The death of Jesus may have been mentioned in an ancient history composed many years before Tacitus, Suetonius, or Josephus ever wrote and probably even prior to the Gospels. Circa AD 52, Thallus wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to his own time.^26 This work itself has been lost and only fragments of it exist in the citations of others. One such scholar who knew and spoke of it was Julius Africanus, who wrote about AD 221. It is debated whether Thallus was the same person referred to by Josephus as a wealthy Samaritan, who was made a freedman by Emperor Tiberius and who loaned money to Herod Agrippa I.^27
In speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion and the darkness that covered the land during this event, Africanus found a reference in the writings of Thallus that dealt with this cosmic report. Africanus asserts: 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.^28
Julius Africanus objected to Thallus’ rationalization concerning the darkness that fell on the land at the time of the crucifixion because an eclipse could not take place during the time of the full moon, as was the case during the Jewish Passover season.^29 But Wells raises a fair question about this testimony. Africanus only implies that Thallus linked the darkness to Jesus’ crucifixion, but we are not specifically told if Jesus is mentioned in Thallus’ original history at all.^30
If this brief statement by Thallus refers to Jesus’ crucifixion we can ascertain that
(1) the Christian gospel, or at least an account of the crucifixion, was known in the Mediterranean region by the middle of the first century AD. This brings to mind the presence of Christian teachings in Rome mentioned by Tacitus and by Suetonius. (2) There was a widespread darkness in the land, implied to have taken place during Jesus’ crucifixion. (3) Unbelievers offered rationalistic explanations for certain Christian teachings or for supernatural claims not long after their initial proclamation, a point to which we will return below.