I’ve been challenged on my assertion that there are no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’ existence. The proof offered was Cornelius Tacitus and Josephus. I’m not a history expert, but here’s what I find:
Cornelius lived from 56 C.E. to 117 C.E., instantly disqualifying him from this challenge, but I’ll give a quick summary of what I see.
Here is the passage in question:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
So we have Tacitus mentioning “Christus” or “the messiah” in passing in one of at least 16 books in the Annals group on the Roman empire.
What’s curious to me is that, in this mention, Tacitus is referring to Christianity not as a positive group but describes them as promulgating “a most mischievous superstition” from Judea “the first source of the evil” to Rome “where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre.” What a glowing report!
Historian David Fitzgerald discusses this passage in his book “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All.” He points out that Tacitus is discussing the beliefs of these cultists as background for a different point of Roman history.
At the time of this mention, 116 C.E., this was a story any Christian-on-the-street would have known, it is not in any way based on an eyewitness account. He almost certainly didn’t find this tidbit from historic documents. The Romans did not keep detailed records of the great number of crucifixtions carried out and any records that may have existed at all were undoubtedly destroyed in one of the repeated burnings-to-the-ground of Rome in the intervening years.
And the Romans would hardly have referred to Jesus Ben Joseph of Nazareth as “Christus”, or “The Messiah!” He also points out that Christ is the Greek translation of a Jewish religious title.
Josephus, or Titus Flavious Josephus, lived from 37-100 C.E. disqualifying him also from this discussion, but, what the hell. Let’s see what he had to say.
Josephus fought in the first Jewish-Roman war and is an early claimant of divine revelation. He correctly predicted that Vespasian would become emperor. After this actually happened he wrote that his revelation had taught him three things: “that God, the creator of the Jewish people, had decided to “punish” them, that “fortune” had been given to the Romans, and that God had chosen him “to announce the things that are to come”
Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews was written in 93 or 94 C.E., was widely read and had the additional feature of being disingenuous in how it presented Jewish history. The passage in question does not even appear until the 4th century. There are no mentions of this passage, the “Testimonium” until 300 years later.
“Nailed” mentions that historians also note that the paragraph is out of context of the preceding and following paragraphs, uses a different style and non-Josephean vocabulary. Josephus’ books were among the most widely read of that period in time. That there is no mention of this paragraph until the 4th century is wildly telling.
Fitzgerald points out that when the Testimonium begins to get mentioned it’s by Bishop Eusebius, against whom over two dozen complaints survive including poor scholarship, deliberate misrepresentations of history and lack of integrity.
So I’m going to stick with the incredulous and skeptical here and conclude that there are still no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus, let alone accounts of his miracle-working ways. History is a cruel taskmaster, ain’t it?
Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All