In an effort to provide evidence for the historical Jesus, many apologists rightly go for extra-biblical sources to make their case. However, it’s also very easy to overstate the evidence. Personally, I think there are some really good extra-biblical references to Jesus (like Josephus and Tacitus), but I also think there are some questionable ones too!
There are two extra-biblical references to Jesus that I no longer use when discussing the historical Jesus. I am sure many will disagree with me on these and still view them as stronger evidence than I do. The two sources are Thallus and Phlegon.
(1) Thallus (52 AD)
Thallus was a Greek historian in the first century. Previously, I would cite Thallus as a source for the historical Jesus. Here is the reference:
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” (Julius Africanus, Chronography 18:1)
So what is the best case scenario for this quotation? Even if this is a reliable source, Thallus doesn’t seem to specifically mention Jesus as a historical person. In fact, all this would provide evidence for is a secondary detail in the Gospels concerning Jesus’ crucifixion: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45).
Unfortunately, the best case scenario doesn’t apply. In my opinion, this source doesn’t pass the test of transmission. Thallus’ original work was lost. All we have is the Christian historian, Julius Africanus (160-240 AD), referencing Thallus’ lost work. The section of Africanus’ text in question was preserved by George Syncellus, a monk in the 9th century. In other words, it’s earliest manuscript copy is several centuries after the death of Jesus!
In addition to failing the test of transmission, we still don’t know the original context of Thallus’ quotation. Did he have any knowledge of the Jesus tradition? Did he actually see the eclipse, or was he citing someone else who did? We simply don’t know.
In summary, Thallus isn’t good evidence for the historical Jesus for three reasons: (1) Thallus doesn’t seem to specifically mention Jesus; (2) Thallus’ original quote is lost; and (3) the context of Thallus’ quote is unknown.
(2) Phlegon (100s AD)
According to Africanus, Phlegon also spoke of an eclipse (Chronography 18:1). Origen, in his work Against Celsus (248 AD), confirms this same thing:
“And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicle” (Origen, Against Celsus 2:33).
What makes Phlegon different from Thallus is that we might have Phlegon’s original wording. An early church historian named Eusebius (263-339 AD) wrote a historical work called Chronicle. This original was lost but was preserved in later works including Jerome’s Latin translation (380 AD). Here is the supposed quote by Phlegon:
“Indeed Phlegon, who is an excellent calculator of olympiads, also writes about this, in his 13th book writing thus: ‘However in the fourth year of the 202nd olympiad, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea'” (Jerome, Chronicle 202nd Olympiad).
As you can see, Phlegon doesn’t mention Jesus at all! Once again, at best Phlegon confirms a secondary detail in the Gospel accounts. There are two additional places where Origen mentions Phlegon. Here is the first one:
“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.” (Origen, Against Celsus 2:14)
Origen’s text has been preserved for us so this quote passes the test of transmission. We don’t have Phlegon’s original wording or context, however, so we don’t know what he actually said. Origen doesn’t seem to be sure of the reference, and it appears that he didn’t have the source right in front of him. For those reasons, I don’t think this is a good source for the historical Jesus either. But there is one final mention of Phelgon in Origen’s writings:
“…we have in the preceding pages, made our defense, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered. And he goes on to say, that ‘Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails’” (Origen, Against Celsus 2:59).
This is the best source we have looked at so far. We presumably have Phlegon’s original wording preserved by Origen. Phlegon mentions Jesus by name, along with Jesus’ resurrection, resurrection appearances and crucifixion. But I still don’t use this as a evidence for the historical Jesus for two reasons.
- We have better extra-biblical sources for the historical Jesus.
Even if this is Phlegon’s original wording, we don’t know exactly when he said this or the context surrounding the quotation. Also, Origen’s work was written in 248 AD, well after the death of Christ. For comparison, Josephus is one of our best extra-biblical sources for Jesus. He mentions Jesus on more than one occasion, wrote in the first century, and we have good historical support for his writings!
Personally, I’d rather discuss 2 good sources for the historical Jesus than 10 questionable ones. But my second reason for not using Phlegon is far more important.
- We have the four Gospels.
As much as I love discussing the extra-biblical sources for Jesus and think they have much value, I think the Gospels are worth way more! They are the best sources we have for Jesus. We shouldn’t be so willing to throw out the Gospels just because a skeptic seeks to discredit them.
In my opinion, solid extra-biblical sources for Jesus certainly have their place in apologetics, but they are supplemental to the Gospels. When a skeptic discounts the Gospels, we should challenge them on it. After all, the Gospels are inspired by God, not Phlegon!
In conclusion, God could have given us one account of Jesus’ life. Instead, God gave us four! We are truly blessed to be in such a position. I’ll leave you with a quote from Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who also saw the importance of having four Gospels:
“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are…it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:11).