Jesus, Ancient Literature and Archaeology
by Rick Dack, Founder and Director of Defending the Bible Int’l.

(All images and text are owned/purchased by Defending the Bible Int'l. and cannot be used without permission)
     The red bead means that "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it." The pink bead means "Jesus probably said something like this." The grey bead implies " Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are very close to his own." Finally, the black bead means " Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later and/or different tradition" (Wilkins, 1995).
   This method is how the 74 "Fellows" (as they call themselves) of the Jesus Seminar determine the authenticity of the book known as the Bible and more specifically the gospels. Though members of respected institutions such as Vanderbilt, Claremont and Harvard these "scholars" of the New Testament deny any verse that would consist of a parable, a lengthy sermon or a portion in which Jesus would relate a quotation of scripture concerning the law of Moses. According to them Jesus never considered himself the Messiah, engage in dialogue of a confrontational nature, nor did he see his eventual crucifixion prior to the event. The Jesus Seminar members, eighteen of whom never have even written an article or published a book on "any" New Testament event, seem to know better than those contemporaries of Jesus' day concerning his life, beliefs and personality or do they?
   While not desiring to devote this entire paper to critics and crackpots there is perhaps a more devious plan in disrupting what we know of Jesus and to a certain extent, it’s in our own backyard. The writings of Glenn Kimball and his research on the Vatican papers should be touched upon. Mr. Kimball was a guest on a radio program called the Art Bell Show. Mr. Bell's national program typically has the UFO abduction people, Aliens in your freezer and of course the secret society types spewing their bizarre stories but I have noticed in recent years that some of this senationalism genre has creeped into Christianity. Bob Larson (self -promoted exorcist/demonologist) out of Denver, Colorado was on the program and The Prophecy Club (both programs are still broadcast on many Christian stations nationally) out of Tokepa, Kansas has this Art Bell theme in practically every broadcast.
   Mr. Kimball who has claimed to have done over 25 years of research on the Historical Jesus and has written two books. The first one is entitled The Hidden Stories from the Childhood of Jesus and the newest edition The Hidden Politics of the Crucifixion. The foundational material that he uses is clearly extra-biblical and has no bearing on facts as represented by known scholars. Mr. Kimball though he may have the best of intentions has tapped into the world of the bizarre. I will not present all of Mr. Kimballs research but it is necessary to know his beliefs and how they contradict every known fact of Jesus' life.
Here is a brief outline of the Gospel According to Glenn Kimball:
Joseph, Mary and the birth of Christ
1) Joseph had no intention of marrying Mary.
2) Joseph was chosen to marry Mary due to the budding of a flower on his staff and a dove landing on his shoulder. A voice from the Holy of Holies said that he (Joseph) who did not bring his staff to the meeting of all unmarried men is the one to be chosen.
3) James (son from previous marriage) was with Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem.
4) Joseph was offered the stable in Bethlehem because he was politically powerful.
5) The gold, frankincense and myrrh and Josephs of Arimatheas mining business made Jesus wealthy.
The Life of Jesus
1) Judas was a childhood friend of Jesus.
2) Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus' uncle.
3) Joseph was the 3rd wealthiest in the world.
4) Joseph owned a tin and lead mining business in Britain.
5) Jesus was a sailor during the so-called "lost years."
6) Jesus owned a fleet of ships due to his great wealth.
7) Jesus was able to finance his disciples.
8) Jesus appeared to Pontius Pilates wife (a converted jew) after his resurrection.
9) Jesus knew Pilate before the trial and would they exchange passwords to get into debate sessions in England.
10) Pilate was educated in England. The reason why Pilate hesitated to crucify Jesus was because he knew and respected Jesus' powerful
family that he knew from England (The Art Bell Show, 1999).
   Mr. Kimballs information as you can see has clear errors. The portions specifically on the birth and life of Christ I think should be discussed briefly. If indeed Jesus was wealthy due to his uncles (Joseph of Arimathea) mining business and the gifts presented to him at his birth why would Judas in John 12:5 be concerned with the costly perfume used on Jesus? After all Judas was the keeper of the money box and he would've known the solvency or the lack of. Concerning the intentions of Joseph prior to his marriage Matthew 1:18 clearly says that "After his Mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit." (Tyndale House Publishers, 1993). So Joseph had every intention of marriage prior to the visitation. I fear that this pseudo-history of the life of Jesus is a threat that many seekers will take as fact. If leaders such as Bob Larson and organizations such as The Prophecy Club persist with this historical absurdity and acknowledge those that do, where will this lead? Surely not to the one who has risen but to another Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ) figure.
   What do we know about the man called Jesus? Can we know anything about the Bible and its contents or is the Bible a fairy tale as one ABC late night talk show host, Bill Maher of "Politically Incorrect," said in August of 2001? Do we know of anything from the 1st Century that would lead us to presume that Jesus was not simply a carpenter who was executed for offending a religious community? What about the other characters involved in this drama? Did they exist or were they simply figments of some ones fertile imagination?
Herod the Great
   Herod the Great, the one of whom scripture says was the instigator of the death of the infants 2 years and younger and who prompted the family of Jesus to flee to Egypt, ruled from 37 - 4 B.C.E. Herod interestingly was not a true Jew and was greatly disliked by the same, but was an Idhumean and was appointed King of Judea. Fearful of the brand of "Jew," he was a frequenter of the commercial Greek marketplaces and strove to be as his adopted title "friend of the Romans." Though a diplomat at heart he was a man of great cruelty and paranoia. Reports have it that Herod had his nephew drowned, his sons strangled (7 B.C.E.), his mother-in-law Alexandra executed as well as his wife Mariamne. The death of Mariamne caused great sadness for Herod who would often call out to her as if she was still alive. (Free, 1992)
John the Baptist and Herod Antipas
   As we jump approximately 30 years ahead in history we come to another member of the Herodian family, Herod Antipas. Antipas is probably best known from a biblical perspective for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. What were the factors that lead to the baptists demise? How do we know about the events concerning John’s life and his relationship with the Herodian family? According to the biblical text the one called the Baptist was born around the time of Christ and he was a relative. John preached a baptism of repentence for the forgiveness of sins in the regions surrounding the Jordan River. When his followers, Priests and Levites asked if he was the Messiah he said, " I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire" (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984). Shortly after the baptism of Jesus, John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas concerning his recent marriage to his brothers (Philip) wife. It is assumed that John was executed simply for his charges against Herod but is this true? Its important to understand that though Johns words carried great influence, Herod actions prior to Johns arrest were not completely innocent.
   The Arabs and the Herodians have always had a difficult relationship. Josephus states in his Antiquities of the Jews 15 that the Arabs invaded Herod the Greats territory after they accused Herod of the same offense. The burning of Judean villages by Aretus (future father-in-law of Antipas) also stoked the fires between the two. After the death of Herod the Great there was no record of any conflicts between Aretus and the Herodians until 36 A.D. Why is that? The answer lies in the marriage between the daughter of Aretus and the son of Herod, a marriage not for love but to create a peace pact. Josephus writes that Antipas on a visit to Rome (29 A.D.) agreed to marry Herodias (Antiquities of the Jews xviii 100-125). She agreed only on the condition that he divorce Aretus' daughter. As a Hasmonean, she chose not to share her house with an arab due to long standing conflicts (Hasmonean vs. Arab) and its also believed that some of Herods wives, presumably Hasmonean, had major disagreements with Herods various sons. The Bible states that it was due to the marriage between Herodias and Antipas that John was eventually executed but it is also believed, extra-biblically, that Herods actions could renew the war. Josephus writes that the daughter of Auretus learns of the intended divorce by Antipas and reports this to her father who a few years later would start a war between himself and Herod (Antiquities of the Jews xviii, 110). Johns popularity and outspokeness no doubt lead to a certain paranoia in a clearly tense time that brought about the Antipas action. By imprisoning John out of fear of an uprising among the followers of the Baptist he was able to squelch a potentially difficult situation (Hoehner, 1980).
Jesus and his Biographers
   The one thing that has stayed in my mind is the concept that modern day secularists have a clear knowledge of ancient writings and are true supporters of those documents but when it comes to Jesus they are obsessive about seeing Jesus as perhaps a good moral teacher or a poor rabbi who caused a stir in Jerusalem and was executed for it and that's all the farther they dare take the discussion.
   I have read many articles concerning the writings of the 1st century writer Josephus and his passages in notable sections of his Antiquities of the Jews and I have always had questions that not many have been able to answer. I am not one to simply dismiss out of simple disbelief because I believe that is intellectual suicide but it is interesting that the very ones that accuse believers of this tactic indeed do it themselves in my experience in debating via the internet.
As a reference point here are the passages of Josephus' Antiquities 18 (xviii) which will be referred to:
   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 amongst us, had condemned him to the cross those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to the alive again the third day, as the divine prophet 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 (Kregel, 1981).
….when therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought now he had a proper opportunity ( to exercise his authority.) Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, whose name was James (Kregel, 1981).
   I guess my initial questions arose while reading material by the Christian writer, Josh MacDowell and the material by Alan Millard (Discoveries from the Time of Jesus). I found it interesting that critics had severe problems with the Antiquity portions. I have had nagging questions on the opposite end of the spectrum. If the Josephus passage (Antiquities 18) has a later interpolation why is it that in all of my years of reading that I hardly if ever heard of these kinds of interpolations elsewhere in secular writings? What? Because Christ is mentioned by a non-believer that makes it instantly suspect? Is it not possible to "report" what others are saying about an individual without putting your full trust in that individual and following him? Modern reporters do it all the time! Why not in the 1st century?
   Though not all of my questions will be answered here its important to find out exactly what Josephus and others have written including the pro and con arguments relating to Jesus. The writings of this Jewish historian specifically the Antiquities of the Jews covers the time of creation through A.D. 66. Six of the twenty books relate to this time period begin with Herod the Great through the year 66. The portion known as the Testimonium Flavianum begins with the first two sections discussing the actions of Pontius Pilate and continues on with three other somewhat haphazard portions including a scandal in Rome involving the Priests of Isis (65-80), the reason for the expelling of the Jews from Rome by Tiberius after a "con trick" (81-84) and a previous section detailing Jesus (63-64). The real contention concerning the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18) is not necessarily the fashion in which the Jesus narrative is "positioned" though some critics such as Wells make the claim that it seems out of sequence concerning the introduction of Pilate (55-62) and a segue into the Jesus portion (63,64) but the issue is interpolation (France, 1986). How was the original Testimonium constructed? R.T. France, the author of the Evidence for Jesus, writes that it is widely accepted that the passage was improved by an additional Christian author but that the assumption in and of itself is also pure conjecture. Nevertheless here are the arguments:
1) Josephus never showed any clear interest in Christianity or in any messianic movements in his previous writings so its assumed he never wrote fully the Testimonium and that a Christian later inserted the pro messianic verses, "he was the messiah" and "he appeared to them on the 3rd day."
2) Origen wrote that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Concerning the known style of Josephus and the Antiquities 18 passage this is also what we know…
1) "a wise man" was typical Josephus style and not a pro-Christian phrase.
2) "astonishing deeds" was not a pro-Christian phrase but used by Josephus to refer to Elisha's
3) "tribe" appears no where in early Christian literature but Josephus uses it for both the Jewish
    race and a national or communal group.
If interpolations did occur the best explanation for Antiquities 18 would be, "If indeed one should call him a man" was the Christian response to Josephus' a "wise man." The passage "he was the so-called Messiah" would rather be worded by Christians as "he was the Messiah." But this is all pure conjecture based upon a personal opinion on what Josephus truly wrote (France, 1986).
In defense of the Antiquities passage is should be noted that…
1) Jesus is called a "wise man." Though the phrase is complimentary, it is less than one would expect from a Christian.
2) "For he was one who wrought surprising feats." (for he was a doer of wonderful works). This is not necessarily a statement that would come only from a Christian.
3) "He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks." (He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles). Can be construed as a simple observation (Wilkins, 1995).
Antiquities 18 also mentions the role of one Pontius Pilate. Similar to the last issue raised comes the question. Is the account of Pilate independent or could it have been a mere account of what others were saying at the time of Josephus? Here's those arguments:
1) The non-Christian terminology relating to this portion is distinctively Josephus.
2) There is no other reason to assume this passage to be anything less than Josephus because indeed he believed that the events concerning the trial and execution were true events.
3) The relaying of Pilates Governorship and his actions concerning Jesus without a necessity to embrace the Christian belief would also be common.
4) Josephus did not use Christian sources as his means of acquiring information concerning his writings (France, 1986).
   Finally, we will discuss Antiquities 20 where Jesus is referred to as the so-called Messiah. This portion that refers to the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, whose name was James takes place in the year 62 A.D. Ananus, the new high priest, illegally convened the court of the Sanhedrin in order to bring James and others to justice. What follows are the arguments:
1) These individuals in the passage are not called Christians and it is assumed that due to his relation to his brother (Jesus)
James was eventually executed in that year.
2) This term "so-called Messiah" would hardly be characteristic of a Christian interpolation.
3) Josephus' mention of James is intriguing because it gives no firm pro-Christian stand regarding the denial of the charges brought against James nor is there an attempt at an enhancement of his image. This is also a clear indication of no interpolation by believers (France, 1986).
   Unless further documents are discovered and an argument from silence is halted this issue of the historical Jesus and the true writings of Josephus will continue.
Yeshu and Jesus
   Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a: This passage from Judaiac writings should be looked at in the sense of a possible future critic contention of Jesus being borrowed from rather than being a original New Testament figure. Here is the passage in its entirety:
   It is taught: On Passover Eve they hanged Yeshu. For Forty days beforehand a crier went out proclaiming, 'He is going out to be stoned, because he has practiced magic and led Israel astray. If anyone has anything to say in his defense let him come and speak for him.' But they found nothing in his favor, so they hanged him on Passover Eve.
   This passage as can be seen has many errors but it should be pointed out that it is generally agreed that Yeshu is Jesus of Nazareth and that the concept of a "hanging" (crucificion) on Passsover Eve also rings true but besides that there is very little to parallel the gospel account. The portion saying "For Forty days beforehand a crier went out proclaiming" may have been used as an apologetic device in the sense that he (Jesus) was given every chance to defend himself but interestingly no passage in the Talmudic Baraitoth (of which this passage is a portion of) / Mishnah, 200 A.D., has any reference to this 40 day legal procedure prior to this passage nor does the New Testament even allude to a minimal week long trial (France, 1986).
   The inclusion of one called Matthai (Matthew) in the following verses may again lead some to the belief that the New Testament was created "late" based upon this passage but the inclusion of "one" disciple and the exclusion of the "eleven" leaves the passages again suspect. It should also said that there is a reference to Jesus being a sorceror," because he has practiced magic and led Israel astray." Though this accusation is a New Testament parallel (see Mark 3:22, Matthew 9:34, 10:25, 27:63) it is still fragmentary.
   Babylon Talmud Sanhedrin 107b speaks of Jesus again being a sorceror and a somewhat pathetic character who was excommunicated. This portion has little New Testament relevance. The Jesus character worships a brick and is considered a sinner. Tosefta Hullin 2:22-24 speaks of a Rabbi Eliezar Ben Hyrcanus who relays a story concerning him being accused of being a min (heretic: Christian) and he relays the story of bumping into a Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin who told him of a teaching by a one Jesus Ben Pantiri. The name Panthera (Pantiri) is associated with Jesus in many Rabbinic passages and the writings of Origen where he relays the heretical story of Mary being impregnated by a Roman Soldier by the name of Pathera who was the father of Jesus (France, 1986).
The Gentile Biographers
Tacitus' Annals
    To dispel the rumour, Nero substituted as cuplrits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following.- Annals XV. 44
   This passage contains many interesting points that supports the new movement known as Christianity in Rome in the mid sixties of the 1st century. The author (Tacitus) gives us the name Christus or Christ. It tells us of his place of origin (Judea), a general time period (the reign of Tiberius, 14-37 A.D.) and the one who was Governor at the time of the death of Christus, Pontius Pilate who ruled from 26-36 C.E. (France, 1986). Though many may attempt to deny the historical Jesus this should stop them dead in their tracks. Though this passage is clearly not exhaustive nor is it meant to it be, it shows the expansion of this new belief into areas which are clearly pagan. Though a weak argument it could also be in effect an evidence of the travels of Paul into pagan society.
Mara Ber Serapion
   The author, Mara Ber Serapion, may have written about the death of Jesus shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E. ) though that cannot be strictly determined. This Stoic Philosopher whose writing is housed in the British Museum refers to "the Jews" as if he was not of that belief system and puts Jesus on the same playing field as Pythagorus and Socrates. Mara Ber Serapion is clearly not a Jew or a follower of Christ. The passage I want to refer to is the part where he refers to the Jews executing their wise king shortly before their kingdom was abolished. This King who is not mentioned by name may be Jesus and this could be a pagan reference to his crucifixion but it is still undetermined (France, 1986).
Seutonius' Lives of the Caesars
     An additional reference to Nero and the Christians was found in the writings of Seutonius. This was written approximately 120 A.D. and like Tacitus, Seutonius has a similar view of Christians. "Punishments were inflicted on Christians, a class of men belonging to a new and vicious cult" (Nero 16.2). There is given no explanation why they were punished or what their wrong doing was. The great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. is not mentioned in connection with Christians but is entirely blamed upon Nero though some have written that this is the explicit reason for the persecutions. (France, 1986). Claudius 25.4 Seutonius writes that, "He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, because they were rioting at the instigation of Chrestus." This is the only reference to this Chrestus. The question is who is he? No one really knows. It's determined that the name Chrestus is Roman and not Jewish. France goes onto point out that Chrestus (meaning "good" or "kind") in Greek may have been a substitute for the word Christus (anointed). The argument has been put forth that if he was referring specifically to Christus or Jesus he would've used the same terminology as in Nero 16.2. (see above) (France, 1986).
Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia
   This Governor of Bithynia (110 A.D.) wrote numerous amounts of correspondence to Trajan concerning administrative issues including how to deal with those who called themselves Christians. Pliny the Younger wanted to know what legal precedence had been set before he decides to execute those who fail to renounce this new movement and make an offering to the emperors statue (those Christians of Roman citizenship were to be sent to Rome for trial). The conclusion that the Governor came to was that 'they were a perverse religious cult, carried to extremes' and that it was necessary to have them 'checked out because they were affecting large numbers of all classes' of people. It should said that Pliny does not mention Jesus in any of his letters but only his followers (France, 1986).
   Attesting to the fact that a Jesus did live and that the political leaders and the forerunners of his ministry were true historical figures it is safe to say that Jesus did indeed live in the time given to him in the Bible. Jesus did engage in dialogue of a confrontational nature in the sense of answering the Pharisees questions when confronted. The lead to his eventual capture, trial and execution as Antiquities 18 (and when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross) points out. Though my sympathies certainly move in favor of the carpenter I thought it was important to dispel not only the true critics of the Bible, but those that use extra-biblical sources (Vatican papers etc;) to portray Jesus' life in a way that is beyond scholarship and could prove to be more harmful than helpful.
France, R.T. The Evidence for Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986).
Free, Joseph. Archaeology and Bible History (Michigan: Zondervan, 1992).
Hoehner, Harold W. Herod Antipas (Cambridge, England: University Press 1980).
Kregel Publications. The Complete Works of Josephus (Michigan: Kregel, 1981).
Premiere Radio Networks. The Art Bell Show (Nevada: P.R.N., 1999).
Thomas Nelson Publishers. The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1984).
Tyndale House Publishers. The Life Application Bible (Illinois: Tyndale, 1993).
Wilkins, Michael J. Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan: Michigan, 1995).