Chapter 9. Do We Have Early Eyewitness Testimony about Jesus?
By Matthew Wade Ferguson and Jeffery Jay Lowder
As we read them, Geisler and Turek seek to accomplish three things: (i) review the extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus; (ii) show the New Testament is textually accurate; and (iii) begin an extended, multi-chapter defense of the New Testament’s historical accuracy.
(i) Extra-Biblical Evidence: According to Geisler and Turek, (a) the ratio of ancient sources which record Jesus within 150 years of his lifetime to those which mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius is 43:10 (222), which (b) makes it unreasonable to believe that Jesus never existed. Furthermore, (c) taken together, all ten sources are consistent with the New Testament’s sequence of events. Finally, (d) non-Christian sources report that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead (223).
Regarding (a) the 43:10 Source Ratio, Geisler and Turek cite the scholarship of Michael Licona. Licona claims that the ratio is 42:10, but Geisler and Turek increase this ratio to 43:10, by counting the Jewish Talmud as one of the extrabiblical sources which confirm Jesus’ historicity (424, n. 7).
Because the 43:10 source ratio would be a significant fact regarding the state of the available evidence if true, it is worth considering Licona’s evidence for this claim in detail. We shall argue that Licona’s 42:10 source ratio (and, in turn, Geisler’s and Turek’s 43:10 ratio) is inaccurate, skewed, and misleading, for ten reasons.
(1) The 42:10 Ratio Is Misleading about the Literary Sources for Jesus.
When Licona lists the 42 “accounts that now exist concerning Jesus,” he does not specify that these are literary sources preserved through ancient narratives. Historians also consider epigraphical, papyrological, numismatic, and archaeological evidence—all of which are far more abundant for Tiberius than Jesus—but we will cover that later. We only specify that these are “literary sources” to dispel the impression that these are the ‘only’ sources.
Licona first lists the traditional authors of the New Testament:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.
What need only be said here is that all of the traditional attributions given above are doubted by most critical scholars, with the exception of Paul. Church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE misattributed apostolic authorship to anonymous books like the Gospels, a few works like Revelation were written by a “John” but not John the apostle, and some of the letters like 1st and 2nd Peter are outright forgeries. Once the false attributions are laid aside, there are no writings about Jesus that can be traced either to an original apostle or to an eyewitness. Paul is a near contemporary to Jesus’ life, however, he never saw or knew Jesus during his life and ministry. Moreover, Paul’s letters, while they deal with Jesus, are very sparse about the biographical details of his life and are primarily absorbed in theological concerns.
Next, this apologetic provides a list of supposedly “early” Christian writers:
Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.
This list represents a large number of ancient writers, but what this apologetic fails to specify is that most of these authors’ writings date to the 2nd century CE, around a century after Jesus’ death. They are so late that they provide little independent information, and mostly make use of the above 1st century sources (or even less reliable later traditions). Playing telephone with previously problematic information does nothing to improve historical accuracy.
The next bit is a list of ‘heretical’ authors who mention Jesus. We would prefer that Licona use a more neutral term like “apocryphal.” Here are the four that are listed:
Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and Treatise on Resurrection.
Even apologists acknowledge that these sources are unreliable (though, modern scholars think that there may be a few historical sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas). Likewise these apocryphal sources, in many instances, contradict the authors of the New Testament. More telephone, divergence, and “heretical” accounts does not improve the historical evidence.
So far we have only received a catalog of late Christian authors, which this apologetic misleadingly represents as early, reliable sources. But the apologetic’s next list of 9 ‘secular’ sources for Jesus is highly questionable. To start with, the term ‘secular’ is misleading, since these are really just ‘Pagan’ authors. But what is more noteworthy is that many of these authors never directly mention Jesus. Here is the list provided:
Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher), Mara Bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.
First off, Phlegon is an author who may have written in the 2nd century CE, most of whose works are lost. References to his lost works only survive in quotations of later authors, one of which is a quote from Julius Africanus (a lost 3rd century source), which itself is preserved in a second quote from the 9th century author Syncellus (that’s right, a quote of a quote seven centuries later!). After all this word of mouth Africanus claims that Phlegon made a reference to the three hour darkness at Jesus’ execution, described in Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33, and Lk. 23:44. Phlegon’s quote, however, is preserved verbatim in Eusebius where no connection to Jesus is made. Instead, Phlegon merely refers to an eclipse during Tiberius’ reign. There is another possible quote, unrelated to the eclipse, in Origen (Against Celsus 2.14) where Phlegon supposedly wrote about Jesus, but his words are not preserved verbatim, so it is difficult to ascertain. Regardless, Phlegon cannot be used as a source for the darkness at Jesus’ execution and his quote may completely undermine Thallus as a source.
Thallus, like Phlegon, is a lost historian who only survives in later quotations and whose date is largely uncertain, but he probably wrote during the 2nd century CE. None of the later quotations of his works that include his own words mention Jesus. Instead another quote of Africanus, who does not record Thallus’ own words, claims that Thallus also wrote about the great darkness at Jesus’ execution, but once more this is only preserved by the 9th century author Syncellus. Given Africanus’ previous error, where he claimed that Phlegon wrote about Jesus, when his actual words did not, it is highly likely that Africanus misrepresented Thallus as well (there is also the possibility that Eusebius anonymously quotes Thallus in his Chronicle where no reference to Jesus is made in regard to the Tiberian eclipse). Lacking Thallus’ works or even a quotation of his own words that mentions Jesus, he cannot accurately be regarded as “an account that now exists concerning Jesus,” like Habermas and Licona claim, and thus including his name on the list is misleading.
Next, Mara Bar Serapion was a stoic philosopher whose dating has been disputed among scholars, but who may have written from the late-1st to the 3rd century CE (the latter of which dates would place him outside of the 150 year window). Serapion wrote a letter in Syriac that mentions in passing an anonymous “wise king of the Jews.” The letter does not refer to Jesus by name and can only be interpreted to allude to him. Nevertheless, some recent scholarship in the Mara Bar Serapion Project has favored a date in the late-1st century and has also favored the interpretation that the “wise king” is probably an allusion to Jesus. This conclusion would actually make Bar-Serapion the earliest Pagan to reference Jesus. However, the letter tells us nothing more than what is already known from the New Testament, namely that Jesus was a teacher who was executed (which Bar-Serapion compares with the killings of Pythagoras and Socrates). Furthermore, Bar-Serapion probably had no direct knowledge of Jesus, but instead only knew of him due to Christian preaching in Syria. As the Mara Bar Serapion Project explains, “Mara was not a crypto-Christian of the first century … Nor does the letter constitute an anti-Jewish Christian pseudepigraphon of the 3rd-4th century … More likely we are dealing with an early instance of the Pagan reaction to Christian preaching in Syria.” This means that Bar-Serapion is probably not an independent source for Jesus, and regardless his allusion is vague at best.
Suetonius’ passage, likewise, cannot be said to refer to Jesus with any certainty. The only mention that might plausibly allude to Jesus is a two word ablative absolute in his Life of Claudius which states that, impulsore Chresto (“with a Chrestus instigating,” 25.4) the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome in 49 CE. “Chrestus” was not Jesus’ name, nor is it the Latin word for “Christ,” which is “Christus.” Likewise, “Chrestus” by itself is an attested name from antiquity meaning “good” or “useful.” Accordingly, it could very likely be the case that Suetonius’ reference to a “Chrestus” simply refers to the name of another Jew. Moreover, this refers to an event nearly two decades after Jesus was dead, even though the passage seems to imply that Chrestus was alive in 49 CE. As Classicist Barbara Levick concludes, “The precise cause of the expulsion remains obscure.” Suetonius also explicitly refers to Christianity as a religion later in his Life of Nero (16.2) without drawing any connection between the Christians and this “Chrestus.” Suetonius’ reference is thus far too dubious to be considered an “account” for Jesus, and thus it was rash to include it on the list.
Next we have Josephus from the late 1st century CE, who has one passage (AJ 20.9.1) that may refer to Jesus and his brother James, but has also been argued to refer to another Jesus (the high priest) and James, the sons of Damneus (which calls into dispute its supposed reference to the Christian Jesus). The more famous passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum (AJ 18.3.3) shows considerable signs of later forgery, making it either completely forged, or partially forged but still containing considerable alterations. Those qualifiers in place, it is fair to say that most scholars agree that Josephus probably preserves some reference to Jesus (and his brother James); however, since there is serious dispute about Josephus’ authenticity, he can only be regarded as a “disputed” source. Assuming that Josephus’ reference in the Testimonium Flavianum is partially authentic, Josephus discusses Jesus in the context of describing the “tribe of the Christians, so called after him” that “has still to this day not disappeared,” meaning that Josephus’ information about Jesus probably comes from Christians that he knew in his own day (calling into question Josephus’ status as an independent source).
Then there are Tacitus, Lucian, Pliny, and Celsus (all of whom are writing much, much later in the 2nd century CE). Pliny’s (Ep. 10.96-97) testimony can only dubiously be counted as an “account” for Jesus, since he only states that Christians worship a “Christ” figure, as if a god, and does not connect this figure to a historical person. Josephus (if his partially or fully forged passage can be trusted), Tacitus (Ann. 15.44), and Lucian (The Passing of Peregrinus) only mention Jesus in the context of Christianity as a contemporary religious movement and furnish very few biographical details about his life. Celsus is a hilarious author whose lost work partially survives in quotations of the 3rd century theologian Origen. Celsus barely makes the 150 year window by writing c. 177 CE. His work The True Word is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity, which includes hysterical remarks such as Jesus lying about his mother Mary’s virginity and actually being the bastard son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. It is a great read that we recommend for Monty Python: Life of Brian movie nights.
Well, there you have the so called “42 sources for Jesus,” a list that includes 3 disputed authors (Thallus, Suetonius, and Josephus), 2 indirect and vague allusions (Bar-Serapion and Pliny the Younger), and mostly records late authors who either furnish little to no reliable details about Jesus, or are problematic sources for interpretive reasons (such as the canonical Gospels). We will let the dubious references slide, since we will see that even with these embellishments Tiberius still has more than 42 sources! Paul is the only source that can be said to be a near contemporary of Jesus, but he provides too few biographical details about Jesus to ascertain much that is substantial. Much of what we have refuted in this section should be known to many skeptics already. In the next section, we are going to demonstrate how Habermas and Licona fail to accurately record the available sources for Tiberius.
(2) The 42:10 Ratio Is Flatly Inaccurate about the Literary Sources for Tiberius, which Actually Comes Out to 42:44.
Not only does this apologetic fail to mention all the authors who write about Tiberius 150 years within his lifetime, but it fails to mention three quarters of them! Here is the very incomplete list that is provided:
Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca, Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Valerius Maximus, and Luke.
It took me (Ferguson) only a few minutes to track down authors that the 42:10 source ratio had missed: The contemporary poet Horace (writing c. 21 BCE) mentions Tiberius multiple times and even writes to a military friend campaigning with Tiberius in the 3rd letter of book 1 of his Epistles. Another contemporary, Cornelius Nepos, also mentions Tiberius’ first marriage in his Life of Atticus (19). The poet Ovid (c. 13 CE) discusses Tiberius multiple times in book 2 of his Epistulae Ex Ponto. Livy’s history of Rome, though the books dealing with the time of Tiberius are lost, still have book summaries preserved in the later Periochae. A number of the later books, such as 138 dealing with Tiberius’ military campaigns under Augustus, provide yet another contemporary source for Tiberius. Likewise, another contemporary historian, Aufidius Bassus, wrote a history of the reign of Augustus down to his own day, which included the reign of Tiberius. While Bassus’ work is lost, a fragment remains that discusses Tiberius’ political achievements during the year 8 BCE, which was probably published during Tiberius’ lifetime. There is also Apollonides of Nicaea, a Greek grammarian from the early-1st century CE, whom the biographer Diogenes Laertius (9.12) records dedicated a work titled On the Silli to Tiberius. Since Apollonides probably dedicated this work during Tiberius’ reign, he is another source for Tiberius during his lifetime.
Habermas and Licona mention Seneca (presumably the Younger) on their list, but a reference survives to the contemporary Seneca the Elder’s (c. 38-39 CE) lost historical work in Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius (73.2) where the Elder Seneca writes about Tiberius’ death. Philo of Alexandria (c. 39-40 CE) mentions Tiberius’s recent death multiple times in his Embassy to Gaius. These are both references that date to only a couple years after Tiberius’ death.
The list grows larger for later 1st century sources: The fabulist Phaedrus (c. 45 CE), who wrote Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, likewise writes a humorous tale about Tiberius and an attendant in his Aesopica. Scribonius Largus (c. 47 CE) writes about Tiberius in his Compositions (97.1), as does Columella (c. 65 CE) in book 11 of his De Re Rustica. A very obscure source for Tiberius that survives is a certain “Deculo,” whom Pliny the Elder (HN 35.70) records wrote about a painting that Tiberius hung in his bedroom, which cost 600,000 sesterces. Nothing is known of this Deculo outside of Pliny’s writings, but since the Elder Pliny died in 79 CE, Deculo must have written sometime in the 1st century CE. Quintilian (95 CE) also writes about Tiberius in book 3 of his Institutio Oratoria, and Frontinus (c. 100 CE) makes an obscure, but nevertheless solid reference to Tiberius in book 1 of his On the Water Supply of Rome. Authors from the 2nd century CE are also missing from this apologetic’s role call: the Roman satirist Juvenal (c. 120 CE) mentions Tiberius’ praetorian prefect Sejanus and a “Caesar on Capri” that indisputably refers to Tiberius in book 10 of his Satires. Likewise, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (c. 167 CE) is missing who briefly mentions Tiberius in book 12 of his Meditations. Vettius Valens (c. 175 CE) also records astrological details about Tiberius’ reign in book 1 of his Anthology. Cornelius Fronto (c. 175 CE) likewise mentions the library in Tiberius’ palace in book 4 of his Epistles, and the grammarian Aulus Gellius also mentions Tiberius’ library in book 13 of his Attic Nights (horribly obscure references, but they still include Tiberius’ name!). Licona includes the Gospel of Luke in his list, since it refers to the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign as the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (3:1). However, apparently this only counts his praenomen “Tiberius.” Tiberius had also received the adopted cognomen “Caesar.” Who is the Gospel of John referring to when the Jews cry, “We have no king but Caesar!” (19:15)? Whose face is on the coin when Mark and Matthew write, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mk.12:17; Mt. 22:21)? If Pliny’s vague reference to a “Christ,” which was never Jesus’ name but only a title, can be counted as an “account” for Jesus, then surely these references to a “Caesar,” which is part of Tiberius’ name and also a title used to refer to the Roman emperor, can at least count as vague sources for Tiberius. Therefore, the other Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John — also count as texts that allude to Tiberius within 150 years of his life and ones whom Licona fails to record. There are a number of authors that this apologetic counts for Jesus, but fails to mention also wrote about Tiberius! The apologetic counts Pliny the Younger’s vague reference to a “Christ,” but fails to mention that the Younger Pliny clearly discusses Tiberius in book 5 of his Epistles in his letter to Titius Aristo. Lucian is listed as a source for Jesus, but it is ignored that the Macrobii (“Long Lives”), which is attributed to Lucian, also mentions Tiberius. Although modern scholars now doubt that Lucian was the actual author of the Macrobii, there are still good reasons to think that this text preserves a 2nd century reference to Tiberius. Not only does the text make no reference to events after the 2nd century CE, but likewise the text makes no reference to the death of the philosopher Demonax (c. 170 CE), who allegedly lived about a hundred years, which would be very odd for a work dedicated to discussing people who lived very long lives. This provides adequate enough grounds for dating the Macrobii to before 170 CE, which puts it within the 150 year window.
The apologetic even misses important Christian sources that mention Tiberius. Justin the Martyr is counted for Jesus, but it is not pointed out that he also mentions Tiberius in his First Apology. Likewise, Theophilus of Antioch is counted for Jesus, but his reference to Tiberius in book 3 of To Autolycus is not included. The apologetic even fails to connect the dots when Phlegon and Thallus are counted as sources for Jesus, because they mention an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius, that these references include Tiberius Caesar! So the apologetic is not even checking its own sources! Phlegon likewise records in book 13 of his On Marvels that Apollonius the Grammarian wrote about Tiberius, which is also not included.
What about Tiberius himself? Unlike Jesus, Tiberius was certainly literate and a number of his letters are preserved in fragments within the works of both Tacitus and Suetonius. In addition, Suetonius even makes clear in his Life of Tiberius that Tiberius wrote memoirs that he used when constructing his biography (61.1). Thus, Tiberius himself also counts as a source for his own life and existence. How about Tiberius’ stepfather Augustus? Suetonius likewise quotes a number of letters written by Augustus addressed to Tiberius, which likewise count as sources for Tiberius’ life. How about Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus? Furthermore, the historian Tacitus (Ann. 4.53) preserves a fragment of the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger, Tiberius’ great-niece, where she also relates information about Tiberius. A speech of Tiberius’ other nephew, the emperor Claudius, is likewise recorded in Tacitus and preserved on the bronze Lyon Tablet that mentions Tiberius. Thus, within Tiberius’ own family we have Augustus, Claudius, and Agrippina the Younger as sources for him, in addition to Tiberius himself.
Another source is the Latin astrologer Manilius (c. 14 CE), who dedicated his Astronomica to a “Caesar” who could either be Tiberius or Augustus. Even if it is Tiberius’ adopted father Augustus, imagine how ecstatic apologists would be if a poem survived dedicated to Jesus’ adopted father Joseph. Beyond the dedication, most scholars agree that there is a reference to Tiberius in book 4, lines 764-6 of the Astronomica, as well as references to Tiberius’ horoscope.
There are a couple references to Tiberius that are dubious, but still provide plausible sources for his life. One source is a little known poem titled the Aratus, which is attributed to Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son Germanicus. Since the poem is dedicated to the author’s genitor (“father” or “adopted father”), if the attribution to Germanicus is correct, then this poem is a contemporary source dedicated to Tiberius. There is also a possible fragment of the Roman historian M. Servilius Nonianus preserved, which discusses an incident during Tiberius’ reign. Since Nonianus died in 59 CE, this would be another source for Tiberius within 25 years of the emperor’s life. There is also the Greek geographer Pausanias (c. 170 CE) who mentions in book 8 of his Descriptions of Greece that a “Roman emperor” constructed a channel near Antioch, whom scholars speculate was probably Tiberius. This reference is not 100% solid, but Tiberius was a “Roman emperor,” which is a more literal description than Mara Bar-Serapion’s “wise king of the Jews” being taken as a reference to Jesus, as Jesus was never a king.
Apart from these literary examples, at least three very extensive inscriptions survive. These inscriptions (much larger than other smaller inscriptions from the same period) are extensive enough to be considered their own narratives, in that they not only contain complete paragraphs, sentences, and clauses, but also have distinct openings and closings of narration. In content, they thus preserve as much information on stone as medieval codices preserve in writing (in addition to not having to rely on medieval textual transmission). The Res Gestae and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone were both published during the reign of Tiberius and refer to Tiberius specifically, and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, which was produced c. 69-70 CE, likewise refers to the powers that had been bequeathed to Tiberius by the Senate. The Senatus Consultum, written in the name of the Senate, even includes a smaller subsection that was written specifically by Tiberius’ sua manu (“own hand”). Apologists would kill for such extensive inscriptions to be recorded about Jesus during his lifetime (and would probably mention them in their statistic if they had existed), but yet this apologetic fails to include these important sources for Tiberius.
Since Augustus is the putative author of the Res Gestae (even though it was published after his lifetime), and since Augustus’ letters to Tiberius are listed above, it may be double-counting to include the Res Gestae as an additional source; however, the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani are definitely additional sources that should be included in this list.
All totaled, Licona missed approximately 39 sources for Tiberius within 150 years of his life:
- Cornelius Nepos
- Aufidius Bassus
- Apollonides of Nicaea
- Seneca the Elder
- Philo of Alexandria
- Scribonius Largus
- Marcus Aurelius
- Vettius Valens
- Cornelius Fronto
- Aulus Gellius
- The Gospel attributed to Matthew
- The Gospel attributed to Mark
- The Gospel attributed to John
- Pliny the Younger
- Justin the Martyr
- Theophilus of Antioch
- Apollonius the Grammarian
- Tiberius himself
- Agrippina the Younger
- M. Servilius Nonianus
- The Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone
- The Lex de Imperio Vespasiani
These are all of the additional sources that we have been able to find for Tiberius, but it should be noted that there may be even more sources that we have missed. We noted above that there are 3 disputed sources (Thallus, Suetonius, and Josephus) and 2 vague sources (Bar-Serapion and Pliny the Younger) for Jesus. To be consistent, the same consideration for Tiberius should apply, as there are 3 disputable sources (Germanicus, Servilius Nonianus, and Pausanias) and 3 vague sources (the Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, and John) for Tiberius. This brings the total tally for Jesus to 37-42 and for Tiberius to 43-49.
If one drops the 6 disputable or vague sources for Tiberius within 150 years of his life, this apologetic still only manages to account for 10 out of 43 of the total literary sources. That is an accuracy rate of only 23%. It should also be noted that even the low estimate of sources for Tiberius is still greater than the high estimate for Jesus. So, even with literary sources alone, Tiberius still wins!
(3) The 42:10 Ratio Stretches the Window of Time to Skew the Results.
One hundred and fifty years is a long time. Has anyone started to wonder at this point: why did Habermas and Licona choose such a large time span as 150 years for the window of authors? Would our writing this year (2015 CE) count as an independent “source” for Abraham Lincoln (1865 CE), just because we are within a 150 years of his life? The large window of time skews the results. Tiberius was a well-known politician in his own day, but as time goes on people forget old politicians in place of new ones. In contrast, Jesus became a religious figure who was revered and immortalized by a world religion. Consider an analogy with Joseph Smith. Most of us today are familiar with Joseph Smith over 150 years after his death, but how many are familiar with his contemporary U.S. president John Tyler?
That being said, historians prefer early, eyewitness, and contemporary sources to later, second-hand, and dubious ones. Let’s readjust our window of time. How many authors mention Tiberius during his actual lifetime (42 BCE — 37 CE) compared to how many mention Jesus during his lifetime (c. 7 BCE-7 CE — 26-36 CE)? When you readjust the numbers to actual contemporary authors, there are at least 14 accounts that record Tiberius during his actual lifetime:
Horace, Ovid, Cornelius Nepos, Livy, Aufidius Bassus, Apollonides of Nicaea, Strabo, Vallerius Maximus, Paterculus, Tiberius himself, Augustus, Germanicus, Manilius, , and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone
Many of these are direct eyewitnesses, and Paterculus is an actual historian who fought under Tiberius and records his life and military campaigns at length. In contrast, what is the number of contemporary authors who mention Jesus? Absolutely zero. That’s right, when you readjust the number to actual contemporaries, it comes out to a 14:0 ratio in favor of Tiberius. So, whenever you hear an apologist spout the “42:10” ratio, first remind them that the real number is 42:49, then remind them that the number for actual contemporaries is 0:14.
What about if we expand the window to near contemporaries? Say authors who wrote within 25 years of Tiberius and Jesus’ lifetime? For Tiberius, this adds:
Seneca the Elder, Philo of Alexandria, Seneca the Younger, Phaedrus, Scribonius Largus, Servilius Nonianus, Claudius, and Agrippina the Younger
For Jesus, this adds:
The Apostle Paul
Therefore, even for near contemporaries, the ratio comes out to 22:1 in favor of Tiberius, with Jesus being left with only one source, who is not an eyewitness. Overwhelmingly, there is an abundance of either contemporary or early reliable sources for Tiberius, whereas Jesus has no contemporary sources and very little early attestation. Readjusting the window of time puts in perspective just how strong the source material is for Tiberius in comparison to Jesus.
It also never occurs to Licona (or Geisler and Turek) to ask why so many late sources for Jesus survive. Was there really more written about Jesus later in antiquity than Tiberius? Hardly. What really has happened is that more sources for Jesus were preserved through the Christian-dominated Middle Ages. As Reynolds and Wilson explain about medieval textual transmission, “Education and the care of books were rapidly passing into the hands of the Church, and the Christians of this period had little time for Pagan literature.” And likewise Reynolds and Wilson point out, “There can be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.” Accordingly, the only reason why more texts mentioning Tiberius have not been preserved is because of a sample bias and a bottleneck of Pagan texts that perished during the Middle Ages. Despite this, an overwhelmingly larger number of early sources survive for Tiberius compared to a mere paucity for Jesus, and, even in the stretched out 150 year window, Tiberius is still more attested.
(4) The 42:10 Source Ratio Ignores Epigraphical Evidence.
Up until now we have been primarily focused on Licona’s list of authors. We think it is safe to say at this point that this number has been utterly discredited. But let’s look further into a related claim: how the evidence for the historicity of Jesus compares to the evidence for the historicity of Tiberius. In the words of one apologist, “If one is going to doubt the existence of Jesus, one must also reject the existence of Tiberius Caesar.” Similarly, Geisler and Turek seem to make an even stronger claim, namely, that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is better than the evidence for the mere existence of Tiberius.
As we have seen, Jesus is referenced by far more authors than the Roman emperor at the time (Jesus’ 43 authors to Tiberius’s 10 within 150 years of their lives). Nine of those authors were eyewitnesses or contemporaries of the events, and they wrote 27 documents, the majority of which mention or imply the Resurrection. That’s more than enough to establish historicity. (###)
Let’s consider some other types of historical evidence besides literary sources and see how much we would know about Tiberius even if all his literary sources disappeared.
Epigraphy is the study of ancient inscriptions in stone. We have already mentioned Claudius’ Lyon Tablet, the Res Gestae , the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone, and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, which are inscriptions long enough to be considered their own narratives. However, there are countless other contemporary inscriptions that name Tiberius on dedications, plaques, and really more locations than we could ever possibly name. Current databases and collections for Greek and Latin inscriptions are incomplete and often difficult to access, but one of the authors (Ferguson) ran a search for Latin inscriptions that include “Tiberius Caesar” on Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss, which yielded 152 results. The vast majority of these inscriptions refer to the emperor Tiberius (a few refer to other people than Tiberius) and date to within his reign and lifetime. Mind you, this is just the tip of the iceberg! This is not even a search that includes Greek inscriptions and there are other prosopographies, such as Victor Erenberg’s Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius, which include even more documentary sources.
To our knowledge, there is not a single inscription that mentions Jesus during his lifetime. In epigraphy, the ratio that would come out for Tiberius versus Jesus would be well above the realm of 100+:0.
(5) The 42:10 Source Ratio Ignores Papyrological Evidence.
We have already mentioned that the literary sources we have from antiquity come down primarily in medieval manuscripts. However, in more arid regions of the Mediterranean (particularly southern Egypt) documents from antiquity itself survive written on papyri. Papyrology is the study of such documents. We see no reason why texts preserved in medieval manuscripts should count as sources in Habermas and Licona’s statistic but papyrological sources should not.
Most papyri are rough drafts of letters, scrap notes, receipts, accounting documents, and other incidentals. Nevertheless, as we previously saw in the Gospel of Luke, the conventional method of dating in antiquity was to list the year of the current emperor’s reign. Accordingly, many of the papyri that include dates mention Tiberius’ name. One of the authors (Ferguson) ran a search on APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information System) for papyri dating to the years of Tiberius’ reign (14 CE – 37 CE) that include the name “Tiberius.” The search yielded 106 results. The vast majority of these papyrological references refer to the emperor Tiberius (granted, a few refer to other people named Tiberius). In fact, one of these papyri may plausibly be a letter from Tiberius himself to Egyptian tax collectors. Other valuable papyri about Tiberius can be found with even simple Google searches.
To our knowledge there is not a single papyrus dating to Jesus’ lifetime that mentions him. Granted, we do have historically unreliable papyri that mention Jesus centuries later (along with a lot of apocryphal gems, such as Jesus having a twin brother). However, if we compare the ratio of solely contemporary papyrological sources it is ~100:0 in favor of Tiberius versus Jesus.
(6) The 42:10 Ratio Ignores Numismatic Evidence.
Numismatics is the study of ancient currency. During the Roman Empire, ancient coins were minted with the emperor’s name and face on them. Accordingly, there are countless coins scattered throughout the Mediterranean that mention Tiberius’ name and brandish his face.
Now, to be fair, we would not expect an obscure Galilean like Jesus to have coins minted of himself (granted Alexander of Abonoteichus, another ancient prophetic figure living c. 105-170 CE, managed to pull it off for the snake-god of his cult). That being said, we only bring this up to address the claim, made by other Christian apologists: “If one is going to doubt the existence of Jesus, one must also reject the existence of Tiberius Caesar.” If all other forms of evidence suddenly vanished and we were only left with ancient currency, we would still have contemporary evidence for Tiberius and none for Jesus. One more point for Tiberius.
(7) The 42:10 Ratio Ignores Archaeological Evidence.
There are a number of archaeological sites around the Mediterranean that can be directly and reliably linked to Tiberius. Fortunately, I (Ferguson) have had the opportunity to visit Tiberius’ palace in the Roman forum, his villa at Sperlonga, and one of his villas on Capri.
Now, there are a number of traditional sites attributed to Jesus, but virtually all of these are just later fabrications. For example, Jesus has two locations in Jerusalem that are supposed to be his empty tomb: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb (both of which I [Ferguson] visited during the summer of 2012). However, we are not aware of any archaeological site that can be directly connected to Jesus. That being said, Jesus is recorded to have visited general locations like the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount, which is certainly plausible. We do not claim that this is the strongest argument, but there are archaeological sites which were directly owned by Tiberius and reflect his architectural tastes. In contrast, we have nothing like this for Jesus. So at the end of the day it is just another way that we know more about Tiberius than Jesus.
We also have artifacts that can be linked to Tiberius, such as multiple busts and statues of the emperor that were produced during his reign. We have no such image for Jesus, nor do we even have a physical description of what he looks like. Admittedly, the countless statues we now have of Tiberius were idealized and are not fully accurate portraits, and simply because no physical description or image of Jesus exists does not prove his non-existence (he was a poor person who probably had no busts or statues made of him to begin with), but this is just yet another way we have more information about Tiberius than Jesus.
(8) Not All Historical Sources Are Equal.
A point that should not be forgotten in stacking all these numbers is that not all pieces of evidence are equal. Merely providing lists of authors, like Licona did, creates the illusion that all sources are equal. But would one expect 100 issues of the National Enquirer to be more reliable than a single history book? We have already seen that many of the sources for Tiberius were written either during or much closer to his life, whereas Jesus’ are distant second, third, and fourth generation accounts.
But beyond this, we also have more reliable sources for Tiberius that provide much more historical information about his life than what is available Jesus. Paterculus is a contemporary, eyewitness historian who records Tiberius’ military campaigns, Tacitus has 6 books in his Annals that document Tiberius’ reign on a chronological basis, and Suetonius wrote a historical biography of him. In contrast, no contemporary historian documents Jesus and the much later historians who do mention him only do so in tiny quips that furnish little to no details about his life. Instead, our primary source material for Jesus is Paul’s epistles, which mostly treat with theology rather than history, and the Gospels, which are hagiographies comprised of symbolism, oral traditions, and parables. To sum it up, we have earlier, fuller, and more reliable historical sources for Tiberius, whereas for Jesus we have late, ahistorical, historically-questionable, and less reliable religious texts.
(9) Chronologically, Whose Life Can We Reconstruct Better: Tiberius or Jesus?
To provide an illustration of just how much more we know about Tiberius than Jesus, we thought it would be helpful to map out their lives in a chronology. After all, if we have a lot of historical information, shouldn’t we be able to plot it out on a timeline?
For the chronology of Jesus, there are considerable problems in assigning any precise dates or years to events in his life. To begin with, the Gospel of Matthew places Jesus’ birth before the death of King Herod in 4 BCE, but Luke states that Jesus was born during the Census of Quirinius, which took place in 6/7 CE. As historian E.P. Sanders explains:
Possibly because there were riots after Herod’s death in 4 BCE and also at the time of the census in 6 CE, Luke has conflated the two times. This a relatively slight historical error for an ancient author who worked without archives, or even a standard calendar, and who wrote about a period some eighty or so years earlier. The most likely explanation of Luke’s account is this: he or his source accidentally combined 4 BCE (Herod’s death) and 6 CE (Quirinius’ census); having ‘discovered’ the event so that it became a reason for Joseph to travel from his home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. In any case, Luke’s real source for the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was certainly the conviction that Jesus fulfilled a hope that someday a descendant of David would arise to save Israel.
Sanders’ last point about the expectation that the Jewish Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is likewise noteworthy. It is very clear that both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth were influenced by their narrative goals of depicting Jesus as a descendant of King David. As Sanders elaborates:
The birth narratives constitute an extreme case. Matthew and Luke used them to place Jesus in salvation history. It seems that they had very little historical information about Jesus’ birth (historical in our sense), and so they went to one of their other sources, Jewish scripture. There is no other substantial part of the gospels that depends so heavily on the theory that information about David and Moses may simply be transferred to the story of Jesus.
These problems only allow for broad date ranges in estimating the year of Jesus’ birth (for a refutation of apologetic attempts to harmonize the nativity stories between Matthew and Luke, see Carrier’s “The Date of the Nativity in Luke”). On a wide range, the Gospels place Jesus’ birth anywhere from a couple years before Herod’s death (7-4 BCE) to the Census of Quirinius (6/7 CE). However, scholars have also favored a more narrow range of dates between these broader reference points. As Sanders explains:
Most scholars, I among them, think that the decisive fact is that Matthew dates Jesus’ birth at about the time Herod the Great died. This was in the year 4 BCE, and so Jesus born in that year or shortly before it; some scholars prefer 5, 6, or even 7 BCE.
This allows for a narrow range of dating Jesus’ birth between 7-4 BCE. Dating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is likewise problematic. Luke (3:1) states that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (29 CE), and implies that Jesus began his ministry not long after (29-30 CE). However, Sanders cautions:
This, however, is only an estimate. Luke did not write that Jesus started precisely one year after John. Moreover, we do not know how long Jesus’ ministry lasted. Consequently, Luke’s information cannot tell us when Jesus died.
Dating Jesus’ death raises further problems. As with Jesus’ birth, both broad and narrow estimates can be provided. Regarding broad estimation, Sanders notes:
When Jesus was executed, Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (26-36 CE) and Caiaphas was high priest (18-36 CE) … These dates lead to the conclusion that Jesus died between 26 to 36 CE. This broad range is based on ‘big pieces’ of information. Tiberius, Pilate, and Caiaphas: everybody in Palestine knew those three names and during what period of time they held their respective offices.
So, in a broad sense, Jesus’ death can be placed between the years 26-36 CE. However, it is fair to say that most scholars have favored a narrower range between these dates. Sanders concludes:
Taking into account Luke’s dating of the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, the period of Pilate’s administration, and the evidence derived from the chronology of Paul, most scholars are content to say that Jesus was executed sometime between 29 and 33 CE.
With the cumulative analysis discussed above, the “broad range” of Jesus’ chronology may be calculated as follows:
|7-4 BCE — 6-7 CE
|Jesus is born
|Jesus begins his ministry
|Jesus is crucified
Table 2. Broad Chronology of Jesus
From this wider estimate, scholars have tended to favor a more “narrow range” of chronology with the following years:
|4 BCE – 7 CE
|Jesus is born
|Jesus begins his ministry
|30 CE – 33 CE
|Jesus is crucified
Table 3. Narrow Chronology of Jesus
In contrast, with Tiberius we have reliable historical sources that furnish not only accurate years, but even specific days! In fact, the amount of information we can know about, such as when Tiberius assumed specific offices, visited various provinces, and other precise details, is so abundant that we had to cut out a lot of material from his chronology. It should also be noted that, unlike in the case for Jesus, there is no serious scholarly dispute about these dates, making them even more authoritative. Here is a greatly abridged chronology taken from Robin Seager’s Tiberius.
|November 16th, 42 BCE
|Tiberius is born
|The infant Tiberius escapes the siege of Perusia
|Tiberius’ father dies
|Tiberius assumes the toga virilis
|Tiberius marries Vipsania
|Tiberius divorces Vipsania
|Tiberius marries Julia
|6 BCE – 2 CE
|Tiberius’ retirement at Rhodes
|Tiberius is adopted by Augustus
|September 17, 14 CE
|Tiberius assumes the principate
|Death of Tiberius’ nephew and heir Germanicus
|Death of Tiberius’ son Drusus
|Tiberius retires to Capri
|Death of Tiberius’ mother Livia
|October 18th, 31 CE
|Tiberius executes his praetorian prefect Sejanus
|March 16th, 37 CE
Table 4. Chronology of Tiberius
The contrast between these charts is drastic. For Jesus the few events we can even plot require broad date ranges, whereas for Tiberius we have not only a reliable year-by-year breakdown but even specific dates. Tiberius’ whole life is well documented in ancient sources and accessible chronologically, whereas Jesus’ is buried in obscurity. The charts above speak for themselves on just how much more we know about Tiberius than Jesus.
(10) At the End of the Day, Whom Do We Know More About?
In spinning their 43:10 source ratio, Geisler and Turek probably did not realize what a wasp’s hive they had stumbled upon. Their argument raised an important question: how much can we historically know about Jesus versus well-known figures from antiquity?
Upon investigation of Geisler’s and Turek’s source—Licona’s 42:10 ratio—it is clear that Licona strained the number of authors who allegedly wrote about Jesus, including dubious references, such as Suetonius, and authors who make no direct reference to Jesus, such as Thallus. Licona missed at least 39 narrative accounts that mention Tiberius within 150 years of his life. When you re-crunch the numbers for Tiberius, the ratio of sources for Tiberius versus Jesus comes out to 49:43. Furthermore, the flawed statistic had to stretch out the date range to an extreme 150 years in order to skew the numbers in favor of late Christian authors. When analyzing contemporary sources during Tiberius and Jesus’ own lifetime, 14 sources document Tiberius and a whopping 0 account for Jesus.
The total score card for the evidence for the historicity of Jesus compared to the evidence for the historicity of Tiberius is summarized below.
|Type of Evidence
|Literary Sources Within Actual Lifetime
|Literary Sources Within 25 Years
|Literary Sources within 150 Years
|Unique Archaeological Sites
|Major Life Events Recorded in Chronology
|at least 16
|at best 3
We reiterate that the paucity of sources does not necessarily imply Jesus’ non-existence. Tons of real, anonymous people lived in antiquity who receive no source attestation and are historically lost. Nevertheless, the scarcity of early, reliable sources for Jesus does make the details of his life obscure, embellished, and irretrievable to history. The Jesus that people believe in today, pray to, and discuss in church is a later theological fabrication, hopelessly divorced from the distant, ambiguous historical Jesus of the past.
Arguing, as Geisler and Turek did, that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is better than the evidence for the historicity of an established historical figure such as the emperor Tiberius is a catastrophically absurd comparison. Tiberius is attested by a mountain of evidence: multiple contemporary literary sources, countless inscriptions, dozens of papyri that date to his reign, coins bearing his face scattered throughout the Mediterranean, archeological remains, statues modeled during his lifetime, and a retrievable chronology that can document important events in nearly every year of his life. We are sure that many of our readers after reading this chapter have probably learned way more about the emperor Tiberius than they ever knew before! The mountain of evidence for Tiberius eclipses the small anthill for Jesus’ resurrection by a ratio that is beyond quantifying in a trivial, over-simplified slogan of the sort that apologists like Geisler and Turek are fond of.
Apologetic arguments of this sort often remind us of a tabloid newspaper described in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead:
The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers’ brain power. Its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and oversimplified text hit the senses and entered men’s consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion.
The rhetorical games that apologists likewise spin in an effort to buttress belief in their religion are no different. Apologists like Geisler and Turek tout how ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian,’ but then throw out oversimplified lines like the 43:10 source ratio. When analyzed, however, this claim (about ancient history) is no more reliable than the 9/11 conspiracy theories are (in the field of structural engineering) or monster questing is (in biology). People are free to believe Jesus rose from the on the basis of faith, but pretending that this faith is rooted in historical evidence superior to that of the historicity of Tiberius is yet another instance of what I (Lowder) called “obnoxious apologetics” in the introduction of this rebuttal.
One final point: in response to one of the authors (Ferguson), Licona graciously and publicly admitted in 2013 that the 42:10 source ratio is false. Geisler and Turek should do the same.
Regarding (b) the historicity of Jesus, while the previous section should make it clear that we dispute various parts of Geisler’s and Turek’s extra-Biblical case for the historicity of Jesus, we are going to let that pass. We join Geisler and Turek in affirming the historicity of Jesus, i.e., that Jesus actually existed.
Regarding (c) the consistency of extra-Biblical sources with the NT’s chronology, this point is multiply flawed. First, it seems rather one-sided to argue that extra-Biblical agreements with the specific parts of the NT’s chronology is evidence favoring the NT’s chronology and not consider whether various extra-Biblical disagreements with (and silences about) other parts of the NT’s chronology is evidence againstthose parts. Consider, for example, the various purported references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud. The Baraitha contains a passage which describes hanging ‘Yeshu’ on the eve of Passover.
On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover. (italics ours)
If this passage refers to Jesus, it contradicts the NT. Not only does it describe Yeshu as practicing “sorcery,” but it says Yeshu was hanged, not crucified.
Geisler and Turek also gloss over the silence of extra-Biblical sources regarding various NT claims. For example, extra-Biblical sources are silent regarding the “darkness and earthquake” which allegedly occurred when Jesus is died. This silence is more probable on the hypothesis that the darkness and earthquake never happened than it is on the hypothesis that the darkness and earthquake happened but no extra-Biblical sources mentioned it.
Another example would be the silence of non-Christian writers concerning both alleged sightings of Jesus alive again after his death, as well as Christian claims of such sightings. The fact that non-Christian writers are silent on both points is more probable on the hypothesis that Jesus was never seen alive after his death than it is on the assumption that Jesus was seen alive after his death.
In short, Geisler and Turek have, once again, created the appearance of an overwhelming case for their position (in this case, the historical accuracy of the NT’s chronology of Jesus) only by understating the evidence. Once that evidence is fully stated, however, it’s far from obvious it confirms the most important parts of the NT stories about Jesus.
A second problem with Geisler’s and Turek’s appeal to the “consistency” of extra-Biblical sources with the New Testament is this. Geisler and Turek assume are silent about the accuracy and independence of extra-Biblical sources. Everything else held equal, if an extra- Biblical source is often inaccurate, the fact that such a source is ‘consistent’ with the NT isn’t a strong point in favor of the NT’s historicity. Similarly, even if an extra-Biblical source is often accurate, if that source is secondhand, dependent upon one or more of the NT documents, that weakens, if not nullifies, whatever value the extra- Biblical source might have had as independent confirmation of the NT.
Finally, regarding (d) that non-Christian sources report that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, we agree with Geisler and Turek.
 Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 128. In the body of the text, we refer to Licona only, since Licona claims that Habermas was not responsible for the part of that book which mentions the 42:10 ratio.
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 Matthew Wade Ferguson, “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”
 See NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (###: HarperOne, 2011).
 See Ehrman’s article “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”,
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 For more information about how there is no outside corroboration of the darkness at Jesus’ execution, despite being an even that would have been documented worldwide, here is a valuable article from ancient historian Richard Carrier:
 Barbara Levick, Claudius (Yale University Press, 1993), 122.
 See Richard Carrier’s “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200” (Journal of Early Christian Studies, v. 20, 2012).
 I (Lowder) defend the partial authenticity of the passage in my chapter “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable?” The Jury Is In: The Ruling on McDowell’s Evidence (May 15, 2000), https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff-lowder-jury-chap5/.
 Habermas and Licona 2004, 233.
 L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (4th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 80.
 Reynolds and Wilson, 48.
 E.g., Ryan Turner, “Did Jesus Ever Exist?” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (https://carm.org/jesus-exist), n.d.
 Victor Erenberg, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
 E.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_Oxyrhynchus_240.
 E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 87.
 Sanders 1995, 88.
 Sanders 1995, 11.
 Sanders 1995, 282.
 Sanders 1995, 54.
 Sanders 1995, 283.
 Robin Seager, Tiberius (2nd ed., New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), xiii-xvi.