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-The Earliest Historical References to Jesus and Christianity

by Dr. D ~ December 12th, 2010

Tacitus wrote that the roman general Agricola ...

                                 (Tacitus via Wikipedia)

It has become fashionable in some circles to claim that Christianity rose up in the 2nd century and therefore has no claim upon persons or events in the 1st.

First of all we have evidence to the contrary in the New Testament writings themselves which reflect an earlier time and culture.

NT Writings

The earliest writings that reference Jesus and early Christianity are those of Paul written between 48-60 AD/CE -beginning roughly 15 years after the death of Jesus.

In I Corinthians he writes about the Last Supper and the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. In Chapter 15 he names Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and the Apostles, plus himself and 500 others as those who had seen Jesus after his resurrection. In Galatians he claims that he received the Gospel directly from the resurrected Jesus.

The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts were written before 70 AD/CE. Probably between 55-66 (22-32 years afterwards). Internal references and evidence pretty much precludes a later date considering the Jewish War (66-70) and the changes that followed. Most scholars contend that these 3 Gospels contained earlier common and diverse source material that may have circulated orally.

We also have the Ryland’s fragment of the Gospel of John that has been dated as early as 117 AD/CE and found in Egypt quite a ways down the Nile which indicates that the original was produced much earlier. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written around 90 AD/CE well within the lifetime of John the Apostle who lived to the beginning of the 2nd century.

Roman Writers? 

Then comes hard historical evidence from early in the 2nd century that singles out and identifies Christianity and Christians as a group for special legal consideration. Pliny The Younger mentions his legal dealings with ‘Christians on trial’ in a letter to Trajan in 112 AD/CE which the emperor actually took the time to respond to.

This reference shows that early in the 2nd century the movement had already risen to the level where it was being recognized and singled out directly by Roman authorities. Therefore it is nearly impossible for Christianity to have reached that level in just a few short years and totally discounts those who want to assign its beginnings to the 2nd century.

One of the major criticisms I hear all the time to the 1st century origins of Christianity is the lack of collaborative historical references from contemporary Roman writers. It is true that the movement was somewhat under the Roman radar in the 1st century and there are only a few passing references for us to consider. However, in the final analysis ‘silence’ is not a very compelling argument as far as I’m concerned.

However, in this article we are going to take a look at what references there are extant from that period but only the most reliable and least disputed.

Fact is, we have only a few historical writings extant from the first century period. It is not surprising that some small ‘Jewish’ group would not really rise to the attention of the Roman writers at the time. Besides what they did write about Judaism proper at the time shows that they really didn’t even have a good clue. If what they said about the Jews cannot be trusted than why do we have any expectations that any references to early Christians would be all that accurate or satisfying?

You could write a whole book on ‘what Pliny forgot to mention’ yet it would be meaningless in this discussion. What did Pliny the Elder even say about Judaism? He may have referenced the Essenes community on the Dead Sea in a passing geographical reference in ‘Naturalis Historia’ but nothing about the religion per se.

Tell me what did any of the Roman writers say about any other Jewish religious group? That is what early Christians were to the Romans, merely another Jewish group that caused trouble.

Tacitus did write fancifully and with disdain about the Jews and their origins. The accuracy of his history here is laughable. Then he writes about the dealings of the Romans with Judea with far more certainty including the beginnings of the Jewish War and preparation for the assault on the walls of Jerusalem. All in the first 13 pages of Book 5 of his ‘Histories’. Unfortunately we only have 26 pages of Book 5 extant. Read a few pages and you will see what I mean about its accuracy on Judaism.

Also Tacitus did reference a group associated with the Fire of Rome in 64 AD/CE that Nero placed the blame on:

“…Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ (probably Chrestus in the original), from whom the name had its origin. …”

Suetonius also references Roman persecution of this group of Chrestiani who followed a leader called Chrestus:

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome”

Neither the Tacitus or Suetonius reference says a whole lot about the group in question but the references do square with early Christian recollection.

Those who want to say that these ‘Chrestians’ were some other group called ‘the Goodies’ (which is what the word means) and a follower of a leader called ‘the Good guy’ are rather disingenuous and unconvincing particularly since the group in question was a Jewish group. Show me any references to another Jewish group with a name that sounds suspiciously like Christians? Unlikely and pretty far-fetched. It is far more likely that the Romans merely misunderstood their real nickname and tagged them with a similar sounding one instead.

Besides Tacitus, what did any of the other Roman writers say about the revolt of Judea in 66-70 AD/CE and groups and the leaders involved? Yet it was a major military campaign and we have the coins to show for it? What we do have comes mostly from Josephus.

Josephus and Philo?

While we are at it Josephus did mention John the Baptist and James the Just (an early Christian leader and brother of Jesus). However his statement about Jesus is disputed and obviously has been heavily tampered with to the point that it is hard to be certain exactly what he did originally say.

Origen mentions the Josephus references in “Against Celsus” circa 248 AD/CE and makes it plain that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah. But by 325 and the writing of Eusebius, Josephus is quoted in its current form with the statement-“He was the Christ”. Obviously in the interim changes had been made to the text. Even greater and more obvious additions can be observed in the Slavonic editions of Josephus which were derived from the Aramaic manuscripts of his works.

Nevertheless, most historians believe that Josephus did reference Jesus in some form or another even if we can’t fully recover his exact statement.

What about Philo? Some ask why he didn’t mention Jesus and early Christianity since he was a contemporary. I would like to know what he had to say about the Herodians. He was close to that ruling family and a nephew even married into it but he seems to be rather silent when it comes to that very interesting group of folks. Ditto for the Ananias High Priestly family in Jerusalem which he might have been directly related to.

Conclusions

Point is, silence from ancient sources doesn’t really mean whole lot. Many documents cited by ancient writers are no longer extant and some have obviously been tampered with. A lot of what we do have is obviously inaccurate (ie. Tacitus on Jewish origins and history). Plus there were not that many sources in the first place.

Nevertheless, it is obvious from the sources we do have that Christianity had its beginning in the first century and was becoming a large enough movement to cause the Romans some concerns by the time Pliny the Younger mentions it in 112 AD/CE.            *Top

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6 Responses to -The Earliest Historical References to Jesus and Christianity

  1. autopoet

    why do we automatically link jesus and christianity? they are two entirely different things, and upon close scrutiny are largely unrelated. we know from acts that the romans at antioch coined the word ‘christian’, and possibly as a derogative appellation. we can see that in the other two incidences of the use of the word within the collection. one is used by agrippa when questioning paul: “…almost thou persuadest me to be a christian.” if paul had been so interested in converting agrippa to ‘christianity’ his response may have been a resounding yes, but he steers well away from that title and suggests that he would have agrippa become a free man, unlike himself, who was in chains at that time. the next usage is by peter. he admonishes his readers to not suffer being identified as murderers, thieves, evil doers or busy bodies yet suggests they suffer the appellation of ‘christian’. we know that peter was a coward and paul was an intellectual. there is no evidence whatsoever that jesus founded christianity, and in fact it is plainly obvious in the literature that his objective was to finish off the mosaic law, not start a new religion.

  2. Dr. D

    Autopoet:

    No link to Jesus and Christianity? Yet you quote from Luke-Acts (originally one book) which starts with the birth of John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus of Nazareth in chapter 1 & 2, then goes on to his ministry including his death and Resurrection and then culminates in the Acts section with the beginning of a movement founded by his Apostles and disciples at his instruction. Reading the entire work shows the link between Jesus and the beginning of the movement which later came to be called Christianity.

    Yes ‘Christian’ was a derogatory term for the Jesus movement at the beginning but quickly became an accepted appellate and is now used today with pride- identifying those who accept Jesus as Lord.

    Jesus was not the founder of Christianity? The disciples and Apostles of Jesus said that their dead master was resurrected and appeared to them after his death. It can be rightly said that if there was no resurrected Jesus then there would have been no movement, no disciples, no Apostles, no Paul or Peter and no book like Luke-Acts which you are quoting from.

    But there was a resurrection and Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 (55 AD/CE) nearly 500 folks had seen the resurrected Jesus including himself, James the brother of Jesus, Peter and the rest of the Apostles. So there is your link.

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