Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared
by Darrell Bock
How do the roots of the Gospels compare to those of classical works? Is the historical evidence for Jesus Christ as good as that of Julius Caesar?
People often raise such historical questions critically, claiming the evidence for Caesar’s life is better attested than for Jesus’s. But is this really so?
Considering Caesar’s Sources
Tracing ancient history is about examining sources and the manuscripts behind them, as well as the nature of their content and claims. In regard to Julius Caesar, the key sources are his own accounts of the Gallic Wars, the speeches of Cicero, Sallust’s account of Catiline’s War, Suetonius’s section on Caesar in Twelve Caesars, and Plutarch’s section on Caesar in Plutarchs’s Lives.
In some ways, Caesar’s autobiographical account gives us more to consider than the accounts of Jesus do. It provides direct testimony about events Caesar participated in. Sallust and Cicero were Caesar’s contemporaries as well, so there are reliable outside sources closely tied to the time of these events. Two of the most important sources for the emperor’s life, however, Suetonius and Plutarch, write in the early second century. That’s more than 100 years after the time of Caesar.
Manuscript support lies behind these sources. And this is where things get especially interesting. Around 12 manuscripts are essential for determining the wording of Caesar’s account. The oldest manuscript is from the ninth century—a full 900 years removed from the actual events. The list extends to manuscripts from the 12th century. Cicero’s speeches have an even older pedigree. They have about 15 manuscripts ranging from AD 400 to 800. Sallust’s account has around 20 manuscripts from the 10th and 11th centuries. Plutarch’s Lives is also mostly divided across six key manuscripts that range from the 10th and 11th centuries. Suetonius’s manuscript is dated AD 820. Classics scholars build much of our understanding of Caesar around these sources, even though their manuscript traditions contain significant gaps of time.
Considering Jesus’s Sources
What about Jesus? Here we mostly rely on the four Gospels. Their production falls well within the Suetonian and Plutarchian time period. But even if you hold to the more conservative tradition that the synoptics were written in the 60s and John in the 90s, or the common alternative that the synoptics were written in the 80s, you’re still within 60 years of the events described. Contemporaries of Jesus and eyewitnesses of those events were still alive, unlike Suetonius’s or Plutarch’s accounts…
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