It has always been recognized that there are references to Jesus outside the more immediate Christianly influenced traditions. They are periodically reviewed, usually with the same results.2
Josephus the Jewish historian in his Jewish Antiquities (written in the 90s) refers to Jesus twice. The first passage has clearly been subject to Christian redaction, but there is a broad consensus3 that Josephus wrote something like the following:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out (Ant. 18.63-64).
The second passage is briefer and presumably alludes back to the earlier passage. It is an account of the summary execution of James (in 62 CE), who is described as 'the brother of Jesus who is called Messiah' (Ant. 20.200). Few have doubted that it came from Josephus' pen.
In the course of his treatment of the great fire of Rome during Nero's reign (64 CE), Tacitus the Roman historian (writing early in the second century) refers to the scapegoats on whom blame was put, known by the common people as 'Christians'. He explains: 'Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate' (Annals 15.44). To be noted is the fact that the formulation has no distinctive Christian features. And had the information come to Tacitus from Christian sources we would have expected some disclaimer ('whom they called Christ') and reference to
2. Meier, Marginal Jew 1.56-111, has provided a full and discriminating discussion of these passages, and nothing more need be added at this point. I follow his translations, which are superior to those of the Loeb editions. See also, e.g., C. A. Evans, 'Jesus in Non-Christian Sources', in B. Chilton and C. A. Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1994) 443-78; Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus 63-89; R. E. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), with extensive bibliography (219-34).
3. See particularly G. 'The Jesus Notice of Josephus Re-Examined', JJS 38 (1987) 1-10, who points out that the two key phrases ('a wise man', 'a doer of startling deeds') are characteristic of Josephus and (so far as the possibility of an interpolation is concerned) improbably Christian. See further Charlesworth, Jesus 91-98, and Van Voorst, Jesus 89-99.
ion rather than simply execution. As it is, Tacitus clearly regarded 'Christ' as a proper name, whose followers were known as Christiani.4
Suetonius, also writing early in the second century, makes a similar but confused reference to an episode in 49 CE. 'Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome' (Claudius 25.4). Most infer that Suetonius misheard the name (the pronunciation of Christus and Chrestus would have been very similar) and misunderstood the report as a reference to someone (Chrestus) active in the Jewish community at the time. The broad consensus is that the disturbances referred to had been occasioned by some strong reactions within certain synagogues to Jewish merchants and visitors preaching about Jesus as the Christ. The confusion involved is hardly the work of artifice or contrivance, but certainly weakens the historical value of the text.
Of the possible references to Jesus in Jewish rabbinic sources, the most plausible echo of early pre-rabbinic (Pharisaic) reaction to Jesus is b. Sanhedrin 43a, referring to Yeshu (Jesus) who was hanged on the eve of Passover and describing him as a magician who beguiled Israel and led it astray. But the whole enterprise of reading first-century details from often much later rabbinic traditions is too fraught with difficulty for us to put too much weight on them.5
Such references are important if only because about once every generation someone reruns the thesis that Jesus never existed and that the Jesus tradition is a wholesale invention.6 But they provide very little hard information and it will suffice to refer to them at the two or three relevant points in what follows.
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