Roman Histories surrounding Jesus (part 1)

Every life is a rock that ripples through the river of history. Some skip on the water, some make waves, but few change the course of that river. – A Known Author

In this first section of the historical evidences of Jesus Christ I want to look at the Roman records. I personally find these histories interesting but lacking in some areas. For example, the reliability of some of them are more questionable then others and even though they don’t deal directly with Jesus, they speak of Christians and what they believed at the time. This becomes significant for dispelling the myth that Jesus was a later conflation invented by the Church. Let’s look at the first two of four.

Thallus (Roman Historian)

Thallus’ history is an interesting piece considering that he recorded his history between 50 and 70 AD. Most historians tend to lean towards the earlier date. If this is true, his history dates before the writings of the Gospels, regardless of when you date them. Our biggest hurtle is in the fact that we don’t have any of his writings.

What we have is an early church historian named Julius Africanus who writes a refutation of Thallus’ explanation for the darkness that happened at the time of Christ’s death.

“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1)

Julius is quite correct here as he goes on to say that because Jesus was crucified during Passover, which is during the full moon, you can’t have an eclipse. One problem we have is that we don’t know whether Thallus had seen this first hand or if he only heard about it from Christians or other sources.

This would seem pretty good except that we don’t have this information from Julius. We get this information from a 9th century Christian chronologer named George Syncellus. It’s very difficult for me to accept this without the nagging thought that this information may be tainted somehow. Of all the things to falsify or better yet of all the facts to pollute a historians writing with, why choose something as trivial as whether or not it got dark? Because I can’t think of a reason that if someone were to do this, wouldn’t it be with done with a story about the resurrection, virgin birth, healings, exorcisms, or take your pick, I accept it as authentic.

Even though this isn’t a “big gun” in the arsenal of apologetics it does show a few things. Namely, that a man named Jesus lived (this is who the topic is about), he was publically crucified (the story that surrounds the event is not in question), and the sun was darkened (according to tradition and scripture).

Pliny the Younger (Emperor (Governor) of Bythynia; 112 AD; Epistulae X.96)

In his letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger is inquiring about what to do with Christians. The section is too long to post here so if you want to read it in full I’ll provide the web address here. Here are some of the highlights.

“…they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, 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 eat in common a harmless meal… After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate' in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.”

Notice what is being said about Christians by the close of the first century and in what manner it is being relayed. Pliny is asking the Roman Emperor about the details of Christians,their behaviors, and what to do with them. This means that by the close of the first century the ruler of the “whole world” is being asked for advise and conformation about the group known as Christians and their practices.

Here are some of the practices we see brought out in this section. Early in the morning, on a set day of the week, Christians would gather together and worship Jesus as God or a God from a polytheistic point of view. One of the key markings of a genuine Christians was their strict commitment to worship of Christ only. Because of this unwavering stance they were branded as Atheists for the denial of other Gods. At a time of pre-humous Caesar worship this was seen as treasonous for a Roman citizen.

Also the partaking of communion was commonplace at this time. Notice that the confession of eating and drinking a “harmless meal” was understood but Pliny seems to think that there was more not being said. Suspicions of cannibalism were common with Christians as well as incest. Incest for constantly stating that they were all brothers and sisters, this can be misunderstood, and cannibalism for saying that they eat flesh and drink blood. Pliny wanted to get to the bottom of these rumors and like all good lawyers, sought to use all manners of persuasions available.

By the torture of two slave girls who were known to be Christians and as it would seem were a type of Eucharistic ministers, certain legal consequences could be avoided. As slaves in the first century you were property and as women you (along with children) were not seen as human. Pliny was in his legal rights to extract information in this way as evidenced by the fact that he was casually mentioning it to the Emperor.

All that could be discovered was this: that they believed that in performing their “rituals” (most likely a Eucharistic liturgy) reciting the words of consecration found in the Gospels as well as St. Paul’s letters (and other extra-biblical writings), they would then eat the flesh of Christ and drink his Blood. This Pliny calls “evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.” Part of the extravagance could also be deduced from Pliny’s philosophy steeped in stoicism and his own theological understanding that would never allow for the concept of resurrection to take place or that someone who was not an Emperor to be deified. Certainly not someone who was executed by the horrendous means of crucifixion could even be considered for deification.

This is what they confessed to under torture and most inevitably execution. I wouldn’t think it to be a far stretch to propose the idea that a creedal statement was recited to inform Pliny of these convictions. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. This is what Christians believe. This is also one of the main emphases for communion, in which we confess Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection by partaking of his broken body and shed blood. It is also a memorial and powerful illustration. A living tangible creed, if you will.

A full understanding of the Eucharist shows that very early on Christians believed that Jesus was a real person. Pliny does not deny this fact. Even more interesting is that earlier in this letter Pliny discusses his talks with Christians, soon to be apostate Christians and ex-Christians.

“Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error.”

Many reasons could be talked about for each deconversion at this time but take special care to notice the timeline Pliny is giving us. Each one seems to be giving an account of some sort of Eucharistic celebration that eventually leads Pliny to do his own fact finding with the female slaves mentioned above. These that had left the faith would say that eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood was common practice but it would seem that any good lawyer may smell collusion here and need a direct confession (enter in a Eucharistic minister here).

These accounts were confirmed by the testimony, signed in blood, of the slave girls that, what those who had not been Christians for twenty years, has said is in fact true to what Christianity teaches and believes. This now puts the confession that Jesus was a real person, who followers worshipped as God, during the time of Domitian (81-96 AD). This now puts us within fifty years of Christ’s death and in the time period of the Apostles as well as other eyewitness accounts on both sides who are in the unique position to either affirm or deny the events that took place.

Liberal scholars tend to date the Gospels to this time period between 70-100 AD. In later sections I’ll discuss the dating of the Gospels but for now I’m only making a passing reference to get our bearings from a historically scholarly standpoint. In keeping with the main point of this topic we see that as far back as the latter half of the first century, major historical figures were of the understanding that Jesus was a real person.