Justus of Tiberias
Don R. Camp

“Justus of Tiberius, a Galilean, was another contemporary of that time and also wrote NOTHING.” That is what we hear about Justus from the skeptics.

They remind us that Justus lived shortly after the time of Jesus and in the locality that Jesus called home. He also was a contemporary and an antagonist it appears of another historian, Josephus.  He wrote about some of the events of the 1st century, particularly the Roman-Jewish war. And he wrote a chronicle of the kings of the Jews up through Agrippa ll.

His chronicle would have covered King Herod Agrippa - a man lived at the time of Jesus, who even interviewed Jesus,  and who had James killed - and Agrippa ll who is mentioned in Acts as the king before whom Paul gave his defense.  In other words, Justus wrote about people who would have known Jesus or certainly would have known about the Christian sect.

Yet as Photus writing 700 years later said, there was  no mention of Jesus in the writings of Justus. Here is what Photus wrote:
I have read the chronology of Justus of Tiberias, whose title is this, [The Chronology of] the Kings of Judah which succeeded one another. This [Justus] came out of the city of Tiberias in Galilee. He begins his history from Moses, and ends it not till the death of Agrippa, the seventh [ruler] of the family of Herod, and the last king of the Jews; who took the government under Claudius, had it augmented under Nero, and still more augmented by Vespasian. He died in the third year of Trajan, where also his history ends. He is very concise in his language, and slightly passes over those affairs that were most necessary to be insisted on; and being under the Jewish prejudices, as indeed he was himself also a Jew by birth, he makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ, or what things happened to him, or of the wonderful works that he did. He was the son of a certain Jew, whose name was Pistus. He was a man, as he is described by Josephus, of a most profligate character; a slave both to money and to pleasures. In public affairs he was opposite to Josephus; and it is related, that he laid many plots against him; but that Josephus, though he had his enemy frequently under his power, did only reproach him in words, and so let him go without further punishment. He says also, that the history which this man wrote is, for the main, fabulous, and chiefly as to those parts where he describes the Roman war with the Jews, and the taking of Jerusalem. (Bibliothec, Code 33)

That Jesus was not mentioned was disappointing for Photus. He was reading Justus hoping to find some bit of information  to add to the historical knowledge he had about Jesus. And it is disappointing for us. We too would like to know more. We would like to examine Justus’s writing in detail. But we can’t go back and apply the tools of textual criticism to Justus because his works are no longer available.

The minimal information (read non-information) about Jesus Photus found in Justus, however, has not deterred the skeptics. They latch onto Photus’s comment and declare that because Justus did not mention Jesus, there must not have been a Jesus.

But there is actually more in Justus’s comment than the one phrase often quoted. For one, there is the comment that Justus “is very concise in his language, and slightly passes over those affairs that were most necessary to be insisted on.” 

Photus apparently found Justus’s chronicles very brief, briefer than he would have liked. There was no mention of Jesus. But thee was also no mention of a whole lot of things that might be of interest. Were the chronicles merely a list of the kings of Judah? Did they include only the affairs of the kings that had great importance to the Jews?  We simply do not know.

Then there is this: “being under the Jewish prejudices, as indeed he was himself also a Jew by birth, he makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ.” Admittedly this is conjecture by Photus, where the former comment was  observation. But we would conjecture as well.

If Justus’s rhetorical purpose was to tell the history of the kings, and by incident, of the Jews, to encourage the Jewish people in the time after the destruction of their nation, why would Jesus be mentioned? It would have been a digression at the very least and stinging, a reminder of the growing sentiment among some Jews who were Jesus people that the Jews and their kings had failed God by failing to recognize their Messiah.

Perhaps if the Jesus movement had been quashed by the kings, Justus would have included them. But as it was, the Jesus movement was gaining ground, even among the Jews at the time Justus wrote. It was an inconvenient truth.

Did Justus slant his chronicles to make the kings look better and thereby pass over any inconvenient mention of Jesus? We don’t know.

Finally, there is Josephus’s comment: “the history which this man [Justus] wrote is, for the main, fabulous.” (In this context “fabulous” does not mean wonderful. It mean fable.) Now, we know that Justus and Josephus had a feud going.  They had fought with and then against one another in the recent war with Rome. Justus continued to be an advocate of the Jews after the war. Josephus was a traitor who had gone over to Rome during the war and remained an advocate of Rome. Justus wrote for Jews. Josephus wrote for Romans. Both had agendas.

The best we can say then from Josephus’s comment is that he thought Justus had exaggerated and perhaps included some fiction in his report of the war to favor the Jews. Did that fablizing carry over into the chronicles of the kings? Was Josephus even accurate? We don’t know.
There is one more possibility. The copy of the chronicles Photus had was almost certainly a copy of the original and probably a copy of a copy, and so on. Since Justus’s work was in the hands of the Jews for whom he wrote, there is certainly the possibility that a copyist had redacted Justus to eliminate mention of  Jesus or Paul or the Jesus people.

We know from the Babylonian Talmud written in the years after the New Testament events that Jesus is portrayed as an evil man who sought to lead the Jews away from God and who suffered a just an ignominious death. And that is all they say. It was as if Jesus was dead and gone and the nation was done with him. There is no mention of Christians in the Talmud, even Jewish Christians. There is no mention of Paul, who was from the point of view of the Jews a traitor. It is as though the Jews in writing the Talmud wanted to expunge all this Jesus stuff from memory. Could the copyist of Justus or Justus himself had similar motivations for not mentioning Jesus? We don’t know.

And that is the best we can say of Justus: we don’t know. Given that there is so much we don’t know, it would seem premature at the least to conclude that because Justus did not mention Jesus there was no Jesus. Or because there is no mention of the Jesus movement including James and Paul there was no James or Paul.

Given also that there is abundant evidence for the Jesus movement among the Jews during the period about which Justus wrote and abundant evidence from non-biblical sources for a real and historical person in this period, the conclusion that because Justus did not mention Jesus there must not have been a real Jesus is totally unwarranted.

But what non-biblical evidence is there for Jesus?

There have been many who have written and catalogued the ancient sources. There is no need for me to do so. I would only refer to one well researched list and to one author who, because he actually is an antagonist to faith in Jesus as God the Son, is a good reference for those who also do not believe, Bart Ehrman.
In his book Did Jesus Exist (of which I have an autographed copy!!!) he gives this list: Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Jospehus, and the Jewish Talmud. He analyses what we have from these writers and concludes that Jesus was most certainly a historical person.

My conclusion:  Though Photus’s comments about Justus are intriguing, we cannot conclude that Jesus did not exist. At best that would be an argument from ignorance. What evidence we do have weighs far more heavily. And that is that Jesus was a historical person, well known in his time and after, and that what he did, though it may seem to some magical, has at the very least even in the minds of people not inclined to believe an inescapable aroma of truth.