The Earliest References to Jesus

In view of some continuing uncertainty as to the sources used by Josephus and Tacitus it is probably worth simply recording the earliest references to Jesus as a historical personage. They come from Paul's letters, the earliest Christian documentation which has come down to us.

The first is 1 Cor. 15.3 where Paul recites the foundational belief which he himself had received and which was evidently taught to converts as the earliest Christian catechetical instruction: 'that Christ died . . .'. The point is that Paul

4. On the other hand, we can hardly be entirely confident that Tacitus had access to official records (Van Voorst, Jesus 49-52).

5. See further J. Maier, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Ɯberlieferung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1978); Van Voorst, Jesus 104-29.

6. Most recently G. A. Wells has continued a long-running but lone campaign in The Jesus Myth (Chicago: Open Court, 1999). For earlier treatments in the same vein see Weaver, Historical Jesus ch. 2.

was probably converted about two years following the event confessed7 and probably received this instruction at that time. In other words, in the early 30s Paul was being told about a Jesus who had died two or so years earlier.

The second comes from Gal. 1.18-20, where Paul records his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. If his conversion is to be reckoned about two years after Jesus' crucifixion, then his visit to Jerusalem will have to be dated no more than about five years after the crucifixion (mid-30s). On that visit he recalls that he met with 'James, the Lord's brother'. Later on he refers to 'the brothers of the Lord' (1 Cor. 9.5). This accords, it should be noted, with the second Josephus reference cited above (Ant. 20.200). It is a work of some desperation which denies the obvious deduction from these references, that there was a man called Jesus whose brothers were well known in the 30s to 60s.8

In assessing the impact of Jesus the teacher on early Christianity, before as well as after Easter, Paul Barnett stresses the value of the NT letters, particularly those of Paul.9 This is a salutary reminder that we should neither ignore these earliest of NT writings, nor start from the assumption that a great gulf is fixed between the Jesus tradition and Paul. It is true, of course, that if we had nothing but Paul's letters to depend on for our knowledge of Jesus' Galilean and Judean mission we would know very little about him.10 Nevertheless, in letters not intended to provide biographical details, the number of allusions is probably enough to confirm both Paul's knowledge of and interest in Jesus prior to his death and res-urrection.11

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