The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 1/Section 1

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The Non-Christian Witnesses[edit]

In view of the vagueness, effectiveness, and vulnerability of the evangelical accounts of Jesus, as far as his historical reality is concerned, the witnesses in non-Christian literature have always occupied a prominent place in the question of his historicity. As early as the first few centuries of the present era pious Christians searched the Jewish and pagan writers for references to Jesus, convinced that such references ought to be found in them; they regarded with great concern the undeniable defects of tradition, and, in the interest of their faith, endeavoured to supply the want by more or less astute “pious frauds,” such as the Acts of Pilate, the letter of Jesus to King Abgar Ukkama of Edessa,[1] the letter of Pilate to Tiberius, and similar forgeries. Greater still was the reliance on the few passages in profane literature which seemed to afford some confirmation of the historical truth of the things described in the gospels. As these so-called non-Christian witnesses are again brought forward to rebut the denial of the historicity of Jesus, in the discussion which has followed the appearance of The Christ Myth, and are even pressed upon us as decisive testimony, we must make a comprehensive inquiry into the value of those references in profane writers which seem to support the belief in an historical Jesus.


1.—Philo and Justus of Tiberias.[edit]

Let us begin with the witnesses in Jewish literature. Here we at once encounter the singular circumstance that Philo (30 B.C. to 50 A.D.) makes no reference to Christ. Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, was by no means a secluded scholar who took no interest in the fortunes of his people. As envoy of the Alexandrian Jews to Caligula, he pleaded the interests of his co-religionists at Rome, and, in all probability, himself visited the land of his fathers. He even in one place makes an incidental reference to Pilate, who had caused an agitation among the Jews at Jerusalem by some offence against their religious ideas.[2] We are further indebted to him for some important information on the Palestinian sect of the Essenes, who in many respects closely resembled the Jessenes and Nazarenes, as the Christians were at first called. His own views, in fact, have so unmistakable an affinity with those of the contemporary Jewish-Gnostic sects,[3] and some of these, such as the Cainites, are so fully described by him[4] that it is in the highest degree improbable that Philo was unacquainted with the Nazarenes, on the supposition that they really were an important body in his time, and caused as serious an agitation among the Jews as is commonly believed.

It may be suggested that Philo had no occasion to speak about them.

How can we explain, then, that the Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias, another contemporary and a closer fellow-countryman of the alleged historical Jesus he lived at Tiberias, not far from Capernaum, where Jesus is supposed to have been especially active is also silent about them? Justus wrote a chronicle of the Jewish kings down to the time of Agrippa II. The original work has been lost. We know it only from a reference in Photius, a patriarch of Constantinople of the ninth century. Photius assures us, however, that he read through the Chronicle of Justus in search of references to Jesus, and found none; he attributes it to “the disease”—that is to say, the unbelief—of the Jews that such a man as Justus does not mention the appearance of Christ, the fulfilment of the prophecies by him, and the miracles he wrought. As, however, we learn from Photius that the chronicle was merely a brief treatment of a subject that had no direct connection with the life of Jesus, we must not lay too much stress on the absence of any reference. Still the fact remains that Photius himself believed there ought to be some mention of Jesus, and was surprised to find none.


  1. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, I, 13.
  2. Schürer, Geschichte des Jüd[ischen] Volkes [im Zeitalter Jesu Christi], 4th ed. III, p. 678, etc.
  3. Gfrörer, Philo und die Jüd[isch].-Alex[andrinische] Theosophie, 1835.
  4. M[oriz] Friedländer, Der vorchristliche Jüd[ische] Gnosticismus, 1898, p. 19, etc. Google Books