Historical references to Jesus outside the gospels

Question 131, from Geraint, United Kingdom

What historical accounts exist of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, outside of Christian writings?

The simple answer to this question is ‘not many’. In fact, the first definite references to Jesus Christ are made in connection with his followers, and are usually negative.

The Jewish historian Josephus made probably the first recorded reference to Jesus in the book Antiquities of the Jews. In Book 20 of Antiquities, he relates the story of the martyrdom of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. From the historical context given by Josephus, it can be deduced that James’ martyrdom took place in about 62AD. (James was the leader of the Jerusalem church after Peter fled following his dramatic exit from prison in Acts chapter 12, verses 1-19. James is the only leader of the Jerusalem church named in Acts chapter 21, verse 18.)

There has been some dispute over whether the phrase ‘who was called Christ’ was added into Josephus’ work at a later date. It certainly seems odd that a Jewish historian would use the Greek word for Messiah. It may be a simple factual reference to some people hailing Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, or it could have a slightly deeper meaning.

Josephus had ‘swapped sides’ at some point before he wrote this, having been captured by the Romans, and now saw himself as a Roman. It may be that his reference to Jesus as a messiah, indicates his own loss of faith in the Jewish idea of a coming saviour. Josephus may be referring to Jesus as the Christ/Messiah to indicate that the hope for a messiah had been fulfilled, but had, in his opinion, failed.

A ‘fold in the Bible’

Question 130, from Bob, USA

I have heard the saying a “fold in the bible” or something similar. What does that mean?

This seems to be an obscure phrase, and without knowing what context it was used in, it’s hard to know what the person who said it meant.

Three possible meanings come to mind. Firstly, the actual word ‘fold’, which is a name for a rudimentary shelter for smaller livestock (often referred to as a sheep-fold). The ‘fold’, or sheep-pen, is also used by Jesus as a metaphor for the believing community in John chapter 10, where the sheep/believers shelter in the fold, while the ‘good shepherd’ fights to protect them and sacrifices his own life in the process (chapter 10, verse 11).

Jesus also claims to have sheep ‘that are not of this fold’ (chapter 10, verse16), which has been used to justify an inclusivist, or pluralist, attitude towards adherents of other religions. However, (more…)

Worship, spirit and truth

Question 129 from Annmarie, Ireland
Would you please give me your understanding of what it means to ‘worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ as mentioned in John chapter 4 verses 21-24?

The context of this statement attributed to Jesus is a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who raises the question of whom is correct in their worship – the Jews who worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem, or the Samaritans who worship God on Mount Gerizim. Jesus replies by saying a time is coming when “true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.”

There are a number of different reasons why the author of John’s gospel records this saying. The author is very fond of words like ‘light’, ‘truth’ and so on and this is why some people see ‘gnostic’ tendencies in John’s gospel. This saying of Jesus is one of many which lets a person, including the reader, in on a ‘secret truth’, or to put it another way, offers them a revelation that not many other people know.

It is generally agreed that John’s gospel was probably the last of the four gospels to be written, at a time when the early Christian church was (more…)