The Historical Unreliability of Jesus: A Review of Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside The New Testament
The Historical Unreliability of Jesus: A Review of Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside The New Testament
by Sarah Schoonmaker
Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament claims to provide evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from non-Christian historians and Jewish writings. Jesus Outside the New Testament refers to the following classical writers in order to defend the historical reliability of Jesus: Thallos, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus. The purpose of this review is to address the historical writers that remain lauded as evidence for the historical Jesus and demonstrate how they all fail to bolster any historical support for Christianity.
VanVoorst points to Thallos as the earliest reference to Jesus set in the middle of the first century 55 C.E. Most of Thallos’ works perished, but was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian writer in his History of the World. This book was eventually lost, but the quote originating with Thallos was also mentioned by Byzantine historian, Georgius Syncellus. According to Syncellus, when Julius Africanus writes about the darkness of the death of Jesus, he mentions that, “Thallos calls this an eclipse of the sun, which seems to be wrong.”[i] Julius claims that the darkness was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Even though Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus, VanVoorst claims that it is more likely that Julius who had access to the context of Thallos’ quotation was correcting Thallos as a “hostile reference to Jesus’ death.”[ii] For instance, VanVoorst concludes, “if Thallos was simply writing about an eclipse, Julius Africanus would not have cared to say that Thallos was mistaken.”[iii]
In logic, when an argument against a particular view is offered, one mentions the claim under refutation, followed by premises and a conclusion. If Thallos were arguing against the claim that the eclipse was associated with the death of Jesus, he would have mentioned this event. However, there is no reference to Jesus, so therefore, one cannot conclude that it is even likely that Thallos was responding to a Christian claim about the “darkness induced by God” surrounding Jesus’ death. VanVoorst’s conclusion is a straw man fallacy because he creates an argument that Thallos does not claim to make. At best one may only infer that Thallos wrote about Jesus in his lost writings, but this is a massive assumption.
Pliny the Younger
As a prominent lawyer and senator in Rome, Pliny published nine books of letters between 100 and 109.[iv] He writes about punishment of Christians specifically by the Roman governor Trajan. Pliny also records that Christians would “sing hymns to Christ before dawn on a determined day and took oaths to refrain from theft, robbery, and adultery, not to break any promises, and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed.”[v]
Pliny also tells Trajan that, “many people of all classes, ages, and regions of his province are infected by this contagious superstition.”[vi] VanVoorst credits this source fairly by claiming that Pliny’s writings do not bear independent witness to Jesus independent of Christianity. “What is related about Christ confirms two points made in the New Testament: first, Christians worship Christ in their songs (Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-20; Rev. 5:11,13), and second, no Christian reviles or curses Christ (1 Cor. 12:3). Pliny, however, shows no knowledge of Christian writings in his letter.”[vii]
Pliny bears witness to the practices of Christianity and the persecution from the government. However, he offers no contribution to the historical Jesus. As a result, he is equivalent to any other historian writing about Greek mythology. Just because a historian writes about a certain group worshipping a god or gods, this does not validate the existence of their god or gods.
The Roman writer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 70-ca. 140) practiced law in Rome and was a friend of Pliny the Younger. He published a book Lives of the Caesars, which covers the lives and careers of the first twelve emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.[viii] In the fifth section of Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius reports how emperor Claudius treated several people during his reign. The quote claimed to support Jesus Christ is as follows, “He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.”[ix]
VanVoorst claims that “Christus” often found confusion with “Chrestus,” by non-Christians. Furthermore, the Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) spells Christian with an -“eta” in all three New Testament occurrences of the word (Acts 11:26, 26:8; 1 Pet 4:16).[x] In particular, “Christians” were also referred to as “Chrestians.” I find VanVoorst most convincing for the possibility of the connection to Jesus Christ when he claims that ‘Chrestus’ “does not appear among the hundreds of names of Jews recorded by the Roman catacomb inscriptions and other sources, yet was a familiar Gentile name. He concludes that this opens the door to the possibility that Suetonius may have confused Christus for Chrestus.”[xi] On the contrary, Bart Ehrman notes that Suetonius is probably referencing an individual “Chrestus” and Jesus’ followers, since Jesus of the Gospels was executed twenty years prior to the riots.[xii] My conclusion rests on the possibility of a reference to Jesus Christ here, however advances no farther than speculative evidence.
As a Roman historian, Tacitus is most famously known for the Annals, which covers the Roman Empire from 14-68 C.E. and includes information about the reign of Nero. He records Nero’s probable arson of Rome in order to implement his own architectural designs and how he passed the blame to Christians as a ready scapegoat. As a result of this blame, Nero heatedly persecuted Christians and Tacitus wrote the following about this, “But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”[xiii]
Indeed, emperor Nero used Christians as a scapegoat to explain the fire, which broke out in Rome (64 A.D.). Tacitus mentions that the Christians were likely not the cause of the fire, but used the fire as an excuse to persecute Christians. The Annals do not prove that Jesus Christ existed but merely that Christians existed in the First Century A.D., which no scholar has ever disputed. Since Tacitus recorded The Annals one hundred years after Jesus’ proposed existence, this lacks historical reliability. It is important to remember that the negative evidence cited above is not “absence of evidence,” but rather “evidence of absence.” In science, negative evidence is often as important as positive evidence.
As a Jewish historian, Josephus briefly mentions Jesus two times in the Antiquities. Josephus mentions James “the brother of Jesus who is called Messiah” (Ant. 20.9.1). While Josephus does discuss many individuals with the name Jesus in the Antiquities, he does not refer to any of them as “Messiah.” I believe this is a reference to the Jesus of the Gospels since no other Jesus was associated with “Messiah” or called by its definition, “the anointed one.” While I grant this as a reference to Jesus of the Gospels, the credibility of this reference remains highly contestable.
For instance, Josephus’ other reference has him professing faith in Jesus, calling him Messiah when Josephus never became a Christian in the first place. “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.”
Since Christian scribes copied Josephus’ writings through the Middle Ages, it is controversial whether his references to Jesus were altered or not. While Christians quote this passage as reliable evidence to Jesus’ existence, teachings, and resurrection, these references did not show up in the writings of Josephus until centuries after his death, at the beginning of the fourth century. Thoroughly dishonest church historian Eusebius is credited as the real author. The passage is out of context, which points to text alteration. All scholars agree that Josephus, a Jew who never converted to Christianity, would not have called Jesus “the Christ” or “the truth,” so the passage must have been doctored by a later Christian–evidence, by the way, that some early believers were in the habit of altering texts to the advantage of their theological agenda. The phrase “to this day” reveals it was written at a later time. Everyone agrees there was no “tribe of Christians” during the time of Josephus–Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.
If Jesus were truly important to history, then Josephus should have told us something about him. Yet he is completely silent about the supposed miracles and deeds of Jesus. He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives and tells us nothing that would not have been known by Christians in either the first or fourth centuries. The paragraph mentions that the divine prophets foretold Jesus, but Josephus does not tell what they said or us who those prophets were. If Jesus had truly been the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, then Josephus would have been the exact person to confirm it.
[i] VanVoorst, Robert. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans), 20
[ii] Ilbid, 21
[iii] Ilbid, 21
[iv] Ilbid, 23
[v] Ilbid, 25
[vi] Ilbid, 26
[vii] Ilbid, 29
[viii] Ilbid, 29
[ix] Ilbid, 30
[x] Ilbid, 31
[xi] Ilbid, 33
[xii] Ehrman, Bart. 2001. Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 58
[xiii] VanVoorst, Robert. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 41
(Sarah Schoonmaker is completing her second BA in philosophy at the University of Colorado–Denver after receiving a BSBA in Finance from the University of Denver and an M.Div from Denver Seminary. She plans to begin a Ph.D program in the fall of 2010 to study philosophy of science, philosophy of language, logic, and epistemology. In the meantime, she researches and writes on a variety of topics covering religion, science, culture, and philosophy. For more information see: www.schoonmaker.wordpress.com.)
The writings of Falvius Josephus have been touted by Christians and some non-Christians alike as being indisputable evidence that the Jesus of the New Testament, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, was a historical figure that actually existed. The evidence for this view has be stated in a previous blog. In this blog, I will critically examine this claim and show that not only is it not sufficient evidence to show that Jesus of Nazareth really existed but the evidence for the claim has been cherry picked and greatly flawed and thus isn’t all evidence for the existence of the historical, real Jesus of Nazareth. The sentence that is cited as evidence is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Source:http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant20.html#EndNote_ANT_20.24b). I was astonished by this, until I found the sentence in the paragraph in question. In order to make an objective test, let us examine the paragraph in full, not it part, as the proponents have done.
“1. AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. 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, (23) 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: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. (24) Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.”(Source: The Antiquities of the Jews, CH20, Paragraph 9:1)
One should take notice of something quite striking; the bolded text above doesn’t say “Jesus of Nazareth”. It says “Jesus, the son of Damneus”. Strictly deriving from context, there is nothing inconsistent in asserting that the James mentioned in the line in question, which is italicized and underlined in the text above, is the bother of the Jesus mentioned in the bolded line. Context dictates this since they are not separated explicitly (ie Josephus didn’t say that Jesus, the son of Damneus is not the same as Jesus brother of James who they called Christ). Also, there exists no break in the story such that anyone could assert they are different people in the context. It is quite common for writers to be general about the mention of a name, in this case of Jesus in the italicized and underlined line, and then when the story begins to center around that aforementioned character, to be far more specific about the character, as in the bolded line. Furthermore, Christ is Greek means nothing more than “the anointed one”. Literally, this means that one would be blessed with or covered in [holy] oil. (Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_anointing_oil, Greek meaning of Christ) It wouldn’t be out of the question, as far I know, that a “high priest” such as “Jesus, the son Damneus” was, would be called a Christ, an anointed one. So from this line of reasoning, we have a different Jesus than the one of bible who is contemporary of Josephus who not only could very well had a brother named James.
However, this could also be where the Gospel writers got their Jesus of Nazareth who had a brother named James. This proposition isn’t all all out of the realm of possibility in the slightest, for several reasons.
- Around the time Josephus was writing, it has been well established that there was rampant Jewish Messiahism among some groups of Jews in modern-day Israel.
- Although the earliest possible date for the first Gospel, of what would become the New Testament, is 70ad; the earliest, physical, dated Gospel of Mark dates, approximately, to around the year 90ad. This would give ample time to the author of the Gospel of Mark to construct his Jesus character based on the high priest, Jesus, the son of Damneus. The author of Mark obviously would have embellished the story, which is also not out of the question. Further, as the above point indicates certain groups were actually looking for the Messiah and thus had a bias towards those who appeared to have the features of the Messiah.
- The name of Jesus was quite common in the first century, and even before. This can be demonstrated by the fact that there exists an apocryphal Old Testament book called “Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach” which is considered part of the “Deuterocanon”. (Source: Early Jewish Writings) Although this writing isn’t in the canonized bible, Jewish or Christian, it does show that the name Jesus wasn’t a particularly unique name in the biblical scheme of things.
However, let us take an aside and begin by assuming that this passage does refer to Jesus Christ. What does this mean exactly? Suspending what has previously been said in this work and simply starting with the assumption that the passage does, in fact, specifically refer to Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition, we can better understand the positive implications promoted by believers, namely, that this passage is definitive evidence Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition was a real historical figure. The problem with this idea is that it is not “definitive” evidence. Such a claim is vast overstatement. This is due to the fact that one cannot assert the following isn’t a real possibility: Josephus may very well have been writing about a healer, seer and “moral teacher” being talked about and believed in at the time her wrote the passage above. Problem is we have the first Gospel, Mark, being written about the same time, nearly 40 years after the supposed death of Jesus Christ, in the year 70ad (as said before this is earliest date scholars can agree upon based solely on context and the fact they are disregarding the notion that Mark was writing prophecy; how could he since he was writing history? Furthermore, how reliable is a 40 year old, unverified story about a traveling preacher, of which there were many for a good part of the first century. (Source: Michael Shermer, from his appearance on Penn & Teller: Bullshit)). If this is the case, then, like the first paragraph of the first book of the Antiquities of the Jews (discussed later in this paragraph in more detail), Josephus could simply be writing the story down as if it really happened when he had no way of knowing whether or not it really did or not. This doesn’t say much for Josephus’ credibility which, as far as I know, has gone unchallenged. Although it is true that Josephus was a fairly accurate and reliable historian, it should be pointed out that in the first paragraph of the first book of the Antiquities of the Jews that Josephus copies, nearly verbatim, the first chapter of the book of Genesis of the Torah (and/or Old Testament). This is no surprising given that Josephus was a devote Jew. However, the Genesis is not in anyway history. At best it’s mythology. It should be further pointed out that if the passage in question is authentic and speaking about Jesus Christ of Nazareth as spoken about in the New Testament, it is the only one from the First Century. All other “historical” references to the figure, known as Jesus Christ, come to us much later, the earliest of these being the beginning of the second century, coming only with more Gospels which were mostly copies of the Gospel of Mark, with minor changes and embellishments.
Further, if the both the passage of Josephus is authentic and the Gospel tradition are to be reliable (which they are most certainly not, given the historical inaccuracies in them, which will discussed more detail in the next blog) then, Jesus (according to the aforementioned tradition) would have caused quite a stir in then Roman province of Judea; claiming to be or having it claimed of him that he was the King of the Jews (direct challenge of Roman authority which wasn’t tolerated), claiming to be or having it claimed of him to be the Son of (the Living) God (same issue as the last), and causing a social disturbance in the Temple (which the Romans watched closely as to be able to quell any uprising or rebellion of any kind, no matter how small). Also, Josephus leaves a majority of the story out, suggesting that it wasn’t a large or important movement of the day, given that, as mentioned before, there were many such “messiahs” walking the Earth in the first century. However, assuming it was a big deal and Jesus was a real threat to Roman authority, there were a great many Roman historians who had a opportunity to write about him (and the fact that the Romans prevailed by killing him). The Roman historians had every reason to write about him, insofar as they were able to defeat him and his “movement”, which it should mentioned constituted of, at minimum, 12 other men, 11 excluding Judas later in the story, and about 2 women, Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene. So, this “world-changing-messianic” movement, had at most a total 14 people (not including Jesus himself). This wouldn’t have been much of a threat and one Roman historians would have been very inclined to record since the Governor of Judea, a member of the overall Roman governance system, was successful in stopping him and his “movement”. Yet, to date, not a single document, produced by these many Roman historians of the day, has been provided to me or anyone else in the study of this issue, that mentions Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition.
Thus, from the evidence and analysis given above, it is not likely that Josephus was writing about Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition. Also, even if it was truly authentic, it is not clear that it wasn’t written in a contrived way (just hearsay, as what he wrote in book 1, paragraph 1) or that it is terribly important given he is the ONLY source, outside of the Gospel stories, to “prove” Jesus Christ existed. The bar I have set for the evidence that would definitively prove the existence of Jesus is no higher than it is to prove that other ancient figures existed. For example, for Alexander the Great, we have many records of him that are not Greek or Egyptian in origin, which lends a great deal of credibility to the claim that Alexander the Great existed; this is of course aside from the monuments that bore his name and the military victories he oversaw and orchestrated. Further, if this one reference by Josephus is not speaking of Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition, then the one solitary piece of evidence outside the Gospels that he existed is no longer valid and it further unlikely that the Jesus Christ of Nazareth of the New Testament tradition never existed at all.
Metro State Atheists
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