As someone one who favours working through source materials on persons of ancient history, I have recently noted my pleasure at the earliness of the gospel sources for the ministry of Christ when we compare them to the major biographical sources for other major religious figures, such as for the Prophet Muhammad and the founders of the Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions. This time I wish to revisit the gospels again, but not in terms of the earliness of the source materials but rather for the number of them we have.
In total, we have four gospels for the ministry of Christ: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Although just four might strike the modern mind as a tiny number it is, by ancient standards, an impressive total. The gospels were produced during a time when the vast majority of people were illiterate, when writing materials weren’t necessarily easy or cheap to come by, and where hand copies had to be written in order to ensure preservation. The gospels are also far from the only sources for Christ. Alongside them, we have over two dozen other texts from the New Testament as well as materials from reputable Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources. But if we intend to construct the ministry of Christ we are more or less limited to using the gospel sources for that’s where the core data is located. It is my view that having four major sources in our position regarding an ancient figure composed within the first two or so generations of that figure’s existence is remarkable and something that we should not expect or take for granted for any fringe figure of history. Indeed the historical Christ was a fringe figure who dwelled on the periphery of a massive and powerful Roman Empire. The New Testament reveals that Christ was poor and, to many people, came from an unremarkable background and an unremarkable village.
Striking it then is that we possess as many early sources for Christ’s ministry as we do for the activities of Tiberius Caesar because the latter was, by all accounts, a far superior historical figure than the lowly Christ when it came to status, reputation, and power. He was, after all, the emperor active during the time of Christ’s ministry.
Speaking of dates of composition alone, apart from Velleius Paterculus (a contemporary of Tiberius, who penned his Roman History in 30 CE), all the sources for Tiberius are 73 or more years removed from the events they narrate. These three major sources are from Tacitus (Annals 1-6, dated 110 CE), Suetonius (Tiberius, 120 CE), and Cassius Dio (Roman History 57–58, 200 CE). As we noted in my earlier reflection, the gospels, by current consensus dating, all fall within 60 years of Christ’s death by crucifixion. Mark is traditionally dated earliest coming in around 40 years post-Christ (70 CE), with the latest being the Gospel of John, around 60 years after Christ (90 CE). Although we need to accept that earliness is not a guarantee of authenticity the general rule of thumb within historical scholarship is the earlier the source the better. I believe that source materials dating to within a century of the purported events are in close enough proximity to the memories of the events passed on by eyewitnesses, and thus can be taken as valuable until proven guilty. Most religious traditions are hopeless in this regard as their primary sources on their founders are removed by several centuries, which opens the oral tradition to all sorts of possible embellishment, legend-making, and distortion. As such, the gospel literature for Christ is generally earlier than it is for the major sources for Tiberius.
Indeed to the advantage of Tiberius is that we possess in our collection one contemporary source from Velleius Paterculus, and we possess no such contemporary material for Christ. Again, a contemporary source is not by default reliable or more authentic than a source removed by a century, although earlier is generally the better. In fact, the contemporaneous Paterculus demonstrates this point for the simple reason that many historians do not actually view him as superior to the other later materials. This is because he was a propagandist for Tiberius, composing flattery, perhaps with Tiberius’ own support. The work is eulogistic in treating Tiberius’ achievements with the fullness Paterculus believed they deserved. His testimony, while not dismissed for these reasons, is usually valued less than that of the three later writers. For example, we need only observe Paterculus’ omission of Tiberius executing many individuals for speaking out against him, which is mentioned by both Tacitus and Suetonius, but strikingly absent in Paterculus’ account.
A further advantage one might marshal for Tiberius is in the length of the six books of Tacitus’s Annals on his reign. These books are far lengthier than the gospels, although such a fact certainly warrants some analysis. For example, although all six of Tacitus’ books deal with the time of Tiberius’ reign, they are not all about Tiberius as if he is first and foremost the center of the narrative. Instead, they tend to focus on important events that occurred while Tiberius was active as emperor. Much of the same can be said about the other two accounts, as Paterculus’ Roman History and Cassius Dio’s Roman History are not all about Tiberius. This is in stark contrast to the gospel accounts that, despite being shorter, are almost always about Christ, with the exception of a handful pithy narratives of Christ’s birth, youth, and the figure of John the Baptist. Christ, the gospel authors go to great lengths to show, is indeed the key character in their respective stories.
But there is also a limitation to the gospels for their authors focus disproportionately on Christ’s rather brief three-year ministry, with a handful of days (the Passion week) toward the end of it benefitting from a large slice of the overall gospel story. The result is that we know almost nothing about the childhood of Christ, his teenage years, young adulthood, or anything else. Well aware of this gap in knowledge a number of anonymous authors in later centuries composing apocryphal texts, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James, attempted to fill in this blank space with fanciful anecdotes and stories on Christ’s youth. This lack of knowledge has also spawned fanciful and spurious stories, such as that Christ traveled to India at some point during the 18-year gap between the ages of 12 and 30. Overall, if our goal was to construct a biography inclusive of stages of one’s life, from youth to old age, one would discover Tiberius to be superior in terms of sheer information alone.
Now, it has not been my intent or interest here to demonstrate the superiority of one of these figure’s over and above the other. Both Tiberius and Christ are well-attested men of ancient history, and both clearly had a significant impact on many others within their areas of influence. My intent here has simply been to observe the surprising number of biographical sources we have for Christ in relation to perhaps the most well-known figure of the first century in Tiberius Caesar. This is indeed remarkable for whom to many a figure such as Christ would have been a backwater Jew walking the dusty roads of Judaea.