Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Jesus Was Not Wrong About Jonah


Damien F. Mackey


Apart from the Book of Tobit, which is included in the Catholic Old Testament canon (14:4): “Go into Media my son, for I surely believe those things which Jonas [Jonah] the prophet spake of Nineve …”, the prophet Jonah is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament, on both occasions as “Jonah son of Amittai” (2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1), with the 2 Kings version adding this further information about the prophet:

[Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

It needs to be noted that, whilst the Codex Vaticanus (B) version of Tobit (as above) refers to Jonah, the Codex Sinaiticus (S) substitutes “Nahum” for“Jonah”.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ famously couples the prophet with the Queen of the South in his condemnatory words as recorded in Matthew (12):

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

and similarly, in Luke (11):

29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.

There is a brief reference to Jonah again in Matthew 16:4: “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah”.

There is already enough here to suggest that Jonah may perhaps have been a real, flesh and blood Israelite, especially considering that Jonah’s ‘partner’ in witness and condemnation, “the Queen of the South”, has - thanks to Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky (Ages in Chaos, I, 1952) - been so convincingly identified with Hatshepsut, the queen (later pharaoh) of 18th Dynasty Egypt. See my defence, but modification, of Velikovsky’s thesis:

Why Hatshepsut can be the 'Queen of Sheba'

Thomas Crean, when writing “On The Prophet Jonah”, has this to say about what he considers to be the historical aspect of the holy man (

Scriptural Evidence

How does the Old Testament speak of Jonah? First of all, the author of the book of Jonah identifies the prophet as the son of Amittai. In so doing, he would seem clearly to identify him as the prophet called Jonah, son of Amittai, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 14, as having prophesied in the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II. So the protagonist of the book of Jonah is presented as a real person. It does not follow from this alone that the story related of him happened in reality, since it is possible to invent stories about real people, as happens in the apocryphal gospels. Nevertheless, this fact may serve as a warning against simply assuming that this book, because it is written in the style of a popular narrative or ‘cautionary tale’, is not, therefore, also a narrative presenting historical events and happenings that really did take place.

The only other reference to the prophet Jonah in the Old Testament is to be found at the end of the book of Tobit, where Tobit warns his son to leave Nineveh "because what the prophet Jonah said will surely happen" (Tob.14, 8). For one who accepts the historicity of the book of Tobit, this would be a sufficient confirmation at least of the historicity of Jonah's preaching as related in the book of Jonah, if not of the other events narrated therein; but since many of those who hesitate to admit the reality of the events described in the book of Jonah would have similar reservations about the book of Tobit, the investigation of the Scriptural evidence must be continued.

If we turn, then, to the Gospels, it is evident that the prophet Jonah holds an important place in the Dominical preaching. It would seem that, on at least three separate occasions, the Lord compares the prophet Jonah to Himself. There is first of all the passage in Matt. 12:38-41. …. Next comes a passage further on in the same Gospel (Matt. 16:4), where the Pharisees again request a sign, but this time with the Sadducees …. Finally, there is found a passage in St. Luke's Gospel, 11:29-32, addressed it would seem to the multitude, that "as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation". It is added that the Queen of the South will arise at the judgement in condemnation, and then it is the men of Nineveh who this time are introduced by way of climax as also destined to arise on the last day.

Obviously, much could be drawn from these few words, but our purpose is to consider their bearing only upon the historicity of the book of Jonah. How might they be interpreted by one who denies that this book is, or was intended to be, historical in content? Such a one would perhaps reply that the Lord had used‘the ideas of His time’ in preaching the Gospel. This, without further explicitation, is ambiguous. It could mean, in the first place, that one of the ideas used was the false one that the book of Jonah narrates real events. In that case, in using this false idea, Christ would either have known of its falsity or not. If not, one would have to say that He was either ignorant of the meaning of the Scriptures (more ignorant than some modern exegetes, and on a point as fundamental as the historicity or fabulousness of an entire book) and also in error in supposing that certain men had repented at Jonah's preaching and would rise again - but neither of these things can be said. If, on the other hand, He was aware of the falsity of the idea used and the multitude was not, then in saying that the men of Nineveh who had repented at Jonah's preaching would indeed rise again when they could not because they had never existed, He would have been confirming them in their wrong opinion and teaching them something false, which again is entirely impossible.

On the other hand, it could be argued that one of the ideas of the time was that the book of Jonah was not an account of real events; that it was universally recognised to be not only a popular narrative but also a fictional one, imaginative not only in style or genre, but also in content. Although the witness of Josephus tells against this view (Antiquities, IX, 10, 2), one can at least consider how well it fits with the passages of the Gospels just quoted. Here one may want to distinguish the references to the sign of Jonah from the references to the resurrection of the Ninevites. In the first case, whilst the several analogies between Jonah and our Lord would in a sense hold good whether or not Jonah had done or suffered in reality that which is related of him, yet it can easily be seen how much the solemnity of the Lord's words would be prejudiced if he had not. To take an analogy, of which the absurdity will be unavoidable: imagine that a great popular preacher of repentance, a Savanarola or a St. Vincent Ferrer, had been asked for a sign to justify the apparent novelty of their declarations, and had replied that just as Robin Hood had been persecuted by the wealthy for defending the poor, so would he be. It would seem frivolous, futile and odd. Yet, if Jonah is to be placed on the same level as Robin Hood, the fictional hero of picturesque adventures, it is with such an answer that one would apparently have to place the answers given to the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees according to which the sign validating the Lord's mission is the similarity to it of the life of Jonah.

In the second case, however, that of the resurrection of the Ninevites, Christ's words would be simply impossible on the hypothesis that no one supposed the story of Jonah to be true. For here there is not simply a comparison of two items, but a statement that two groups of people will exist together, the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah and ‘this generation’, which cannot be true if the men of Nineveh had never existed. Nor is it possible to say that this is a literary allusion, as a preacher to-day might make an allusion in his homily to, say, Lady Macbeth. It would be quite possible for a preacher to use Lady Macbeth as an example of how sin may lead to despair. What would be wholly morally impossible would be for him to say, for example: "It is not only active crimes that are punished but inner ones as well. On Judgement Day you will see Judas Iscariot punished not only for treason but also for despair. You will see Lady Macbeth punished not only for killing King Duncan but also for despair". Yet, if this sounds ridiculous, it is how the passage quoted from St. Luke would have sounded, where, after the Queen of the South's resurrection, the resurrection of the men of Nineveh is foretold by way of climax, if the story of Jonah had been generally believed in the 1st century A.D. to be fiction.

[End of quote]

Rabbinical tradition adds the possibility of some further information about the prophet Jonah. (


The tribal affinities of Jonah constitute a point of controversy; generally assigned to Asher, he is claimed for Zebulun by R. Johanan on the strength of his place of residence. 2 Kings 14:24 These opinions were harmonized by the assumption that his mother was of Asher while his father was of Zebulun (Yer. Suk. v. 1; Gen. R. xcviii. 11; Yalḳ., Jonah, 550; Abravanel's commentary to Jonah).[1]

According to another authority his mother was the woman of Zarephath that entertained Elijah (ib.; Pirḳe R. El. xxxiii.). As this prophet, who was also of priestly descent, would have profaned himself if he had touched the corpse of a Jew, it was concluded that this woman, whose son (Jonah) he "took to his bosom" and revived, was a non-Jew (Gen. R. l.c.).[1]

He received his prophetic appointment from Elisha, under whose orders he anointed Jehu. 2 Kings 9 (Ḳimḥi, ad loc.; and Tzemach Dawid).[1]

He is said to have attained a very advanced age (more than 120 years according to Seder Olam; 130 according to Sefer Yuchasin; while Ecclesiastes Rabbah viii. 10 holds that the son (Jonah) of the Zarephath widow never died).

[End of quote]

There are two other possible indicators, I find, towards the reality of Jonah.

The first one, though it can by no means in itself be regarded as being hard historical evidence, may, in its uniqueness, point us to the very era of the famous Jonah incident. I refer to the impressive man inside a fish bas-relief as depicted on the wall of the palace at Calah (Nimrud) of the mighty king of Assyria, Ashurnasirpal II (883 BC to 859 BC, conventional dates).

If the era of Ashurnasirpal II really happens to be the time of the prophet Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh, then he must certainly have been old, later, when he made his prediction regarding the expansion of the kingdom of Israel by Jeroboam II; for the latter is thought to have begun to rule around 790 or 780 BC.

The second indicator is the Jonah-like description of “Oannes” that was supposedly recorded in a history of Mesopotamia written in the third century BC by Berossus, a Babylonian priest whose work survives only in fragments recorded by later Greek historians. According to (

….Biblical scholars have speculated that Jonah may have been in part the inspiration behind the figure of Oannes in late Babylonian mythology.[28] The deity name "Oannes" first occurs in texts from the Library of Ashurbanipal (more than a century after the time of Jonah) as Uanna or Uan but is assimilated to Adapa, a deity first mentioned on fragments of tablets from the 15th or 14th century B.C. found in Amarna in Egypt.[29][30] [Mackey’s comment: In Velikovsky’s revised chronology, El Amarna actually belongs to the C9th BC. I follow him here in general, though not in detail]. Oannes is described as dwelling in the Persian Gulf, and rising out of the waters in the daytime and furnishing mankind instruction in writing, the arts and the various sciences. Berossus describes Oannes as having the body of a fish but underneath the figure of a man—a detail that, some Biblical scholars[who?] suggest, is not derived from Adapa but is perhaps based on a misinterpretation of images of Jonah emerging from the fish.

[End of quote]

And, on the actual name ‘Oannes”

….The name Oannes for Jonah appears in the Septuagint and in the New Testament with the addition of I before it (Ioannes). However, according to Dr. Herman V. Hilprecht, the eminent Assyriologist, in the Assyrian inscriptions the J of foreign words becomes I, or disappears altogether. Hence Joannes, as the Greek representation of Jonah would appear in Assyrian either as Ioannes or as Oannes. Therefore, in his opinion, Oannes would be a regular Greco-Babylonian writing for Jonah.5

The preservation of the name "Yunas" or "Jonah" at the ruins of Nineveh also confirms the historicity of the Jonah story. As soon as modern discoverers unearthed the mound that had been known for centuries by the name of "Neby Yunas," they found beneath it the ruined palaces of the kings of Nineveh.6 ….

[End of quote]

Apart from these, there are the various Jonah-like legends in ancient mythology, notably the story of Jason. On this, see (

Ashurnasirpal II as the Book of Jonah’s

“King of Nineveh”

In case the fish man depicted above is an actual representation of the prophet Jonah in Assyria.

Ashurnasirpal II, arguably the most brutal of all the typically brutal Assyrian kings, was a man of many guises according to what I determined in my postgraduate thesis:

A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah

and its Background

For a simpler reading of this subject (though it may need some up-dating now), see my article:

The Many Faces of Ashurnasirpal and his Son

Basing myself on Dr. Velikovsky’s inspired twin identifications of the biblical pair of Syrian rulers, Ben-hadad I and Hazael, with the El Amarna pair of rulers of Amurru, respectively, Abdi-ashirta and Aziru, which I consider to be rock solid, I then proceeded to make further historical identifications of this pair. Ben-hadad, a veritable master king, with 32 other kings in train (I Kings 20:1, 20): "King Ben-Hadad of Aram gathered all his army together; thirty-two kings were with him, along with horses and chariots”, must have been more than just a king of Damascene Syria.* Through his Velikovskian alter ego of Abdi-ashirta, I extended this Ben-hadad to be the similarly strong Mitannian king of the El Amarna archives, Dushratta (from AbDU-aSHRATTA). But furthermore, since Dushratta (Tushratta) had sent a statue of Ishtar of Nineveh to an ailing pharaoh Amenhotep III, I considered that this composite king, Ben-hadad, may also have been the current king of Assyria, who was Ashurnasirpal II.

Most interestingly, though it completely defies the conventional view of chronology, Amenhotep III and Ashurnasirpal (usually separated by half a millennium) appear to have been, in reality, archaeologically contemporaneous

* (Damascus seems to have been associated with Ben-hadad only at the very beginning of his arrival on the biblical scene, 2 Chronicles 16:2, and then again right at the end, when he is on his death bed, 2 Kings 8:7).

I then, (i) having this ‘inside information’ that the powerful Syrian king Ben-hadad had also been one of Assyria’s greatest ever rulers, Ashurnasirpal II, and (ii) knowing that there was a uniquely Jonah-like depiction in the palace of this same Ashurnasirpal II, and (iii) being aware of the Jewish legends locating the beginnings of Jonah to the time of the prophet Elijah, which was also the time of Ben-hadad (Ashurnasirpal II), was then able to find (iv) a biblical scenario that had overtones of the Jonah incident of (a) the sparing of a non-Israelite people, much to the chagrin of an Israelite prophet, and (b) the change of heart of the king of that spared foreign people, with both (a) and (b) involving “sackcloth”.

Before going on to tell of that biblical incident, I should like to note that Jesus Christ never, in his references to Jonah and the conversion of the Ninevites and their king, actually praises the king himself, just “the men of Nineveh” or “the Ninevites”.This ruler of Assyria was, as I have shown in my thesis, a very wily and duplicitous character - full of presumption.

Now the biblical incident to which I refer - and that I think may be an other face to what is recorded in the Book of Jonah - is to be found in I Kings 20, Ben-hadad’s failure, twice, with a massive army, to defeat king Ahab of Israel and to take Ahab’s capital city of Samaria. And I would like to knit in to these two incidents (though without attempting any chronological precision at this stage), the two calls of Jonah, viz.:

(1:) 1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”


(3:) 1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

The story begins with king Ben-hadad, the “king of Aram” (Syria), apparently at the height of his power and his arrogance and determined to pick a fight:

(I Kings) 20 Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it. 2 He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, saying, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: 3 ‘Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.’”

4 The king of Israel answered, “Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.”

5 The messengers came again and said, “This is what Ben-Hadad says: ‘I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. 6 But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.’”

7 The king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said to them, “See how this man is looking for trouble! When he sent for my wives and my children, my silver and my gold, I did not refuse him.”

8 The elders and the people all answered, “Don’t listen to him or agree to his demands.”

9 So he replied to Ben-Hadad’s messengers, “Tell my lord the king, ‘Your servant will do all you demanded the first time, but this demand I cannot meet.’” They left and took the answer back to Ben-Hadad.

10 Then Ben-Hadad sent another message to Ahab: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful.”

11 The king of Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’”

12 Ben-Hadad heard this message while he and the kings were drinking in their tents,[a] and he ordered his men: “Prepare to attack.” So they prepared to attack the city.

But the king suffered an unexpected setback. The un-named prophet to Israel referred to in this next section may or may not be Jonah himself. Jewish legend has him as Micaiah (

Ahab Defeats Ben-Hadad

13 Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

14“But who will do this?” asked Ahab.

The prophet replied, “This is what the Lord says: ‘The junior officers under the provincial commanders will do it.’”

“And who will start the battle?” he asked.

The prophet answered, “You will.”

15 So Ahab summoned the 232 junior officers under the provincial commanders. Then he assembled the rest of the Israelites, 7,000 in all. 16 They set out at noon while Ben-Hadad and the 32 kings allied with him were in their tents getting drunk. 17 The junior officers under the provincial commanders went out first.

Now Ben-Hadad had dispatched scouts, who reported, “Men are advancing from Samaria.”

18 He said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive.”

19 The junior officers under the provincial commanders marched out of the city with the army behind them 20 and each one struck down his opponent. At that, the Arameans fled, with the Israelites in pursuit. But Ben-Hadad king of Aram escaped on horseback with some of his horsemen. 21 The king of Israel advanced and overpowered the horses and chariots and inflicted heavy losses on the Arameans.

It may be at this point, with the king and his army in disarray, that the prophet Jonah -yet a young man (and perhaps for this reason assigned the arduous task instead of, say, Elijah) - was first commissioned to go to Nineveh whose “wickedness”is here referred to.

But Jonah had other ideas and it is at about this point that I would place his attempted flight to Tarshish, the consequent storm incident and that of the “great fish”.

I think that this famous incident must needs be separated well in time from Jonah’s second calling (note the word “Afterward” in v. 22 below). And was Jonah the prophet (the same as the one we met above, in vv. 13-14) who thus estimated the time for king Ahab (v. 22) “Afterward, the prophet came to the king of Israel and said, ‘Strengthen your position and see what must be done, because next spring the king of Aram will attack you again’.”?

At this same approximate time the Syrian king’s officials were providing their master with a‘theology’ for military effectiveness:

23 Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they. 24 Do this: Remove all the kings from their commands and replace them with other officers. 25 You must also raise an army like the one you lost—horse for horse and chariot for chariot—so we can fight Israel on the plains. Then surely we will be stronger than they.” He agreed with them and acted accordingly.

So, true to the word of the prophet (who also must have known the military patterns of the day), the enemy of Israel attacked in spring. The colossal army of more than 120,000 (**) suffered a crushing defeat, with its proud king forced to flee and hide:

26 The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel.

27 When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.

28 The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says:‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”

29 For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day.

30 The rest of them escaped to the city of Aphek, where the wall collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of them. And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room.

** Though it is very hard to imagine a fallen wall killing 27,000 men. Snaith has this: "The destruction of the city wall is often used to describe the capture of a city; and the verse may actually mean that this large, number of men lost their lives when the city was captured and taken."[16]

Now, with the fallen Syrian king completely at the mercy of king Ahab, the king of Israel would have been expected to have done what king Saul had been expected to do in the case of king Agag the Amalekite, to destroy him utterly. (I Samuel 15) 9 “But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them”. And perhaps Ben-hadad’s officials recalled this incident, for:

31 His officials said to him,“Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.”

32 Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.’”

The king answered, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.”

33 The men took this as a good sign and were quick to pick up his word. “Yes, your brother Ben-Hadad!” they said.

“Go and get him,” the king said. When Ben-Hadad came out, Ahab had him come up into his chariot.

34 “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.”

Ahab said, “On the basis of a treaty I will set you free.” So he made a treaty with him, and let him go.

Ahab had, just like king Saul, proved an abject failure.

It was with great forebodings, now, that the prophet Jonah finally heeded the call of the Lord and headed for Nineveh from whence the massive army of Ben-hadad (Ashurnasirpal II) had probably largely massed. The supposed son of Ashurnasirpal II, “Shalmaneser III once boasted a force of 120,000 men” in his western campaigns.

Attuned to the ways of the Lord, Jonah may have sensed that, as a prophet will actually say to Ahab in the aftermath of all this: “Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people” (v. 41). And, indeed, it was the “people” of Ben-hadad (Ashurnasirpal II), the Ninevites, not the king directly, who responded to the words of the prophet (Jonah 3:4): “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (***)

*** The forty days may perhaps have been another time estimate by the prophet of how long it would take for Israel and her allies to mobilise themselves against Nineveh.

Then, later -perhaps much later - the king himself (Jonah 3:6): “When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, removed his royal garments, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat down in ashes”. This very cunning and duplicitous king, who had already been forced to humble himself before Ahab, may have later, when back in Nineveh, made a big show of things as was his wont (Jonah 3):

7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.

8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

I suggest that it was for the sake of the people of Nineveh, and not their king, that (v. 10): “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened”.

But Jonah himself, having foreseen all this, was furious (Jonah 4):

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

While Jonah had become sullen and angry in Nineveh, a prophet back in Israel - perhaps Jonah upon his return there (Jewish legend has this prophet as Micaiah) - was to become incandescent with rage against king Ahab for his failure to destroy Ben-hadad, thereby causing Ahab, in turn, to become “sullen and angry” (exactly as Ahab had been, incidentally, in the case of Naboth, I Kings 21:4). Thus we read in this strange but most significant incident (I Kings 20):

A Prophet Condemns Ahab

35 By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” but he refused.

36 So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him.

37 The prophet found another man and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him and wounded him.

38 Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes.

39 As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’

40 While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”

“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”

41 Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets.

42 He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’”

43Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources


Michael GleghornWritten by Michael Gleghorn

Evidence from Tacitus

Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document, many people are still reluctant to believe what it says unless there is also some independent, non-biblical testimony that corroborates its statements. In the introduction to one of his books, F.F. Bruce tells about a Christian correspondent who was told by an agnostic friend that "apart from obscure references in Josephus and the like," there was no historical evidence for the life of Jesus outside the Bible.{1} This, he wrote to Bruce, had caused him "great concern and some little upset in [his] spiritual life."{2} He concludes his letter by asking, "Is such collateral proof available, and if not, are there reasons for the lack of it?"{3} The answer to this question is, "Yes, such collateral proof is available," and we will be looking at some of it in this article.
Let's begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls "probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament."{4} Reporting on Emperor Nero's decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:
Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . .{5}
What all can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have "suffered the extreme penalty," obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
But what are we to make of Tacitus' rather enigmatic statement that Christ's death briefly checked "a most mischievous superstition," which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here "bearing indirect . . . testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave."{6} While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal.{7} How else might one explain that?

Evidence from Pliny the Younger

Another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity can be found in the letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan's advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians.{8} Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.{9}
At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food--but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.{10}
This passage provides us with a number of interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny's statement that hymns were sung to Christ, as to a god, as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, "unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth."{11} If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.
Not only does Pliny's letter help us understand what early Christians believed about Jesus' person, it also reveals the high esteem to which they held His teachings. For instance, Pliny notes that Christians bound themselves by a solemn oath not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus. In addition, Pliny's reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion and the "love feast."{12} This interpretation helps explain the Christian claim that the meal was merely food of an ordinary and innocent kind. They were attempting to counter the charge, sometimes made by non-Christians, of practicing "ritual cannibalism."{13} The Christians of that day humbly repudiated such slanderous attacks on Jesus' teachings. We must sometimes do the same today.

Evidence from Josephus

Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The second, less revealing, reference describes the condemnation of one "James" by the Jewish Sanhedrin. This James, says Josephus, was "the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ."{14} F.F. Bruce points out how this agrees with Paul's description of James in Galatians 1:19 as "the Lord's brother."{15} And Edwin Yamauchi informs us that "few scholars have questioned" that Josephus actually penned this passage.{16}
As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the "Testimonium Flavianum," the relevant portion declares:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.{17}
Did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated with Josephus, but that it was later altered by a Christian editor, possibly between the third and fourth century A.D.{18} But why do they think it was altered? Josephus was not a Christian, and it is difficult to believe that anyone but a Christian would have made some of these statements.{19}
For instance, the claim that Jesus was a wise man seems authentic, but the qualifying phrase, "if indeed one ought to call him a man," is suspect. It implies that Jesus was more than human, and it is quite unlikely that Josephus would have said that! It is also difficult to believe he would have flatly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, especially when he later refers to Jesus as "the so-called" Christ. Finally, the claim that on the third day Jesus appeared to His disciples restored to life, inasmuch as it affirms Jesus' resurrection, is quite unlikely to come from a non-Christian!
But even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. We read that he was a wise man who performed surprising feats. And although He was crucified under Pilate, His followers continued their discipleship and became known as Christians. When we combine these statements with Josephus' later reference to Jesus as "the so-called Christ," a rather detailed picture emerges which harmonizes quite well with the biblical record. It increasingly appears that the "biblical Jesus" and the "historical Jesus" are one and the same!

Evidence from the Babylonian Talmud

There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500. Given this time frame, it is naturally supposed that earlier references to Jesus are more likely to be historically reliable than later ones. In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200.{20} The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy."{21}
Let's examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named "Yeshu." So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, "Yeshu" (or "Yeshua") is how Jesus' name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus "was hanged"? Doesn't the New Testament say he was crucified? Indeed it does. But the term "hanged" can function as a synonym for "crucified." For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was "hanged", and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus.{22} So the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do.{23} If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!{24}
The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a rather hostile source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament. But if we make allowances for this, what might such charges imply about Jesus?
Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees' accusation that Jesus cast out demons "by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons."{25} But notice this: such a charge actually tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently Jesus' miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! Likewise, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke's account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching.{26} Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus' powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.

Evidence from Lucian

Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows:
The Christians . . . worship a man to this day--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.{27}
Although Lucian is jesting here at the early Christians, he does make some significant comments about their founder. For instance, he says the Christians worshipped a man, "who introduced their novel rites." And though this man's followers clearly thought quite highly of Him, He so angered many of His contemporaries with His teaching that He "was crucified on that account."
Although Lucian does not mention his name, he is clearly referring to Jesus. But what did Jesus teach to arouse such wrath? According to Lucian, he taught that all men are brothers from the moment of their conversion. That's harmless enough. But what did this conversion involve? It involved denying the Greek gods, worshipping Jesus, and living according to His teachings. It's not too difficult to imagine someone being killed for teaching that. Though Lucian doesn't say so explicitly, the Christian denial of other gods combined with their worship of Jesus implies the belief that Jesus was more than human. Since they denied other gods in order to worship Him, they apparently thought Jesus a greater God than any that Greece had to offer!
Let's summarize what we've learned about Jesus from this examination of ancient non-Christian sources. First, both Josephus and Lucian indicate that Jesus was regarded as wise. Second, Pliny, the Talmud, and Lucian imply He was a powerful and revered teacher. Third, both Josephus and the Talmud indicate He performed miraculous feats. Fourth, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, and Lucian all mention that He was crucified. Tacitus and Josephus say this occurred under Pontius Pilate. And the Talmud declares it happened on the eve of Passover. Fifth, there are possible references to the Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection in both Tacitus and Josephus. Sixth, Josephus records that Jesus' followers believed He was the Christ, or Messiah. And finally, both Pliny and Lucian indicate that Christians worshipped Jesus as God!
I hope you see how this small selection of ancient non-Christian sources helps corroborate our knowledge of Jesus from the gospels. Of course, there are many ancient Christian sources of information about Jesus as well. But since the historical reliability of the canonical gospels is so well established, I invite you to read those for an authoritative "life of Jesus!"

1. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 13.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Edwin Yamauchi, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 82.
5. Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.
6. N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1969), 19, cited in Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 189-190.
7. Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.
8. Pliny, Epistles x. 96, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 25; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198.
9. Ibid., 27.
10. Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.
11. M. Harris, "References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors," in Gospel Perspectives V, 354-55, cited in E. Yamauchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?", in Jesus Under Fire, ed. by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 227, note 66.
12. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.
13. Bruce, Christian Origins, 28.
14. Josephus, Antiquities xx. 200, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 36.
15. Ibid.
16. Yamauchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament", 212.
17. Josephus, Antiquities 18.63-64, cited in Yamauchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament", 212.
18. Ibid.
19. Although time would not permit me to mention it on the radio, another version of Josephus' "Testimonium Flavianum" survives in a tenth-century Arabic version (Bruce, Christian Origins, 41). In 1971, Professor Schlomo Pines published a study on this passage. The passage is interesting because it lacks most of the questionable elements that many scholars believe to be Christian interpolations. Indeed, "as Schlomo Pines and David Flusser...stated, it is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing the original words even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the latter would have had less chance of being censored by the church" (Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194). The passage reads as follows: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." (Quoted in James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1988), 95, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194).
20. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 202-03.
21. The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.
22. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.
23. See John 8:58-59 and 10:31-33.
24. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 204. See also John 18:31-32.
25. Matt. 12:24. I gleaned this observation from Bruce, Christian Origins, 56.
26. Luke 23:2, 5.
27. Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), vol. 4., cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 206.
©2001 Probe Ministries.

About the Author
Michael GleghornMichael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is


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