December 24, 2022

Blaise Pascal is right to have jotted in one of his baroque notebooks that Jesus lived “in such obscurity… that historians writing of important matters of state hardly noticed him”. And Erich Auerbach is right to have stressed in a book he wrote in Istanbul, exiled from Hitler’s Reich, that Jesus’s death was “a provincial incident”. This is what makes it so remarkable that the life and death of an impoverished Galilean rabbi are described in a number of non-Christian texts from the first centuries of our era.

Jesus’s first non-Christian mention may be found in a Syrian philosopher’s letter, The Letter of Mara bar Sarapion, which was rediscovered in the 19th century but is vexingly hard to date. One eminent historian, Fergus Millar, concluded that this Letter was likely written as early as 73AD. This would make it roughly contemporary with the first gospels to be written.

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Though Millar’s dating is contested, Mara’s Letter is certainly a pagan text of the first or second century AD. In it, both Socrates and Jesus are seen as belonging to an august history of philosopher-martyrs. Mara thinks that it is human error which led to their deaths, and to the devastation of the cities in which they died:

“What can we say, when wise men are forcibly dragged by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is taken captive by slander? … For what benefit did the Athenians derive from the slaying of Socrates? They received the retribution for it in the form of famine … Or the Judaeans [from the slaying] of their wise king? From that very time their sovereignty was taken away …. [Yet] Socrates did not die, because of Plato … nor did the wise king [die], because of the new laws that he gave.”

There is nothing necessarily untoward about Mara’s notion of divine nemesis. A Cynic philosopher, Dio of Prusa, similarly holds that Socrates’s death was the cause of the Athenians’ later misfortunes. And a Judaean historian, Josephus (on whom more in a moment), reports that many Judaeans viewed Herod Antipas’s humiliating defeat in 36AD, by a Nabatean king, as divine retribution for his murder of John the Baptist. For a first or second-century philosopher such as Mara, “killing the philosophers” was a recurring drama which led to the gods’ destruction of Mediterranean cities. And for early Christians (and many Judaeans), “killing the prophets” was a recurring drama which included John the Baptist and Jesus, and which brought down judgement on the cities of Galilee and Judaea.

We see that Mara’s Jesus has Syrian features by glancing at a second-century text by Lucian of Samosata. This dazzling Syrian satirist refers to “the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced new mysteries into the world”. Note that Jesus’s crime, here, is innovation. The gospels do not mention innovation as one of the crimes with which Jesus was charged, but Socrates was found guilty of introducing “new divinities”. Like Mara, then, Lucian seems to constellate the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. What is more, Lucian — like Mara — seems to see Jesus as a sort of lawgiver. As he writes about Syria’s Christians:

“Their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore, they despise all things indiscriminately and hold them to be common property.”

For Lucian, Jesus is a crucified sophist and the first lawgiver of the Christians. For Mara, he is a wise king who was put to death, but not before he had promulgated new laws. This slight Syrian archive suggests that pagan intellectuals in Roman Syria had come to know, by the late second century, that Jesus had been put to death — like Socrates — as a political criminal. Yet it is not entirely clear who put him to death. For Mara it is Judaeans, and for Lucian it is Romans. When their brief lines on Jesus are read in conjunction, we might suspect that both Judaeans and Romans had a hand in the death of the Christians’ new lawgiver.

Early Roman mentions of Jesus are few, but we can relate them in interesting ways to our Syrian archive. It is the historian Tacitus who settles the question of who sentenced Jesus. “In the reign of Tiberius”, he reports, Jesus was “executed … by the procurator Pontius Pilate”. This graphs neatly onto what we read in numerous early Christian texts and formulas. It is significant, too, that Tacitus calls Pilate’s convict Christ, and not Jesus. This is a point of commonality in the early Roman texts which mention him.

In Pliny the Younger’s collection of letters, for instance, we find several charming ones addressed to his friend Tacitus. But his most-cited is a letter he sent to Rome’s “lord” (dominus), Trajan, from a province on the Black Sea which Pliny administered in the early second century. He informs Trajan that the Christians there “come together before dawn on a fixed day” — surely the first day of the week — “to chant songs … in honour of Christ, as if to a god”. For Pliny, as for Tacitus, Jesus bears a Latin title, Christus.

This is logical, since the Romans sentenced him as a messianic “king” — in Latin, a Christus. It is with Tacitus’s Christus (crucified by Pilate), and with Pliny’s Christus (revered as a god), both in mind that we turn to the third Roman text on Jesus, by Suetonius. I have mentioned that Pliny and Tacitus were friends; so, too, were Pliny and Suetonius. If Tacitus and Pliny call Jesus Christus, then Suetonius should, too. And he seems to — nearly. For, in his life of Claudius, Suetonius writes: “Since the Judaeans [in Rome] were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”

Is Suetonius’s Chrestus the Christus referred to by his friends, Tacitus and Pliny? There is a considerable literature on this question. On the one hand, Chrestus might be Jesus. For a Christ-related expulsion of Judaeans from Rome, circa 49AD, is noted in the New Testament. “Claudius”, we read, “ordered all the Judaeans to leave Rome” (Acts of the Apostles 18:2). What is more, early Christians tell us that some Roman bureaucrats softened the Greek-derived Christian into a more-Latin-sounding Chrestian (Latin Christianus, Chrestianus).

But on the other hand, Chrestus might not be Jesus. For nothing in Suetonius’s wording suggests that this “instigator” is 20 years’ dead. The meaning of Suetonius’ text, then, is unclear. What we do know is that during the first years of the second century, the names Christus–Chrestus denote a man crucified in Judaea by Pilate (Tacitus), a man reverenced in Asia as a god (Pliny), and a man known in Rome to be a source of unrest (Suetonius).

Glancing back at our Syrian texts we can ask: What are Christians thought to have derived from Jesus? Mara talks of laws, Lucian of mysteries, and Suetonius of a “new superstition”. There is one eye-catching commonality, however. The laws are new, the mysteries are new, and the superstition is new. “The man who was crucified in Palestine”, as Lucian calls him, seems to be the figure of something new.

Perhaps the most valuable Judaean text on Jesus (outside the New Testament) is by Josephus, or Yosef ben Mattityahu — a Jerusalem native with convoluted ties to Galilee. It is known as Josephus’s Testimony (Testimonium Flavianum) and it is found in a huge book that he composed for Roman elites circa 90 AD. In some sense, then, Josephus’s book is neither Judaean nor pagan — but both. It is in a uniquely Judaeo-Roman chronicle that Jesus is said to have been accused by Judaean elites and crucified by a Roman prefect.

Now, the integrity of this Testimony has been doubted since the 16th century. It seems clear that a Christian hand (or hands) corrupted the received text. To my mind, however, this Testimony was credibly restored in the 19th century. Here is a modern reconstruction of what Josephus wrote in Greek:

“At about this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He did marvellous (or strange) things, a teacher of those who receive the truth (or novelties) with pleasure. He attracted many Judaeans and many of the Hellenes. Upon an indictment brought by the leading men among us, Pilate sentenced him to the cross. But those who had loved him from the very first did not cease to do so, and to this very day the brotherhood of the Christians, named after him, has not died out.”

Crucially, this Testimony is not only found in Josephus’ Greek manuscripts. There is an Arabic version, too, in the Universal History written by a 10th-century Syrian bishop, Agapius of Manbij. And intriguingly, Agapius links the death of Jesus to the history of philosophy. For he tells us that he had “found in many books of the philosophers that they refer to the day of crucifixion of Christ, and that they marvel at it”. One of the writers that Agapius cites is “Josephus the Hebrew”. This is Josephus’s Testimony in Arabic tradition:

“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 Judaeans 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 Christ, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

We can see that Jesus is called a “wise man” (as in the Greek Testimony); his disciples are drawn “from among the Judaeans and the other nations” (as in the Greek); and that although he is “known to be virtuous”, Pilate condemns him (as in the Greek). In both the Greek and Arabic traditions of Josephus, Jesus belongs to a sombre history in which, as one 4th-century Christian puts it, “the whole world … persecutes good and just men as if they were evil and impious — torturing, condemning, and killing them”.

Where does this bring us? Recollections of Jesus are divided in Syrian, Roman, and Judaean texts of the first two centuries of our era. For Mara, he is a philosopher; for Lucian, a sophist. For Pliny, he is a sort of numen; for Tacitus, a dead convict. And for Josephus, he is a wise man.

Even the pagan deities are divided. “The gods have pronounced Christ to have been most holy,” according to one Syrian (and intensely anti-Christian) philosopher, Porphyry. There is backing for this in surviving oracles. The night-goddess Hecate calls Jesus “a supremely righteous man”. In contrast, Apollo derides him as a “deluded” figure, one who was compelled “to die cruelly by the worst of deaths”.

What are we to make of this impoverished Galilean rabbi whom a god called “deluded” and a goddess called “supremely righteous”, and who everyone knows suffered “the worst of deaths”? Twenty-one centuries later, much still hangs on how we answer this question.