Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?

By G. R. S. Mead

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THOSE who are familiar with the history of the innumerable controversies which have raged round the question of Christian origins, are aware that some of the disputants, appalled by the mass of mythic and mystic elements in the Gospel narratives, and dismayed at the contradictions in. the apparently most simple data furnished by the evangelists, have not only not hesitated to reject the whole account as devoid of the slightest historical value, but have even gone so far as to deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed.[1] Most of these writers had presumably devoted much labour and thought to the subject before they reached a so startling conclusion; but I am inclined to think that their minds were of such a type that, even had they found less contradiction in the purely objective data of the Gospel documents, they would probably have still held the same opinion. Not only was their historic sense so distressed by the vast objective element with which it was confronted such 

[1] See, for instance, Ganeval (L.), "Jésus devant L’Histoire n'a jamais Vécu: Reponse d'un Libre Penseur a M. 1'Abbé Loyson "(Geneva; pt. i., 1874, pt. ii., 1875). There is also a pt. iii., but of this I have not been able to procure a copy. 


that it could find relief only in the most strenuous efforts to reduce the historic validity of the residue to zero, but it found itself strongly confirmed in this determination by the fact that it could discover no scrap of unassailable external evidence, either in presumed contemporary literature, or even in the literature of the next two generations, whereby not merely the soberest incidents recounted by the Gospel writers, but even the very existence of Jesus, could be substantiated. 

Though this extreme view, that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, has perhaps to-day fewer adherents than it had some twenty years ago, the numbers of those who hold that the ideal picture of Jesus painted by the Gospel writers bears but a remote resemblance to its historical original, not only as to the doings, but also to a lesser extent as to the sayings, have increased so enormously that they can no longer be classed merely as a school, but must rather be considered as expressing a vast volume of educated opinion strongly influencing the thought of the times. 

True, there is still a wide divergence of opinion on innumerable other points which are continually issuing into greater and greater prominence as the evolution of criticism proceeds. There is, however, no longer any necessity for the unfortunate student to make up his mind between what appeared to be the devil of undisguised antagonism on the one side and the deep sea of inerrant orthodox traditionalism on the other. 

The problem is far more complex, far more subtle, and far greater numbers are interested in it. Whereas in the old days a mere handful, comparatively, had the 


hardihood to venture between the seeming devil and the deep, to-day not only every theological student, but every intelligent enquirer, is forced to seek his information in the most recent books of reference available—books in which he finds that not only are innumerable questions raised on all sides concerning matters which were previously regarded as settled for all time, but also that opposing views are frankly and freely discussed.

The devil and the deep have almost faded away, and none but minds strongly prejudiced by anachronistic methods of training can discern the ancient crudity of their lineaments with any great distinctness. Concessions have been made on all sides; there is a studied moderation of language and a courtesy in treating the views of opponents which remove controversy from the cockpit of theological invective into the serener air of impersonal debate. 

But how fares it with the thoughtful layman who is not sufficiently skilled in scholarly fence to appreciate the niceties of the sword-play of those who are presumably on either side seeking indirectly to win his applause?  He is naturally exceedingly confused amid all the detail, and for the most part presumably applauds the view which best suits his preconceptions. But this much he gleans on all sides—a general impression that the ancient tyranny of an inerrant traditionalism is on its death-bed; he is assured that many of its bonds have been already struck from his limbs, and he lives in hope that before long he will be entirely free to try to realise what the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth may mean.


If he take up such recent works as the "Dictionary of the Bible," the "Encyclopaedia Biblica," and the "Jewish Encyclopaedia," he finds that, although in Old Testament subjects tradition has to all intents and purposes been practically almost abandoned by all scholars, in the treatment of New Covenant documents his authorities in the two former works still display a marked difference. The tendency of the contributors to the first above-mentioned work is still on fundamental points, as might very well be expected, conservative and largely apologetic of tradition (though by no means so aggressively so as has been the case in the past), while that of the essayists of the second is emphatically advanced, that is to say, departs widely from tradition, and in most cases breaks with it so entirely that even a reader who has not the slightest theological timidity is surprised at their hardihood. 

The non-specialist is thus for the first time enabled to hear both sides distinctly on all points, and so to gain an intimate acquaintance with the arguments for and against traditionalism. And though he may not be able positively to decide on any special view as to details, or even as to the main fundamental points, he cannot fail to be vastly instructed and greatly relieved. For whatever may be the exact truth of the matter, this much he learns from the general tone of all the writers, that he is no longer thought to be in danger of losing his immortal soul if he find it impossible to believe in the inerrancy of tradition. 

It results, then, that the ordinary reader is left without any certain guide in these matters; the old style of Bible repository which told you exactly what to 


believe, and whose end was edification, is entirely foreign to the spirit of our latest books of reference. But though the reader is left without a guide (if external authority selected to suit a pre-conceived view can ever be a truly spiritual guide), he is inevitably thrown back on himself and made to think, and that is the beginning of a new era in general Christian instruction. 

Such, then, is the general state of affairs brought about by the pronouncements of the occupants of the principal teaching chairs in Protestant Christendom; and it is very evident that among their manifold pronouncements a man can find learned authority for almost any view he may choose to hold. He may, for instance, so select his authorities that he can arrive at the general conclusion that there is not a single document in the New Testament collection which is genuine in the old sense of the word; he may even go further and refuse to be tied down to any particular "source” as genuine, seeing that there is such a diversity of opinion as to what are the precise sources. But if, while taking this critical attitude with regard to the canonical contents of Christian tradition, he would adopt a positive view on a point entirely negatived by that tradition, to retain his consistency he is bound to try to discover some strong ground for so doing. Now, if we search the two great works to which we have referred for any authority in support of the hypothesis of the 100 years B.C. date of Jesus, we shall find none. Indeed, we cannot find even a reference to the subject. Moreover, in the very few encyclopaedias of earlier date which make reference to the Talmud 


Jeschu stories, we shall find that no Christian scholar has even dreamed of entertaining the possibility of such a hypothesis. In the older books of reference this universal abiding by tradition was to be expected, but in the most recent works, where tradition is so often set at naught and the most out-of-the-way material sifted for the smallest scrap of usable evidence, it seems at first sight somewhat strange, not only that there is no one courageous enough to suggest the possibility of there being some small grain of probability at the bottom of some of the Jewish legends, but that there is no notice whatever taken of them by any writer. It would appear that they are regarded either as being of a so utterly apocryphal nature as to deserve no mention, or as falling outside the scope of the undertaking. 

But before we abandon our two dictionaries and search elsewhere, let us see what conclusions our most recent authorities come to concerning the traditional chronological data supplied by the evangelists.

As is well known, or ought to be known, it is to Dionysius Exiguus, who flourished in the sixth century, that we owe the custom of dating events from the supposed year of the birth of Jesus. Dionysius based himself on an artificial period which he borrowed from Victorius of Aquitaine, who flourished about a century before himself, and who is said to have been its inventor. It is hardly necessary to add that there is no scholar of repute nowadays who accepts the A.D. of Dionysius as coincident with the first year of the life of Jesus. 

Turner, of Oxford, in his article on the "Chronology of the New Testament," in Hastings' "Dictionary of the 


Bible," sums up his conclusions somewhat positively as follows: 

" The Nativity in B.C. 7-6. 
" The age of our Lord at the Baptism, thirty years more or less. 
" The Baptism in A.D. 26 (26-27). 
" The duration of the ministry between two or three years. 
" The Crucifixion in A.D. 29." 

In the "Encyclopaedia Biblica," von Soden of Berlin, under "Chronology," reaches the somewhat less positive results: 

" Birth of Jesus—circa 4 B.C.?
" Beginning of public work—circa 28-29 A.D. 
" Death of Jesus—30 A.D." 

Von Soden assigns one year only to the ministry. 

The variations, however, are so inconsiderable that these scholars may be said to be fairly agreed on the method of treating the traditional data. They both abandon the statement in the third Gospel that Jesus was born at the time of the general census under Cyrenius (Publ. Sulpicius Quirinius), which is well attested by Josephus as having taken place 6-7 A.D. Von Soden, like so many other scholars, is of opinion that "the account in Lk. rests on a series of mistakes" Usener of Bonn, in his article on the "Nativity" ("Enc. Bib"), in discussing these "chronological difficulties which learned subtlety has struggled with for centuries," also definitely abandons the Quirinius date. Turner, however, while stating that "St. Luke is in error in the name of Quirinius," thinks that there is "no inherent improbability in the hypothesis of a census in Judea 


somewhere within the years B.C. 8-5."  He seems in this census question faintly to endorse Ramsay, who— in his study, "Was Christ born at Bethlehem?" (London; 1898)—put forward a thorough-going apology for this statement of the third evangelist, which has been welcomed with great delight by traditionalists. Turner mentions the hypothesis that the missing name in a mutilated inscription which records that someone was twice, governor of Syria, was that of Quirinius, and that there was another census during his first term of office. Unfortunately even so this would not help us, for, as he points out, the period B.C. 10 to Herod's death, B.C. 4 (which is our limit for the reconciliation of the Herod date of the first evangelist with the Quirinius date of the third), is exhausted by the known tenures of other governors. Moreover, Ramsay's thesis has been well answered by J. Thomas in his exhaustive reply, "Records of the Nativity" (London; 1900). 

But all this is practically a side issue as compared with the strength of the main tradition, for the question of the nativity concerns the problem of the historicity of the single traditions only of the first and third Gospel writers. Either or both may be in error, and even the John the Baptist element may be a later development, and yet the fundamental chronological element of the main tradition would be entirely unaffected. 

All four evangelists make the drama of the trial and death of Jesus take place under the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate (26-36 A.D.). This is the main chronological factor in the whole of the puzzling details; and no matter how far we may succeed in any attempt at 


reducing it to its simplest terms, it remains the crux of the whole problem. 

But before considering the statements of the Gospel writers, it will be as well to deal with the other references to Pilate in the New Covenant documents. These are Acts iii. 13, and iv. 27, and I Timothy vi. 13. 

The references in Acts are found in a speech put into the mouth of Peter and in a prayer (in the same style as the speeches) which is said to have been uttered with a common impulse by the friends of the apostles. 

Now, in the judgment of many scholars, one of the most certain results of criticism with regard to the Acts, is that the speeches are the most artificial element in the book. As Schmiedel says (art. "Acts of the Apostles," "Enc. Bib."): "It is without doubt that the author constructed them in each case according to his own conception of the situation." Even Headlam, the writer of the conservative article in Hastings' "Dictionary," admits that the speeches are "clearly in a sense" the author's "own compositions," though he adds "there is no reason for thinking a priori that the speeches [? substance of the speeches] cannot be historical." 

It is then exceedingly probable that the references to Pilate derive immediately from the writer of the Acts himself. And as the writer of the Acts is, on the ground of similarity of language, identified by most scholars with the writer of the third Gospel, the authority for his references to Pilate in all likelihood go back to his "sources." There are few who would be bold enough to argue for the preservation of an earlier tradition in the Acts than in. the sources of the writer of the third Gospel


The references in the Acts, therefore, will not be held by the ordinary critical, much less by the sceptical, mind to be an independent confirmation of the Gospel tradition with regard to Pilate. 

As to the reference in 1 Timothy, its value as an unimpeachable early witness is at once discounted by the general character of the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 . Timothy and Titus). 

McClymont of Aberdeen, the conservative writer of the article "The New Testament," in Hastings' "Dictionary," frankly states that these so-called Pastoral Letters "are distinguished from all others by their want of historical agreement with any period in St. Paul's life as recorded in the Bk. of Acts, and also by their strongly-marked individuality alike in style and substance"—circumstances which "have given rise to serious doubt of their genuineness." This, however, he thinks may be "largely obviated" by supposing them to have been written in the last year of the apostle's life. But though this supposition may overcome the Acts difficulty, it does not in the slightest way affect the main argument of difference of style and substance. 

Deissmann of Heidelberg, in the "Encyclopaedia Biblica" (art. "Epistolary Literature"), while he has no doubts as to the genuineness of ten of the Pauline Letters, with regard to the Pastoral Epistles can only allow at best that they "may perhaps contain fragments from genuine letters of Paul." 

Very different is the view, in the same work, of van Manen of Leyden, the distinguished Dutch specialist, to whom the summary of the "Later Criticism "in the 


article "Paul" has been entrusted. Van Manen emphatically repudiates the genuineness not only of the Pastoral but of the whole of the rest of the Letters traditionally ascribed to Paul. Though the rest of the Letters do not immediately concern us in this study, it may be of interest very briefly to set down the general result of this later criticism; for it is not the opinion of an isolated scholar, but the outcome of the studies of a school. I do this the more readily because it conflicts with my own previously expressed view that the ten Letters of the Marcionite collection were largely authentic. Van Manen writes: 

"With respect to the canonical Pauline Epistles, the later criticism here under consideration has learned to recognise that they are none of them by Paul; neither fourteen, nor thirteen, nor nine or ten, nor seven or eight, nor yet even the four so long 'universally' regarded as unassailable." 

This criticism "is unable any longer in all simplicity to hold by the canonical Acts and epistles, or even to the epistles solely, or yet to a selection of them. The conclusion it has to reckon with is this: (a) That we possess no epistles of Paul; that the writings which bear his name are pseudepigrapha containing seemingly historical data from the life and labours of the apostle, which nevertheless must not be accepted as correct without closer examination, and are probably, at least for the most part, borrowed from 'Acts of Paul' which also underlie our canonical book of Acts, (b) Still less does the Acts of the Apostles give us, however incompletely, an absolutely historical narrative of Paul's career; what it gives is a variety of narratives con- 


cerning him, differing in their dates and also in respect of the influences under which they were written. Historical criticism must, as far as lies in its power, learn to estimate the value of what has come down to us through both channels, Acts and epistles, to compare them, to arrange them and bring them into consistent and orderly connection." 

That it will ever be able, on van Manen's lines, to bring these contradictory data into "consistent and orderly connection," we have but little hope; for once the comparative genuineness of the main Pauline Letters is given up, there is no possible criterion left. However, the courageous attempt uncompromisingly to face the difficulties is the earnest of the dawn of a new age in Christian thought, and we ourselves ask for nothing better than that the facts should be faced. 

It results then from this view (again to quote van Manen) that "the Paulinism of the lost Acts of Paul and of our best authority for that way of thinking, our canonical epistles of Paul, is not the ' theology,' the 'system' of the historical Paul, although it ultimately came to be, and in most quarters still is, identified with it. It is the later development of a school, or, if the expression is preferred, of a circle, of progressive believers who named themselves after Paul and placed themselves as it were under his aegis.”

Where this circle must be looked for geographically cannot be said with any certainty. This much, however, is evident, that "it was an environment where no obstruction was in the first instance encountered from the Jews or, perhaps still worse, from the 


'disciples' too closely resembling them; where men as friends of gnosis, of speculation and of mysticism, probably under the influence of Greek and, more especially, Alexandrian philosophy, had learned to cease to regard themselves as bound by tradition, and felt themselves free to extend their flight in every direction. To avail ourselves of a somewhat later expression: it was among the heretics. The epistles first came to be placed on the list among the Gnostics. The oldest witnesses to their existence, as Meyer and other critics with a somewhat wonderful unanimity have been declaring for more than half a century, are Basilides, Valentinus, Heracleon. Marcion is the first in whom, as we learn from Tertullian, traces are to be found of an authoritative group of epistles of Paul. Tertullian still calls him the 'apostle of heretics' and (addressing Marcion) 'your apostle.'" 

This latter view is confirmatory of our own contention with regard to the important part played by the Gnostics in the development of general Christian doctrine, and we are pleased to notice the phrase "to avail ourselves of a somewhat later expression: it was among the heretics." 

But to return to our reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy. We see that there is no reason why we should assign an early date to this Letter, and every reason why we should hesitate to do so. Marcion (about 140 A.D.) says nothing about it; it was not in his Pauline canon. That is of course negative evidence, but of positive we have none. It may very well have existed, indeed most probably did exist, in Marcion's day, for his collection 


had to satisfy a doctrinal and not a historic test. Van Manen does not attempt to suggest dates for any of the individual Epistles, though he seems to date his "circle" about 120; he, moreover, assigns 130-150 to the Acts, a date which agrees with our own conclusions. For if, as we conclude, the third Gospel was written about 125-130, and if the same hand, as many hold, also wrote the Acts, 130-150 may very well represent the termini of the date of that document's autograph. It is, however, to be remembered that Justin Martyr (c. 150) knows nothing of the Acts even when referring to Simon Magus, a reference which he could not have omitted had he known of it, and one which all subsequent heresiologists triumphantly set in the forefront of their "refutations" of that famous heretic; and that there is no clear quotation from the Acts known till 177 A.D. 

In any case the reference in 1 Timothy cannot very well be held to be a less assailable witness to the antiquity of the Pilate tradition, we will not say than the writer of the third Gospel, but than the author of his main "source." 

The strongest current of the tradition is traced in the fact that the Pilate date is given confidently by all four evangelists. It matters little whether we place the date of the autograph of the fourth Gospel later than those of the synoptic writers, and assume that the writer of the former had the letter of the latter before him, or prefer to think that he had independent access to the same main sources. In either case his authority, as far as Pilate is concerned, will not presumably be held to rest on firmer ground than that of the author of the 


"common document," or "common material," or whatever we may call it, of the synoptic tradition.[1] 

The widely-held view of the priority of Mark, or of "original Mark," labours under so many disadvantages that with many others I prefer the simpler hypothesis of a written source (distinct from our present Mark or its autograph) underlying the matter common to all three synoptics, the simplest form of which, however, is still preserved in canonical Mark. It is almost as certain as anything can be in all this uncertainty that Pilate was distinctly named in the form of this document which all three evangelists used, and which the fourth Gospel writer also knew either directly or by intermediary of the writings of his contemporaries, for I do not hold that they were necessarily his predecessors. But what is most striking is the abrupt and unsupported way in which the name of Pilate was apparently introduced in the "common document." It is true that the writer, or maybe an early editor, of the first Gospel seems to have felt compelled slightly to lessen this abruptness by adding "the governor "after the name Pilate, and that the writer of the fourth speaks first of the "government house." But the Mark and Luke documents make it appear that the common source they used was either setting forth some statement that was well known to all, or that it had already made fuller reference to Pilate, perhaps in its opening 

[1] See my recent work," The Gospels and the Gospel: A Study in the most recent Results of the Lower and the Higher Criticism" (London, 1902), in which. I conclude for about 120-130 A.D. as the most probable date for the form in which we now have them. 


sentences. And this later hypothesis I find would be the opinion of van Manen, who, in his article on "Old Christian Literature," writes: 

"The gospels, on close comparison, point us back to an 'oldest' written gospel which unfortunately does not exist for us except in so far as we can recover traces of it preserved in later recensions. Perhaps it began somewhat as follows: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, .... there came down to Capernaum .... Jesus . . . ." 

It is to be remarked, however, that Marcion's gospel apparently did not contain this introduction, but began abruptly "He came down to Capernaum." Whether or no Marcion had direct access to the "common document" used by our synoptists it is impossible to say; but I am somewhat inclined to think that that document originally derived from a "Gnostic" environment, and if we had any information concerning the "traditions of Matthias," the penultimate link between Basilido-Valentinian circles and the origins, we should probably be put on the track of the parentage of our common synoptic source. 

It is from considerations of this nature that I have not insisted upon the otherwise apparently equally strong confirmation of the date of Jesus in the fact that all four evangelists emphatically assert that He was a contemporary of John the Baptist, whose existence is historically vouched for by Josephus ("Antiqq.," xviii. v. 2); it might be said that John was not mentioned in this "oldest" written Gospel, and that the omission by the earlier writers of a factor 


which has been made so much of by all the later Gospel writers argues that it was not known in his day. My main interest has been to select the strongest link in the chain of tradition, namely the Pilate date. 

We have thus traced our Pilate tradition to the "common document" used by the synoptic evangelists. Beyond that we cannot go with any certainty; the rest is pure speculation, in the absence of objective data of any kind. We cannot date the autograph of the common document; we do not know whether it passed through any recensions before it reached the hands of the canonical evangelists; we do not know whether it was originally written in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic; we do not know whether the synoptists worked on the copy of an original, or on a translation, or made their own translations; we do not know what other contemporary documents were in existence, though it is quite certain, according to the statement of the writer of the third Gospel, that there were "many" others. 

Now it is to be noticed that the writer of the "common document," as seen in the simplest form preserved by Mark, puts all the blame of Jesus' condemnation on the chief priests and says very little about Pilate. This is remarkable, for we know the bitter hatred of the Jews for the Romans, and, what is still more to the point, we know from Josephus that the memory of Pilate especially was most bitterly detested by the Jews. 

On the other hand, in those days of political suspicion owing to the many revolutionary cabals among the Jews, it was exceedingly dangerous for a Jewish writer, or for those generally identified with the



Jews, as the Christians still were, to speak against the Imperial rulers or their officers, and it was the custom of the writers of the very numerous politico-religious writings of the time, of which we have examples in the still extant specimens of pseudepigraphic and apocalyptic literature, to disguise the real objects of their detestation by throwing their matter into prophetical form, where the present or immediate past was written of-as-yet to come, and where the names of the actual persons were altered or hidden under symbol and metaphor. 

The direct mention of the name of Pilate in the "common document," then, seems to point to another order of literature; and it may be hazarded that perhaps it may even have been partially encouraged by the imperial favour so recently bestowed on Josephus' "History of the Jewish War." But whatever validity there may be in such a speculation, the practical exculpation of Pilate seems to point to a time when Christianity was seeking to dissociate itself from Jewry in the eyes of the Roman world. Can we in any way fix a probable date for this state of affairs? It is very difficult to do so, but termini may be suggested. We glean from an analysis of history that up to at least the end of the first century the Christians were indiscriminately classed with the Jews by the authorities. The Jews were the objects of frequent repression and persecution at the hands of the Roman magistracy; but not on religious grounds. They were regarded as political revolutionaries. The antagonism between Jewish Christians and Jews is said by some learned Talmudists to have developed acutely only in Trajan's 


reign (A.D. 98-117),[1] but the entire separation probably did not take place till Hadrian's (A.D. 117-138). In this they base themselves on Talmudic data. But how many years elapsed before the antagonism reached this acute stage? We cannot say; but we may with very great confidence fix the very latest limit for our common document in the first years of the second century. For our earliest limit, however, we have nothing to help us, except the consideration that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was a crushing blow to the hopes of those who looked for a material fulfilment of Messianic prophecy, and the very thing to strengthen the position of those who took a more spiritual view of Messianism, as was the case in the inner communities, and who were more content to bow to the inevitable and therefore to reconcile themselves with the rulers. 

But even if we were to assume the higher limit of our common document as about 75 A.D., at this comparatively early date, whatever may have been the rights of the dispute as to who was the more to blame for it, the death of Jesus under Pilate was a bald fact that could presumably have been most readily verified; if it were untrue, it is most difficult to believe that it could have got a footing for a moment even among the most credulous. The bitter opponents of the Christians among the Jews would have at once retorted: Why, there was no such trial under Pilate at all! 

[1] See Joël (M.), "Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte zu Anfang des zweiten christlichen Jakrhunderts " (Breslau; 1880), i. 14-41, and ii. 87 ff.; see also Graetz (H. H.), "Geschichte der Juden" (Leipzig; 1865, 2nd. ed.), iv. 90 ff. 


On the other hand, the name of Pilate may have been inserted in some intermediate redaction of the "common document" before it reached the hands of the evangelists; with the lapse of time, and the destruction of records, and the development of Christianity outside Palestine among the Dispersion, the difficulty of verification would thus be greatly increased. It might be even that the document originally simply stated that Jesus was brought before the "Governor," and the name of Pilate was subsequently added in a desire for greater precision, in the "haggadic" fashion of the time. 

Whatever may be the truth of the matter, the Pilate date has every appearance of being as strong an historical element as any other in the whole tradition. It bears on its face the appearance of a most candid statement, and the introduction of the name, had there been no warrant for it, argues such a lack of what we to-day consider historical morality, that it is without parallel except in the pseudepigraphic and apocalyptic literature of the period.

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