if Tacitus had been copying from an official source, some scholars would expect him to have labeled Pilate correctly as a prefect rather than a procurator. Theissen and Merz state that Tacitus gives us a description of widespread prejudices about Christianity and a few precise details about “Christus” and Christianity, the source of which remains unclear.However, Paul R. Eddy has stated that given his position as a senator Tacitus was also likely to have had access to official Roman documents of the time and did not need other sources.
Michael Martin notes that the authenticity of this passage of the Annals has also been disputed on the grounds that Tacitus would not have used the word “messiah” in an authentic Roman document.
Weaver notes that Tacitus spoke of the persecution of Christians, but no other Christian author wrote of this persecution for a hundred years.
Hotema notes that this passage was not quoted by any Church father up to the 15th century, although the passage would have been very useful to them in their work; and that the passage refers to the Christians in Rome being a multitude, while at that time the Christian congregation in Rome would actually have been very small.
Scholars have also debated the issue of hearsay in the reference by Tacitus. Charles Guignebert argued that “So long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus is merely echoing what Christians themselves were saying], the passage remains quite worthless”. R. T. France states that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he had heard through Christians. However, Paul R. Eddy has stated that as Rome’s preeminent historian, Tacitus was generally known for checking his sources and was not in the habit of reporting gossip.Tacitus was a member of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, a council of priests whose duty it was to supervise foreign religious cults in Rome, which as Van Voorst points out, makes it reasonable to suppose that he would have acquired knowledge of Christian origins through his work with that body.
That the authenticity of the works of Tacitus is questioned places great doubt of its authenticity. The suggestion that Tacitus could have been quoting hearsay again places his works in the realms of mythology.
(Writing in 112 AD) Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian
(born in 37 AD) mentions that Jesus’ brother James was stoned after he was brought before a council assembled by Ananus.
Josephus also mentions Jesus on two further occasions. While one account is fully accepted as authentic, the second is contested because of claims that it was later embellished.
However the whole passage is not contested, just some particular words, but is agreed that it has historical validity.
Is Josephus Reliable?
Yet Josephus was not an eyewitness to most events in his works. His history is only as good as his sources. The early history in The Antiquities of the Jews is far removed from his own personal experience. We can only be sure of the details that coincide with Scripture, but the others are no more trustworthy than the traditions he relied upon.
Though many Jews viewed Josephus as a traitor, he nevertheless remained loyal to his people. The Jewish revolt had caused hard feelings in Rome, and Josephus wanted to change that as a historian and apologist for the Jewish people. While praiseworthy, this bias is cause for caution.
His pro-Jewish sympathies emerge clearly in The Jewish War. That work portrays most Jews as peace-loving citizens. He blames Jewish zealots, whom he calls “bandits” and “brigands,” for the collapse of Jewish society in the first century.
Antiquities, written later, attempts to show the superiority and antiquity of the Jewish culture. To achieve that end, it tends to exaggerate the good qualities and ignore the unflattering failures, such as Aaron’s golden calf, in an effort to promote the Jewish cause.
Historians now generally agree with Harold Attridge that Josephus’s Antiquities were a “propagandistic history.” His “paraphrasing [of] the narratives” of the Old Testament was a “creative adaptation” aimed at presenting Jewish history as “relevant, comprehensible and attractive in a new environment.”1
A Different Set of Standards
To read Josephus correctly, we need to keep in mind that he was a product of his times. Readers in first-century Rome had different expectations than we do today. It was common practice for historians to shape or add details to make a good story. Josephus gives a famous account of the last stand of the Jews atop Masada. Instead of surrendering, he says the Jews selected several men to slay the majority and then turn their swords upon themselves. Yet archaeologists have not found the bodies to verify his story.
Also, like other historians of his day, Josephus sometimes invented heroic speeches and put them into the mouths of his subjects, such as the patriotic oratory of Eleazer, the leader of the Jews atop Masada. Since the men who heard Eleazer were slain in the siege, and since Josephus wrote the account from Rome, he cannot possibly have had access to the full speech.
Few ancient historians were careful about numbers and statistics, either. Scholars know that Josephus often errs on the chronologies of first-century events with which he was quite familiar. So be wary of any numbers he gives.
In summary, Josephus is an eminently important and helpful source for gathering details about New Testament times, but Christians should be careful not to read him as an apologist for Christianity or to rely upon him too heavily. Nor should they be ignorant of his bias in favor of Judaism and his willingness to deliberately rewrite Old Testament narratives to provide a more flattering picture of the Jewish heritage.
Where’s That in the Bible?
Josephus shares details about biblical people and places that don’t appear in the Bible. Which of these claims have you heard, without realizing they came from Josephus?
Herod the Great became King of Judea by the decree of Caesar Augustus (Jewish War 1.20.2).
The girl who danced before Herod and requested John the Baptist’s head was named Salome (Antiquities 18.5.4).
Herod sent John the Baptist to prison in Macherus, on the east side of the Dead Sea (Antiquities 18.5.2).
Felix, the Roman governor who met Paul in prison and trembled at his words, had begged his Jewish wife, Drusilla, to divorce her husband so they could marry (Antiquities 20.7.2).
Flavius Jesophus’ narratives are totally unreliable.