Early Historical Documents
on
Jesus Christ

                     The historical documents referring to Christ's life and work may be divided into
                     three classes: pagan sources, Jewish sources, and Christian sources. We shall
                     study the three in succession.

                                           I. PAGAN SOURCES

                     The non-Christian sources for the historical truth of the Gospels are both few and
                     polluted by hatred and prejudice. A number of reasons have been advanced for
                     this condition of the pagan sources:

                          The field of the Gospel history was remote Galilee;
                          the Jews were noted as a superstitious race, if we believe Horace (Credat
                          Judoeus Apella, I, Sat., v, 100);
                          the God of the Jews was unknown and unintelligible to most pagans of
                          that period;
                          the Jews in whose midst Christianity had taken its origin were dispersed
                          among, and hated by, all the pagan nations;
                          the Christian religion itself was often confounded with one of the many
                          sects that had sprung up in Judaism, and which could not excite the
                          interest of the pagan spectator.

                     It is at least certain that neither Jews nor Gentiles suspected in the least the
                     paramount importance of the religion, the rise of which they witnessed among
                     them. These considerations will account for the rarity and the asperity with which
                     Christian events are mentioned by pagan authors. But though Gentile writers do
                     not give us any information about Christ and the early stages of Christianity
                     which we do not possess in the Gospels, and though their statements are made
                     with unconcealed hatred and contempt, still they unwittingly prove the historical
                     value of the facts related by the Evangelists.

                     We need not delay over a writing entitled the "Acts of Pilate", which must have
                     existed in the second century (Justin, "Apol"., I, 35), and must have been used in
                     the pagan schools to warn boys against the belief of Christians (Euseb., "Hist.
                     Eccl.", I, ix; IX, v); nor need we inquire into the question whether there existed
                     any authentic census tables of Quirinius.

                     A. Tacitus

                     We possess at least the testimony of Tacitus (A.D. 54-119) for the statements
                     that the Founder of the Christian religion, a deadly superstition in the eyes of the
                     Romans, had been put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate under the reign
                     of Tiberius; that His religion, though suppressed for a time, broke forth again not
                     only throughout Judea where it had originated, but even in Rome, the conflux of
                     all the streams of wickness and shamelessness; furthermore, that Nero had
                     diverted from himself the suspicion of the burning of Rome by charging the
                     Christians with the crime; that these latter were not guilty of arson, though they
                     deserved their fate on account of their universal misanthropy. Tacitus, moreover,
                     describes some of the horrible torments to which Nero subjected the Christians
                     (Ann., XV, xliv). The Roman writer confounds the Christians with the Jews,
                     considering them as a especially abject Jewish sect; how little he investigated
                     the historical truth of even the Jewish records may be inferred from the credulity
                     with which he accepted the absurd legends and calumnies about the origin of he
                     Hebrew people (Hist., V, iii, iv).

                     B. Suetonius

                     Another Roman writer who shows his acquaintance with Christ and the
                     Christians is Suetonius (A.D. 75-160). It has been noted that Suetonius
                     considered Christ (Chrestus) as a Roman insurgent who stirred up seditions
                     under the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54): "Judaeos, impulsore Chresto, assidue
                     tumultuantes (Claudius) Roma expulit" (Clau., xxv). In his life of Nero he regards
                     that emperor as a public benefactor on account of his severe treatment of the
                     Christians: "Multa sub eo et animadversa severe, et coercita, nec minus instituta
                     . . . . afflicti Christiani, genus hominum superstitious novae et maleficae" (Nero,
                     xvi). The Roman writer does not understand that the Jewish troubles arose from
                     the Jewish antagonism to the Messianic character of Jesus Christ and to the
                     rights of the Christian Church.

                     C. Pliny the Younger

                     Of greater importance is the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan
                     (about A.D. 61-115), in which the Governor of Bithynia consults his imperial
                     majesty as to how to deal with the Christians living within his jurisdiction. On the
                     one hand, their lives were confessedly innocent; no crime could be proved
                     against them excepting their Christian belief, which appeared to the Roman as
                     an extravagant and perverse superstition. On the other hand, the Christians could
                     not be shaken in their allegiance to Christ, Whom they celebrated as their God in
                     their early morning meetings (Ep., X, 97, 98). Christianity here appears no longer
                     as a religion of criminals, as it does in the texts of Tacitus and Suetonius; Pliny
                     acknowledges the high moral principles of the Christians, admires their
                     constancy in the Faith (pervicacia et inflexibilis obstinatio), which he appears to
                     trace back to their worship of Christ (carmenque Christo, quasi Deo, dicere).

                     D. Other pagan writers

                     The remaining pagan witnesses are of less importance: In the second century
                     Lucian sneered at Christ and the Christians, as he scoffed at the pagan gods. He
                     alludes to Christ's death on the Cross, to His miracles, to the mutual love
                     prevailing among the Christians ("Philopseudes", nn. 13, 16; "De Morte Pereg").
                     There are also alleged allusions to Christ in Numenius (Origen, "Contra Cels", IV,
                     51), to His parables in Galerius, to the earthquake at the Crucifixion in Phlegon (
                     Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 14). Before the end of the second century, the logos
                     alethes of Celsus, as quoted by Origen (Contra Cels., passim), testifies that at
                     that time the facts related in the Gospels were generally accepted as historically
                     true. However scanty the pagan sources of the life of Christ may be, they bear at
                     least testimony to His existence, to His miracles, His parables, His claim to
                     Divine worship, His death on the Cross, and to the more striking characteristics
                     of His religion.

                                          II. JEWISH SOURCES

                     A. Philo

                     Philo, who dies after A.D. 40, is mainly important for the light he throws on
                     certain modes of thought and phraseology found again in some of the Apostles.
                     Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., II, iv) indeed preserves a legend that Philo had met St.
                     Peter in Rome during his mission to the Emperor Caius; moreover, that in his
                     work on the contemplative life he describes the life of the Christian Church in
                     Alexandria founded by St. Mark, rather than that of the Essenes and
                     Therapeutae. But it is hardly probable that Philo had heard enough of Christ and
                     His followers to give an historical foundation to the foregoing legends.

                     B. Josephus

                     The earlist non-Christian writer who refers Christ is the Jewish historian Flavius
                     Josephus; born A.D. 37, he was a contemporary of the Apostles, and died in
                     Rome A.D. 94. Two passages in his "Antiquities" which confirm two facts of the
                     inspired Christian records are not disputed. In the one he reports the murder of
                     "John called Baptist" by Herod (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), describing also John's character
                     and work; in the other (Ant., XX, ix, 1) he disappoves of the sentence pronounced
                     by the high priest Ananus against "James, brother of Jesus Who was called
                     Christ." It is antecedently probable that a writer so well informed as Josephus,
                     must have been well acquainted too with the doctrine and the history of Jesus
                     Christ. Seeing, also, that he records events of minor importance in the history of
                     the Jews, it would be surprising if he were to keep silence about Jesus Christ.
                     Consideration for the priests and Pharisees did not prevent him from mentioning
                     the judicial murders of John the Baptist and the Apostle James; his endeavour to
                     find the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies in Vespasian did not induce him to
                     pass in silence over several Jewish sects, though their tenets appear to be
                     inconsistent with the Vespasian claims. One naturally expects, therefore, a
                     notice about Jesus Christ in Josephus. Antiquities XVIII, iii, 3, seems to satisfy
                     this expectation:

                          About this time appeared Jesus, a wise man (if indeed it is right to
                          call Him man; for He was a worker of astonishing deeds, a teacher
                          of such men as receive the truth with joy), and He drew to Himself
                          many Jews (many also of Greeks. This was the Christ.) And when
                          Pilate, at the denunciation of those that are foremost among us,
                          had condemned Him to the cross, those who had first loved Him
                          did not abandon Him (for He appeared to them alive again on the
                          third day, the holy prophets having foretold this and countless other
                          marvels about Him.) The tribe of Christians named after Him did not
                          cease to this day.

                     A testimony so important as the foregoing could not escape the work of the
                     critics. Their conclusions may be reduced to three headings: those who consider
                     the passage wholly spurious; those who consider it to be wholly authentic; and
                     those who consider it to be a little of each.

                     Those who regard the passage as spurious

                     First, there are those who consider the whole passage as spurious. The principal
                     reasons for this view appear to be the following:

                          Josephus could not represent Jesus Christ as a simple moralist, and on
                          the other hand he could not emphasize the Messianic prophecies and
                          expectations without offending the Roman susceptibilities;
                          the above cited passage from Josephus is said to be unknown to Origen
                          and the earlier patristic writers;
                          its very place in the Josephan text is uncertain, since Eusebius (Hist.
                          Eccl., II, vi) must have found it before the notices concerning Pilate, while
                          it now stands after them.

                     But the spuriousness of the disputed Josephan passage does not imply the
                     historian's ignorance of the facts connected with Jesus Christ. Josephus's report
                     of his own juvenile precocity before the Jewish teachers (Vit., 2) reminds one of
                     the story of Christ's stay in the Temple at the age of twelve; the description of his
                     shipwreck on his journey to Rome (Vit., 3) recalls St. Paul's shipwreck as told in
                     the Acts; finally his arbitrary introduction of a deceit practised by the priests of
                     Isis on a Roman lady, after the chapter containing his supposed allusion to
                     Jesus, shows a disposition to explain away the virgin birth of Jesus and to
                     prepare the falsehoods embodied in the later Jewish writings.

                     Those who regard the passage as authentic, with some spurious additions

                     A second class of critics do not regard the whole of Josephus's testimony
                     concerning Christ as spurious but they maintain the interpolation of parts
                     included above in parenthesis. The reasons assigned for this opinion may be
                     reduced to the following two:

                          Josephus must have mentioned Jesus, but he cannot have recognized
                          Him as the Christ; hence part of our present Josephan text must be
                          genuine, part must be interpolated.
                          Again, the same conclusion follows from the fact that Origen knew a
                          Josephan text about Jesus, but was not acquainted with our present
                          reading; for, according to the great Alexandrian doctor, Josephus did not
                          believe that Jesus was the Messias ("In Matth.", xiii, 55; "Contra Cels.", I,
                          47).

                     Whatever force these two arguments have is lost by the fact that Josephus did
                     not write for the Jews but for the Romans; consequently, when he says, "This
                     was the Christ", he does not necessarily imply that Jesus was the Christ
                     considered by the Romans as the founder of the Christian religion.

                     Those who consider it to be completely genuine

                     The third class of scholars believe that the whole passage concerning Jesus, as
                     it is found today in Josephus, is genuine. The main arguments for the
                     genuineness of the Josephan passage are the following:

                          First, all codices or manuscripts of Josephus's work contain the text in
                          question; to maintain the spuriousness of the text, we must suppose that
                          all the copies of Josephus were in the hands of Christians, and were
                          changed in the same way.
                          Second, it is true that neither Tertullian nor St. Justin makes use of
                          Josephus's passage concerning Jesus; but this silence is probably due to
                          the contempt with which the contemporary Jews regarded Josephus, and
                          to the relatively little authority he had among the Roman readers. Writers
                          of the age of Tertullian and Justin could appeal to living witnesses of the
                          Apostolic tradition.
                          Third, Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl"., I, xi; cf. "Dem. Ev.", III, v) Sozomen (Hist.
                          Eccl., I, i), Niceph. (Hist. Eccl., I, 39), Isidore of Pelusium (Ep. IV, 225),
                          St. Jerome (catal.script. eccles. xiii), Ambrose, Cassiodorus, etc., appeal
                          to the testimony of Josephus; there must have been no doubt as to its
                          authenticity at the time of these illustrious writers.
                          Fourth, the complete silence of Josephus as to Jesus would have been a
                          more eloquent testimony than we possess in his present text; this latter
                          contains no statement incompatible with its Josephan authorship: the
                          Roman reader needed the information that Jesus was the Christ, or the
                          founder of the Christian religion; the wonderful works of Jesus and His
                          Resurrection from the dead were so incessantly urged by the Christians
                          that without these attributes the Josephan Jesus would hardly have been
                          acknowledged as the founder of Christianity.

                     All this does not necessarily imply that Josephus regarded Jesus as the Jewish
                     Messias; but, even if he had been convinced of His Messiahship, it does not
                     follow that he would have become a Christian. A number of posssible subterfuges
                     might have supplied the Jewish historian with apparently sufficient reasons for not
                     embracing Christianity.

                     C. Other Jewish Sources

                     The historical character of Jesus Christ is also attested by the hostile Jewish
                     literature of the subsequent centuries. His birth is ascribed to an illicit ("Acta
                     Pilati" in Thilo, "Codex apocryph. N.T., I, 526; cf. Justin, "Apol.", I, 35), or even
                     an adulterous, union of His parents (Origen, "Contra Cels.," I, 28, 32). The
                     father's name is Panthera, a common soldier (Gemara "Sanhedrin", viii;
                     "Schabbath", xii, cf. Eisenmenger, "Entdecktes Judenthum", I, 109; Schottgen,
                     "Horae Hebraicae", II, 696; Buxtorf, "Lex. Chald.", Basle, 1639, 1459, Huldreich,
                     "Sepher toledhoth yeshua hannaceri", Leyden, 1705). The last work in its final
                     edition did not appear before the thirteenth century, so that it could give the
                     Panthera myth in its most advanced form. Rosch is of opinion that the myth did
                     not begin before the end of the first century.

                     The later Jewish writings show traces of acquaintance with the murder of the
                     Holy Innocents (Wagenseil, "Confut. Libr.Toldoth", 15; Eisenmenger op. cit., I,
                     116; Schottgen, op. cit., II, 667), with the flight into Egypt (cf. Josephus, "Ant."
                     XIII, xiii), with the stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Schottgen, op.
                     cit., II, 696), with the call of the disciples ("Sanhedrin", 43a; Wagenseil, op. cit.,
                     17; Schottgen, loc. cit., 713), with His miracles (Origen, "Contra Cels", II, 48;
                     Wagenseil, op. cit., 150; Gemara "Sanhedrin" fol. 17); "Schabbath", fol. 104b;
                     Wagenseil, op.cit., 6, 7, 17), with His claim to be God (Origen, "Contra Cels.", I,
                     28; cf. Eisenmenger, op. cit., I, 152; Schottgen, loc. cit., 699) with His betrayal
                     by Judas and His death (Origen, "Contra cels.", II, 9, 45, 68, 70; Buxtorf, op. cit.,
                     1458; Lightfoot, "Hor. Heb.", 458, 490, 498; Eisenmenger, loc. cit., 185;
                     Schottgen, loc. cit.,699 700; cf."Sanhedrin", vi, vii). Celsus (Origen, "Contra
                     Cels.", II, 55) tries to throw doubt on the Resurrection, while Toldoth (cf.
                     Wagenseil, 19) repeats the Jewish fiction that the body of Jesus had been stolen
                     from the sepulchre.

                                         III. CHRISTIAN SOURCES

                     Among the Christian sources of the life of Jesus we need hardly mention the so
                     called Agrapha and Apocrypha. For whether the Agrapha contain Logia of Jesus,
                     or refer to incidents in His life, they are either highly uncertain or present only
                     variations of the Gospel story. The chief value of the Apocrypha consists in their
                     showing the infinite superiority of the Inspired Writings by contrasting the coarse
                     and erroneous productions of the human mind with the simple and sublime truths
                     written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.

                     Among the Sacred Books of the New Testament, it is especially the four
                     Gospels and the four great Epistles of St. Paul that are of the highest importance
                     for the construction of the life of Jesus.

                     The four great Pauline Epistles (Romans, Galatians, and First and Second
                     Corinthinas) can hardly be overestimated by the student of Christ's life; they have
                     at times been called the "fifth gospel"; their authenticity has never been assailed
                     by serious critics; their testimony is also earlier than that of the Gospels, at least
                     most of the Gospels; it is the more valuable because it is incidental and
                     undesigned; it is the testimony of a highly intellectual and cultured writer, who
                     had been the greatest enemy of Jesus, who writes within twenty-five years of the
                     events which he relates. At the same time, these four great Epistles bear
                     witness to all the most important facts in the life of Christ: His Davidic dscent,
                     His poverty, His Messiahship, His moral teaching, His preaching of the kingdom
                     of God, His calling of the apostles, His miraculous power, His claims to be God,
                     His betrayal, His institution of the Holy Eucharist, His passion, crucifixion, burial,
                     resurrection, His repeated appearances (Romans 1:3-4; 5:11; 8:2-3; 8:32; 9:5;
                     15:8; Galatians 2:17; 3:13; 4:4; 5:21; First Corinthians 6:9; 13:4; etc.). However
                     important the four great Epistles may be, the gospels are still more so. Not that
                     any one of them offers a complete biography of Jesus, but they account for the
                     origin of Christianity by the life of its Founder. Questions like the authenticity of
                     the Gospels, the relation between the Synoptic Gospels, and the Fourth, the
                     Synoptic problem, must be studied in the articles referring to these respective
                     subjects.

                     A.J. MAAS
                     Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas
                     In Memory of Archbishop Mathew Kavukatt

                                       The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII
                                    Copyright © 1910 by Robert Appleton Company
                                    Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
                                 Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
                                 Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
The Catholic Encyclopedia: newadvent.org