jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/Ecce_homo_by_Antonio_Ciseri_1-300x229.jpgI’m currently doing some work on the chronology of the book of Acts, and one of the key chronological benchmarks is in Acts 24:27, when the Roman procurator who presently has Paul in custody (Felix) is replaced by his successor (Festus).
You’d think that it would be easy to simply look up in secular sources when this change of government officials took place, but we can’t do that. We don’t have the records, and dating the beginning of Festus’s tenure is tricky.
In fact, as*Ben Witherington points out:
About Felix’s successor, Porcius Festus, very little can be said, for our sources are limited to what we find in Acts 25–26 and in Josephus, Ant. 20.182–97 and War 2.271**The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary*, 717].
The sources we have about Festus are limited to Acts and a couple of passages in Josephus.
Now, Festus was an important man. He ruled the entire province of Judaea (more than just the Southern territory of Judea). He had a huge number of subjects. He’s one of the successors of Pontius Pilate. Further, he was one of the few (some say the only)*good procurator that the Romans sent to Judaea.
And yet we know only a tiny amount about him.
From this, several things suggest themselves . . .
1) The footprint left in ancient historical sources by even as important a person as the Roman procurator of Judaea can be very slight.
No doubt, in his own day, there were many more literary references to him–in all kinds of works, from official government documents to private letters–but except for the references in Acts and two passages of Josephus, they have all perished.
2) This should help us calibrate our expectations regarding other people in the ancient world.
If the Roman procurator has only two ancient authors mentioning him, then we would expect the vast majority of his subjects to go completely unmentioned in historical sources–as, indeed, they do.
We know the names of only a handful of Festus’s subjects, and they are people who have significant stature, like the high priests of his day.
3) We should not make excessive demands about mentions of Jesus in ancient sources.
Jesus came from the peasant class (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev. 12:8), and we would expect the events of his early life to leave no traces at all in surviving secular sources.
It was only after his ministry began that he became such a public figure that he might be expected to be mentioned in non-Christian sources, as he and the movement he founded is:
*]Suetonius, writing around A.D. 121
*]Tacitus, writing around A.D. 116
*]Pliny the Younger, writing in A.D. 110 or 111
*]The Emperor Trajan, writing back to Pliny in A.D. 110 or 111
*]And Josephus, writing around A.D. 93 (including the undisputed passage regarding his brother James the Just)
Comparing this to the single non-Christian source mentioning Festus (Josephus), and the number of early, non-Christian sources mentioning Jesus is quite ample!
He left a bigger footprint on the literature of his day than did this Roman procurator!
4) We shouldn’t dismiss the historical value of biblical evidence
A historian of the Roman empire would have two early century sources to tell him about Porcius Festus: Luke and Josephus.
It would be foolish to ignore either of these and, indeed, secular historians do not discount things Luke says simply because his works are in the New Testament.
Only hyper-skeptical individuals dismiss the New Testament as a historical source out of hand.
Sober historians treat it like they do other historical sources. One coming from a secular approach will not regard it as divinely inspired, but that does not mean it is without historical value.
The idea that everything the New Testament says should be considered false unless otherwise confirmed by outside sources is nonsense.
Historical evidence found in the New Testament is just that . . . historical evidence.