The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

28
Thallus on the Crucifixion

Dale C. Allison Jr.

Thallus was a Pagan or Samaritan historian who wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world from before the Trojan War to his own day, which was the middle or latter part of the first century CE. His work, written in Greek, has perished and is known only through mention in later writers. Among these is the ninth-century Byzantine historian George Syncellus, who, in a quotation from another lost history—that of the early third-century Julius Africanus—refers to Thallus's words about the darkness that accompanied the death of Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). According to Julius Africanus, Thallus attributed that darkness to an eclipse.

We, unfortunately, do not have Thallus's own words about the matter, only Julius Africanus's summary of their import. Yet the fact that the latter states his disagreement with Thallus's interpretation—“This, it seems to me, is contrary to reason”—strongly implies that Thallus was offering a mundane explanation for what happened when Jesus died. If so, and if Thallus, as so many have thought, wrote in the 50s of the first century, then he would be both the earliest nonChristian witness to Jesus and the earliest witness to the tradition (oral or written we do not know) that a darkness coincided with the Crucifixion. Although this hardly entails the historicity of such an event, it would establish a pre-Markan origin for the story.


TRANSLATION: FRAGMENT FROM JULIUS SEXTUS
AFRICANUS, QUOTING THALLUS

There fell upon the whole world a most fearful darkness; and, with an earthquake, the rocks were rent and many places in Judaea and the rest of the earth were thrown down. In the third book of his Histories, Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun. This, it seems to me, is contrary to reason. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day of the moon [when it is full], and what happened to our savior happened one day before Passover. Yet

-405-

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