At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men, and joyfully received the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah.
There may be a genuine core in these strange lines; but the high praise given to Christ by a Jew uniformly anxious to please either the Romans or the Jews- both at that time in conflict with Christianity- renders the passage suspect, and Christian scholars reject it as almost certainly an interpolation. There are references to “Yeshu’a of Nazareth” in the Talmud, but they are too late in date to be certainly more than counterechoes of Christian thought. The oldest known mention of Christ in pagan literature is in a letter of the younger Pliny (ca. 110), asking the advice of Trajan on the treatment of Christians. Five years later Tacitus described Nero’s persecution of the Chrestiani in Rome, and pictured them as already (A.D. 64) numbering adherents throughout the Empire; the paragraph is so Tacitean in style, force, and prejudice that of all Biblical critics only Drews questions its authenticity. Suetonius (ca. 125) mentions the same persecution, and reports Claudius’ banishment (ca. 52) of “Jews who, stirred up by Christ [ impulsore Chresto ], were causing public disturbances,” the passage accords well with the Acts of the Apostles, which mentions a decree of Claudius that “the Jews should leave Rome.” These references prove the existence of Christians rather than of Christ; but unless we assume the latter we are driven to the improbable hypothesis that Jesus was invented in one generation; moreover, we must suppose that the Christian community in Rome had been established some years before 52, to merit the attention of an imperial decree. About the middle of this first century a pagan named Thallus, in a fragment preserved by Julius Africanus, argued that the abnormal darkness alleged to have accompanied the death of Christ was a purely natural phenomenon and coincidence; the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity. The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul. Some of these are of uncertain authorship; several, antedating A.D. 64, are almost universally accounted as substantially genuine. No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in the flesh. The accepted epistles frequently refer to the Last Supper and the crucifixion.
Matters are not so simple as regards the Gospels. The four that have come down to us are survivors from a much larger number that once circulated among the Christians of the first two centuries. Our English term gospel (Old English godspel, good news) is a rendering of the Greek euangelion, which is the opening word of Mark, and means “glad tidings”- that the Messiah had come, and the Kingdom of God was at hand. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are “synoptic”: their contents and episodes allow of being arranged in parallel columns and “viewed together.” They were written in the Greek koine of popular speech, and were no models of grammar or literary finish; nevertheless, the directness and force of their simple style, the vivid power of their analogies and scenes, the depth of their feeling, and the profound fascination of the story they tell give even the rude originals a unique charm, immensely enhanced for the English world by the highly inaccurate but lordly version made for King James.
The oldest extant copies of the Gospels go back only to the third century. The original compositions were apparently written between A.D. 60 and 120, and were therefore exposed to two centuries of errors in transcription, and to possible alterations to suit the theology or aims of the copyist’s sect or time. Christian writers before 100 quote the Old, but never the New, Testament. The only reference to a Christian gospel before 150 is in Papias, who, about 135, reports an unidentified “John the Elder” as saying that Mark had composed his gospel from memories conveyed to him by Peter. Papias adds: “Matthew transcribed in Hebrew the Logia” – apparently an early Aramaic collection of the sayings of Christ. Probably Paul had some such document, for though he mentions no gospels he occasionally quotes the direct words of Jesus. Criticism generally agrees in giving the Gospel of Mark priority, and in dating it between 65 and 70. Since it sometimes repeats the same matter in different forms, it is widely believed to have been based upon the Logia, and upon another early narrative which may have been the original composition of Mark himself. Our Gospel of Mark was apparently circulated while some of the apostles, or their immediate disciples, were still alive; it seems unlikely, therefore, that it differed substantially from their recollection and interpretation of Christ. We may conclude, with the brilliant but judicious Schweitzer, that the Gospel of Mark is in essentials “genuine history.”