This is the second post regarding evidence of the historicity of Jesus.  My first post dealt with early secular sources.  This post will deal with early Jewish sources.  Many reliable references to Jesus have been found among Jewish works.  There have also been references that have later on been found to be unreliable.  The thing to note with these sources is that they are unfriendly toward Jesus.  They do not believe the claim that He is the Messiah, but do not challenge his existence.  Their references to events in Jesus’ life provides valuable testimony to the historical authenticity of those events.

So again the historicity of Jesus is on trial and in its defense, I am going to present several pieces of evidence for you, the jury, to decide.

Exhibit A: Talmudic Literature

Regarding the crucifixion, in the Babylonian Talmud:

“It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu.  And an annoucer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray.  Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come plead in his behalf.’  But not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover,” (Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Sanh. 10:11; y. Sanh. 7:12; Tg. Esther 7:9).

“Yeshu” translates through Greek to English as Jesus.  The word “hanged” is another way of referring to the crucifixion.  The Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:13 teaches that Deuteronomy 21:23 – “for a hanged man is cursed by God,” applies to Jesus.  This passage in The Talmud also can see that it agrees with John 19:14 on the timing of the crucifixion – “on the eve of Passover.”

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (John 19:14,ESV).

It affirms that Jewish authorities were involved, but does try to justify their actions.  It also attests to Jesus’ miracles, but tries to explain it away as sorcery.  This type of response to Jesus is mentioned in the Gospels:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mark 3:22, ESV).

But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons,” (Matthew 9:34, ESV).

But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons,” (Matthew 12:24, ESV).

Regarding Jesus and His disciples, a later Talmudic passage regarding Jesus’ crucifixion reads:

“Yeshu had five disciples – Mattai, Nakkai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah,” (b. Sanh. 107b).

Mattai may be a reference to Matthew, while no one is certain if the other names can be linked to any of other disciples.

Regarding the Virgin Birth:

Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner in his 1925 book, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching explained the use of the titles, “Ben Pandera (or “Ben Pantere”) and “Jeshu ben Pandera” in the Talmud:

“The Jews constantly heard that the Christians (the majority of whom spoke Greek from the earliest times) called Jesus by the name ‘Son of the Virgin,’… and so, in mockery, they called him Ben ha-Pantera, i.e., ‘son of the leopard,’” (pg. 23).

One passage in the Babylonian Talmud says:

“R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: ‘I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress,’” (b. Yebamoth 49a; m. Yebam. 4:13).

Another passage reads:

“His mother was Miriam, a women’s hairdresser.  As they say… ‘this one strayed from her husband,’” (b. Sabb. 104b).

And yet another passage says that Mary, “who was the descendent of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters,” (b. Sanh. 106a).  This is an attempt at an explanation of the Christian’s confession of a virgin birth.  There is also a likely reference to Mary’s ancestors in “descendent of princes and governors.”  Joseph is obviously referred to in the phrase, “played the harlot with carpenters.”

John 8:41 records that the scribes and Pharisees leveled the charge of being an illegitimate son at Jesus.

Exhibit B: Flavius Josephus

Born Josephus ben Mattathias in approximately 37/38 AD, he was involved as a rebel commander in the Jewish Revolt (66-73 AD) after being captured by the Romans in 67 AD he served as mediator and interpreter during the rest of the revolt.  He was brought to Roman afterwards and there composed two works – The Jewish War finished in the early 70s, and Jewish Antiquities finished around 93/94 AD.

There is quite a bit of debate regarding a passage in his Jewish Antiquities:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day, (Antiquities, pg. 780 italics added).

The passage is in debate because Josephus being a non-Christian Jew makes some statements within this passage about Jesus that an orthodox Jew could not affirm such as referring to Jesus as the Christ and claiming that he rose from the dead.  I agree, it would be unlikely.  So while some Christian additions (in italics) have been made to the text that doesn’t fit, it does contain truth which Josephus could affirm.

Read this passage in Antiquities without the italics:

Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him.  And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.

Josephus calls him by the generic title “wise man.”  Then shares two components of being a wise man in the Roman world: miracle working and effective teaching.  As a result he had a large following.  He then is brought before Pilate even though no reason is given, it could be as a result of his popularity had become a threat.  Even though Jesus was crucified as a common criminal his followers did not give up on him, and Christians at the time Josephus wrote this still had not died out.

Josephus later on refers to James, the brother of Jesus:

But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown.  As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned, (Antiquities, pg. 877)

Josh McDowell in his book, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict defends the authenticity of second passage of Josephus that is commonly cited:

Louis Feldman, professor of classics at Yeshiva University and translator for the Loeb edition of Antiquities, states, “Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage,” (Josephus, Antiquities, Loeb, 496).  The passing reference to Jesus as the “so-called Christ” does not make sense unless Josephus had provided a longer discussion about Jesus earlier in his Antiquities.  This is yet another indication that the earlier and more extensive treatment in Antiquities is genuine, excluding the obvious Christian interpolations, (pg. 126).

So a approximately 60 years after Jesus’ life and crucifixion, Josephus provides testimony that Jesus was not just a figment of Christians’ imagination, but an actual historical figure.

But you the jury decide.  Next round of “witnesses” will be early Christian sources.

4 comments
  1. Hey Shane, great post, very interesting! I will be writing a full reply regarding classical Christian forgeries soon, but here are a few preliminary points of the top of my head:

    1. Interesting that you bring up the Babylonian Talmud, considering that it was written in the Fifth century, well after the ascension of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, and the general distribution of the Christian narrative into the general populace through the Greek and Roman world. Do we take the Aeneid as evidence of the existence of Queen Dido? That’s a roughly analogous example.

    2. The italicized portions of the Testimonium Flavinium are not the entirety of the disputed portions. A number of scholars are critical of the entire passage, not to mention that the general consensus among historians remains that the “doer of wonderful works” is thought by the majority of scholars to be forged (not that majority consensus should be determinative, but the argument is pretty good for that one). At any rate, when you take out the forged parts, Josephus doesn’t tell us much at all, just that as of the turn of the second century there were some group of people calling themselves Christians who claim to followed a guy named Joshua. Not that convincing when we pare it down, eh?

    3. This brings us to Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, one of the father of the early Chruch who had a sort of Machiavellian attitude about lying to promote the faith, and was probably responsible for the forged parts of the Testimonium Flavinium. According to wikipedia, “for example, the Testimonium uses the Greek term poietes with the meaning “doer” (as part of the phrase “doer of wonderful works”), but elsewhere Josephus only uses the term poietes to mean “poet,” while it is Eusebius who uses poietes to mean “doer of wonderful works” when referring to Jesus.”
    .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..Singing in the Wilderness =-.

    1. @Guy Incognito, Regarding Testimonium Flavinium – even if you took out “doer of wonderful works” it does still point to Jesus being a historical figure. When you say “turn of the second century” make it sound like it was eons away from the historical event. That is only 63-65 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Do you question the accuracy of recent history textbooks dealing with WW II?

      Regarding the Talmud, you know as well as I that these writings were shared orally prior to being written down for years and years. But I guess the passed everything along orally except the passages related to Jesus, those they stole from the Christian narrative. Those narratives couldn’t have possibly been passed down as well.

      Sure.

      1. @Shane Vander Hart, I am aware that the Talmud represents an oral tradition, but it is one that was codified in the fifth century, with access to fifth century information and documents. It’s absurd to dismiss the oral history but it is equally as absurd to dismiss the gap from transmission to codification, or to assume that the oral history was unblemished by the “common knowledge” of the time. It is folly to make it simply a black and white picture, as if there are only two options, that the references to Jesus were inserted at the time of codification or they passed down unhindered the entire way. There was probably more of a snowballs effect, likely beginning just prior to the time the New Testament was itself codified in the fourth century. The Christians and the Jews were close neighbors after all, they are likely to have effected one another. I dig your sarcasm too, but appeal to ridicule will not salvage this particular argument, unfortunately.

        As for Josephus, even granting that the entire Testimonium is properly attributable, or even partially attributable, to Josephus is a big “if.” On top of this, he is writing at the turn of the second century, not eons away certainly, but *more than a generation* which is plenty of time for myths to accumulate. Moreover, when you take out the portions that are clearly forgeries, it is hardly even clear that

        Jesus wasn’t the only guy running around Judea two thousand years ago claiming to be the Christ (if indeed He even was present to be doing such a thing). Of the documented historical figures who have laid claim to this prophecy around the same time period include Simon Magus, Apollonius of Tyana, Herod Agrippa, Caligula and Augustus himself (some coins of Augustus are thought to bear an image of the Star of Bethlehem, which he seems to have considered a portent of his own reign as a king of the world). There is even some speculation that some of the early Christ mystery religions were devoted to John the Baptist. Probably countless other claimants came around and were forgotten, who knows how many of them had sects.

        When we are looking for the Jesus of the Gospels, we cannot find him in Tacitus or Suetonius, Bar-Serapion or Josephus. The passages that do reference Christians or Chrestians are debatable at best, spurious at worst, and ultimately do not speak to the nature of whoever these historians are referring to.

        If we are looking through the lens of a historian, which you are aiming to do here, and not the theologian or apologist, then we must not project our modern beliefs onto ancient accounts, when words and ideas meant radically different things and preconceptions were radically different from our own.

        It might seem obvious to us that Bar-Serapion’s “Jewish King” had to be Jesus of the Gospels, but there is nothing about that passage that is explicit. It might seem equally obvious that we should equate the wise man named Joshua to the Jesus we know today through the canonical New Testament. Do we entirely discount the Gnostics, a sect that grew up at the same time as the early church and claimed that a guy named Jesus taught reincarnation and that the God of the Old Testament was actually the devil. Because all the evidence you’ve given is equally good evidence for that Jesus too, and either way it’s pretty slim.

        If there was some obvious evidence as to the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels, as there is or the existence of Julius Caesar for example, then I would happily agree to it. But there is not such absolute evidence. In history we seldom deal in absolutes, only the balancing of probabilities. The absolute is the realm of faith, an can thrive even when the probabilities weight quite heavily in the opposite direction. You use the analogy of a jury, and Shane I have to say that what you’re arguing here, even if it’s true would never persuade any jury. It’s just too improbable. A that’s the miracle of faith isn’t it?
        .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..See This? =-.

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