Articles and books about Jesus always seem to find an audience. This is not just a modern phenomenon, however. Once Christianity became dominant in the Roman empire, a considerable amount of interest was generated by the few references to Jesus in non-Christian literature. There were only a handful of these, and the many discoveries of new original sources in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not add to the store of Jesus testimonies, unfortunately. The result is that there is a long list of secondary studies on these passages, going back several centuries.
In a short article such as this, it is not possible to give an extensive survey of past studies. Instead, my purpose is to examine the original sources that refer (or might refer) to Jesus and consider what they tell us about the presumed founder of Christianity, taking account of some of the recent secondary literature.
Since Jesus allegedly lived under Roman rule, it is not surprising that our main ‘pagan’ sources are Roman. No Greek writers (i.e. non-Jewish and non-Christian) appear to refer to him.
Probably the most important Roman writer is Tacitus (56–c. 120). He was a historian of note and still regarded as the pinnacle of the Roman historians. He writes the following about an episode during the reign of the emperor Nero:
Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. Auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque.
Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.
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