Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

Historicity of Jesus: Josephus

February 17th, 2016

By Kyle Larson

Flavius Josephus was a well-known Jewish historian of the first century AD. He is remembered for his history of the Jewish people and a book about their struggle to free the land from Roman rule in the mid first century. He is also remembered for defecting to the Romans after a failed military campaign against them resulted in his surrender. At the time, many Jews called derided him as conceited and a traitor. Fortunately, history allows us a much more balanced picture of this historical figure.

Flavius JosephusFlavius Joesphus was born Joseph ben Matityaho in Jerusalem into a family in the line of the high priest; His mother’s heritage linked directly to the Maccabean dynasty. At a young age, he showed a thirst for knowledge; to know more about his Jewish heritage. As he notes, many of the Jewish Priests came to him while still a boy to ask him questions about the Jewish faith.

At 16, he became a Pharisee. Pharisees were a Jewish group that adhered very strictly to the written law of Moses as well as to the great body of oral tradition that had grown up around the written law. In 63 AD, at the of 26, he sailed to Rome to ask for the release of some Jewish Priests. The priests had apparently risen up in rebellion against Roman authority, had been captured, and were now in Rome as prisoners. Josephus ultimately gained the release of these Priests, and in the process, became good friends with one of the mistresses of Nero.

After returning to Judea from Rome, he found Judea on the brink of revolt against its Roman task masters. He tried to reason with some of the Jewish leaders trying to convince them that it was “suicide” to revolt against Rome.  Rome had far superior military forces. His pleadings failed to convince any of the Jewish leaders.

Over the course of  time, because of his eminence in the Jewish community, he was called into military service on behalf of the Jewish rebels against Rome in the siege of Gamala. Even at this point, he still tried to convince the Jewish rebels to lay down their arms against Rome. Josephus only went through the motions of supporting the Jewish rebels against Rome.

Later, at the siege of Jotapata, an overwhelming Roman force had Josephus and a number of other rebel leaders backed into a corner; There was no way out. In desperation, they entered into a suicide pact similar to that at Masada. However. Josephus was able to cunningly weasel out of the pact so that, in the end, all the other Jewish leaders committed suicide while he cheated death by suicide.

Ultimately, Josephus surrendered to the Romans and became a slave of the Roman general. He was in their service as translator. At the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus tried again to urge the rebels to lay down their arms. They would not and, as a result, Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple were destroyed. The city was sacked and the temple set on fire.

During the long siege, Josephus became good friends with Titus, the Roman commander against the Jewish rebellion. Fortunately for Josephus, Titus later became Emperor of Rome. After the rebellion, Josephus returned to Rome with Titus where he became the official historian of the rebellion.

Works of Josephus from 1640Josephus, in his book Antiquities of the Jews, which gives a historical account of the Jewish people, mentions Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ half brother James. The original quote speaking of Jesus, strangely enough, made it sound as if Josephus was a Christian. This was not the case. Josephus was a Jew. The passage was the subject of much controversy for centuries. Comparing Greek and Latin texts, it appeared that some Christian interpolation had occurred during the second century AD, but no scholar could say how it was altered or by whom.

The answer came in 1971. A Jewish scholar in Jerusalem found a 10th century Arabic version of Josephus’ work translated by Christians living in Arab lands. He also found an 11th century Syraic copy. Comparing the versions together, the interpolation could be removed and the original passage from the point of view of Jewish historian came to light:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

In this much more historically accurate version, Josephus is basically reporting historical facts. He is not trying to get his fellow Jews to believe that Jesus is the Messiah which he himself did not believe. It’s a straight forward historical report which includes his neutral reporting that the disciples reported that Jesus appeared to them. Josephus says Jesus was a wise man and seriously wonders whether or not Jesus was the messiah, not that Jesus WAS the messiah.

This Arabic translation of Josephus’ “Jesus passage” is strong evidence that Jesus really existed and that the gospel narratives are correct.

Historicity of Jesus: Pliny the Younger

January 25th, 2016

by Kyle Larson

Pliny the YoungerPliny the Younger was a well educated Roman lawyer who prosecuted and defended Provincial governors throughout the late first century and early second century Roman Empire. In a series of letters written to Emperor Trajan in the early second century, Pliny the Younger described how he would identify and punish those who refused to offer sacrifices to Emperor Trajan. In particular, these letters included his dealings with Christians.

Pliny the Younger born in Italy around 61 AD. To put that in perspective, Paul and Peter were executed by Nero in 64 AD. Pliny’s father died when he was young, and he was raised by his step-father. His step-father was an imperial official well known for putting down a revolt against the Emperor Nero in 68 AD.  Pliny the Younger was also very close to his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a close friend to Emperor Vespasian and notable scholar of the first century.

While still young, both Plinys were witness to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Both lived opposite the town of Pompeii when it erupted. Pliny the Younger vividly describes the horror that the people of Pompeii felt as a result. His uncle, Pliny the elder, died trying to rescue people caught in the volcanic eruption. As you can imagine, this was very difficult for Pliny the Younger to deal with.

Despite this, Pliny the Younger received an excellent Roman education which included studying rhetoric under Quintilian, the most famous Roman rhetorician of his day and a friend of the Emperor. After completing his education, Pliny entered the imperial service of the Roman Empire. In 110 AD, he became the Roman Governor of Bithynia, the area that covers modern day Turkey. As Governor, he had to deal with a small religious group known as Christians. There was no empire wide persecution, so Pliny was not sure how to deal with the Christians. He decided to write to the Emperor Trajan and share with him what his current policy was in dealing with the Christians.

Emperor TrajanEmperor Trajan stated that merely being a Christian was crime enough for judicial action. In response, Pliny explained his method of interrogation and the punishments awarded. First, he would give the accused three attempts to either confirm or deny the charge that they were Christians. If it was made clear to him that the accused were Christians, Pliny would then give them the opportunity to deny Jesus and offer burnt sacrifices to the Roman Emperor. If the Christians persistently and stubbornly refused to sacrifice to the Emperor, Pliny would pass judgement. Roman citizens would be sent to Rome for trial. Those not fortunate enough to be citizens were executed.

The Emperor Trajan responded to Pliny and said he had no problem with this procedure. Because the Christians were still a small group, the Emperor wrote that no special effort should be made to actively hunt down the Christians. No anonymous accusations should be accepted. Only accusations by officials and interrogations were sufficient. However, once a person was identified as a Christian, Pliny should then follow the procedure that he outlined in his original letter to the Emperor Trajan.

Pliny, in another place, talks about the high ethical and moral standards that the early Christians received from their teacher Jesus and which they sought to put into practice. He also mentions that Christians sang worship songs to Jesus as “a god”. Both of these confirm the traditional view of what early Christians believed.

Because of his position and connections, we can confidently say that Pliny the Younger was in a good place to give accurate information on the early Christians he encountered. We can believe his descriptions of their moral behavior and how it had been shaped by the ethical teachings of the Jewish teacher named Jesus. So Pliny the Younger offers testimony that a Jewish teacher named Jesus existed, was a great moral teacher, and was worshiped as God at the end of the first century by a group called Christians.

Historicity of Jesus: Suetonius

January 18th, 2016

by Kyle Larson

Jesus was real. He existed in a time and lived in a place. History has provided for us numerous sources for his life, his death, and the effect he had on the ancient world. This week, we are going to take a brief look at the Roman scholar and historian Suetonius. He left a short, but telling, account of a strange people causing an uproar in Rome.

SuetoniusSuetonius was a Roman scholar who wrote a notable history of the Roman emperors around the end of the first century AD. He was born in north Africa (modern Algeria) sometime between 67-72 AD. Raised in an upper class family, Suetonius received an excellent classical education by Roman standards, including time spent studying Greek literature and art. He also learned the political and economic aspects of the first century Roman Empire.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius studied Roman Law. He was a close friend of Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of what is modern day Turkey. He also had access to vast amounts of Roman historical and archival records once he was appointed to serve as the Director of the Imperial Library as well as other related posts.

His historical writings are many. He wrote on many aspects of Greco-Roman culture. This included such topics as the Greek games, physical disabilities, clothing, Roman festivals and customs. With all these credentials behind him, as we did with Tacitus, we can confidently assert that he was well connected, had access to Roman records, and thus could speak confidently on Jesus and the early Christians.

Lives of the Twelve CaesarsHis major historical work was entitled Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In it, Suetonius chronicles the major Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. When he gets to the reign of the Emperor Claudius, he makes a brief mention of Jesus and the early Christians:

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.”

Bart Ehrman is uncertain if “Chrestus” refers to Jesus or not. Other historians point out that the name “Chrestus” is the same Latin Spelling that Tacitus uses when referring to Jesus.

And we know, Tacitus was an accurate Roman historian. This passage explains that the Jewish population in Rome caused problems for Roman officials because of the growing number of Christians in Rome. As a result, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Even Bart Ehrman admits that this historical incident in Suetonius is confirmed by Luke in Acts 18:2.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius confirm that the Christians in Rome followed a Jewish teacher named Jesus who lived in Judea, taught the people, and was ultimately killed under Governor Pontius Pilate of Judea while Tiberius was the Roman Emperor. It is possible that Pilate filed a formal report in Rome that both Tacitus and Suetonius may have had access to.

Now that we have looked at two of the top Gentile writers who mention Jesus, next week, we will look at what the first century Jewish historian Josephus had to say about Jesus.