PROLOGUE

Scattered across the countryside one may observe certain wild animals, male and female, dark, livid and burnt by the sun, attached to the earth which they dig and turn over with invincible stubbornness. However, they have something like an articulated voice and when they stand up they reveal a human face.  Indeed, they are human beings ... Thanks to them the other human beings need not sow, labour and harvest in order to live. That is why they ought not to lack the bread which they have sown.

Jean la Bruyère, French moralist
of the late seventeenth century. Cited in Eric J. Hobsbawm, Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 1, 1973, page 6.

 

 

Imperial Rome

Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph?
....
Casear beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
....
Each page a victory,
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht, A Worker Reads History.

 

If no Christian had written anything about Jesus for the first hundred years after his death, we would still have two succinct accounts from those not counted among his followers. One account dates from the last decade of the first century and comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities 18:63:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.... For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.... When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.... And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

His description is carefully neutral or, at most, mildly critical. The text was both preserved and interpolated by Christian editors but I cited it without their proposed improvements.

The next account dates from the first decades of the second century and comes from the pagan historian Cornelius Tacitus. Having told how a rumor blamed Nero for the disastrous fire which swept Rome in 64, he continues in Annals 15.44:

Therefore to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.

Despite the differences between the studied impartiality of Josephus and the sneering partiality of Tacitus they agree on three rather basic facts. First, there was some sort of a movement connected with Jesus. Second, he was executed by official authority presumably to stop the movement. Third, rather than being stopped, the movement continued to spread.

There remain, therefore, these three: movement, execution, continuation. But the greatest of these is continuation.

 

         


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