Jesus Outside The New Testament

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Overview

Did Jesus actually exist? Much has been written recently on this subject, including numerous books examining the New Testament record of Jesus' life. Now Robert Van Voorst presents and critiques the ancient evidence outside the New Testament-the Roman, Jewish, pre-New Testament, and post-New Testament writings that mention Jesus.

This fascinating study of the early Christian and non-Christian record includes fresh translations of all the relevant texts. Van Voorst shows how and to what extent these ancient writings can be used to help reconstruct the historical Jesus.

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Editorial Reviews

Ben Witherington III
Scholars have tended to say that there is no significant evidence about the historical Jesus to be garnered from sources outside of the New Testament canon. This book shows that that assessment is by no means entirely correct. Here we finally have in one book all the essential extrabiblical data from the earliest period about Jesus. Anyone who cares about understanding Jesus within his historical context will find this well-written study to be an invaluable aid
Marion L. Soards
This careful study is a lucid, concise, and insightful presentation, analysis, and guide to the ancient extra–New Testament materials related to Jesus. Robert Van Voorst provides a tremendous service for those studying the life of Jesus by collecting, translating, and commenting on these often-cited but seldom seen (or critically examined) early references to Jesus. All students and scholars interested in ‘Jesus' will welcome this work.
Paul J. Achtemeier
The material collected in this volume, along with the sober evaluations provided by the author, presents readers with a rather complete sampling of the noncanonical evidence about Jesus of Nazareth, from Greco-Roman, Jewish, and noncanonical Christian sources, both actual and hypothetical. Those interested in the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus have here much of the noncanonical evidence called upon by those who seek to present Jesus in radical as well as more traditional forms
John P. Meier
"Jesus Outside the New Testament gives a clear, concise, and orderly presentation of the major sources—pagan, Jewish, and Christian—for our knowledge of the historical Jesus. Readers will be especially grateful for the way in which Robert Van Voorst gathers together disparate texts that are otherwise difficult to find in one place. This is especially true of his treatment of the pagan authors. Both scholars and lay readers will find this work useful."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This book's aim is promising: to evaluate the evidence we have, outside of the Christian scriptures themselves, for the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Van Voorst is a capable guide to this territory, which ranges from citations in Roman correspondence to the early Christian writings often called the "New Testament Apocrypha." His lucid and judicious account of the state of scholarship will be most helpful to seminary students and others beginning to engage this material. Unfortunately if inevitably, the different sources are treated unevenly, with the very well-known classical quotations from Tacitus, Pliny and the like receiving extensive treatment while the more lengthy--and debated--proto-gnostic texts receive scant attention. Van Voorst devotes a surprising amount of energy to refuting the idea that Jesus never existed. He also includes a long and inconclusive chapter about what we can learn from the assumed sources of the New Testament itself, which is more a tutorial in 20th-century scholarship than evidence from "outside" the New Testament. Seminary professors will want to consider assigning this book, but those looking for revelations about Jesus of Nazareth will be disappointed, since after much scholarly muckraking the author himself concludes that the New Testament is our best evidence after all. Better to turn to works like John Meier's A Marginal Jew for more fully considered and provocative accounts of the historical Jesus. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Van Voorst has written a comprehensive, rigorously focused survey of the evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as manifested by the written sources other than the New Testament. He has translated all relevant passages into contemporary English and presents the most important issues in their interpretation. After a brief survey of the history and principles of historical Jesus research, he takes up the evidence from Classical writers, Jewish writers, the "sources" of the gospels, and Christian writings after the New Testament. He finds that while some of the Classical and Jewish writings are not useful or reliable, others are surprisingly helpful albeit quite sketchy in details. The "sources" are controversial, while the writings subsequent to the New Testament are derived from the New Testament and therefore of no value as historical witnesses. Van Voorst (The Ascents of James) is an established, careful scholar who has adopted a critical but responsible middle-of-the-road stance. This very well-organized and -written book fills a comparative void left by the deluge of historical Jesus books. It will be valuable for those interested in the historical grounding of their faith.--Eugene O. Bowser, Univ. of Northern Colorado, Greeley Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Internet Bookwatch
Jesus Outside The New Testament: An Introduction To The Ancient Evidence is a fascinating study of considerable scholarship that surveys and introduces the reader to early Christian and non-Christian records (with fresh translations of all relevant texts) showing how and to what extent these ancient writings can be used to help reconstruct the historical Jesus. Robert E. Van Voorst (professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan) draws upon his immense expertise to present Roman, Jewish, pre-Christian and Post-Christian writings mentioning Jesus, and provides an invaluable contribution to students of Christianity and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the origins of Christian in general, and the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth in particular.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802843685
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/1/2000
  • Series: Studying the Historical Jesus Ser.
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,409,068
  • Product dimensions: 0.60 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Study of Jesus
Outside the New Testament


Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential person in history. Through the Christian faith, the world's most widespread and numerous religion, Jesus has had a direct impact on Western culture and an indirect impact on many other cultures. Today many followers of other religions also know about Jesus, and his teachings influence them. Jesus' teachings even attract some agnostics and atheists, who profess to live by the Sermon on the Mount or its "Golden Rule." For scholars, Jesus is a leading figure of the past. Far more learned books and articles have been written about Jesus than about any other person, and the "quest for the historical Jesus" is one of the largest enduring enterprises in humanities scholarship. Yet the quantity and intensity of the academic study of Jesus suggest that interest in him is far more than historical and scholarly. Most people's deeper interest in the life and teachings of Jesus springs not from historical study, but from faith in the present Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. For them, he is not just "the historical Jesus," or much less as a waggish British scholar once dubbed him, "the late J. Christ of Biblical fame," but the living Lord Jesus Christ.

    Because of the academic and religious importance of Jesus, scholarly study of him is often heated, with sharp disagreements over methods and conclusions. Scholars disagree over methods and results in the study of the New Testament, and new visions of Jesus drawn from sources outside the New Testament addto the controversy. Some academic debates about Jesus spill over into the church and the public at large, where matters of scholarship often become even more difficult because they touch directly on central matters of faith. Since the coming of mass media, controversial aspects of scholarship on Jesus have gained wide attention through newspapers and magazines. For example, certain German newspapers covered (and fanned) controversies about Jesus at the beginning of the twentieth century. Near the end of the twentieth century, on April 8, 1996, the cover stories of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, three leading American news magazines, all dealt with current debates about Jesus, and especially the Jesus Seminar. Special television programs and feature films in Europe and America often present Jesus in even more controversial ways than do the print media. Novelistic treatments of Jesus, sometimes loosely based on scholarship, from Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ to Norman Mailer's The Gospel according to the Son, have been very controversial. If these novels are made into films, the controversy over their presentations of Jesus multiplies. A member of the Jesus Seminar, the film director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Showgirls, Starship Troopers), is now beginning work on a major film on Jesus drawing on the Jesus Seminar's views. If this film is made and distributed, we can expect a controversy even louder (but probably briefer) than that which greeted the printed results of the Jesus Seminar. Finally, discussion and debates on Jesus are now common on the Internet. Like most Internet exchanges, the discussion thrives on freewheeling argument.


A Brief History of Research


Perennial interest in Jesus, both passionate and dispassionate, has led to a long, intensive search into the ancient sources that speak about him. The New Testament has traditionally been the main source for our understanding of Jesus' life and teaching, and often the only source. Until about one hundred years ago, scholars did little or no search for Jesus in sources outside the New Testament. Three factors combine to explain this lack of treatment. First, the New Testament enjoyed a privileged, canonical status in the church and academy; anything said elsewhere about Jesus in ancient literature was deemed of marginal value. Even if extracanonical material was considered authentic, it could only validate what the canonical Gospels report. Second, scholarship usually devalued what small witness to Jesus was found outside the New Testament in classical Roman, Jewish, and Christian writings. Noncanonical Christian literature was commonly held to be later than the New Testament, literarily dependent on it, and unimportant for understanding Jesus. Third, until the second half of the twentieth century we possessed much more literature about Jesus in the New Testament than outside it. Only a small collection of Christian Gnostic literature and other apocryphal gospels was extant, and most of our knowledge of Gnosticism came from its opponents in the Church Fathers of the second century.

    Today this situation is almost fully changed. The New Testament, while still considered canonical by the church, no longer has a privileged place in most scholarship. Most New Testament scholars and other historians of ancient times look to extracanonical Christian writings with serious interest, and some scholars seem to place a higher value on them than on the canonical writings. Improved relations between Jews and Christians, and advances in scholarship into the relations between Judaism and early Christianity, have led to more objective and fruitful examination of the passages about Jesus in Jewish writings. Much of the attention to the extracanonical literature has been made possible by two literary discoveries in the mid-twentieth century. The Dead Sea Scrolls have shed valuable new light on the Jewish religious situation in the time of Jesus. The Nag Hammadi writings from the sands of Egypt have given us direct access to Christian Gnostic views during early Christian times. With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings, we now have more extracanonical gospel material than canonical. At the same time, the search for the literary sources of the canonical Gospels has accelerated. The hypothetical source for the sayings of Jesus shared by Matthew and Luke known as "Q" is now seen by many as an independent, early document that, some argue, gives a more accurate view of Jesus than the canonical Gospels. Dozens of scholars are hard at work reconstructing the likely wording of Q to provide a more precise basis for understanding its historical setting and religious meaning.

    The history of scholarship into the life and teachings of Jesus is usually traced by way of three "Quests for the Historical Jesus" In the nineteenth century's First Quest, several controversial "Lives of Jesus" were written using Enlightenment historical tools. Traditionalist biblical scholars and church authorities stoutly attacked these Lives. The most penetrating and influential critique was offered not by a traditionalist, but by the more liberal scholar Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer showed that earlier Lives of Jesus reconstructed a Jesus that resembled their authors more than Jesus, who was an eschatological figure. Schweitzer's book brought an end to the First Quest. Although the scholarly examination of sources outside the New Testament began at the end of the nineteenth century, most participants in the First Quest paid little or no attention to them. Generally, they used only the canonical Gospels to reconstruct the life of Jesus and unlock its mystery. The twentieth century's Second Quest (from about 1930 to 1960), originally called the "New Quest," still focused on the canonical Gospels, especially the Synoptics, with some small attention to extracanonical literary sources about Jesus. In a book representative of the results of the Second Quest, Günther Bornkamm deals with Roman and Jewish evidence for Jesus in two pages.

    Now the Second Quest has exhausted itself, and new understandings about Jesus are emerging. Many researchers have argued that the present debate over Jesus since about 1970 constitutes a Third Quest, and a consensus is building. Some identify the Third Quest with the Jesus Seminar and its opponents, but it began before the Jesus Seminar and will likely outlast it. The Third Quest studies the sources of the Gospels — especially Q and the "Signs Gospel" behind the Gospel of John — as distinct documents. The unique contents of Matthew ("M") and Luke ("L") also have a place here, with some interpreters seeing these as precanonical documents. Third Quest researchers show a significantly greater interest in extracanonical Christian literature than did First and Second Quest writers. The Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi literature figure most prominently in current Jesus study, with other New Testament Apocrypha books like the Gospel of Peter not far behind. Jewish sources for the life of Jesus are also gaining more interest. Only classical sources on Jesus are an exception to this trend; the Third Quest too does not deal with them in depth. Only a few large-scale recent treatments of Jesus deal with evidence from classical sources. In sum, the last twenty years have arguably seen more interest in, and debate about, the historical Jesus outside the New Testament than any comparable period in the last two centuries.

    Although the history of New Testament study is always directly significant for understanding the study of Jesus, much significant scholarship bearing on our topic stands outside the field of New Testament study and the "Quests for the Historical Jesus." Historians of ancient Greco-Roman cultures often delve into early Christianity and sometimes deal with its founder. References to early Christianity by classical authors, a few of whom mention Jesus, are often the most thoroughly examined (and debated) passages in classical literature. As a result, a rich secondary literature exists in classical scholarship for the study of our topic. Jewish scholarship into early Christianity sprouted in modern times and is in full bloom today, forming a second important source of scholarship for our topic. One of the most influential researchers in historical Jesus scholarship is the Jewish historian Geza Vermes, whose work has been important in shaping a consensus that Jesus must be understood as a Jew in a Jewish environment. Finally, church historians treat the Jesus traditions in post-New Testament Christianity, both "orthodox" and "heterodox," as one way of understanding ancient Christianity. We are fortunate to have these different scholarly perspectives on ancient traditions about Jesus, and they enrich our topic. Of course, none is free from the inevitable subjectivity that affects all human knowledge. Nevertheless, during this work it will often prove valuable to have other scholarly perspectives that are not directly affected by the heated, sometimes tortured debates in New Testament scholarship over who exactly Jesus was and what he did.


Did Jesus Really Exist?


Until recently, the mainstream of New Testament scholarship has not had a large influence on research into Jesus in sources outside the New Testament. However, one long-running and often noisy side current has had such an influence. This is the controversial question, Did Jesus really exist? Some readers may be surprised or shocked that many books and essays — by my count, over one hundred — in the past two hundred years have fervently denied the very existence of Jesus. Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely. Thus, students of the New Testament are often unfamiliar with them. In this section, as a special follow-up to our sketch of the history of research, we will examine briefly the history and significance of the theory that Jesus never existed. As we will see, the question of Jesus' existence has had a large influence on research into Jesus in non-Christian sources and is still found today in some popular understandings of the New Testament. For example, John Meier, a leader in the Third Quest, reports that "in my conversations with newspaper writers and book editors who have asked me at various times to write about the historical Jesus, almost invariably the first question that arises is: But can you prove he existed?" The Internet teems with discussions of this topic. A search through the Alta Vista search engine on June 1, 1999, for the topic "Did Jesus Exist" produced 62 pages on the main Web, and 2,580 postings on the Usenet, the main channel of discussion.

    The issue of the nonhistoricity of Jesus is indeed a side current in New Testament study. However, those who advocate it often refer to the work of mainstream scholars, so it would be well to characterize mainstream scholarship on the reliability of the Gospels and the existence of Jesus. Since the advent of biblical criticism, scholars have argued over the level of historicity of the accounts of Jesus in ancient Christian literature, both the events in Jesus' life and the wording and meaning of his teaching. On one end of the scholarly spectrum, some have concluded that the canonical Gospels are fully reliable historical accounts of Jesus with little or no later changes, so we can know much about him. Those who deny Jesus' historicity rarely refer to the work of traditionalists, except to label it as credulity. In the middle are scholars who see the Gospels as a mixture of authentic historical material and theological interpretation of Jesus as it developed between his time and that of the Evangelists. These scholars, the vast majority of researchers, work to understand the interplay of these two elements, and they discern "the historical Jesus" with some confidence and fullness. Those who deny the existence of Jesus, especially twentieth-century skeptics, seem to neglect this moderate position. They prefer, as radical revisionists often do, to deal with the extremes. On the other end of the spectrum, some have argued that the Gospels and other early Christian literature contain so much later theologizing and invention that we can know very little about Jesus' life and teaching. Despite reducing Jesus to almost a wisp of a person, none of this last group has argued that Jesus was a pure invention of the early church. Those who deny the historical Jesus have often used some of their arguments. However, the deniers reach a conclusion, that Jesus never lived, which this group does not.

    Turning now to the history of this issue, the argument over the existence of Jesus goes back to the beginning of the critical study of the New Testament. At the end of the eighteenth century, some disciples of the radical English Deist Lord Bolingbroke began to spread the idea that Jesus had never existed. Voltaire, no friend of traditional Christianity, sharply rejected such conclusions, commenting that those who deny the existence of Jesus show themselves "more ingenious than learned." Nevertheless, in the 1790s a few of the more radical French Enlightenment thinkers wrote that Christianity and its Christ were myths. Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis published books promoting these arguments, saying that Christianity was an updated amalgamation of ancient Persian and Babylonian mythology, with Jesus a completely mythological figure.

    This hypothesis remained quieter until Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Bauer was the most incisive writer in the nineteenth century against the historicity of Jesus. In a series of books from 1840 to 1855, Bauer attacked the historical value of the Gospel of John and the Synoptics, arguing that they were purely inventions of their early second-century authors. As such, they give a good view of the life of the early church, but nothing about Jesus. Bauer's early writings tried to show that historical criticism could recover the main truth of the Bible from the mass of its historical difficulties: that human self-consciousness is divine, and the Absolute Spirit can become one with the human spirit. Bauer was the first systematically to argue that Jesus did not exist. Not only do the Gospels have no historical value, but all the letters written under the name of Paul, which could provide evidence for Jesus' existence, were much later fictions. Roman and Jewish witnesses to Jesus were late, secondary, or forged. With these witnesses removed, the evidence for Jesus evaporated, and Jesus with it. He became the product, not the producer, of Christianity. Christianity and its Christ, Bauer argued, were born in Rome and Alexandria when adherents of Roman Stoicism, Greek Neo-Platonism and Judaism combined to form a new religion that needed a founder.

    Bauer laid down the typical threefold argument that almost all subsequent deniers of the existence of Jesus were to follow (although not in direct dependence upon him). First, he denied the value of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Paul's letters, in establishing the existence of Jesus. Second, he argued that the lack of mention of Jesus in non-Christian writings of the first century shows that Jesus did not exist. Neither do the few mentions of Jesus by Roman writers in the early second century establish his existence. Third, he promoted the view that Christianity was syncretistic and mythical at its beginnings. Bauer's views of Christian origins, including his arguments for the nonexistence of Jesus, were stoutly attacked by both academics and church authorities, and effectively refuted in the minds of most. They gained no lasting following or influence on subsequent scholarship, especially in the mainstream. Perhaps Bauer's most important legacy is indirectly related to his biblical scholarship. When the Prussian government removed him from his Berlin University post in 1839 for his views, this further radicalized one of his students, Karl Marx. Marx would incorporate Bauer's ideas of the mythical origins of Jesus into his ideology, and official Soviet literature and other Communist propaganda later spread this claim.

    Others also took up the denial of Jesus' existence, for both popular and scholarly audiences. For example, in 1841 a series of anonymous popular pamphlets published in England was made into a book, The Existence of Christ Disproved, by Irresistible Evidence, in a Series of Letters, from a German Jew, Addressed to Christians of All Denominations. The author dismissed New Testament, Jewish, and Roman statements about Jesus, arguing that "the Christian religion was borrowed from ancient religions, and was originally a mere solar fable."

    During the 1870s and 1880s, several members of the "Radical Dutch School" (a name given by Germans to a group that made the Tübingen School seem moderate) also pronounced against the existence of Jesus. Centered at the University of Amsterdam, this group had the "most extreme skepticism" about the historical value of the Bible. Allard Pierson, its leader, flatly denied the existence of Jesus, and A. Loman and W. C. van Manen followed him. Their arguments were stoutly attacked in the Netherlands, especially by other scholars, but largely ignored outside it. They wrote almost exclusively in the relatively unknown Dutch language, and as a school focused on the Old Testament. Their arguments against the existence of Jesus "found a few noteworthy adherents in the closing decades of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century, but gradually faded out completely."

    As the arguments of the Radical Dutch School faded, however, a new revival of the nonhistoricity hypothesis gained wider attention. It began with the British rationalist and Freethought advocate, John M. Robertson, who in 1900 published his Christianity and Mythology. This was the first of Robertson's many books attacking Christianity by way of attacking the historicity of its founder. In Robertson's rationalist views, religions develop by producing new gods to fit new times. Robertson argued that an ancient Israelite cult of Joshua, a solar deity symbolized by the lamb and the ram, had long worshiped the god Joshua as a messianic successor to the original Israelite monotheism. Almost entirely mythological, it is related to the Adonis and Tammuz cults. This cult persisted until it gave birth to another messianic god, Jesus. The only possible trace of a "historical Jesus" in Christianity may come from a vague recollection of the Talmud's shadowy figure Jesus ben Pandera, executed under Alexander Janneus (106-79 B.C.E.), but the Jesus of the New Testament never existed. The Gospel accounts are composites of pagan myths, current and ancient. For example, "The Gospel story of the Last Supper, the Agony, the Betrayal, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection is demonstrably not originally a narrative, but a mystery-drama ... inferrably an evolution from a Palestinian rite of human sacrifice in which the annual victim was `Jesus, the Son of the Father.'" Paul's letters remember the death of this Jesus ben Pandera, not a Jesus of Nazareth. Robertson's views on religion, and other topics, were controversial in his day. The British New Testament scholar F. C. Conybeare gave the fullest response in his The Historical Christ. A more popular response is typified by H. G. Wood's Did Christ Really Live? Both these authors, like others who opposed Robertson, argued that in trying to discredit Christianity by showing that its savior was a myth, Robertson ran roughshod over sound historical method. They pointed to ancient non-Christian writers, Roman and Jewish, to establish the historicity of Jesus.

    On the American scene, William Benjamin Smith (1850-1934), a mathematics professor in Tulane University, was the most notable advocate of the nonhistoricity of Jesus. Smith explained belief in the existence of Jesus as a combination of a pre-Christian Jesus cult, a solar deity cult, and the conjunction of Jesus as the Lamb (Latin Agnus) of God and the Hindu god Agni. He argued against the value of Jewish and Roman witnesses to Jesus, especially Josephus and Tacitus.

    In Germany, Smith's views were welcomed and furthered by Arthur Drews (1865-1935), a professor of philosophy in the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule. Drews carried on a popular campaign in speeches and writings against the historicity of Jesus, which he saw as the final obstacle to a monistic view of faith and life. He and his allies, especially Albert Kalthoff and Peter Jensen, published tracts, pamphlets, and popular books for wide distribution. They sponsored public debates with his leading opponents in university cities throughout Germany. These debates often drew large crowds, and transcripts were published in newspapers. Drews's attack on the historicity of Jesus lacked what coherence could be found in earlier attacks, especially that of Bauer. Like Smith's, it was a hodgepodge of earlier arguments. Among all promoters of the nonhistoricity argument, Drews was the most vociferous against Christianity. The Jesus which Christians invented possessed "egoistical pseudo-morals," "narrow-minded nationalism," and an "obscure mysticism." Despite the weakness of his arguments, but likely due to their wide publicity, Drews and his allies were the first to draw a sustained refutation from scholars, some eminent. These refutations dealt with the evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament. The period in which Drews did his writing, the first decades of the twentieth century, was the high-water mark for the nonhistoricity thesis.

    The most prolific and persistent contemporary critic of the historicity of Jesus is George A. Wells (1926-), longtime professor of German in Birkbeck College, London. Wells draws ammunition from much recent Gospel scholarship, which has concluded that the Gospels were written more than forty years after Jesus by unknown authors who were not eyewitnesses to him. Wells argues that the Gospels contain much that is demonstrably legendary, and they are directed by theological (not historical) purposes. Earlier parts of the New Testament, notably Paul's authentic letters, presuppose that Jesus existed, but provide no detailed evidence that would make his existence credible. Therefore, Wells argues, we need independent corroboration from other, "objective" sources to affirm his existence. He minutely examines these proposed other sources, from Tacitus to Talmud, and finds that they contain no independent traditions about Jesus. Therefore, they are not admissible, and the likelihood increases that Jesus did not exist. Wells explains Jesus as a mythical figure arising from Paul's mysticism, for whom other late first-century Christians had to fabricate a life story. R. Joseph Hoffmann is correct to call Wells "the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis." Wells does write in a calm, scholarly tone, in contrast to many others who have advanced this hypothesis. However, Richard France's conclusion on his method is also correct: "[Wells] always selects from the range of New Testament studies those extreme positions which best suit his thesis, and then weaves them together into a total account with which none of those from whom he quoted would agree." France's conclusion is widely shared, as most New Testament scholars do not address Wells's arguments at all, and those who do address them do not go into much depth. Although Wells has been probably the most able advocate of the nonhistoricity theory, he has not been persuasive and is now almost a lone voice for it. The theory of Jesus' nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.

    On what grounds have New Testament scholars and other historians rejected the nonexistence hypothesis? Here we will summarize the main arguments used against Wells's version of this hypothesis, since his is both contemporary and similar to the others. First, Wells misinterprets Paul's relative silence about some details in the life of Jesus: the exact time of his life, the exact places of his ministry, that Pontius Pilate condemned him, and so forth. As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or undetailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times, here about the supposed lack of biblical or extrabiblical references to Jesus, are especially perilous. Moreover, we should not expect to find exact historical references in early Christian literature, which was not written for primarily historical purposes. Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one.

    Second, Wells argues that Christians invented the figure of Jesus when they wrote gospels outside Palestine around 100. Not only is this dating far too late for Mark (which was probably written around the year 70), Matthew, and Luke (both of which probably date to the 80s), it cannot explain why the Gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate.

    Third, Wells claims that the development of the Gospel traditions and historical difficulties within them show that Jesus did not exist. However, development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove nonexistence. (Some of Wells's readers may get the impression that if there were no inconsistencies in the Gospels, he would seize on that as evidence of their falsehood!)

    Fourth, Wells cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus' historicity or even questioned it.

    Fifth, Wells and his predecessors have been far too skeptical about the value of non-Christian witnesses to Jesus, especially Tacitus and Josephus. They point to well-known text-critical and source-critical problems in these witnesses and argue that these problems rule out the entire value of these passages, ignoring the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy.

    Sixth, Wells and others seem to have advanced the nonhistoricity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Freethought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O'Hair. They have correctly assumed that to prove this hypothesis would sound the death knell of Christianity as we know it, but the theory remains unproven.

    Finally, Wells and his predecessors have failed to advance other, credible hypotheses to account for the birth of Christianity and the fashioning of a historical Christ. The hypotheses they have advanced, based on an idiosyncratic understanding of mythology, have little independent corroborative evidence to commend them to others. The nonhistoricity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds. Moreover, it has also consistently failed to convince many who for reasons of religious skepticism might have been expected to entertain it, from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell. Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted. Nevertheless, it has consistently brought attention to the question before us, important in itself: What is the meaning and historical value of ancient evidence outside the New Testament for Jesus?


The Plan of the Present Work


This book will present and critique the ancient evidence we have on the historical Jesus from outside the New Testament. In Chapter Two we will examine Jesus in classical writings, the literature from non-Christian and non-Jewish writers. The Roman writers Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger will figure prominently; but the Stoic philosopher Mara bar Serapion, the historian Thallos, and the philosophers Lucian and Celsus will also be considered. In Chapter Three we will examine Jewish sources that contain references to Jesus. Josephus and the Rabbinic literature will receive a fuller examination. We will treat briefly two other possible sources: the Qumran literature, which a few writers have claimed deals with Jesus; and the Toledot Yeshu, a polemical "Story of Jesus" from the Middle Ages, thought by some to contain ancient traditions about Jesus. In Chapter Four we will discuss Jesus in the hypothetical, reconstructed sources of the canonical Gospels, especially Q, the Johannine "Gospel of Signs," and the special sources of Matthew and Luke known as M and L, respectively. In Chapter Five we will examine the historical Jesus in post-New Testament Christian writings, especially in the New Testament Apocrypha, Nag Hammadi codices, and the Agrapha ("unwritten" sayings of Jesus).

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments ix
Abbreviations xii
1. The Study of Jesus Outside the New Testament 1
A Brief History of Research 2
Did Jesus Really Exist? 6
The Plan of the Present Work 16
2. Jesus in Classical Writings 19
Thallos: The Eclipse at Jesus' Death 20
Pliny the Younger: The Christ of Christian Worship 23
Suetonius: The Instigator Chrestus 29
Tacitus: The Executed Christ 39
Mara bar Serapion: The Wise Jewish King 53
Lucian of Samosata: The Crucified Sophist 58
Celsus: Christ the Magician 64
Conclusions 68
3. Jesus in Jewish Writings 75
Is Jesus Mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls? 75
Josephus: Jesus, a Wise Man Called the Christ 81
The Rabbinic Tradition: Jesus the Magician and Deceiver 104
The Toledot Yeshu: How Ancient a Polemic against Jesus? 122
Conclusions 129
4. Jesus in the Sources of the Canonical Gospels 135
L: Jesus, the Powerful Teacher and Healer 136
The Special Material of Matthew: An M Source on Jesus? 143
The Signs Source of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus the Messiah 149
Q: Jesus, the Agent of the Kingdom of God 155
Conclusions 174
5. Jesus in Christian Writings after the New Testament 179
The Agrapha: Scattered Sayings of Jesus 179
The Nag Hammadi Literature: Jesus the Revealer of Secret
Knowledge 185
The New Testament Apocrypha: Traditions and Legends about
Jesus 203
Conclusions 215
Bibliography 219
Index of Names 235
Index of Subjects 239
Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Writings 241
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2001

    Well Done

    This book probably contains the best treatment of pagan sources referring to Jesus that can be acheived. His treatment of Suetonius is especially well done. Don't miss this one when researching the extrabiblical sources on Jesus.

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