Non-Christian Sources for Jesus: An Interview with History.com
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Number 6 in the May Bart Ehrman series. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Bart Ehrman
I have recently had a written interview about the historical Jesus with Christopher Klein, correspondent with History.com, the web site of the History Channel. I’m not sure what the title of the article will be; it should be appearing relatively soon, as a lead up to Easter. He has graciously allowed me to post the questions and answers from the interview. They all deal with the non-Christian evidence we have for the life of Jesus.
Can you say a few words about why it’s not surprising that there is no archaeological evidence of Jesus?
It makes sense that people today would think that we should have archaeological evidence of Jesus – after all, he’s the most important figure in the history of Western Civilization! If he existed, surely we’d have some physical record of it, right? The problems are that (a) we too quickly assume that someone who is important *after* his life must have been equally important *during* his life; but that’s absolutely not the case. No one who has looked seriously into the matter thinks Jesus was “the talk of the empire,” of importance to anyone outside of his small circle of acquaintances in rural Palestine. Even more important (b) the reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually *anyone* who lived in Jesus’ time and place.
Who was the most important Jewish figure in Palestine for the entire first century (who wasn’t, say, the actual king)? There’s no doubt. Flavius Josephus.
Highly placed aristocrat, military leader, political figure, eventually made a court historian by the Roman emperor himself, and our principal source of information for the Jewish people and history at the time. And how much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence? None.
So too, who is (by far) the best-known Jewish cultural figure *outside* of Palestine in the first century? Again, not much competition: Philo of Alexandria, brilliant philosopher, massively prolific author, political activist, known even at the highest levels of government in Rome itself. How much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence? Again, none. The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist. It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record. Evidence of existence has to be established, then, on other grounds.
Can you talk about the importance of Flavius Josephus in describing the history of first-century Palestine and why he can be considered a reliable source?
Flavius Josephus is far and away our best source of information about first-century Palestine, without a rival. That doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable – far from it. But it does mean that anyone who wants to know about the history, politics, military activities, economy, society, and religion of Palestine is heavily indebted to Josephus more than any other source, by a large margin.
Josephus wrote a six-volume account of the Jewish uprising against Rome in 66-73 CE, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. He was a bona fide expert. He was a general in the Jewish military at the beginning of the conflict and, after his surrender, a hostage used by the Romans as an interpreter/mediator.
He later wrote a massive 20-volume account of the history of the Jewish people from the beginning down to his own day, devoting most attention to events and persons nearest his own time. For both subjects we have very few other sources – scattered and remote. But since he covered the same ground in these two separate works, his comments in one can be compared with those in another. When that is done carefully, it is clear that Josephus slants his accounts according to the personal agenda he had in writing (there are discrepancies that are best accounted for this way). So he was not writing a disinterested history.
But then again, who ever did? Historians have to do with Josephus what they do with all other ancient sources (from Herodotus and Thucydides onward): carefully note what he says and just as carefully evaluate it, in light internal inconsistencies, discrepancies with other accounts, and general historical plausibilities. Still, when all this is said and done, Josephus gives us remarkably valuable insights into the history of first century Palestine.
Why is Tacitus a reliable source for his mention of Christus and his execution by Pontius Pilate?
As a Roman historian, Tacitus did not have any Christian biases in his discussion of the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 CE, as recounted in his multi-volume work, the Annals of Rome (book 15). He was reporting what was widely known, at least to those who knew anything about it. It seems unlikely that he had Christian sources of information for his account (he almost certainly was not interviewing Christians for information); his account is as an outsider, who considers Christians to represent a foul and obnoxious superstition involving a crucified criminal.
That means that just about everything he says coincides – from a completely different point of view, by a Roman author disdainful of Christians and their superstition – with what the New Testament itself says: Jesus was executed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (who ruled 26-36 CE), for crimes against the state, and a religious movement of his followers sprang up in his wake.
What is the value of these small non-Christian snippets written about Jesus (which you talk about in Chapter 2 of Did Jesus Exist?) compared to the much lengthier accounts in the New Testament?
One would certainly not expect any literary reference to Christians or Christianity or Jesus himself in Roman authors of the first century. Christianity was simply a tiny (TINY) religious movement that no one had heard of. Most Romans would not even have heard the name Christian until probably the middle or end of the second century, well over a century after the movement started.
The fact that we do have some Roman authors mentioning Jesus and/or the Christian already within eighty years of his death – Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius – shows that Roman intellectuals who were interested in such things (some of them) had no trouble understanding where this tiny, odd, religious superstition came from. It originated with “Christ” (hence the name: Christian), in Judea, at the time of the emperor Tiberius. These authors have no stake in saying this. It was just information known from their own Roman sources of information.
This much information does not help us much at all (in fact, almost not at all) in knowing what Jesus said and did during his life. But it is useful for realizing that Jesus was known by historians who had reason to look into the matter. No one thought he was made up. If you want to see what actually happened in his life, of course, you would not want to rely on these kinds of sources – who don’t give us much. You would need to look at our much earlier and extensive sources.
These are all Christians and are obviously and understandably biased in what they report, and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information. But their central claims about Jesus as a historical figure – a Jew, with followers, executed on orders of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius – are borne out by these later sources with a completely different set of biases. That and more is borne out even more fully by Josephus, a Jewish historian with yet other axes to grind, but who also knows that Jesus existed and that we can say something about his teaching, reputation, and death.
Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog, including this one.
>>>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400; By William Whiston (originally uploaded by The Man in Question on en.wikipedia.org) – https://sites.google.com/site/josephuspaneas/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1058656