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
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
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
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.
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.