Jesus: Reliability through the Early Greek Texts

Historical Gentile Scripts

Our main focus is a Gentile called Thallus, at about AD 52 he composed a tracing of the history of Greece and its relations with Asia starting from the Trojan War to his own time.

Josephus made mention of a Samaritan to whom he was identified (Ant. xviii. 6. 4) as being a freedman of Emperor Tiberius. One another hand Julius Africanus, a Christian essayist on chronology about AD 221 who knew the compositions of Thallus explains that while examining the murkiness which fell upon the land amid the execution of Christ: Thallus, simplifies the darkness as an eclipse of the sun, but that seems irrational, on the grounds that a solar eclipse cannot occur at the season of a full moon, and Christ died during the Paschal full moon.

Going with this reference from Julius Africanus it has been deduced that:

  1. Anti-Christians always tried to invalidate Christian traditions by interpreting its facts and signs into natural phenomena. 
  2. Towards the middle of the first century, Christian traditions were known in Rome to non-Christian circles.

However, the writings of Thallus have vanished: the bits we know where referred by later writers. Aside from him, no specific reference is made to Christianity in any surviving non-Christian Gentile written work of the first century. 

An intriguing manuscript, dated AD 73 which is being preserved in the British Museum was found to have been sent by a Syrian to his son Serapion, at the time he Mara BarSerapion was in jail yet he wrote encouraging words of wisdom to his son saying that people who prosecuted astute men were misfortunate, he gave examples of wise men being Socrates, Pythagoras, and Christ. A quote from the manuscript: "What advantage did the Athenian, gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos, gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good: he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good: he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good: He lived on in the teaching which He had given.”

This writer did not say that Christ lived on by being raised from the dead, which shows that he was not a Christian. He was most likely a Gentile philosopher, who saw Christ as one of the great sages of antiquity.

What led to this lack of references to Christianity in the first-century writings Is not farfetched. From the viewpoint of Imperial Rome, Christianity in its first hundred years was dark and unsavory with indecent oriental superstition. If for some reason it had found its way to any records at all it would have been the police records which again like many other manuscripts and historical writings have vanished with time. 

Justin and Tertullian trusted that the record of the census referenced in Luke ii. 1 included the registration of Joseph and Mary and that if anyone had a doubt as to the birth of our Lord they could find proof in the official archives of Agustus. They were very certain that the records were in the official archives but that did not mean that they had gone through the archives themselves.

It would have been nice to know if Pilate sent word to Rome, and if he did at all what it read, although it too is beyond any trace now and it is not even certain he did.

Some old scholars believe that Pilate sent in such a report, yet there is no confirmation that any of them had any genuine knowledge of it. At around AD 150, Justin Martyr was addressing his Defense of Christianity to the Emperor Antoninus Pius; therein he made reference to Pilate's report, which Justin believed was preserved in the imperial archives. “They penetrated my hands and my feet.” He describes this as a depiction of the nails that were pierced into his hands and feet on the cross; and after He was executed, those who crucified Him cast lots for His garments and partitioned it amongst themselves; and that these things were so that you may gain from the "Acts" which were recorded under Pontius Pilate." Later he says: “That He performed these miracles so you may easily be satisfied with the "Acts" of Pontius Pilate." 

At about AD 197, Tertullian who was a great jurist-theologian of Carthage was addressing his Defence of Christianity to the man authorities in the region of Africa says thus: “Tiberius, in whose time the Christian name first made its appearance in the world, laid before the Senate tidings from Syria Palestirta which had revealed to him the truth of the divinity there manifested, and supported the motion by his own vote to begin with. The Senate rejected it because it had not itself given its approval. Caesar held to his own opinion and threatened danger to the accusers of the Christians."

Tertullian’s story sounds too good to be true, which he obviously believes to be true, but going by what we know of Tiberius it is highly doubtful and conflicting, relating this to about 170 years after the event it doesn’t commend itself to the judgment of any sound historian.

Two years before the Edict of Milan, Maximin II who was one of the last pagan emperors attempted to halt the rapidly increasing effect of Christianity in the Empire by publishing a book which claimed to be the true Acts of Pilate depicting the roots of Christianity as a repulsive pretense.

These “Acts” were full over the top attestations about Jesus and they were to be perused and memorized by school children. They were clearly fabricated. A Eusebius historian called attention to numerous errors found, for example they noted the death of Jesus as the seventh year of Tiberius (AD 20) when going by Josephus’ texts Pilate had not become the procurator of Judaea until Tiberius’ Twelfth year (also the confirmation of Luke iii. 1 as indicated stated that John the Baptist started to preach in the fifteenth year of Tiberius)

We don't know in detail what these affirmed ‘Demonstrations' contained, as they were normally stifled on Constantine's increase to control: yet we may gather that they had some liking with Toledoth Yeshu, a hostile to Christian assemblage well known in some Jewish circles in medieval time.

What the “Acts” contained is not made known in detail because they were stifled during Constantine's accession to power but we know that it bears resemblance with an anti-Christian compilation called the Toledoth Yeshu which was akin to some medieval time Jewish circles. 

Later on the Christian side decided to forge their own counter version of the “Acts of Pilate”, which much like that of Maximin’s contained no factual writings, This version is still existent, it contains memorials, the trial, passion, and resurrection of Christ, recorded by Nicodemus and deposited with Pilate (also own as the 'Gospel of Nicodemus') An interpretation of them can be found in the M. R. James' Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 94 ff.. what's more, they have their very own abstract interest which is of no concern of ours.

Cornelius Tacitus born between AD 52 and 54 is the greatest Roman historian in the days of the Empire who wrote the history of Rome under the emperors. When he was about the age of 60 there was an incident which ravaged Rome called the Eat Fire, he included this detail when he was writing the story of the reign of Nero (AD 54-69), he wrote on how it was broadly rumored that in attempt for Nero to gain more glory to himself he instigated the fire so that he could rebuild the city himself. 

He goes on to say: “Therefore, to scotch the rumor. Nero substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty, a class of men. loathes for their vice', whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor: and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh, not only in Judaea, the home of the plague but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home."

For a Jewish pagan Tacitus Christus was a proper name, to the Christians it was a title and not a name, seen as the Greek equivalent of the Semitic Messiah ('Anointed'), so we can deduce that for these lines that it referred to Jesus as Christus. It does not strike one as having been derived from Christian sources nor yet from Jewish informants.

The Christians called Him Christus, on the grounds that they believed He was their promised Messiah; the Jews, on the other hand, would not have given Him such a title. Tacitus was the son-in-law of Julius Agricola, who was governor of Britain in AD 80 to 84, so he was in a position to have access to such official data. If Pilate had sent a report to Rome, Tacitus will probably have known about it that most scholars.

It is important to note that apart from Jewish and Christian writers Tacitus is the one and only ancient author to mention Pilate, even though it is an irony that Pilate was only mentioned because of the part he played the death of Jesus.

The Great Fire of Rome was also mentioned, and he wrote on the lives of the first twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar onwards. In his Life Nero (xvi. 2) he says: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.’’

In the Lite of Claudius (xxv. 4) another possible reference to Christianity was made, where he said: “As the Jews were making constant disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus. He expelled them from Rome.”

Chrestus (a variation spelling of Christus in Gentile circles); its not certain who this name referred to, but it was likely that the introduction of Christianity into Jewish circles gave rise to the strife among the Roman Jews, and that Suetonius, discovering records of Jewish quarreling over one Chrestus surmised wrongly that this individual was in Rome during the time of Claudius.

The statement and claim we read in Acts xviii is in our interest, we find that when Paul came to Corinth (likely AD 50) he found a couple who had a recognized influence in early Christian history, a man named Aquila with his wife Priscilla who had recently come from Rome, for Claudius had directed all Jews to leave from Rome. It was possible they were foundation members of the congregation in Rome. 

A further purpose of contact between Suetonius' Life of Claudius and Acts is the announcement in the previous (xviii. 2) that Claudius' rule was set apart by 'consistent unfruitful seasons' (assiduous sterilitates), this brings us to remember the prediction of Agabus in Acts xi. 28, which said that “there should be great dearth throughout all the world” and this dearth came to pass in the days of Claudius.

Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) who was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor composed a letter in AD 112. C. to Emperor Trajan. He had tortured some Christians and gathered evidence that they were embarrassingly numerous in his province, so he wrote a letter asking for advice on how to get rid of them.

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light when they sang an anthem to Christ as God. and bound themselves by a solemn oath (Sacramentum) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all. fraud, theft, and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honor it; after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind."

After going through this chapter and in the preceding one, with or without evidence from early Gentile and Jewish writers,  it is easy for those who refuse to acknowledge Christian writings to establish the existence of Jesus himself. 

Without taking into account historical evidences some writers still ponder on the Christ-myth. The existence of Christ is as proverbial for an impartial historian as the existence of Julius Caesar. The Christ-myth' theories are not propagated by historians.

The earliest propagators of Christianity brought about the total examination of the certifications of their message. The souls of these historic Christians ought to enlighten their modern descendants and their proclamation solid enough to withstand any criticism. 

For by being equipped with the relevant evidence they are able to impart hope to anyone who asks, and like Theophilus, are engorged with the understanding and confidence in the faith they have learned.

RC