A Little Background to the Time of Jesus
Though it may sound somewhat surprising, Alexander the Great was a major influence in the culture of Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora. His defeat of the Persian armies under the command of Darius himself at Issus in Asia Minor in November 333 BCE broke the strength of the Persian Empire. Alexander moved down the coast of Syro-Palestine, taking Damascus, Sidon, Tyre, and Jerusalem. Alexander went to Egypt unopposed, where it is claimed he was welcomed as a god. In 332 BCE he founded Alexandria, the city that would become the capital of Egypt during the Hellenistic period.
The Persian policy of relative religious freedom was now history. Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle for three years, believed that the Greek culture was superior to all others. He founded Greek cities throughout his realm – most of the new cities named after himself – populated by incoming Macedonians and Greeks. This mixture of immigrants and natives in time created a hybridised Greek culture especially among the indigenous urban elites. This Hellenisation of Asia Minor and the Levant became so prevalent that even during the Roman period the Greek culture and language was the dominant one.
Alexander’s death in 323 at the young age of 33 led to a major power struggle among his generals. After a long struggle, two rulers had consolidated their rule over major parts of Alexander’s empire. Seleucus I (305–281 BCE) became king over Babylon and western Asia. Seleucus founded the capital city of his empire, Antioch, in north-west Syria. Antioch became a major city, third in size only to Rome and Alexandria and with a sizeable Jewish population. Egypt and neighbouring were ruled by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general. Ptolemy made Alexandria the capital of Egypt. The city grew and became the cultural and educational centre of the Hellenistic world, with the famous library of 400,000 volumes. There had been a Jewish presence in Egypt since the beginning of the Babylonian exile – complete with a Jewish temple at Elephantine – and Jews were most likely living in Alexandria from the very beginning. The city’s fame as a centre of learning is probably the reason the apocryphal Letter of Aristeas, from the late third century BCE, is set in Alexandria.
The Letter, written by a Jewish author, tells the story of Ptolemy II’s sponsorship of the translation of the Torah into Greek for his library. According to it, seventy-two Jewish scholars were summoned for the task and for this reason the translation was called the Septuagint (LXX). It is unknown if the story is historically accurate or not, but many of the books now in the Hebrew Bible were translated into Greek during the third century. The Hellenistic Jewish culture that produced the Septuagint was a part of the Hellenised Greco-Roman culture from which Christianity emerged. This explains why the New Testament was written in Greek, even though some of its writers may have been native Aramaic speakers.
From 323 to 200 BCE much of Palestine was under Ptolemaic control, but the Seleucid rulers in Syria saw it as a natural part of their realm. During the third century BCE there was constant fighting in the region between the two. The works of Josephus and 1 and 2 Maccabees are the primary sources for the events of this time. Although these works are tendentious, the historical events can be provisionally reconstructed from them. In 198 BCE the Seleucid dynasty gained Jerusalem and Judea. While at first tolerant of the culture and religion of the Jewish population, a decided shift in the Seleucid position occurred during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ascended the throne in 175. Antiochus changed the previously hereditary appointment of the Jewish high priest by appointing his own choices. His new high priests transformed Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city-state, complete with Greek gymnasium. They relaxed adherence to Jewish law and offered Jewish males Seleucid citizenship. The Jews of Jerusalem were divided in their reaction to Hellenistic culture.
The attempts of Antiochus IV to conquer Ptolemaic Egypt had him campaigning through the area. On one of his campaigns, in 169, he attacked Jerusalem, killing many traditional Jews and plundering the temple. Soon thereafter, the king prohibited the study of Torah, observance of the Sabbath, and circumcision – all central tenets of Jewish identity. Two years later, in 167 BCE, as a response to the continuing insurrection among the Jewish population, Antiochus stopped the daily sacrifices and desecrated the temple by installing the Greek cultic sacrifices – the Greek pig sacrifice being the most heinous sacrilege to the Jews. His reasons were more likely political rather than any genuine opposition to Jewish beliefs. As a result of such severe restrictions on Jewish practice, Mattathias, the head of the priestly Hasmonean family, and his five sons openly rebelled. The rebellion grew, and when Mattathias died, his son Judas Maccabeus continued to lead the Jewish guerillas against the Seleucids. He was successful in taking Jerusalem from the Seleucids and restoring the Jewish worship in the temple in 164 BCE. This victory is celebrated in Judaism as the rededication of the temple: Hanukkah.
The reign of Antiochus IV left a deep scar on Palestinian Judaism. One Jewish literary response to the harsh rule of the Seleucids is in the apocalyptic Daniel 7–12. Apocalypse as a literary form developed to its full during this period, having previously been relatively rare. Apocalypses were written in highly symbolic language, with the identity of the contemporary persons obscured, thus being somewhat akin to romans à clef. In the Seleucid era redaction of Daniel, Daniel has a series of dreams in which the future of the world is revealed. “The transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled” (Dan. 8:13) are given a definite time limit, with restoration of the temple cult to follow. This is what makes Daniel so easy date to 165 BCE, especially when the author of these chapters attempts to predict the future, failing rather dismally. He predicts that the Maccabean rebellion – “little help”, Dan 11:34 – will fail, when in reality it succeeded. Apocalypses were written to give hope to those who were suffering to assure them that God would intervene and their enemies would be overthrown and punished. The best-known apocalypses written during the Greco-Roman era are parts of 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch. The New Testament Revelation, is the most famous example of this genre, and is closely modeled after the apocalyptic sections of Daniel.
After the conquest of Jerusalem, the five sons of Mattathias ruled in succession. The last of them, Simon, gained independence in 140 BCE from the Seleucid rule. The Jews recognized the Hasmonean dynasty as the political and religious leadership – though their high priesthood was generally only tolerated, since the Hasmoneans were not of the traditional high priestly Zadokite line. This development made Judea into a fully independent state. Simon appointed himself as the high priest, commander-in-chief, and ethnarch of the Jews. His successor was John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE). As a part of his campaign to gain control of Samaria, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple of the Samaritan sect of Judaism on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, in 128 BCE. The origins of the Samaritans are not known, but this schism in Judaism probably dates to the sixth century BCE, as the Samaritan canon contains only Torah, which was finalized in this era. The Samaritans consider themselves as the descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was destroyed by the Assyrian king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Ezra-Nehemiah mentions them as hostile to the returned Exiles, thus the animosity between Jews and Samaritans being deep and long-standing. This conflict puts the New Testament parable of the “good Samaritan” in perspective.
John was succeeded by Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE) who, according to 1 and 2 Maccabees, was a tyrant indulging in violent excesses, including the crucifixion of 800 his Jewish opponents along with their wives and children. Despite the founding legend in 1 and 2 Maccabees, history shows that the Hasmoneans adopted the Greek ways, Alexander’s name itself indicating Hellenised acculturation. After Alexander’s death, his wife Salome Alexandra became queen. When Alexandra died in 67 BCE, her two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought over the succession.
This struggle resulted in the end of the Hasmonean dynasty and of Jewish independence in Palestine.
One segment of Judaism from the Hasmonean and Roman periods is well-known from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archaeological site at Qumran, though there has been some controversy whether the two are in fact connected. The site was inhabited during the first century BCE until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. The DSS are likely the library of the community at Qumran. The scrolls are divided into three categories: biblical manuscripts; non-biblical texts that were used by other Jewish sects, some of which were preserved by later Christians, such as the book of Jubilees; and sectarian texts originating from the Qumran community. Fragments from all the books that would later become the canon of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther, were found at Qumran. As the Jewish canon was still in formation, the Qumran community seems to have considered certain books as scripture, though they were never accepted into the canon, such as the Genesis Apocryphon.
Their own writings depict a unique sect of Judaism. Among these writings are prescriptive rules of the community, The Damascus Document and The Rule of the Community, representing a genre that is otherwise unknown in early Judaism. The closest relations to these writings are the early Christian church teaching documents, the Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions. They are generally thought to be a group of Essenes, one of three Jewish groups mentioned by Josephus (War, 2.119–66). The Qumran community was comprised of ascetic males who held property in common and observed strict purity laws in all aspects of their life. Their texts also indicate that they strongly disagreed with the Jerusalem religious authorities. The group may have started as a reaction to the Hellenising high priests of the early Hasmonean period, as a “wicked priest” is constantly mentioned in their original writings. They believed that they were living in the last days, and were preparing for an apocalyptic battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.” Though their beliefs must have evolved during the existence of the group, at some point a “teacher of righteousness” played a central role in their nightly study of scripture, interpreting it for the community. The Rule of the Community depicts the group (the Yahad) as the true Israel in a new covenant with God. They expected the arrival of the two messiahs, the kingly and priestly messiah, as I discussed in an earlier article. Their messianism and their belief that the end of the world was imminent shows similarities with the early Christian movement, and may have been an influence. The Qumran settlement did not survive the Roman campaign against the Jewish revolt in 70 CE, either dispersing or being annihilated.
The Roman involvement in the Hasmonean kingdom was the result of the struggle between the heirs of queen Salome Alexandra, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. The Roman general Pompey, who had been campaigning against the Seleucids in Asia Minor, was in the area, and both heirs appealed to him to end the civil war that was raging in the kingdom. Pompey originally chose Aristobulus, but then, angry with the behaviour of Aristobulus’ followers, took Jerusalem from his control. In 63 BCE, when Pompey entered Jerusalem to install Hyrcanus, the era of Judean independence under the Hasmoneans was over; they were now a client kingdom of Rome with the authority of the king subject to the Roman governor. In 57–55 BCE, Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, divided the former Hasmonean Kingdom into Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.
Rome, embroiled in its own civil war (49–31 BCE) between Pompey and Julius Caesar, was unable to effectively administer and defend the Roman Syro-Palestine. The Parthians saw this weakness as an opportunity to conquer Judea and seize Jerusalem in 40 BCE. Hyrcanus was taken into exile to Babylon and his nephew, a Parthian collaborator, was set as the new king. Rome had to find a new ruler who could counter the Parthian threat. Herod, an Idumean (the same people as the OT Edomites), who had been a strong ruler of Galilee, was their best choice. The Roman senate gave Herod the title “king of the Jews.” Backed with Roman troops, Herod defeated the Parthians and killed the last of Hasmonean rulers.
Herod the Great ruled ruthlessly 40–4 BCE. He built a series of fortresses in Palestine, among them Masada and Herodium. He rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem with ‘Herodian stone’, massive blocks that still exist in the remains of the Western Wall. After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the Romans had difficulties in keeping the peace in Palestine. None of his three sons was as strong a ruler as their father. Herod Antipas, the Herod who killed John the Baptist in the NT, was the most successful, and governed 4 BCE–39 CE. Rome placed Palestine under direct Roman rule and from 6 to 66 CE, the Jews were governed by Roman prefects and governors.
The Jewish community of this era was divided into various factions and afflicted by their rivalries. The most prominent ones were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, mentioned above in connection with the DSS. These groups are not mentioned in other Jewish literature before the first century CE. What we know about the Pharisees and the Sadducees comes from a reconstruction based on their description in the NT, later rabbinic texts, and the writings of Josephus.
According to Josephus the Pharisees were popular with the common people. They believed in the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul, and the role of fate along with free will in shaping events in human life. They developed a body of interpretation alongside the written Torah, known as the Oral Torah.
The Sadducees, their name taken from Zadok, one of King David’s two chief priests, were a wealthy priestly faction. They are depicted as being the most co-operative faction with Rome. According to Josephus, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, believed that fate played no role in determining events, and they opposed the Oral Torah of the Pharisees.
There were also number of smaller popular Jewish movements, led by self-proclaimed prophets or messiahs, of which not much is known – with one exception! The social climate in Palestine was one of social unrest and resistance, with strong class tensions. Josephus tells of a Jewish self-proclaimed prophet named Theudas who led a group of followers to the Jordan, claiming he could part it in two. The Roman governor, Fadus, had him beheaded. Josephus also describes social banditry, in which the poor peasantry took out their frustration against the inequities of society by robbing the wealthy. One such Jewish group had the name “Sicarii” after the sica, or dagger that they carried with the violent aim of assassination and kidnapping members of the Jewish upper classes. The stronghold of Masada by the Dead Sea became their base, and they were the last holdouts against Rome in 70 CE, finally committing mass suicide rather than surrendering to the besieging Roman army. Thus the era in which the story of Jesus was set was a highly turbulent one.
What Evidence Do We Have for the Existence of Jesus?
I have already in my article on the origins of the NT discussed how the Gospels cannot be relied upon, since they are based on hearsay, as none of the writers were eyewitnesses and they are from a much later time, so I will not deal with them in this article.
The only independent source that is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and mentions Jesus by name is Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93-94 CE. It has two mentions of Jesus, the first one universally judged to be either a Christian interpolation or at least heavily edited by a much later Christian editor:
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.
Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3
Josephus, who remained a devout Jew throughout his life is extremely unlikely to have written the passage as it now exists. Efforts have been made to remove the obvious Christian spin from the text, resulting in the following:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. 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. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Such reconstruction, however, must remain hypothetical unless an early manuscript without the later interpolation or editing is found.
The second mention in the Antiquities is considered to be much more reliable, since it appears to have escaped the later Christian editing:
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. … Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
Antiquities, Book 20, Chapter 9,1
This passage is significantly without assertions of Jesus’ divinity unlike the first passage, and the mention of “who was called Christ” would be a legitimate mention by Josephus, as the Christians indeed called Jesus the Christ. Incidentally, unlike what the NT says on the topic, it was never illegal in Judaism to claim to be the Messiah – after all, someone was going to be the Messiah and would say so.
Talmud Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, has a few mentions of Jesus, the most important of them being in the Sanhedrin:
It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that “[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practising witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him.” But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover. Ulla said: Would one think that we should look for exonerating evidence for him? He was an enticer and God said (Deut 13:9) “Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him.” Yeshu was different because he was close to the government.
Talmud Sanhedrin 43 a-b
Dating and evaluating the historical value of this passage is extremely difficult, and there is considerable controversy concerning these issues. Though the Talmud was compiled c. 70-200 CE, it is well known that starting in the 13th century manuscripts of the Talmud were sometimes altered in response to the criticisms made during the disputations by Jewish scholars, and in response to orders from the Catholic church. Existing manuscripts were sometimes altered (for example, by erasure) and new manuscripts often omitted the passage completely, for example Vatican 130, 140 and Vilna.
Roman sources are much more ambiguous; only a few of them possibly mention the historical Jesus, and never by that name.
Suetonius is the most difficult of them to interpret, as the passage is unclear, and may have resulted from the conflation of two originally different figures:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome.
Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 121 CE.
This expulsion of the Jews from Rome is mentioned in Acts 18:2, where Paul is mentioned meeting a Jewish Christian couple ordered to leave Rome.
The problem with this passage is that while ‘Chrestus’ may be a misspelling of xριστός, ‘khristos‘, it actually is a known Greek name. So it is unclear whether Suetonius is talking about Jesus or an otherwise unknown early Christian named Chrestus, the Romans of the mid-1st century considering Christianity as one of the Jewish sects. The formal acknowledgement of Christians as a separate entity came in 96, when emperor Nerva’s modification of the Jewish tax, Fiscus Judaicus, exempted Christians from paying this tax imposed on practicing Jews.
Pliny the Younger, who was the governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Trajan c. 112 asking advice on how to deal with those Christians who refused to worship the emperor – martyr legends notwithstanding, quite a few of them did worship the emperor – and instead worshiped ‘Christus’.
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
This passage tells nothing of the historicity of Jesus, since it talks only about the worship in the early 2nd century.
Tacitus mentions Christianity and ‘Christus’ in his Annals.
Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44, c. 116 CE
It is unlikely that this passage is a later interpolation by a Christian editor, given its relentlessly hostile tone, which is very different from the one used in the interpolation/edit of Josephus. So here we do have an independent mention of the execution of Jesus, but how much historical value this passage has is not clear. Tacitus does not reveal his source for this information, and the passage has one historical mistake, indicating that Tacitus may have been working on hearsay: he calls Pilate a procurator, when in reality Pilate was a prefect. This error would indicate that Tacitus was not using official Roman archives for his information. If Tacitus is only quoting hearsay from the Christians themselves, the passage loses all historical value.
So here we have the most important independent sources that mention Jesus/Yeshu – or Christus/Chrestus, as the case may be. What is important about all of these sources is that not one of them is contemporary with Jesus, who likely would have lived between c. 6-4 BCE-30-36 CE, and none can conclusively be shown to have utilized the official Roman archives.
Did Jesus ever exist, based on these sources? My tentative answer would be yes, mostly based on the second mention of Jesus in Josephus, as the mention in there is only to identify who the James who was executed was.
Who was Jesus? Drawing from the Gospels and what we do know about the religious and political turmoil of the 1st century CE, odds are that Jesus was one of the many itinerant preachers, self-proclaimed prophets and would-be messiahs who were travelling around the Roman Jewish districts, collecting followers on the way. Since we know so very little about the his competitors, it is impossible to ascertain how typical an example of these people Jesus would have been – and, indeed, how many of these figures are combined in the Biblical character of Jesus through the known folkloristic phenomenon of legend attraction.
What separates Jesus from all the other itinerant religious figures of his era is that through a historical quirk his cult had the good fortune of attracting an extremely energetic and talented early follower. Though he had never met Jesus in person, he would become the founder of Christianity as we know it – in reality Christianity could be called after his name, since he reformed it so completely – Paul of Tarsus. Without Paul, it is very likely that we would not even know of Jesus as a footnote in a history of the 1st century Roman Syro-Palestine.
- W. D. Davies and L. Finkelstein (eds), The Cambridge History of Judaism vol. II The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge, 1989)
W. Horbury, W. D. Davies and J. Sturdy (eds) The Cambridge History of Judaism vol. III The Early Roman Period (Cambridge, 2008)
F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Whitson translation)
G. Plinius Caecilius (Pliny the Younger), Letters of the Younger Pliny (Firth translation)
G. Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Loeb Classical Library, 1924)
P. C. Tacitus, Annals (Church and Brodribb translation)
G. Theissen and A Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Fortress Press, 1998)