My book The simple mathematics of Jesus (2012) referred to the Testimonium Flavianum (TF) since Flavius Josephus (FJ) was a Jew born in Jerusalem in 37 AD and was present at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He is as close a historical source as we can get on the historical Jesus. The gospels of course are partial to the issue. My conclusion is that the TF is unreliable as well so that it cannot be used to say that there was a historical Jesus. The argument requires some pages plus an appendix and it leads too far to redevelop it here. The conclusion remains that it is more reasonable to assume that the gospels were created in an effort possibly in Alexandria to syncretize Jewish, Greek and Roman faiths, and that there was no historical Jesus.
Of course there were numerous faith healers and preachers at that time, but to say that there was one unique individual who gave rise to the development of the gospels with their theological message, lacks evidence. Saying “there was a Jew” is somewhat meaningless.
Given the argument on the TF, I stated that the argument on Tacitus was similar (on page 87). Today I had a discussion with a student of Tacitus who hasn’t seen the argument on the TF. So perhaps it might be a good exercise to develop this too.
Tacitus (about 56-117+ AD) writes in his Annals around 116 AD on the burning of Rome in 64 AD:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind”. (wikipedia)
Apparently most historians accept that this proves the existence of a person called Christ and his crucifixion. Wikipedia refers to Robert van Voorst, professor of New Testament Studies at Western Theological Seminary, in Holland, Michigan.
But let us deconstruct the statement. We can accept that there were maldoers & culprits [correction below] in 64 AD, since that fire and persecution are so big that these will not be easily be made up. Tacitus does not say however where he got his information on the crucifixion. The Christians will have told about it since this is their story. Thus it is possible that Tacitus relied on the Christian story to explain where their name comes from, and this is not an independent source.
The Christian story mentions Pontius Pilatus (PP) and while Tacitus may have checked that there was such a figure indeed, it is not guaranteed that he located PP’s archives and found mention of said crucifixion. Writing in 116, the year 30 was 86 years in the past. It is dubious that such an independent source still existed. The crucifixion was important for the Christians but not for the Romans. But Tacitus doesn’t mention his source and thus we simply don’t know.
But there may not even have been a crucifixion. The Christian story may have been constructed. In that case Tacitus must have relied on the Christian story for sure.
Suppose that Tacitus did find a report by PP. Would PP have told the same story as the gospels ? PP couldn’t report miracles since those don’t exist. He would not have said that he crucified the Son of God. If the gospels have a historical backbone, he would have reported that this Jesus was a demagogue and that the Jewish leadership and people wanted him executed. With such a report, Tacitus could have been much more specific why the Christians must be despised. Now he only writes vaguely about the “most mischievous superstition”. Thus the lack of specificity suggests that Tacitus did not have an independent report such as from PP. [But this need not be, see correction below.]
We do know that there is no verified independent eye witness report from the years 0 – 30 AD (plus or minus) that allows to check what the gospels write or claim about Jesus. We only have such indirect texts.
The main conclusion is that the evidence on Jesus has been lost in the mist of time. We cannot determine whether there was such a person or how the story came about. The evidence can be explained by assuming a preacher who inspired the gospels, but can also be explained by deliberate syncretism in for example Alexandria.
Syncretism had already been done with respect to the god Serapis, so Alexandria had had some practice. We see deliberate construction as well for Apollonius. Indeed, we might try to develop a “scale of syncretism”, a tool to measure the effort to create a hero, saint or god. On that scale, Jesus may rank the highest, as the son of the creator of the universe and the saviour of all our souls. This position is another argument for a syncretic rather than a historical origin.
The student I had this discussion with is dr. Anton van Hooff, a historian on antiquity and chairman of an association of atheists (“free thinkers”). He is an atheist who, because of Tacitus, still accepts the historical existence of a preacher called Christ who was crucified. When I presented him with the reasoning above, he rejected it. He excludes the syncretic explanation and refuses to consider reading The simple mathematics of Jesus for a closer look at the argument. This shows a closed mind. This is unscientic and will cause him to misinform others like his fellow “free thinkers”. So much for the “open mind” in Holland (the country).
Correction December 8 2014: In the course of this discussing a book of Jona Lendering on the history of Israel en Judea in 180 BC – 70 AD, I found that I had to correct these two points: (a) There need be no proof that there were Christians involved in the Fire of Rome 64 AD. (b) Tacitus had other sources on foreign religions and might have felt no need to be specific. See that discussion for these corrections in detail.