What non-biblical Roman books mention Jesus?


It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man Jesus of Nazareth. The itinerant preachers, who traveled from village to village with a crowd of ragged followers in tow, loudly proclaiming the end of the world, were a familiar sight in Jesus' day - so familiar that they had degenerated into a kind of caricature among the Roman elite. In an absurd section about just such a figure, the Greek philosopher Kelsos describes a Jewish holy man who wanders across the country in Galilee and shouts to himself without a specific person: “I am the God or God's servant or a divine pneuma [spirit] . But I'm coming because the world is doomed. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven. "

The 1st century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of the vast territory that the Romans called "Palestine" and which included modern Israel / Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs roamed the Holy Land, announcing the imminent judgment of God. We know many of these so-called false messiahs by name. A few even appear in the New Testament. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the prophet Theudas had 400 disciples before the Romans arrested him and beheaded him. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as "the Egyptian" raised an army in the desert, which was then wiped out by Roman soldiers. In the year 4 BC BC, the year in which, in the opinion of most experts, Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and thus crowned himself "King of the Jews"; he and his followers were slaughtered by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, who simply called himself "the Samaritan", was crucified by Pontius Pilate, although he had not even raised an army and had not challenged Rome in any way - a sign that the authorities were feeling the rampant apocalyptic fever and had become extremely sensitive.

Then there was the gang leader Hezekiah, Simon of Perea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Manaim, Simon bar Giora and Simon bar Kochba. They all came forward with messianic claims and they were all executed by Rome for it. That list includes the sect of the Essenes, some of whom lived in seclusion on the parched plateau of Qumran near the north-west bank of the Dead Sea; then the Zealots, a first-century revolutionary Jewish group that helped instigate a bloody war against Rome; and finally the fearsome militant assassins who the Romans called sicarii (dagger-bearers) - Palestine went through an era of intense messianic energy in the 1st century AD.

It is difficult to classify Jesus of Nazareth directly into one of the well-known religious-political movements of his time. He was a man of profound contradictions, one day he preached ethnic exclusivity ("I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", Mt 15:24), the next he preached benevolent universalism ("Therefore go to all peoples and make all People to my disciples », Mt 28:19); once he demanded unconditional peace ("Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called sons of God", Mt 5: 9), another time he spoke out in favor of violence and conflict ("But whoever has no money should wear his cloak sell and buy a sword for it », Lk 22:36).

The historical Jesus is so difficult to grasp because outside of the New Testament there are hardly any traces of the man who was to change the course of human history so permanently. The earliest and most reliable non-biblical mention of Jesus can be found in the 1st century by the Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus († after 100 AD). In a short, casual passage in Jewish Antiquities, Josephus writes of a diabolical Jewish high priest named Annas who, after the death of the Roman governor Festus, illegally sentenced a certain "James, brother of Jesus, whom they call the Messiah" to stoning as a lawbreaker. The passage goes on to tell what happened to Annas when the new governor Albinus finally arrived in Jerusalem.
As short and derogatory as this allusion may be (the statement "whom they call the Messiah" is obviously meant to be derisive), it is of enormous importance to all those who search for any trace of the historical Jesus. In a society with no surname, a name as common as James required a special addition - a place of birth or patronymic, for example - to distinguish it from all the other men named James in Palestine (hence "Jesus of Nazareth"). In this case, James ’relationship with someone who, in the opinion of Josephus, might be known to his readership provided the name suffix. So the passage proves not only that "Jesus, whom they call the Messiah," really lived, but also that he was widely recognized as the founder of a new and ongoing movement in AD 94 when Jewish Antiquity was written.

It is that movement, not its founder, that caught the attention of 2nd century historians like Tacitus († 118) and Pliny the Younger († 113). Both mention Jesus of Nazareth, but apart from his arrest and execution, they say little about him - important historical evidence, as we shall see, that sheds little light on the details of Jesus' life. We all therefore depend on the information we can gather from the New Testament.

The very first written testimony comes from the letters of Paul, an early follower of Jesus who died around AD 66 (one can trace Paul's first surviving letter, the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, to the years between 48 and 50 AD, i.e. around two decades after Jesus' death). However, Paul shows remarkably little interest in the historical Jesus. Only three scenes from the life of Jesus are mentioned in his letters: the Last Supper (1 Cor 11: 23-26), the crucifixion (1 Cor 2: 2) and, especially important for Paul, the resurrection, without the how he says that "our preaching is empty and your faith meaningless" (1 Cor 15:14). Paul may be an excellent resource for those interested in the early history of Christianity, but he is a poor guide in searching for the historical Jesus.

That leaves us only with the Gospels, which have their own problems. First of all, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Luke, none of them were written by the man it is named after. This is true of most New Testament books, by the way. Such so-called pseudepigraphic works, i.e. works that were ascribed to a certain author but not written by him, were very common in the ancient world and should definitely not be regarded as forgeries. Naming a book after a person was a common way to express that person's beliefs or to represent their school of thought. That being said, the Gospels are not and were never intended to be historical documentation of the life of Jesus. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus' words and deeds by people who really knew him, but rather testimonies of faith from religious communities that were written down many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus Christ, not about the man Jesus.


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