I came across an interesting claim online yesterday:
…[there] are 45 ancient sources of Jesus within 150 years of His death. Nobody even comes close to this. Tiberius who died just 4 years after Jesus did only had 9 sources within 150 years of his death.
This seems to be based on this:
Dr. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona write:
“What we have concerning Jesus actually is impressive. We can start with approximately nine traditional authors of the New Testament. If we consider the critical thesis that other authors wrote the pastoral letters and such letters as Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians, we’d have an even larger number. Another twenty early Christian authors and four heretical writings mention Jesus within 150 years of his death on the cross. Moreover, nine secular, non-Christian sources mention Jesus within the 150 years: Josephus, the Jewish historian; Tacitus, the Roman historian; Pliny the Younger, a politician of Rome; Phlegon, a freed slave who wrote histories; Lucian, the Greek satirist; Celsus, a Roman philosopher; and probably the historians Suetonius and Thallus, as well as the prisoner Mara Bar-Serapion. In all, at least forty-two authors, nine of them secular, mention Jesus within 150 years of his death.” 6
“…Let’s look at an even better example, a contemporary of Jesus. Tiberius Caesar was the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus’ ministry and execution. Tiberius is mentioned by ten sources within 150 years of his death: Tacitus, Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Seneca, Valerius Maximus, Josephus, and Luke. Compare that to Jesus’ forty-two total sources in the same length of time. That’s more than four times the number of total sources who mention the Roman emperor during roughly the same period. If we only considered the number of secular non-Christian sources who mention Jesus and Tiberius within 150 years of their lives, we arrive at a tie of nine each 7 .” 8
6. Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids MI : Kregel Publications, 2004) 127.
7. Tiberius’s number reduces from ten to nine since Luke is a Christian source.
8. Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids MI : Kregel Publications, 2004) 128.
By “sources” the authors mean “literary sources”, of course. Emperors have their heads and names on coins and inscriptions. Jesus, on the other hand, is known to us only from literary sources. But unless we propose to take the position that there only people whose existence is certain are those important enough to appear in inscriptions, we must compare like with like, and ask, “If this person was known only from literary sources, how many such sources would there be?”
I admit I was astonished by the low number for Tiberius. Can it be right?
Cassius Dio, writing after 193 AD, is excluded by the 150 year window. I presume the authors must also mean “sources that name Tiberius”, for Juvenal, in his 10th satire, refers to him, although not by name.
I suspect that if we searched a bit further, we might find a few more. In the great mass of Greek technical and medical literature, untranslated and inaccessible to most people, which makes up a much larger proportion of extant literature than most of us suppose, there is probably something.
But of course all the references to Jesus, however obscure, have been pulled into the light. Jesus was probably the most important figure of antiquity to those in modern times. Tiberius was only an emperor.
It is quite something when the master of the Roman world in the time when Jesus walked on earth is “only an emperor”, known from a handful of sources. If it’s true, of course.
UPDATE: Aulus Gellius, in book 5 of the Attic Nights, mentions Tiberius by name, so this list by Habermas etc is indeed not a complete one. Indeed the list of authors seems lacking in second century sources.
UPDATE: I’m looking at the old TLG E disk, using Diogenes, and doing a search on TIBERI (not checked dates on all these). I get 1015 matches, but most are Byzantine and so much too late.
- Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, book 2, paragraph 39, 20.
- Philo, In Flaccum, in quite a few places. Also Legatio ad Gaium.
- Galen Medicus, De compositione medicamentorum per genera libri vii Volume 13, page 836, line 8
- Lucianus Soph., Macrobii Section 21, line 10
- Strabo Geogr., Testimonia Volume-Jacobyʹ-T 2a,91,T, fragment 1, line 1
- Acta Alexandrinorum, Acta Alexandrinorum Chapter 5b, column or fragment 1, line 17 (I think we will accept this)
- Flavius Josephus Hist., Antiquitates Judaicae Book 19, chapter 303, line 2, book 20, c. 159
- Claudius Aelianus Soph., De natura animalium Book 2, section 11, line 28
- Clemens Alexandrinus Theol., Stromata Book 1, chapter 21, section 145, subsection 2, line 3
- Publius Aelius Phlegon Paradox., De mirabilibus Chapter 13, section 1, line 1, ch. 14, and in the fragments of his works.
- Justin Martyr, Apologia c. 13
- Vettius Valens Astrol., Anthologiarum libri ix Page 32, line 25 – an astrologer d. 175 AD. There is a translation project for him here. Book 9 is here but incomplete.
I’m ignoring the ps.Clementine literature as too late.