John Meier on the Authenticity of Josephus and Tacitus in Their References to Jesus

I started volume 1 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, which is about Jesus.  In this post, I will talk about Meier’s discussion about the authenticity of two extrabiblical references to Jesus: that of Josephus (first century C.E.), and that of the Roman historian Tacitus (first-second centuries C.E.).

1.  In Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3, we read the following:

“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 them alive again 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.”  (See here.)

There are different views on this passage.  Most scholars maintain that it is largely by Josephus, and that there were some Christian glosses put into it.  Some believe that all of it is a Christian interpolation, and some think that it is authentic to Josephus in its entirety.

Meier goes with the majority view, that it is largely by Josephus.  He has a variety of reasons for this.  First, Josephus refers to the death of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities 20.9.1, and Meier thinks it makes sense that Josephus would have told his readers earlier who this Jesus was.  Otherwise, they’d wonder who Jesus was when Josephus referred to James the brother of Jesus.  Second, Meier believes that, overall, the passage resembles Josephus’ style and vocabulary. (But see here.)

Third, Meier states that there are differences between what Josephus says about Jesus in this passage and how the New Testament and early Christianity conceptualizes him, showing that the passage was not a Christian interpolation.  The passage says that Jesus was a wise man, whereas Christianity regarded Jesus as much loftier than that.  The passage says that Jesus attracted Jews and Gentiles, whereas the Gospels largely depict Jesus reaching out to Israel and gaining his following from among Jews, not Gentiles.  The passage blames Pilate primarily for Jesus’ death, whereas the Gospels are more anti-Jewish.  Because Meier considers “for he appeared to them alive again the third day” to be a Christian gloss, he argues that Josephus does not mention Jesus’ resurrection, which would be odd if all of the passage were a Christian interpolation.  And Meier regards the part about the tribe of Christians remaining to this day to reflect Josephus’ contempt for the Christians, as Josephus is puzzled that there are people who are following a man who was crucified.  Fourth, Meier believes that Christian thinkers prior to Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) do not refer to this passage (meaning this passage minus what Meier and others have considered to be the Christian glosses) because it does not support Jesus as the Christ.  Origen in the third century boldly says that Josephus was not a believer in Jesus as the Messiah (Commentary on Matthew 10.17; Contra Celsum 1.47), and Meier maintains that Origen is basing this on Antiquities 18.3.3.  Why, after all, would Origen think that Josephus thought anything about Jesus, if Josephus did not even mention Jesus?

And fifth, Meier holds that the passage fits well within its context, showing that it was not inserted at a later date.  On page 86, Meier states: “one wonders whether any greater link need exist for Josephus than the fact that the account of Jesus (who is crucified by Pilate) is preceded by a story about Pilate in which many Jews are killed (Ant. 18.3.2[~]60-62) and is followed by a story in which tricksters are punished by crucifixion (Ant. 18.3.4[~]65-80).”

2.  Tacitus, in Annals 15.44, states (according to whatever translation Meier is using): “Therefore, to squelch the rumor, Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called ‘Christians,’ [a group] hated for their abominable crimes.  Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.  Suppressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all sorts of horrendous and shameful practices from every part of the world converge and are fervently cultivated.”

Meier does not believe that this is a Christian interpolation because, well, it is so anti-Christian, calling Christianity a deadly superstition and an evil.  Meier thinks that Tacitus got his knowledge of the Christians from somebody else, such as general knowledge or Pliny the Younger.  While Meier is open to the possibility that Tacitus was consulting Roman archives, he does not think that Tacitus is citing an official record in his writing because Tacitus incorrectly calls Pilate a procurator, whereas Pilate was a prefect.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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