Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 4
What Do Our Earliest Non-Christian Sources Say About Jesus?
Key Ehrman quote: “[According to the] commonsensical view, Jesus’ impact on the society of his day must have been immense, like a comet striking the earth. In that case, we could expect to find scores of accounts of his words and deeds written by contemporaries outside the group of his closest disciples. Surely people had a lot to say about this, whether his friends or enemies . . . Unfortunately, the commonsensical view is not even close to being right – biblical epics on the wide screen (the source of many people’s knowledge about the Bible!) notwithstanding. If we look at the historical record itself . . . it appears that whatever his influence on subsequent generations, Jesus’ impact on society was practically nil, less like a comet striking the planet than a stone tossed into the ocean.” (p. 56)
Early “Pagan” Sources:
Pliny the Younger (112 CE), Epistle 10.96: “They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.”
- In this letter of correspondence to Emperor Trajan, we learn of the practices of some early Christians.
- Unfortunately, we learn nothing about Jesus’ words or deeds before his crucifixion.
Suetonius (113-114 CE): from The Twelve Caesars, Life of Claudius 25: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
- It’s not clear that this is a reference to Jesus (‘Chrestus’ was a Greek name), but it may well be.
- Unfortunately, the reference in the passage to “the instigation of Chrestus” must be a reference to Christians, and not Jesus, as the passage is referring to public disturbances twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Tacitus (115 CE), Annals 15.44: "Consequently, 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. 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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing he city, as of hatred against mankind".
- Here we do have a non-Christian Roman historian reporting information about Jesus.
- He reports that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that a sect believed he was the Christ, and that they were commonly called ‘Christians’.
- Unfortunately, we already have reports of this from earlier Christian sources, and so Tacitus provides no new information about Jesus. I
- It’s perhaps worth noting that Tacitus got it wrong that Pilate was a procurator (he was a prefect).
Early Jewish Sources:
Josephus (93-94 CE), Antiquities 18.3.3: "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 to this day."
- The authenticity of this passage is extremely controversial -- for example, we know from his sources that Josephus never converted to Christianity.
- Furthermore, the fact that it was Christians who preserved and translated Josephus’ Antiquities through the centuries raise worries of tampering.
- For this reason and others, most scholars (N.B., including William Lane Craig and most conservative NT scholars -EA) think the “Christianized” statements are later Christian interpolations.
- (For a summary of scholarly discussion on the authenticity of the passage, see (e.g.) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html. -EA).
- However, most scholars think the text probably contained an authentic version of the passage from Josephus. The passage without the added interpolations reads as follows: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had 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 to this day." (N.B., this is the version William Lane Craig and most conservative NT scholars accept as well -EA)
The Talmud (circa 200s CE): "On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! - Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a _Mesith_ [enticer], concerning him Scripture says, _Neither shalt though spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?_ With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government for royalty [i.e., influential]. Our Rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples, Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni, and Todah.” (Sanhedrin 43a)
- This passage seems to be referring to Jesus’ crucifixion, as well as to his disciples (but notice that it says he was hanged, not crucified, and that he only had five – not twelve – disciples).
- Unfortunately, the source is was written over 150 years after the events described, and because of this, most scholars doubt its historical worth as a source about Jesus.
Conclusion: We have no non-Christian sources that give us new information about the life of Jesus from the first 100 years after his death.