The historical documents referring to Christ's life and work may be divided into three classes: pagan sources, Jewish sources, and Christian sources. We shall study the three in succession.
I. PAGAN SOURCES
The non-Christian sources for the historical truth of the Gospels are both few and polluted by hatred and prejudice. A number of reasons have been advanced for this condition of the pagan sources:
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the Jews were noted as a superstitious race, if we believe Horace (Credat Judoeus Apella, I, Sat., v, 100);
the God of the Jews was unknown and unintelligible to most pagans of that period;
the Jews in whose midst Christianity had taken its origin were dispersed among, and hated by, all the pagan nations;
the Christian religion itself was often confounded with one of the many sects that had sprung up in Judaism, and which could not excite the interest of the pagan spectator.
It is at least certain that neither Jews nor Gentiles suspected in the least the paramount importance of the religion, the rise of which they witnessed among them. These considerations will account for the rarity and the asperity with which Christian events are mentioned by pagan authors. But though Gentile writers do not give us any information about Christ and the early stages of Christianity which we do not possess in the Gospels, and though their statements are made with unconcealed hatred and contempt, still they unwittingly prove the historical value of the facts related by the Evangelists.
We need not delay over a writing entitled the "Acts of Pilate", which must have existed in the second century (Justin, "Apol"., I, 35), and must have been used in the pagan schools to warn boys against the belief of Christians (Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.", I, ix; IX, v); nor need we inquire into the question whether there existed any authentic census tables of Quirinius.
The remaining pagan witnesses are of less importance: In the second century Lucian sneered at Christ and the Christians, as he scoffed at the pagan gods. He alludes to Christ's death on the Cross, to His miracles, to the mutual love prevailing among the Christians ("Philopseudes", nn. 13, 16; "De Morte Pereg"). There are also alleged allusions to Christ in Numenius (Origen, "Contra Cels", IV, 51), to His parables in Galerius, to the earthquake at the Crucifixion in Phlegon ( Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 14). Before the end of the second century, the logos alethes of Celsus, as quoted by Origen (Contra Cels., passim), testifies that at that time the facts related in the Gospels were generally accepted as historically true. However scanty the pagan sources of the life of Christ may be, they bear at least testimony to His existence, to His miracles, His parables, His claim to Divine worship, His death on the Cross, and to the more striking characteristics of His religion.
About this time appeared Jesus, a wise man (if indeed it is right to call Him man; for He was a worker of astonishing deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with joy), and He drew to Himself many Jews (many also of Greeks. This was the Christ.) And when Pilate, at the denunciation of those that are foremost among us, had condemned Him to the cross, those who had first loved Him did not abandon Him (for He appeared to them alive again on the third day, the holy prophets having foretold this and countless other marvels about Him.) The tribe of Christians named after Him did not cease to this day.
A testimony so important as the foregoing could not escape the work of the critics. Their conclusions may be reduced to three headings: those who consider the passage wholly spurious; those who consider it to be wholly authentic; and those who consider it to be a little of each.
Those who regard the passage as spurious
First, there are those who consider the whole passage as spurious. The principal reasons for this view appear to be the following:
Josephus could not represent Jesus Christ as a simple moralist, and on the other hand he could not emphasize the Messianic prophecies and expectations without offending the Roman susceptibilities;
the above cited passage from Josephus is said to be unknown to Origen and the earlier patristic writers;
its very place in the Josephan text is uncertain, since Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., II, vi) must have found it before the notices concerning Pilate, while it now stands after them.
But the spuriousness of the disputed Josephan passage does not imply the historian's ignorance of the facts connected with Jesus Christ. Josephus's report of his own juvenile precocity before the Jewish teachers (Vit., 2) reminds one of the story of Christ's stay in the Temple at the age of twelve; the description of his shipwreck on his journey to Rome (Vit., 3) recalls St. Paul's shipwreck as told in the Acts; finally his arbitrary introduction of a deceit practised by the priests of Isis on a Roman lady, after the chapter containing his supposed allusion to Jesus, shows a disposition to explain away the virgin birth of Jesus and to prepare the falsehoods embodied in the later Jewish writings.
Those who regard the passage as authentic, with some spurious additions
A second class of critics do not regard the whole of Josephus's testimony concerning Christ as spurious but they maintain the interpolation of parts included above in parenthesis. The reasons assigned for this opinion may be reduced to the following two:
Josephus must have mentioned Jesus, but he cannot have recognized Him as the Christ; hence part of our present Josephan text must be genuine, part must be interpolated.
Again, the same conclusion follows from the fact that Origen knew a Josephan text about Jesus, but was not acquainted with our present reading; for, according to the great Alexandrian doctor, Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messias ("In Matth.", xiii, 55; "Contra Cels.", I, 47).
Whatever force these two arguments have is lost by the fact that Josephus did not write for the Jews but for the Romans; consequently, when he says, "This was the Christ", he does not necessarily imply that Jesus was the Christ considered by the Romans as the founder of the Christian religion.
Those who consider it to be completely genuine
The third class of scholars believe that the whole passage concerning Jesus, as it is found today in Josephus, is genuine. The main arguments for the genuineness of the Josephan passage are the following:
First, all codices or manuscripts of Josephus's work contain the text in question; to maintain the spuriousness of the text, we must suppose that all the copies of Josephus were in the hands of Christians, and were changed in the same way.
Second, it is true that neither Tertullian nor St. Justin makes use of Josephus's passage concerning Jesus; but this silence is probably due to the contempt with which the contemporary Jews regarded Josephus, and to the relatively little authority he had among the Roman readers. Writers of the age of Tertullian and Justin could appeal to living witnesses of the Apostolic tradition.
Third, Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl"., I, xi; cf. "Dem. Ev.", III, v) Sozomen (Hist. Eccl., I, i), Niceph. (Hist. Eccl., I, 39), Isidore of Pelusium (Ep. IV, 225), St. Jerome (catal.script. eccles. xiii), Ambrose, Cassiodorus, etc., appeal to the testimony of Josephus; there must have been no doubt as to its authenticity at the time of these illustrious writers.
Fourth, the complete silence of Josephus as to Jesus would have been a more eloquent testimony than we possess in his present text; this latter contains no statement incompatible with its Josephan authorship: the Roman reader needed the information that Jesus was the Christ, or the founder of the Christian religion; the wonderful works of Jesus and His Resurrection from the dead were so incessantly urged by the Christians that without these attributes the Josephan Jesus would hardly have been acknowledged as the founder of Christianity.
All this does not necessarily imply that Josephus regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messias; but, even if he had been convinced of His Messiahship, it does not follow that he would have become a Christian. A number of possible subterfuges might have supplied the Jewish historian with apparently sufficient reasons for not embracing Christianity.
The later Jewish writings show traces of acquaintance with the murder of the Holy Innocents (Wagenseil, "Confut. Libr.Toldoth", 15; Eisenmenger op. cit., I, 116; Schottgen, op. cit., II, 667), with the flight into Egypt (cf. Josephus, "Ant." XIII, xiii), with the stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Schottgen, op. cit., II, 696), with the call of the disciples ("Sanhedrin", 43a; Wagenseil, op. cit., 17; Schottgen, loc. cit., 713), with His miracles (Origen, "Contra Cels", II, 48; Wagenseil, op. cit., 150; Gemara "Sanhedrin" fol. 17); "Schabbath", fol. 104b; Wagenseil, op.cit., 6, 7, 17), with His claim to be God (Origen, "Contra Cels.", I, 28; cf. Eisenmenger, op. cit., I, 152; Schottgen, loc. cit., 699) with His betrayal by Judas and His death (Origen, "Contra cels.", II, 9, 45, 68, 70; Buxtorf, op. cit., 1458; Lightfoot, "Hor. Heb.", 458, 490, 498; Eisenmenger, loc. cit., 185; Schottgen, loc. cit.,699 700; cf. "Sanhedrin", vi, vii). Celsus (Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 55) tries to throw doubt on the Resurrection, while Toldoth (cf. Wagenseil, 19) repeats the Jewish fiction that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the sepulchre.
Among the Sacred Books of the New Testament, it is especially the four Gospels and the four great Epistles of St. Paul that are of the highest importance for the construction of the life of Jesus.
The four great Pauline Epistles (Romans, Galatians, and First and Second Corinthians) can hardly be overestimated by the student of Christ's life; they have at times been called the "fifth gospel"; their authenticity has never been assailed by serious critics; their testimony is also earlier than that of the Gospels, at least most of the Gospels; it is the more valuable because it is incidental and undesigned; it is the testimony of a highly intellectual and cultured writer, who had been the greatest enemy of Jesus, who writes within twenty-five years of the events which he relates. At the same time, these four great Epistles bear witness to all the most important facts in the life of Christ: His Davidic descent, His poverty, His Messiahship, His moral teaching, His preaching of the kingdom of God, His calling of the apostles, His miraculous power, His claims to be God, His betrayal, His institution of the Holy Eucharist, His passion, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, His repeated appearances (Romans 1:3-4; 5:11; 8:2-3; 8:32; 9:5; 15:8; Galatians 2:17; 3:13; 4:4; 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 13:4; etc.). However important the four great Epistles may be, the gospels are still more so. Not that any one of them offers a complete biography of Jesus, but they account for the origin of Christianity by the life of its Founder. Questions like the authenticity of the Gospels, the relation between the Synoptic Gospels, and the Fourth, the Synoptic problem, must be studied in the articles referring to these respective subjects.
Written by A.J. Maas. Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas. In Memory of Archbishop Mathew Kavukatt The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Chronology of Jesus' Life (Catholic Article)
Early Documents Regarding the History of Jesus' Life
Miracles Performed by Jesus
OT Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus
Sequence of all important in Christianity
Date of Birth of Jesus, by several Analytical Methods
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