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Debunking the Evidence for a Historical Jesus, Part 1: Tacitus and the Talmud
Claim Number 1
Tacitus was hardly a contemporary source. He wasn't even born at the time that Jesus supposedly lived. Tacitus is widely known in apologist circles as the first pagan reference to christ or christianity. Early church fathers, however, curiously did NOT save all of Tacitus' writings. In fact, there's an interesting gap in his work concerning the emperor Tiberius from 29 CE - 31 CE, which includes the supposed year of the crucifixion. The passage that apologists cling to is in the 15th volume of his annals where he describes an incident concerning the emperor Nero.
"In order to put an end to this rumor, therefore, Nero laid the blame on and visited with severe punishment those men, hateful for their crimes, whom the people called Christians. He from whom the name was derived, Christus, was put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, checked for a moment, broke out again, not only in Judea, the native land of the monstrosity, but also in Rome, to which all conceivable horrors and abominations flow from every side, and find supporters" Annals 15, ch 44
Can this brief mention in the annals be considered reliable, historical and contemporary evidence for the existence of Christ? Simply put, no. Tacitus does not claim to be quoting any original source that cites this "christus". What he is doing is doing a quick drive-by account of what modern christians believe to be true, repeating the legends that he's come into contact with - not claiming historical truth. Furthermore, this passage is the exception, not the rule to the overall feel of the passage, and he clearly does not hold these christians in high regard.
Romans did not keep records of their countless crucifixions, so there is nowhere that Tacitus could have looked to source his information at all - for an event that happened almost a century earlier. If there WERE historical records concerning Jesus, the early church fathers would have pounced on it, seeing as they jumped on this passage and any other passing reference to someone they could claim fit the bill for their supposed savior. There is no written documentation from Pilate, or anyone else associated with the crucifixion itself. Furthermore, no roman record would have referred to someone they considered to be a common criminal as Christus. Christus (or the Christ or Messiah) is a title, not a name, therefore a common criminal would have been listed as Jesus ben Joseph - or the Latin equivalent.
Arguments against Tacitus are not reserved for purely secular scholars. Respected Christian scholar R. T. France does not believe that the Tacitus passage provides sufficient independent testimony for the existence of Jesus.
Apologists often cite the Talmud for corroborating accounts of their savior Jesus. Unfortunately for them, the Talmud fails to mention Jesus at all - at least the Jesus that they're looking for. What could be better than a corroborating account of Jesus - especially from the people who ultimately despised him and shared in his ultimate execution, right? Since any Jewish references to any Jesus take place in the wrong century, it's unlikely that these references to someone with the same or similar name can be listed as evidence. If it is evidence, it is certainly not contemporary or corroborating of the stories we are so familiar with in the gospels. Unfortunately for apologists, the Talmud is the best possible evidence for a historical Jesus figure - and if this is the best that they can come up with, their case is already on critical ground.
When you take the reference within the Talmud at face-value, it initially seems as though you may have a case:
On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover.
Unfortunately, this passage encounters problems even on the surface level. Namely, it does not line up with any of the gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial or execution.
1) He was incarcerated for 40 days - not the gospel accounts of an illegal, overnight trial followed by an immediate execution
2) He was arrested for sorcery and sedition - not blasphemy and treason
3) He was offered the opportunity for redemption but no one was found in 40 days who would speak on his behalf. A herald announced his eminent execution, rather than the secret ordeal portrayed in the gospels
4) He was sentenced to be stoned - not crucified - and he was hung only after the sentence was carried out.
5) he was executed by Jewish authorities - not crucified by the Romans
Scholar John Meier argues credibly that the conclusion reached by Josh McDowell's "Evidence that demands a verdict" is imply improbable - and it makes no headway in the case for a historical Jesus. Although the Talmud does not doubt the historicity of the character known today as Jesus of Nazareth, their silence does not confirm the contrary conclusion either for two reasons.
1) You can't assume that because the Jews did not question or commit to writing doubts on the historical nature of Jesus of Nazareth that they were in agreement. Concepts of myths and historicity are far different now than they were then - and silence does not equal evidence to the contrary.
2) Evidence from the Talmud could only be considered as independently sourcing the historicity of Jesus if it came from independent sources. The sources for the the Talmud are undetermined, and as such they cannot be considered as a truly independent source. Since it's sources are questionable and it was written and compiled at such a late date, its credibility is shaky as a source.
The name associated with Jesus (Yeshua'ha Notzri) didn't even appear in rabbinic literature until the 6th or 7th century. He is often confused instead with Jesus Pandira (mid 1st Century BCE) and Jesus ben Stada (2nd Century Ce) The second was a semi-political figure who practiced magic, and was ultimately arrested. When no witnesses can be presented to testify for him within 40 days time, he is hanged on the eve of Passover along with 5 of his disciples - but this occurs long after the supposed new-testament Jesus ever existed. Therefore, the Talmud does not provide corroborating evidence for the historical Jesus, but instead points to others with similar claims to divine authority who ultimately met similar results.
Last of all, evidence for Jesus from the Talmud runs into an irreconcilable problem. Dating. The Palestinian Talmud was not written until between the 3rd and 5th century CE. The Babylonian Talmud was not written until between the 3rd and 6th Century. Therefore, their existence only after the gospels were written and in circulation among believers as well as the rise of early Christianity automatically discredits their reliability - irrevocably so. These are not contemporary sources. If the Jesus mentioned is, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth (as unlikely as it may be due to prior examination) it's not a contemporary account. It appears between 3-600 years after the fact, and would not be considered 'evidence' by any reasonable standard.
© 2013 Julie McFarland