Nero fastened the guilt … on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … 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….
What can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have “suffered the extreme penalty,” obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
But what are we to make of Tacitus’ rather enigmatic statement that Christ’s death briefly checked “a most mischievous superstition,” which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here “bearing indirect … testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave.” While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal. How else might one explain that?
At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.
This passage provides us with a number of interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny’s statement that hymns were sung to Christ, “as to a god”, as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, “unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.” If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.
Not only does Pliny’s letter help us understand what early Christians believed about Jesus’ person, it also reveals the high esteem to which they held His teachings. For instance, Pliny notes that Christians “bound themselves by a solemn oath” not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus. In addition, Pliny’s reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion and the “love feast.” This interpretation helps explain the Christian claim that the meal was merely “food of an ordinary and innocent kind”. They were attempting to counter the charge, sometimes made by non-Christians, of practicing “ritual cannibalism.” The Christians of that day humbly repudiated such slanderous attacks on Jesus’ teachings. We must sometimes do the same today.
The Christians … worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.
Although Lucian is jesting here at the early Christians, he does make some significant comments about their founder. For instance, he says the Christians worshipped a man, “who introduced their novel rites.” And though this man’s followers clearly thought quite highly of Him, He so angered many of His contemporaries with His teaching that He “was crucified on that account.”
Although Lucian does not mention his name, he is clearly referring to Jesus. But what did Jesus teach to arouse such wrath? According to Lucian, he taught that all men are brothers from the moment of their conversion. That’s harmless enough. But what did this conversion involve? It involved denying the Greek gods, worshipping Jesus, and living according to His teachings. It’s not too difficult to imagine someone being killed for teaching that. Though Lucian doesn’t say so explicitly, the Christian denial of other gods combined with their worship of Jesus implies the belief that Jesus was more than human. Since they denied other gods in order to worship Him, they apparently thought Jesus a greater God than any that Greece had to offer!
As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” the relevant portion declares:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he … wrought surprising feats…. He was the Christ. When Pilate …condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared … restored to life…. And the tribe of Christians … has … not disappeared.
Did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated with Josephus, but that it was later altered by a Christian editor, possibly between the third and fourth century A.D. But why do they think it was altered? Josephus was not a Christian, and it is difficult to believe that anyone but a Christian would have made some of these statements.
For instance, the claim that Jesus was a wise man seems authentic, but the qualifying phrase, “if indeed one ought to call him a man,” is suspect. It implies that Jesus was more than human, and it is quite unlikely that Josephus would have said that! It is also difficult to believe he would have flatly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, especially when he later refers to Jesus as “the so-called” Christ. Finally, the claim that on the third day Jesus appeared to His disciples restored to life, inasmuch as it affirms Jesus’ resurrection, is quite unlikely to come from a non-Christian!
But even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. We read that he was a wise man who performed surprising feats. And although He was crucified under Pilate, His followers continued their discipleship and became known as Christians. When we combine these statements with Josephus’ later reference to Jesus as “the so-called Christ,” a rather detailed picture emerges which harmonizes quite well with the biblical record. It increasingly appears that the “biblical Jesus” and the “historical Jesus” are one and the same!
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
Let’s examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named “Yeshu.” So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, “Yeshu” (or “Yeshua”) is how Jesus’ name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus “was hanged”? Doesn’t the New Testament say he was crucified? Indeed it does. But the term “hanged” can function as a synonym for “crucified.” For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was “hanged”, and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. So the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do. If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!
The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a rather hostile source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament. But if we make allowances for this, what might such charges imply about Jesus?
Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus cast out demons “by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” But notice this: such a charge actually tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently Jesus’ miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! Likewise, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke’s account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching. Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus’ powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.
Biblical Cities Attested Archaeologically. In addition to Jericho, places such as Haran, Hazor, Dan, Megiddo, Shechem, Samaria, Shiloh, Gezer, Gibeah, Beth Shemesh, Beth Shean, Beersheba, Lachish, and many other urban sites have been excavated, quite apart from such larger and obvious locations as Jerusalem or Babylon. Such geographical markers are extremely significant in demonstrating that fact, not fantasy, is intended in the Old Testament historical narratives; otherwise, the specificity regarding these urban sites would have been replaced by “Once upon a time” narratives with only hazy geographical parameters, if any.
Israel’s enemies in the Hebrew Bible likewise are not contrived but solidly historical. Among the most dangerous of these were the Philistines, the people after whom Palestine itself would be named. Their earliest depiction is on the Temple of Rameses III at Thebes, c. 1150 BC, as “peoples of the sea” who invaded the Delta area and later the coastal plain of Canaan. The Pentapolis (five cities) they established — namely Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron — have all been excavated, at least in part, and some remain cities to this day. Such precise urban evidence measures favorably when compared with the geographical sites claimed in the holy books of other religious systems, which often have no basis whatever in reality.
Subsequent investigations in the area of the cave of discovery ultimately led to the recovery of documents in a total of eleven caves and the excavation of a modest ruin nearby known as Khirbet (the ruin of) Qumran. All of this was occurring as the modern State of Israel was coming into existence, with all the political upheaval involved in that development. As this century ends and a new one begins, efforts for a peaceful political settlement in the region continue and give signs of reaching fruition. In the meantime, scholars continue to study the multitude of fragments recovered and to attempt to assess their significance.
Among the more than eight hundred documents represented by whole scrolls, incomplete scrolls, and a myriad of fragments which have been recovered are complete copies or portions of all the books in the Hebrew Bible (our OT), except for the Book of Esther. These texts are older by at least a thousand years than any previous biblical texts written in Hebrew that we had prior to the discovery. They provide a window into the textual history of the OT prior to the closure of the canon.
Besides copies of scriptural texts, from the caves in the Qumran area came sectarian documents that open a panorama on the obscure Jewish group apparently related to the production and deposition of the manuscripts. This group was likely the Essenes, previously known from references to them in the writings of Flavius Josephus, Philo Judaeus, and Pliny the Elder. All the texts discovered, taken together, open a critical window into events in Palestine in the decades prior to and following the birth of Christ (although no NT texts were found among the scrolls) up to the time of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans. The historical period of the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminates the environment in which Christianity developed in Palestine, the transformation of Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism in the aftermath of the First Revolt of the Jews against the Romans with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the context in which the canonization of Holy Scripture was progressing.
The Dead Sea Scrolls now reside mainly in the Shrine of the Book, a part of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where they are on display. The Copper Scroll can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in Amman, Jordan. Many of the small fragments are housed in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. Scholars work almost exclusively with photographs and microfilm of the fragments, however, and these are available to scholars at many of the major universities around the world. It is likely that researchers will still be at work on the scrolls fifty years hence.
1. … …and cut…
2. … my father went up against him when he fought at …
3. And my father lay down, he went to his ancestors. And the king of I s-
4. rael entered previously in my father’s land. And Hadad made me king.
5. And Hadad went in front of me, and I departed from [the] seven …
6. s of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha-] 7. Riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] 8. king of Israel, and I killed Ahaziahu son of Jehoram kin-
9. g of the House of David. And I set their towns into ruins and turned
10. their land into desolation …
11. other … and Jehu ru-
12. led over Israel … and I laid
13. siege upon …
The pavement and the wall where the fragments were found was laid at the end of the 9th or beginning of the 8th century BC, according to pottery fragments recovered in probes beneath the flagstone pavement. Since the fragment and the entire pavement was covered by the debris of the Assyrian destruction of Tiglath Pileser III, in 732 BC, it could not have been laid latter than that year.
The surmise is that Jehoash (798-782), grandson of Jehu, or Jehoash’s son, Jeroboam II (793, co-regent 782-753), and more likely Jehoash, was the monarch who had this reminder of Aramaean domination smashed (2 Kgs 13:25). It is further assumed that Hazael (844/42-798?) was then king of Aram- Damascus, because Hazael fought against Jehoram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah ( 2 Kgs 8:7-15, 28; 2 Chr 22:5). Hazael was followed by his son and successor, Ben-hadad III, early in the 8th century BC.
The discovery provides an archaeological connection to the biblical references to the ruling dynasty established by King David approximately two centuries before the events that are mentioned in the inscription. It is the first mention of King David and the earliest mention of a biblical figure outside of the Bible. The discovery is of particular importance in the face of those scholars who were either skeptical or denied the historical existence of King David