No Contemporary References to Jesus: Objections and Answers

The major claim from general atheist is that Jesus is not recorded in any contemporary references outside of the Biblical Accounts themselves. This is often followed by an out of context quote or image from Bart Erhman stating that no such thing exists. However, the irony in that is Erhman believes and states that over 95% of scholars believe that Jesus existed.

We’ve shown in the Historical Analysis of Jesus Christ that these claims need to be taken seriously by people. The claim that Jesus didn’t exist actually goes against current scholarship and progressing historical analysis. Therefore, to claim that Jesus didn’t exist someone would have to challenge 95% of the scholarship and show that He did not exist.

In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman (a secular agnostic) wrote:

"He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" [B. Ehrman, 2011]

Further we see an Atheist Historian,

"Scholars who specialize in the origins of Christianity agree on very little, but they do generally agree that the historical preacher, Jesus Christ, existed. The numbers of professional scholars, out of the many thousands in this and related fields, who don't accept this consensus, can be counted on the fingers of one hand." Quoted from Atheist Historicial Writer Tim O'Neill

Michael Grant (a classicist) states that

"In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary." [in Jesus by Michael Grant 2004 p. 200]

The meme that many Online Atheist post is a quote, unsourced, by Bart Erhman stating that “In the entirety of the first century, Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, Religious Leader, Scholar, Politician, Philosopher or Poet. His name is not found on any inscription or correspondence. Zero.” Yet these Atheist are unable to source this quote within its context. Erhamn isn’t refuting Jesus’ existence, in fact, he is doing the opposite. He is stating that Jesus ABSOLUTELY existed.

Further, to the objection that there are no contemporary Roman records of Jesus' existence, Ehrman points out that such records exist for almost no one and there are mentions of Christ in several Roman works of history from only decades after the Crucifixion of Jesus.[1][3] The author states that the authentic letters of the apostle Paul in the New Testament were likely written within a few years of Jesus' death and that Paul likely personally knew James, the brother of Jesus.[2] Although the gospel accounts of Jesus' life may be biased and unreliable in many respects, Ehrman writes, they and the sources behind them which scholars have discerned still contain some accurate historical information.[1][3] So many independent attestations of Jesus' existence, Ehrman says, are actually "astounding for an ancient figure of any kind".[2] Ehrman dismisses the idea that the story of Jesus is an invention based on pagan myths of dying-and-rising gods, maintaining that the early Christians were primarily influenced by Jewish ideas, not Greek or Roman ones,[1][2] and repeatedly insisting that the idea that there was never such a person as Jesus is not seriously considered by historians or experts in the field at all.[1]

As you can see, though they believe to be showing some sort of argument finisher, they are only presenting a quote out of context and just that - a quote. Not actual evidence against the existence of Jesus Christ. The issue remains that there are no contemporary historical documents for anyone who lived in the first century. That is because whenever a historian took something on it was for past events that occurred either prior to their life or within their time but in prior years. There is a strong irony, do a quick google search for “first century contemporary figures” and you’ll see all “Jesus” articles arise because He is the only one whose existence is being debated. There has been several studies, which we will go into in other articles, that show the comparison between Jesus and other figures who aren’t debated but considered to have existed without doubt.

One such objection that came about via Twitter was:

This isn't about other personages. It's about the most important person who ever lived, supposedly. And there are no mentions of this person anywhere in the time he supposedly lived. None. I can't say this anymore. A few paltry mentions, and all of them by CHRISTIAN historians!

First, we’ve shown the non-christian and even hostile records for Jesus. Secondly, in the time of the first century, claims were made through every ruler as being a god. This wouldn’t be headlining news in the first century. It’s what happened after that made ripples. I’ll add, when dealing with early Jewish history, you have to put yourself in the early Jewish beholding. You can’t look at this from a 21st century perspective.

Another objection,

Also, you're talking about highly religious ppl, who were excepting a messiah to come at any moment. And still they didn't mention any Jesus Christ or his miracles. Not convincing me that they wouldn't bother, NOT ONE, to mention him.

Yet, here you have a poor view of early Jewish theology and kingship. Jesus is literally the opposite of what any Jew expected for their messiah. So their sheer disdain for his claims meant they wanted to silence him which is actual evidence found in the New Testament for post-death events.

The next objection was,

No one mentions the Josephus or other accounts prior to the fourth century. No one ever once tried to use it as evidence until then.

Another article goes into the Josephus accounts. However, this objection misfires because it doesn’t take into account two very important things. (1) There was no need to use evidence for Jesus’ existence. This is a very recent argument, not an ancient one. The debate for his existence didn’t exist at the time. (2) Origen quotes it which dates it back to the first century.

Lastly, which will make an appearance in a new study on First Century and Early Evidences of Jesus we have the Talmud which was verbal and began written in 1st century AD. This was extremely important because it shows a hostile account for Jesus possibly in the First Century. More on this in a new study here:

Thus, this brings us to the argument of silence: “No records, no writings, no nothing can be found of Jesus in terms of contemporary evidence.” This argument made from silence is something we need to look closely at and Atheist Historian Tim O’Neill does a solid job at.

Several historiographers have outlined the proper structure for such an argument. For example:

“To be valid, the argument from silence must fulfil two conditions: the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.” (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 1946 p.149)

Langlois and Seignobos formulate this kind of argument in much the same manner, though perhaps constrain it more strictly:

“That which is conclusive is not the absence of any document on a given fact, but silence as to the fact in a document in which it would naturally be mentioned. The negative argument is thus limited to a few clearly defined cases. (1) The author of the document in which the fact is not mentioned had the intention of systematically recording all the facts of the same class, and must have been acquainted with all of them …. (2) The fact, if it was such, must have affected the author’s imagination so forcibly as necessarily to enter into his conceptions. (C. V. Langlois and C. Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History, transl. G. G. Berry, 1898, p. 256)

In his classic paper on the subject, John Lange comments on Langlois and Seignobos’ formulation and is careful to note that these more restrictive conditions “are proposed with respect to the conclusiveness of a given instance of the argument” and says that some sound arguments from silence may not meet these exacting criteria and so not be said to be totally conclusive but may still be persuasive (Lange, “The Argument from Silence”, History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1966), pp. 288–301, p. 290 pp. 290-1). What is essential to all historiographical formulations of an argument from silence, however, is that it is not the silence that is key, it is the argument that there should not be silence. The strength of this kind of argument lies in showing that there is silence in the sources where silence should not exist. Any attempted argument that does not do this or does not do it competently will immediately fail.

In the words of Atheist Historian, “Here is where the naive mythicist fails, these naïve Mythicists do not seem to realise exactly how scanty our surviving sources are even for highly prominent events and famous people, let alone for the minor doings of a Jewish peasant preacher.”

Take, for example, the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. This was a major catastrophe, resulting in the total destruction of two entire provincial Italian cities – Pompeii and Herculaneum – with a total population of up to 20,000 people and causing the death of many thousands of those inhabitants. Its impact would have been massive, with tens of thousands of refugees flooding surrounding areas and the local region devastated for years to come. Yet not only do we have no contemporary references to the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we actually have no direct references to the cities by name at all.

Our ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius consist of:

(i) Two detailed descriptions by Pliny the Younger in letters to Cornelius Tacitus – LettersVI.16 and VI.20.

(ii) Two passing references to the volcano and its eruption in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, III.209 and IV.507, written circa 90 AD.

(iii) One longer mention of the disaster in Martial’s Epigrams, IV.44, witten in the late 80s or early 90s AD:

“Observe Vesuvius. Not long ago it was covered with the grapevine’s green shade, and a famous grape wet, nay drowned the vats here. Bacchus loved the shoulders of this mountain more than the hills of Nysa [his birthplace], satyrs used to join their dances here. Here was a haunt of Venus, more pleasant than Lacedaemon to her, here was a place where Hercules left his name. It all lies buried by flames and mournful ash. Even the gods regret that their powers extended to this. “

The mention of “… a place where Hercules left his name” seems to be an rather oblique reference to Herculaneum and the closest thing we have to a mention of the two destroyed cities.

(iv) One reference to the disaster by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.141, that says that the grandson of Herod Agrippa and his wife died in the disaster:

” … that young man (Agrippa), with his wife, perished at the conflagration of the mountain Vesuvius, in the days of Titus Caesar … “

He says he will detail this later in his work, but unfortunately he does not actually do so.

(v) Suetonius mentions the disaster in passing in his short biography of the emperor Titus:

“There were some dreadful disasters during his reign, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, a fire at Rome which continued three days and as many nights, and a plague the like of which had hardly ever been known before.” (Titus, VIII.3)

All of these references mention the eruption but none of them make any explicit mention of Pompeii, Herculaneum or any towns being destroyed. The closest any of them come to this is the part in Pliny’s first letter where he says “this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated”. Beyond that there is only one general reference to towns being buried (in Tacitus) and no direct mention of Pompeii or Herculaneum by name at all. Of course, this does not mean that no such references were made. It is almost certain that there were thousands of accounts, letters, diaries, official records, imperial orders and so on that did so. But the key point is that none of these survive.

Another illustrative example can be found in our earliest references to the Carthaginian general Hannibal. As one of the greatest military commanders in the ancient world and the general who came close to defeating the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War, Hannibal (247- c. 182 BC) was justly famous in his own time and has remained so ever since. His career was also fairly long, beginning at around the age of 18 in 229 BC and spanning about 40 years until at least 190 BC. Yet, despite all this, we have precisely zero references to him in any literary source dating to his lifetime. Of course, as with the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there would have been plenty of such references. And in the case of Hannibal we can be absolutely certain of this, given that we have citations of them and even quotes from them in later accounts of his career. But none of these works actually survive in their own right; as with Jesus, all of our surviving references to him date to decades after his death. The only surviving reference that actually dates to his time is a fragmentary inscription – an epitaph of the Roman consul and general Quintus Fabius Maximus that mentions that “he besieged and recaptured Tarentum and the strong-hold of Hannibal”. This is the only contemporary reference to Hannibal of any kind (* see the note below). So if someone as vastly famous and renowned as Hannibal is mentioned in no surviving contemporary literary sources at all and is only attested in one solitary fragment of an inscription, does it make any kind of sense to base an argument on the lack of any such contemporary references to Jesus? Clearly it does not. The scanty and highly fragmentary nature of our surviving sources on anything or anyone is such that this argument simply makes no sense at all.

The next question is: Who Should Mention Jesus?

You’ll find that the default rhetoric of many is that “should have” equates to Jesus not existing prior to any historical consideration to cultural matters or context. Other slightly less naïve Mythicists at least try to construct their argument from silence coherently; not just by imagining that we have a vast number of complete sources and records that do not mention Jesus, but by noting sources we do have which they claim “should” mention him but do not. In many cases this claim is completely outlandish. Most of the list compiled by the aerospace engineer Michael Paulkovich, for example, is padded by pretty much anyone who wrote anything in the period around the time of Jesus, which makes his claim that his 126 writers somehow “should” have mentioned Jesus rather ridiculous. To begin with, Paulkovich claims writers that “should” have mentioned Jesus, despite the fact we do not actually have any writings by these people at all – the emperor Titus, for example. How Paulkovich could assess the lack of mentions of Jesus in the completely non-existent writings of Titus I have no idea. And Titus is not an isolated example: no less than 47 of the writers Paulkovich lists have no surviving writings at all.

Only slightly less silly than this are writers who feature on the list despite having died before Jesus was born. So Paulkovich lists a “Lysimachus”, without noting which of several writers of that name he is referring to. Not that it matters, given that they all died in the BCs and so, unless they invented time machines, could not really have mentioned Jesus given that he had yet to be born. Then we have people like Silius Italicus and Gaius Valerius Flaccus, who were at least born in the ADs but who wrote works that focused on events long before Jesus’ time. So Silius Italicus wrote a poem about the Second Punic War, and so set centuries before Jesus’ time, while Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica (referred to above because it allues to the eruption of Vesuvius) was about Jason and the Argonauts and so, similarly, had no reason to mention Jesus. Equally ridiculous are the claims that Soranus, who wrote on gynaecology, Frontinus, who wrote a book on aqueducts, or Decimus Valerius Asicatus, whose only known writing is a letter about a stolen pig, all “should” have mentioned Jesus. Most of Paulkovich’s list is so patently stupid that I find myself wondering if he wrote it as a satirical parody of just how bad this kind of argument can be.

He does get to some people who at least plausibly could have mentioned Jesus, but that does not mean that they should have done so. Here we find a few of the same figures we see in David Fitzgerald’s book noted above: Seneca, Gallio, Justus of Tiberias, Nicolaus of Damascus and Philo of Alexandria. These people lived in the right part of the first century, a couple of them were actually Jewish and most of them wrote works that at least mentioned contemporary figures rather than books on gynaecology or letters about pigs. Unfortunately there is still no reason to conclude they “should” have mentioned Jesus. Taking the figures on Fitzgerald’s list in turn:

Seneca? – Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a prominent Stoic philosopher who wrote philosophy and tragic plays, and so is a rather better potential prospect as someone who “should” have mentioned Jesus. But Fitzgerald’s arguments to that effect are extremely weak. Firstly, he says Seneca was famous for his writings on ethics yet “he has nothing to say about arguably the biggest ethical shakeup of his time” (Fitzgerald, Nailed, p. 34). Fitzgerald does not bother to explain what “ethical shakeup” he is referring to, but we would have to assume it somehow refers to the existence of Jesus. Exactly why Seneca, writing in far off Rome, would see the existence and brief career of a Jewish preacher as some kind of massive “ethical shakeup” is left unexplained.

Similarly weak is his argument that because Seneca’s cosmological treatise Questiones Naturales makes no mention of the alleged natural phenomena claimed to mark key points in Jesus’ career according to the later gospel accounts (the so-called Star of Bethlehem, the earthquake reported in gMatt’s resurrection narrative and the darkness that was supposed to have marked his death on the cross), somehow this means Jesus did not exist. This may be a reasonable argument that these reported phenomena did not occur, but that does not, therefore, necessarily mean Jesus did not exist. Here, as in many other places, Fitzgerald confuses “the existence of a historical Jesus” with “the existence of the Jesus of conservative orthodox Christian belief”.

But Fitzgerald’s strangest argument is the one about which he is most conflated:

“[I]n another book, On Superstition, Seneca lambasts every known religion, including Judaism. But, strangely, he makes no mention whatsoever about Christianity, which was supposedly spreading like wildfire across the empire.” (p. 34)

Here Fitzgerald gives light assurances about the content of another work which no longer exists. On Superstition survives in just a few sentences quoted by Augustine in his City of God, written four centuries later. So how on earth can Fitzgerald claim that it covers “every known religion” but leaves out Christianity? Given the fact we do not have the work in question, we have no idea what religions it did or did not cover. That aside, Seneca famously took his own life on order of Nero in 65 AD, and this was at a time when Christianity was not “spreading like wildfire”, but was actually a tiny and insignificant sect, especially in Rome and the western half of the Roman Empire (see “Review: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity” for a longer discussion on how small and unimportant Christianity was in this early period). Finally, even if Seneca did have any awareness at all of Christianity in the 60s AD, which is unlikely, he would have no reason to consider it to be anything other than what it was at that stage: a small sect of Judaism. All this makes his lack of mention of it entirely explicable. Fitzgerald notes that Augustine made excuses for Seneca’s lack of notice of Christianity, and on this at least he is correct. It is also unremarkable that a fifth century Christian would overestimate how prominent, noticeable and significant Christianity was in the mid first century and so try to explain the omission. Augustine has an excuse for not understanding Seneca’s cultural and historical context. Fitzgerald, however, does not.

Gallio? – Fitzgerald’s argument here is even more confused. He claims that Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus somehow “should” have mentioned Jesus. But, although Gallio was Seneca’s brother and studied rhetoric under his adoptive father and namesake, we have no works of his at all. So what is Fitzgerald talking about here? In a rather tangled line of argument, he notes that Gallio appears in Acts 18:12-17 as the Roman judge of Paul, who he acquits. Fitzgerald finds it significant that Gallio did not mention “this amazing Jesus character” to his brother and concludes this means Jesus did not exist. He does not bother to consider alternatives, such as (i) Jesus existed but was not so “amazing” as Fitzgerald keeps assuming he has to have been if he existed, (ii) Jesus existed but a learned Roman official did not regard people like him as very interesting or important, (iii) Jesus existed and Gallio did mention him to his brother but Seneca did not regard people like him as very interesting or important or even (iv) the whole Gallio-Paul trial scene is a piece of fiction reported or even created by the writer of Acts to emphasise Paul’s credibility. Fitzgerald skips over all these quite plausible alternatives and leaps gymnastically straight to the conclusion Jesus did not exist.

Justus of Tiberias? – Fitzgerald is on marginally firmer ground with this example, but his argument still does not make sense. Justus of Tiberias was a Jewish aristocrat from Galilee who wrote a (now lost) account of the Jewish War and a history of the rulers of Israel from Moses down to the time of Agrippa II. As Fitzgerald notes, in the ninth century Photios of Constantinople complained in his Bibliotheca (see “The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca”) that Justus “makes not the least mention of the appearance of Christ, or what things happened to him or the wonderful works that he did”. Therefore, Fitzgerald concludes, Justus must have neglected to mention Jesus because he did not exist. But, again, while a devout Christian like Photios may have assumed Justus “should” have mentioned Jesus, we have no valid reason to do so. This is because Justus’ work no longer survives. As a result, we can make no assessment of how interested he was in wandering peasant preachers and prophets. If Justus’ work did survive and was full of references to other such figures – Theudas, for example, or the Egyptian Prophet, or John the Baptist – but did not mention Jesus, then Fitzgerald would have a solid argument. But given that we have no idea how many other such figures Justus mentioned, if any at all, we simply cannot say if his lack of a mention of Jesus is in any way significant.

Nicolaus of Damascus? – That Nicolaus of Damascus, a Greek scholar who was a friend of Herod the Great and tutor to the children of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, did not mention the adult Jesus is hardly surprising given that he was born around 64 BC and so would have died well before a historical Jesus was more than a child. But Fitzgerald presses him into service by claiming that “if the nativity story in Matthew really happened, it is somewhat incredible that none of it was mentioned by Nicolaus” (p. 36), noting that Nicolaus should have witnessed the Wise Men causing Herod “and all Jerusalem” concern and recorded the massacre of the innocents etc. But this is another of Fitzgerald’s weird non sequiturs. Nicolaus’ silence on these alleged events may very well cast some considerable doubt on those particular episodes in one particular gospel, but that does not mean Jesus therefore did not exist. Even many Christians do not accept the Infancy Narratives in gMatt and gLuke, but non-historical stories get told about historical people. This example simply does not support Fitzgerald’s conclusion.

Philo of Alexandria? – If there is a writer who generally gets brought up in this form of the Mythicist argument from silence it is Philo of Alexandria, so it is no surprise that Fitzgerald places emphasis on the supposed significance of his silence about Jesus. Philo was a Jew who lived in the right period (c. 20 BC – c. 50 AD) and who left an extensive corpus of writings, many of which are still extant. Fitzgerald notes, correctly that this theological writer produced many “philosophical treatises on Judaism”, but assures us that Philo also wrote “commentaries on contemporary politics and events of note affecting the Jews” (p. 37) This claim is not actually wrong, but as even a brief survey of Philo’s surviving works shows it does not give an accurate picture of the content of Philo’s work. Of the 43 or so works included in Charles Duke Yonge’s standard edition of Philo’s collected works, just twoAgainst Flaccus and the Embassy to Gaius – are anything other than theological or philosophical treatises. These two works do mention a few relevant figures from his time – Herod Agrippa, for example, or Pontius Pilate – but they have a fairly narrow focus and so there is a vast number of people who we know existed in Philo’s time who do not get mentioned by him. These two non-philosophical/theological works have a particular subject focus, so it is hardly surprising that they only mention a few historical figures who are relevant to the rather specific political points Philo is trying to make. This means that any claim that if Philo did not mention a figure of his time in these two particular works, so they therefore did not exist is utterly ridiculous. Nowhere in either of these works do we find a reference to the 19 or so high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem who held that office in his lifetime, but no-one would pretend this somehow casts some doubt on their existence – it is just that there is no context in either of these two works in which we would expect to see them mentioned. Similarly, he makes no mention of the nine figures in his time who we could characterise as Jewish preachers, prophets or Messianic claimants, which means any argument that he “should” have mentioned Jesus when he made no mention of any other figure like him is equally absurd. Yet this is the claim Fitzgerald and many other Mythicists make.

Fitzgerald presses on to assure us that Philo “wrote a great deal on other Jewish sects of the time, such as the Essenes and the Theraputae, but nothing on Jesus, or on Christianity either” (p. 37). Again, anyone who has actually read Philo knows this is nonsense. He did not write on “other Jewish sects of the time, such as the Essenes and the Theraputae”, as though these are just two examples of many – they are the only such sects he mentions. Nowhere does he mention any other Jewish sects, including major ones such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both of which were far more prominent and numerous than the Essenes and the Theraputae. Fitzgerald misrepresents his source, yet again, by pretending Philo gave some comprehensive or even extensive discussion of Jewish sects when he actually just mentions two in passing.

Fitzgerald also makes characteristically extravagant claims about how Philo should have mentioned Jesus because “he had strong connections to Jerusalem” and claims “he didn’t just spend time in Jerusalem – his family was intimately connected with the royal house of Judea” (p. 37). Leaving aside the fact that we have evidence for just one brief pilgrimage visit to Jerusalem by Philo (see On Providence II.64), even the gospels depict Jesus’ career as taking place in the backwater rural areas of Galilee and only have him going to Jerusalem briefly in the days before his execution. So the idea that Philo was somehow a regular visitor there and so should, by some remarkable coincidence, have been there on the particular Passover week in which Jesus was there before he died is highly fanciful stuff. For all Fitzgerald’s bombastic claims, the idea that Philo somehow “should” have mentioned Jesus collapses on multiple fronts.

Fitzgerald’s arguments do not get any better when he turns from contemporary figures who he claims “should” have mentioned Jesus to some slightly later writers who he thinks should not be silent about him. Here we find an odd collection of mainly second and third century writers, but it is hard to see why any of them “should” have mentioned Jesus, given their total lack of interest in anything to do with Judaism, let alone the obscure founder of a tiny offshoot Jewish sect. Indeed, Fitzgerald loses track of his own argument with several of these, drifting from noting that they did not mention Jesus to their lack of mention of “Christianity”. This may tell us something of the tiny size and relative obscurity of Christianity in this period (which is already clear from other evidence), but that tells us precisely nothing about the existence or otherwise of its founder.

So Fitzgerald’s grand pronouncements essentially boil down to … nothing at all. He completely fails the test for a valid and convincing argument from silence, in that none of his writers can be shown that they “should” have mentioned Jesus. It is worth, therefore, going back and looking again at the bold assertion with which Fitzgerald begins his arguments on this point. Here it is again:

“There were plenty writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus’) region and its happenings …. We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs.” (Fitzgerald, p. 22)

As we have just seen, this is abject nonsense. There are, in fact, remarkably few writers with much interest in Jesus’ region and its happenings, and the claim we have “scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine” is total and complete garbage. As is the claim that these “scores of writers” included mentions of “several failed Messiahs” in the early first century. We have barely any such references and pretty much all of them come from just one writer – Josephus – who DID mention Jesus at least once and perhaps twice.

Next Question: Doesn’t Jesus’ fame matter?

It is interesting how many of these failed attempts at an argument from silence to show the non-existence of Jesus are predicated on the spectacular miracles depicted in the gospels being historically true. As we have seen with several of Fizgerald’s weakest arguments, this means that unless someone does not simply accept a historical Jewish preacher at the origin point and core of the Jesus traditions but also argues for a “maximalist” Jesus of Faith, complete with water walking, levitation, water into wine and a resurrection or three, these arguments lose all their force. But other attempts at this kind of argument simply assume that Jesus was “a big deal” or “widely famous” and so concludes that he “should“, based on this Sunday School conception of Jesus, have been mentioned in his time by … well, someone. Of course, it is very hard to get a firm handle on any but the broadest details of Jesus’ life and only a handful of elements from the later stories are deemed highly likely to be historical, so it is difficult to gauge exactly how “famous” he was. But even a face value reading of the gospels shows the assumption that he “must” have been noticed is on shaky ground.

The earliest gospel, gMark, illustrates this rather neatly. Here is a work that is making great claims for Jesus and concludes triumphantly with the realization (by a Roman) that he was God’s anointed one. Yet when, early in the narrative, the gospel writer wants to assure his readers that Jesus was widely famed, he says:

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:27-28)

Later, in Mark 6:14 the writer tells us that “Jesus’ name had become well known”, but he gives this as an explanation for why Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had come to hear of him. So the earliest gospel does not depict Jesus’ “fame” spreading beyond the rather tiny region of Galilee – a territory you could stroll across in a day. Even then he depicts Jesus preaching in small towns and rural villages, and never shows him entering any of the cities of Galilee or any major urban centre at all until he journeys south to Jerusalem for Passover and is killed. So his “fame” is largely restricted to a very small area of roughly 150 square kilometres and one that was considered a backwater even by other Jews, let alone by Roman or Greek historians in cities far away from this utterly inconsequential corner of the Empire.

The writer of the later gospel of gMatt seems to have noticed that the claim Jesus became renowned “over the whole region of Galilee” sounded somewhat feeble, so he boosted this reference considerably in his version of it:

“Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. News about him spread throughout all Syria. …. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matt 4:23-25)

This expands Jesus’ supposed sphere of influence considerably, though there is nothing anywhere else in gMatt or any of the other gospels to support the claim his fame spread through the whole Roman province of Syria, which extended north as far as modern Turkey, and the reference to “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” probably indicates the area the gMatt writer was referring to. Again, this seems to be a deliberate expansion of the modest claim in gMark, but even if we take it at face value, we are still only talking about a radius of a few days’ journey on foot. So even if this claim were true, it is hard to see why this very unfamous level of “fame” would attract much attention from writers of the time.

Then we have the problem of guessing exactly how long Jesus’ preaching “career” was. The traditional answer is that he preached for three years, but this is based entirely on the fact that the latest gospel, gJohn, contradicts the three earlier gospels by depicting three separate Passover journeys to Jerusalem, while they depict only one. If we do not accept that this is historical, then the events in the earlier gospels can actually be compressed into only a few months, or even a few weeks. gMark in particular seems to depict a fairly rapid sequence of events, and both gMark and gMatt often link episodes with variants of words like εὐθέως (“immediately”), giving a strong impression of these events happening in fairly quick succession. If indeed his “career” was a couple of years or even much less, the window for any “contemporary” attestation is extremely narrow. Recall that above we saw that Hannibal is barely directly attested at all in his lifetime, yet his far more prominent career spanned the Mediterranean world and lasted over 40 years.

Finally, we have good evidence of other early first century Jewish preachers, prophets and perhaps Messianic claimants who, by the accounts given in Josephus, were much more prominent and famous than even the Jesus depicted in the gospels, yet who were not mentioned by anyone at all until Josephus wrote at the end of the first century – decades later. Around 44 AD Theudas reportedly had a following of “a great part of the people” and led them to the Jordan with the promise that he would miraculously divide the waters. His following was apparently large enough that the procurator Cuspius Fadus had to dispatch a cohort of cavalry to disperse it. How many contemporary mentions do we have of these events? Zero. Then there is the Egyptian Prophet, who is said to have led “30,000 men” out of the wilderness to the Mount of Olives with the promise that they would see the walls of Jerusalem miraculously fall down. All they actually saw were the swords and lances of the several cohorts of both auxiliary infantry and cavalry that the Roman procurator Antonius Felix sent out to kill them, but how many contemporary references do we have to these large scale disturbances? Absolutely none at all.

So the idea that Jesus somehow “should” have been famous enough and that his “career” “should “have been long and noticeable enough to pique the interest of or even come to the attention of writers of his time becomes completely unconvincing. Even the gospels, which are clearly striving to depict him as highly significant, only show him as a local preacher who, when the time came to suppress him, was arrested by a body of Temple guards in a minor scuffle. The idea that some aristocratic writer in Rome, Corinth or even Damascus would have heard of him, let alone felt moved to write about him is deeply unlikely.

Thus, in conclusion thanks to various historical analysis done by diligent writers, we can understand that these contemporary claims are not in line with standard historical practice or analysis. These, ironically, contemporary claims on ancient contemporary matters need to be put to rest. The evidence for Jesus is significant enough where it can be an established fact. We accept much less for other historical figures, yet become utterly backlogged when dealing with Jesus.

Citations and Papers:
1. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A.D. 325, The Story of Civilization: Part III (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944), 553.

2. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. Garden City, NY: Doubleday—Anchor Books, 1991), 68.

3. Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 6.

4. “Jesus ‘not a real person’ many believe,” BBC News, Oct. 31, 2015. “What Do Americans Believe about Jesus? 5 Popular Beliefs,”, April 1, 2015. Belief that Jesus was a real human person goes up steadily with age, suggesting that the idea that Jesus did not exist is one that may become increasingly common in the future.

5. This is a very simplified description of criteria that philosophers have identified as relevant to determining the best explanation for a set of evidence. The classic study on the subject is C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), especially 19–28.

6. For discussions of various Christian approaches to history, see Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005).

7. Two recent books representative of this point of view are Robert M. Price, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems (Austin, TX: American Atheist Press, 2011); and Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2014).

8. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 4.

9. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Myths, Miracles, and the Historical Jesus” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

10. See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 19–65; Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament; Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, 35–68.

11. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Tacitus, Suetonius, and the Historical Jesus” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

12. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament, 71.

13. Representative works arguing this point include Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, 514-28; Thomas S. Verenna, “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles,” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus, edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna, Copenhagen International Seminar (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2012; Durham, UK: Acumen, 2013), 131–59. For a response to Verenna, see Neil Godfrey, “Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure?—‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8,” Vridar (blog), Sept. 30, 2012.

14. On Paul’s teaching about the preexistence of Christ, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 81–84, 88–90.

15. For discussions from varying perspectives demonstrating that Paul definitely attested to an historical, earthly Jesus, see, for example, James D. G. Dunn, “Jesus Tradition in Paul,” in Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 155–78; Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 201–233; Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ: After Jesus, Volume 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 176–209; Michael Labahn, “The Non-Synoptic Jesus: An Introduction to John, Paul, Thomas, and Other Outsiders of the Jesus Quest,” and David Wenham, “Jesus Tradition in the Letters of the New Testament,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Volume 3: The Historical Jesus, edited by Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 1936–51 (1933–96), 2041–57; Mogens Müller, “Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus,” in Is This Not the Carpenter, edited by Thompson and Verenna, 117–29; Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, 117–74; Casey, Jesus, chapters 5-6.

16. See especially Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Dearborn, MI: Dove Booksellers, 2004).

17. E.g., Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); Darrell L. Bock and Robert L. Webb, eds., Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

18. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 13.

19. Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul, trans. William F. Stinespring (New York: Macmillan; London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1943), 107.

20. Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 200. Grant’s quotation is from Stephen Neill, What We Know about Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 45.

21. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1960), 119.

22. Tim O’Neill: Direct quotes and blog from Atheist Historian Tim O’Neill. Literally copy and pasted. Added commentary and subsequent thoughts.