Evidence for Jesus – R.T. France (chapter 1)

Evidence for Jesus

R.T. France

Chapter 1 – Non-Christian Evidence

Bibliographic data here.


(footnotes & other links would go here)

There is not a lot of non-Christian evidence, but this fact alone is not damaging.

Jesus not as well known as Napolean.
News wasn’t as universal (even in days of Napolean), history of Tacitus only survived in 2

From a Roman point of view, Jesus, living amongst the butt of Roman humour, wouldn’t have
attracted much attention.

F. F. Bruce (Jesus and Christian origins outside the New Testament), suggests a parallel in
history of ‘the Fakir of Ipi’ –> a holy man in India who became leader of a great religion, but
little noticed at the time.

But, do we find references to him in Jewish literature of the time? Yes.

Problem: not many Jewish writings have survived.

Those with references are in 2 categories
(1) Josephus’ Histories (end of 1st century)
(2) Traditions of Rabbis (compiled long after Jesus)

Types of references to Jesus
(A) Direct references
(B) Indirect references
(C) Background evidence

Indirect References

(B) Indirect references

Even though talk of Buddha doesn’t mean Buddha existed, because of the early record and rise of Christianity around Jesus as historical figure, the evidence is stronger than it might be judged.

Gentile writers

1. Gentile writers

Christians were unpopular (see Tacitus reference)

Suetonius –> AD 120, short phrase included concerning the Christians, a “class of men
belonging to a new and vicious cult.” (Nero, 16.2)

Great fire of AD 64 not mentioned here.
Doesn’t mention Christus.
“Chrestus” mentioned later (Claudius 25.4).

Problem: Chrestus was a common name for ‘good’ or ‘kind’ used of slaves.

(1) Chrestus is a Greek name and not otherwise known as Jewish name
(2) Easy to mistake Christus (‘annointed’) for Chrestus, since Christus was unknown to
gentile world. Even Turtullian points out this misspelling (Apol 3, cf. Justin Apol I 4)
Conclusion: unlikely he made a reference to Jesus, since he spells correctly later the
name of Christians

Pliny the Younger –> AD 110, governor of Bithinia, letters to Trajan, one letter mentions
much about Christians

(1) Met together on a certain day
(2) Recite hymns to Christ as a god
(3) Bind themselves by oath to do no criminal act
(4) They would disperse and meet again to eat together, ordinary and harmless food

He concluded it was a religious cult.

What this shows –> numerical strength of Christians, practices of Christians in Asia Minor at
start of 2nd century, and about Roman superstition, but nothing known about Jesus directly.

2. Jewish writers

Besides Tannaitic period writers, what about Josephus?

Josephus –> mentions ‘Christian’ 1 time referring to ‘tribe’, mention of execution of James,
but avoidance of using term ‘Christian’.

The objection: if so little can be said of Jesus in his writings when so many Christians existed in
the first century, this calls Jesus into doubt.

Reponse: but by this reasoning, we should doubt the existence of the church in the first century,
but even George Wells isn’t willing to admit that! “Absence of evidence is not evidence of

Modern parallel: Mormons are very active in Britain today, door to door, etc. but they do not
figure in very prominently in the writings of British people today. Main source of writings:
in Mormon writings or against them. Now, if only a small % of our literature survives until the
year 4000 and no newspapers, how much evidence of Mormonism would there be and for
Joseph Smith? But when historians would want to know about Mormonism, they would turn
to Mormon writings today, likwise with Christians in the 1st century. “Surely here there is little
cause for Christian embarrassment or for historical scepticism. It is what you would expect.” (45)

Background evidence introduction

(C) Background evidence

So, what are these new studies shedding light on Jesus today, if there is so little extra-Biblical

(1) Evidence from Christian or semi-Christian and gnostic writings after the NT period
(2) Circumstantial evidence concerning the world Jesus lived in
Dead Sea Scrolls (1947 onwards)
Papyri, inscriptions, other writings
New sociological emphasis to 1st century times

This evidence is vast, so must be summarized in terms of a few areas

Background evidence

1. Qumran

Dead Sea Scrolls revolutionary discovery.
12 ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls, plus fragments of 100 others.
Qumran community was ultra orthodox Jewish, separated and Bible devoted.
Refer to ‘sons of light’ liberation from ‘sons of darkness’ some day
Began in 2nd century BC until AD 66-73 (Roman invasion)
The group was Essenes (most agree), referred to by Josephus

Connection with Jesus?
Wild claims made early on that it was a Jewish-Christian sect
Claims of Jesus as founder himself
Others say Christianity comes from Qumran sect
Today’s consensus: no direct link between Jesus and Qumran

Connection with John the Baptist?
Maybe some connection, ‘wilderness’ preaching by Jordan
Not very influential, John separated himself

Before 1947, no material available from inter-testimental periods in Palestine, though we still
had the Apocrypha and Pseudipigrapha, and Josephus
From the DSC we learn that not all Jews were mainstream, so Jesus message was similar

Qumran doesn’t tell us everything, it is just a sect, though many try to make it explain everything

2. Galilee (‘Galilee of the Gentiles’)

Bulk of Jesus’ activity
Many scholars once thought what could be said of Palestine could be equally said of Galilee
System under Herod Antipas
Later Pharisaic writings indicate Galilee was lax in the law
Strong social and cultural differences over Jerusalem
More Hellenized
Greek widely spoken, though Aramaic was vernacular, and Mishnaic Hebrew used formally,
meaning Jesus was likely bi-lingual (see footnote #60, p. 50)

Galilean form of Aramaic different from Judaea (accent obvious to Jerusalemites)
Later Rabbis despies Galileans as uncultured, boorish
So, Jesus teaching was already suspicious to Pharisees in light of region

3. Holy men

What of other miracle-workers and holy men in the first century to compare Jesus to?

Easter Mediteranean had many (rise of new irrationalism)

Pythagoras –> 6th century BC, philosopher but later seen as miracles worker (power of wind
and waves, miracle knowledge, power over animals, etc.)

Vespasian –> supposedly healed a blind man and a cripple, though he doubted he had such

Apollonius of Tyana (Neo-Pythagorean) –> credited with numerous miracles including raising
another from the dead

Moses, Elijah, Elisha

Honi the circle-drawer, and Honi ben Dosa –> demon possession of common concern (cf. Mt.
12:27), power over demons claimed from ben Dosa, and other Jewish exorcists mentioned
(Mk. 9:38; Acts 19:13-14), and Josephus

4. Freedom fighters

‘Zealots’ –> opposed to Roman rule
Revolutionary outlook clear in AD 6 when Romans held census for taxation in Judaea –>
Judas leaf armed revolt, inspired other uprisings yet all quenched in AD 66

Not all freedom fighters zealots, but terms could be used of many (Gal. 1:4; Acts 21:20;
22:3; Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13)

Before AD 66, Sicarii (digger-men) had reputation for gurilla tactics
Jesus couldn’t ignore this faction –> unclear Jesus’ view toward zealots, for or against

5. The ‘man in the street’

Problem with history: depends upon views of people who write the books
Most Jews neither Pharisee nor Sadducee, couldn’t read books, etc.
Important question because common people were Jesus’ following
Simon and Anna (Lk. 2:25-38) –> perhaps common people, yet still had a sense of the
imminent work of God 9Lk. 2:25)

Common person may have saw God’s intervention more as cataclysmic than as revolt

Conclusion/point: not everyone was a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or Zealot (consider today)

6. Background evidence for the distinctiveness of Jesus

a. Some feel threatened that there were other healers besides Jesus, incorrect solution:
emphasize superiority of Jesus so much we forget him as real person of the times
b. Others downplay Jesus as just another zealot

Samuel Sandmel lecture –> ‘Parallelomania’: argued that Christianity was a unique Jewish
movement, only with this distinctiveness can we account for its growth given the times (with
other teachers and miracle-workers), he couldn’t believe Christian teachers only copied
sources and nothing else creative


Conclusion: we must be prepared to find a Jesus who fits no formula, and not to let background evidence predominate, so we should avoid both extremes, need not be frightened about other magicians since he was in ‘in the round’ of his times, not just a strange figure to pop up

Last modified: 2008-09-19, 10:25:33
Outline: WPF



Leave a reply