Early Historical Documents
The historical documents referring to Christ's life and work may be divided into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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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