Extrabiblical Evidence for Jesus’ Historicity

Like pretty much every scholar who examines the TF[Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum], believing or non-believing, Mykytiuk knows that it cannot be wholly authentic. After all, it refers to the divinity of Jesus and the effective truth of Christianity, though Josephus was a (non-Christian) Jew.

See Also: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse (Brill, 2019).
"
Questioning Jesus’ Historicity." (B&I Article).

By Raphael Lataster
University of Sydney
November 2019

An 2015 article by Christian scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk on the extrabiblical evidence for Jesus’ historicity in Biblical Archaeology Review has been republished online this month. I am delighted to accept The Bible and Interpretation’s offer of a response, and will keep in mind that Mykytiuk’s article was written long before my Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse (henceforth QHJ) so that he cannot be expected to be completely up to date on the matter (although that is no excuse for the many papers by many critical scholars he ignores but would have had ample time to read). Realising that many would be sceptical of the Christian sources for Jesus’ historicity, due to obvious biases, Mykytiuk here focuses on the “classical and Jewish writings almost exclusively”.

The short Tacitean reference is the first to be mentioned, and Mykytiuk would do well to note that since Tacitus was born after Jesus’ death, he would have likely relied on Christian sources, or perhaps Pliny, who likely relied on Christian sources. Recall why we are looking at non-Christian references in the first place. Mykytiuk also seems unaware that Tacitus is not a totally reliable historian, making implausible claims and referencing mythological creatures like the phoenix. It is also not a small matter that this passage was preserved by interpolation-happy Christian scribes, and that there are suspicious lacunae in the writings of Tacitus and similar historians, that coincide with the alleged birth and death of Jesus. Yet more problems with this passage are discussed in QHJ.

Mykytiuk then refers to the shorter reference in Josephus, which mentions a James, who is the brother of a Jesus, who is ‘called Christ’. Interestingly, while he does not seem aware of Richard Carrier’s argument in the Journal of Christian Studies that the crucial ‘called Christ’ phrase is probably something of an accidental interpolation, Mykytiuk does seem to acknowledge that this passage is ambiguous enough to have to refer to another. That would be the longer reference to Jesus in Josephus, the Testimonium Flavianum (TF). As I noted in QHJ, if authentic, this brief passage would need to link to the TF to count as good evidence for Jesus. If the TF turns out to be inauthentic, then this passage is very likely an interpolation, or simply refers to somebody else, like the Jesus ben Damneus mentioned soon after (Mykytiuk realises that Josephus refers to many Jesuses, and it is clear to many scholars that several of them would have been seen as ‘messianic’). It could thus be thrown out as evidence for Jesus’ historicity, along with the TF. So, on to the TF.

Like pretty much every scholar who examines the TF, believing or non-believing, Mykytiuk knows that it cannot be wholly authentic. After all, it refers to the divinity of Jesus and the effective truth of Christianity, though Josephus was a (non-Christian) Jew. I shall leave it to readers to see if they are comfortable with the logic of trusting much of this passage, knowing full well that it has at least been partly tampered with. And before you decide, consider who did the tampering. Christians. Jews had little interest in preserving the writings of the turncoat Josephus. Christians were the ones who preserved his writings, and as we all know, medieval Christians tampered with these and other writings. Did they do this to make Jesus sound greater than he was? Or to make it look like several ancient historians ‘knew’ he existed? We will never know for sure. Additionally, Josephus was born after Jesus’ death, so if these passages are authentic they relied on unknown sources, likely Christians, and like Tacitus Josephus himself was not a totally reliable historian, mentioning mythical figures like Hercules and apparently witnessing supernatural events that would be immediately rejected as veridical by contemporary critical scholars. Again, there are other issues, mentioned in QHJ, but we do not have the time to discuss them all in detail here.

Curiously, like Robert Van Voorst, Mykytiuk finds it compelling that Jewish rabbis of the middle ages (he must surely know that the Talmud is not exactly a first century document) apparently believed in Jesus’ historicity. Again, I leave it to readers to decide if this is impressive, given that Jewish rabbis also believe in the historical existence of Moses and Abraham (not to mention God, angels, demons, and so forth), which many Tanakh scholars – even Jewish ones – now find untenable.

Mykytiuk refers to a few other, less important, sources. From these the most noteworthy would be Pliny, though he refers to the worship of Christ, and Suetonius, who mentions angry Jews in Rome. Towards the end of the article, he wisely refrains from claiming that any of the recently discussed ossuaries provide good evidence for Jesus’ historicity.

So that is it. If we wish to ignore the Christian sources, we effectively only have Tacitus and Josephus. And we know for a fact that these sources, preserved by Christians, were tampered with by Christians – after all, why have qualms about editing a non-believer’s source when even the very Word of God can be played around with? If the case for Jesus’ historicity relies on evidence like that, the historicity agnosticism I espouse should be an attractive option. And that is before we examine the earliest Christian sources, and how they align with the ‘Celestial Jesus theory’ that has been floating around for some time now. The basic idea is that Paul and other early Christians believed in a purely celestial Jesus, who hadn’t actually appeared as a human in Jerusalem in the first century. But that is a topic for another day.

Article Comments

Submitted by James Gomez on Wed, 11/27/2019 - 20:29

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Good summary of the lack of acceptable extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

An account of Jesus which appears to better fit the facts is the ‘Celestial Jesus theory’ attributed to Paul and other Christians, which is mentioned towards the end of this summary.

When Paul says that he was taught by no man except by Christ himself (Galatians 1:12) in visions, might be an indirect way of indicating that he knew that this was how others also knew him. And may explain his apparent lack of interest in a historical Jesus (e.g., when was he born, who was the father, what was accomplished in his youth, etc.). All of the natural questions one would think to ask of such an important historical holy figure. It would also explain why there so many accounts of who it was believed Jesus was, internally within the four gospels, Gospel of Thomas, New Testament Apocrypha, and from gnostic sources - many which are inconsistent with each other. But can be accounted for by seeing them as inspired in some way as was the Jesus that Paul writes about.

Well that theory doesn’t really fit with the fact that he met up with the guys that knew Jesus while he lived on earth and they agreed with everything Paul had to say about Jesus. He gives the same version as the people who knew the historical Jesus.

Submitted by Raphael Lataster on Tue, 12/17/2019 - 20:55

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You make some great points, James. I would add that it is much easier to make stuff up (explaining the many contradictory accounts) about a person that did not exist.

Submitted by Raphael Lataster on Wed, 01/29/2020 - 17:29

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Dhoae, what you are doing is reading the Epistles with the Gospels in mind. Try not doing that, especially since the Epistles are the earlier documents. You may find that Paul and the others, according to the Epistles, are curiously unaware of Jesus having been on Earth in the recent past. Seems to me that the Gospels, the later documents, build on and change the earlier story, and that is where we finally get a Jesus unambiguously situated on Earth in the recent past.

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Mon, 06/01/2020 - 22:47

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I was writing a paper on Melchizedek when I came across a paper by Steven M. Donnelly, the Divine Rites and Rejection of the Priest King: Melchizedek on the Margins of Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation, a thesis, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2014, Dept. of Comparative Religion, posted at www.academia.edu.

I'm familiar with the book by Peter Schafer on the deprecation of Jesus in the Talmud, unfortunately I don't have it at hand but I thought it interesting to learn from this paper that Melchizedek was also deprecated in the Talmud.

Steven M. Donnelly writes:

"The literary depiction of Melchizedek is unequivocally held in high regard prior to the rabbinic period.

…An overt change in attitude toward the priestly status of Melchizedek becomes apparent among rabbinic sources.

…The endorsement of Christ within the Epistle to the Hebrews as a priest after the pre-Aaronic order of Melchizedek conceivably introduced a challenge to rabbinic religious hegemony.

“…The marginalizing of Melchizedek appears to comprise a rabbinic response, perhaps initiated by R. Ishmael, to claims of a Christological priesthood linked to the Melchizedekian order."

The deprecation of a Jesus in the Talmud alone may not be a strong indicator of Jesus' existence, but when it is coupled with a deprecation of Jesus' discipline of writing the Law on your heart (in Hebrews the author quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34) it seems to me that the negative critique of the man coupled with a negative critique of his discipline is a stronger indication of his existence, since a motive is indicated for both deprecations. We know that rabbinical Judaism does turn to portable Torah scrolls for each diaspora community rather than the difficult internalization of the written law which was claimed for Jesus.
Why deprecate both the man and his oral discipline while turning to the alternative: a written text on a scroll, if he did not exist? The Talmud could have ignored the man if he did not exist and just deprecated the oral discipline of Melchizedek, which they abandoned for Torah scrolls.

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