Extrabiblical Witnesses to Jesus before 200 a.d.

--Thallus (c. 50-75ad)

A third-century Christian historian, Julius Africanus, composed a History of the World down to around ad. 220 in five volumes. In one of the surviving fragments, Julius discussed the three-hour darkness which occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus and makes this comment:
In the third book of his history, Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun--wrongly in my opinion. (5.50)

In order to assess the strength of this evidence, I will look at a several issues:


What do we know about this Thallus? We have two possible other extra-Africanus references to him. One, Eusebius tells us that this Thallus wrote in Greek an account of world history from the fall of Troy down to the mid-first century--c.52 CE. Thallus' work is generally believed to have been written in the period 50-100 CE.[Murray Harris, JSOTGP5:344]

Two, Josephus POSSIBLY refers to a certain Thallus as a wealthy Samaritian freedman of Tiberius (d. 37CE) who had lent a million drachmas to the bankrupt Herod Agrippa. (Ant 18.167):

Now there was one Thallus, a freedman of Caesar's of whom he borrowed a million of dracmae, and thence repaid Antonia the debt he owed her; and by spending the overplus in paying his court to Caius, became a person of great authority with him.
If these two are the same Thallus, then it would explain several things for us:
  1. how he had TIME to write a history
  2. how he had ACCESS to records (being a close associate of Tiberias)
  3. how he had KNOWLEDGE of events in Palestine (being a Samaritan)
  4. how he had the financial means to do the heavy travel REQUIRED/EXPECTED to do history in those days (cf. NTLE:81)

In fact, the requirements for writing Hellenistic history (as opposed to Roman history) would necessitate a background like that mentioned by Josephus. So Fornara in NHAGR:49:

Polybius...fairly represents the great tradition of historia. The hallmark of the profession was personal observation (autopsy), inquiry, and travel. Now these conditions excluded all but the members of the highest levels of society. Wealth and social contacts were essential to their craft. The nature of what historians intended to investigate...required mobility, familiarity with the great, and the prestige necessary to ensure the cooperation of strangers.

According to Murray Harris (op. cit.) the identification of these two individuals is favored by E. Schurer, R. Eisler, and M. Goguel. [This identification, however, is not necessary to our argument.]

But Julius himself gives us additional information about Thallus--he is mentioned two other times BEFORE this reference:

And after 70 years of captivity, Cyrus became king of the Persians at the time of the 55th Olympiad, as may be ascertained from the Bibliothecae of Diodorus and the histories of Thallus and Castor, and also from Polybius and Phlegon, and others besides these, who have made the Olympiads a subject of study. (XIII.2)

For these things are also recorded by the Athenian historians Hellanicus and Philochorus, who record Attic affairs; and by Castor and Thallus, who record Syrian affairs; and by Diodorus, who writes a universal history in his Bibliothecae; and by Alexander Polyhistr, and by some of our own time, yet more carefully...(XIII.3)
Whoever this Thallus is, he is in GOOD company as far as historians go! He is included in lists of historians that are considered innovative (e.g. Hellanicus--cf. HAMM:10; Castor--cf. HAMM:59) and the most methodologically scrupulous (e.g. Polybius--cf. BAFCSALS:5-8, most std. works on ancient historiography--HAMM, EAMH). He is linked twice with Castor of Rhodes, who set the format for most of subsequent historical writing--the 'comparative columns' format (adapted by Africanus)--cf. HAMM:59. He is said to have focused on Syrian history (perhaps evidence for a Samaritan background?), and to have been the author of a work on 'historia' (more on this term later).

Whoever he was, our first impulse MUST BE to take Thallus seriously as a historian!

What other data elements do we have? He was obviously of a generation earlier than Julius, judging by the contrast with 'those of our own time'. This, of course, fits well with the dates given above. Eusebius tells us he wrote his history in Greek, and that it was a 'summary' from the Fall of Troy until the 167 Olympiad [Note: the 167 Olympiad fell in the 112-109BC timeframe, so this individual either wrote an addendum to his main work, or Eusebius' date should be amended to 207 (c.50-53ad), as per Harris].

Now, if we look at the quote under discussion in the larger context, some other items are suggested:

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. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth--manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. (XVIII.1)
There are several things to notice from this passage:
  1. The phrase 'this darkness' (touto to skotos) makes it clear that Thallus was attempting to account SPECIFICALLY for the darkness surrounding the crucifixion.

  2. The phrase "let it carry the majority" probably indicates that a 'majority' of historians accounted for it thus, IMPLYING that MANY MORE such explanations were circulating! In other words, the strange darkness was REAL and a topic of scholarly discussion.

  3. The phrase "portent only to the eye" indicates that some argued that it was strictly a mass visual hallucination (but still requiring scholarly explanation).

  4. Another historian Phlegon recorded this event as well, specifying the very HOURS OF THE EVENT! (Phlegon was another freedman of the emperor, who wrote a 14-book history--cf. CAE:118). The wording of Julius' remark here suggests that Phlegon was merely reporting the phenomenon, without referring to Jesus.

  5. The phrase "let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun..." indicates that what is under discussion is NOT the factuality of the event, but the EXPLANATION of it. In other words, Thallus is EXPLAINING the occurrence of the darkness--NOT 'documenting' it (contra G. A. Wells, DJE:13) as was Phlegon.

  6. Harris (op.cit.) points out one of the implications of Julius' word choice here:
    It is clear that Thallus was not merely documenting an eclipse of the sun that took place in the reign of Tiberius, as G.A. Wells alleges....If Africanus were simply questioning the accuracy of Thallus in claiming that an eclipse had occurred at a certain time, he would not have rejected Thallus' view by an expression of opinion--'(wrongly) it seems to me'. What he was rejecting was a naturalistic explanation of the darkness not an alleged occurrence of a solar eclipse. He proceeds to point out that Thallus' explanation was unsatisfactory because an eclipse of the sun is impossible at the time of the full moon.
  7. [One might also notice that Thallus is singled out for Africanus' rebuttal; Phlegon, who seems merely to be chronicling the event, is accosted for INCOMPLETENESS--not inaccuracy, even though Thallus and Phlegon are BOTH said to be talking about an 'eclipse'. They are obviously arguing two different things, and NOT both merely documenting an eclipse (contra Wells, again.) In fact, Phlegon's witness is probably used--from literary structure--as a refutation of the preceding clause "a portent ONLY to the eyes". An appeal to a public record like that would make sense in the literary context.]

  8. It is also important to note that Julius calls Thallus' work a historia and not some other general term for literary works. The import of this for our discussion is that it explains why (1) Julius' is taking Thallus seriously; and (2) why Thallus is dealing with the astronomical issue of the darkness. Since the earliest days of historiography--even as far back as Xanthos of Lydia (5th century BC), writers had attempted to 'anchor' their chronologies and explanations on potentially dateable events such as earthquakes, floods, etc. (cf. HAMM: 10). For example, Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War) correlates events to seasons of the year (e.g. 2.31.1) and astronomical events (e.g. 2.78.2). These types of events were kept in public archives (e.g. annales, acta populi in Rome, who probably patterned the idea after Greek practice--cf. NHAGR:57, n12.) and were easily accessible to researchers. Indeed, these archives were so full of minutia, that 'high brow' literary types scorned the seeming trivialities of the record. So, the Roman censor Cato (b.184 BCE) could complain:
    It is disagreeable to write what stands in the tablet at the house of the pontifex maximus--how often grain was costly, how often darkness or something else blocked the light of the moon or the sun. (NHAGR:24)
    [The exactitude of the younger Phlegon's reference to 3 hours of darkness may have been based on such public records, and would have been a perfectly adequate evidentialist counter-argument to the "portent ONLY to the eyes" explanation of the darkness.]

    What was the historical context for this remark? At the time of his writing, anti-Christians had already been explaining the darkness at the time of the crucifixion as a purely natural phenomenon--an eclipse. Origen, for example, had already hinted in his writings that this idea of it being an eclipse was an invention of the pagans to discredit the Gospels (DM:1040, n.17).

    The passage in Africanus occurs in the discussion as to the darkness that accompanied the Crucifixion of Jesus. The phrase 'this darkness' indicates that Thallus was referring to (in HIS history) the events surrounding the death of Jesus. It is clear from this passage that both Julius AND Thallus took it for granted that Jesus died (and therefore existed!).

    What I find interesting about the existence of this interchange is the context of Julius' purpose in writing. He is writing a HISTORY/CHRONOLOGY, not an APOLOGETIC per se. He is trying to anchor dates and merge biblical chronology with the chronologies of Greece, Rome, etc. In this effort, he is much more concerned about proving that the darkness was NOT an eclipse than that it was a supernatural event. The chronology needs to be consistent with astronomical data (as required for ALL good 'historia'). His concern is historical TRUTH, not theology.

    What was the background of Julius Africanus?

    Let's begin by noting some of the events and activities of his life (CTEC:103, Schaff:I.191; PAC:307):

    Robin Lane Fox cites him as an example of the best educated dual-culture products of his day--one in which the best of culture was expressed (PAC, op.cit.)

    Do we have any reasons to believe that Julius was QUALIFIED as a historian?

    There are three questions we could raise to 'check' Africanus:

    1. Does his background lead us to believe he had the requisite skills, resources, and access to information necessary to do 'history'?
    2. Did subsequent historians consider him 'reliable' (a sort of 'peer review') as a historian?
    3. Do his works manifest historical rigor and historiographical integrity, in such a way as to lead us to 'trust' him?

    Let's look at each of these.

    The first one--on data from his background--we have already looked at above. But let's note the items that are relevant to our current issue:

    Just to give an idea of how detail-oriented and appropriately critical he was, let me quote Bruce's account of the Origen-Africanus exchange (BCANON: 76):

    Julius Africanus, born in Jerusalem, was a contemporary and friend of Origen. About AD 238 he read a controversial work by Origen in which appeal was made to the History of Susanna, one of the Septuagintal additions to Daniel, as though it were an integral part of Daniel. He spent some time considering his matter and preparing relevant arguments; then he sent a respectful letter to Origen in which he questioned the propriety of using the as though it belonged to the authentic book of Daniel. It was evident, he pointed out, that the History of Susanna was originally written in Greek, because the crux of the story turned on a double pun which was possible only in Greek. In the story Daniel conducts a separate examination of each of the two false witnesses against Susanna and asks under what kind of tree her alleged offence was committed; he receives inconsistent answers and pronounces an appropriate doom against each. To the one who specifies a mastic tree (Gk 'schino') he says, 'God will cut you in two' ('schizo-'); to the one who specifies a holm-oak (Gk. 'prinos') he says, 'God will saw you asunder' (Gk. 'prio-'). At one time Origen himself had acknowledged the force of this argument...
    I find this instructive. In it we see Julius making 'source critical' decisions on the basis of linguistic and literary criteria! He was NOT content to accept 'tradition' but thought carefully and critically.

    The second one--on how subsequent historians assessed/used him.

    Again, from above we saw how he was used by ALL succeeding historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates), by even his contemporaries (e.g. Hippolytus), and that his work formed the foundation of medieval historiography . Even the comment adduced by Robin Lane Fox above supports his overall credibility.

    A very important piece of data comes from the antagonist side! When one of the most effective critics of Christianity in the ancient world--Porphyry--decides to rebut Christianity, he picked Origen and Julius as his targets! What a compliment to their credibility.

    The third one--on data from his actual works--can be seen by a simple survey of relevant quotes from his Chronicle. Let's look at several of these, and ask questions about their implications.

    This seems quite rigorous and very 'modern' (in a positive sense, of course) to me. I find here a historian of immense scholarship--comfortable and competent in both ancient and contemporary works--with critical thinking skills, access to the best materials, ability to appraise his sources carefully, deeply sensitive to 'levels of certainty' in historical conclusions, and non-biased in his use of subject-matter experts.

    I am not sure what additional criteria could be advanced to argue that his value as a historian is low, and that his use of Thallus' work (and the quote) is somehow questionable. He demonstrates the highest standards of balanced scholarship and integrity I have seen among the ancient authors. [I find absolutely NO basis in the text for Grant's accusation that his Chronographies are 'full of mathematical symbolism and fantasy'! (cf. GRH:117). I am frankly puzzled at such a statement--having gone through this work many, many times during this writing...its ONLY 7 pages long! I would assume there are probably SOME problems in his writings, but to use the phrase "full of" is a gross exaggeration, bordering on misrepresentation.]
    [For a comparative review of this piece and a more skeptical view by Richard Carrier, see www.tektonics.org/qt/thallcomp.html]
    What conclusions might we draw from this?

    Well, frankly, I personally am quite surprised at where I ended up on this issue.

    I originally thought that I would end up saying that the Thallus' evidence for the death of Jesus was positive, but shaky at best, but my study has led me to a much stronger position. It seems clear to me now, in the context of the historiographical stature of both Thallus and Julius Africanus, that this early piece of scholarly evidence has EQUAL or GREATER credibility to even the official history of Tacitus or the official correspondence of Pliny (to be examined later).

    The reference to the miraculous darkness around the Crucifixion of my Lord--even documented as to the hours by Phlegon!--is powerful evidence not only for the 'existence of Jesus', but for the reliability of those portions of the gospel accounts that describe that phenomena. In the public records of the day, a "most fearful darkness" followed our rejection of the Light of the World. Remind you of today?

    Glenn Miller

    The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)