Jesus Is Not Worth Talking About

Why should no one care to talk about Jesus? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Today, Jesus is a really popular guy. Everyone who is informed today in the world knows something about Jesus. Everyone has to come up with a response to him. Islam that came up after Christianity had to explain Jesus. Religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that existed prior to Christianity try to give a place to Jesus. Cult groups that rise up have to say something about Jesus.

In pop culture, he’s everywhere. Sure. We could talk about a movie like “The Passion of the Christ” but how many movies do we see where a hero dies and we see his arms outstretched and think “He’s supposed to mirror Christ.” How many times do we see the concept of one person sacrificing themselves for another and realize that we’re supposed to see Christ?

Discussion today still rages around this person. Philosophers and ethicists look at his life and discuss whether miracles are possible and what the great teaching of Jesus was. Ethically, most would say Jesus was ahead of his time. Even those who are not Christians like Jesus. Richard Dawkins even has support for the idea of “Atheists for Jesus.” Even those who don’t think Jesus was a historical figure often can point to several good teachings we’d like to see followed in the gospels.

When we see such a figure like Jesus, we have this idea that surely everyone must have been excited when he showed up on the scene! Surely everyone must have been paying attention to someone who claimed to be the Son of God and was working miracles!

But no. For the ancient world, Jesus was not worth talking about.

And that’s for very good reason.

Suppose today that somehow, Mormonism took over America. Then using America as its main tool of evangelism, the Mormon Church became the dominant world religion after that with everyone all over the world knowing about Joseph Smith.

Now suppose one historian says “I want to know all about the origins of Joseph Smith!” So off he goes to do some research and studies the accounts and says “Well, I see we have a notice of birth here, but that was for everyone. Nothing special about Joseph Smith.”

The historian looks and notices that few people outside the church really were interested in the life of Smith. If they wrote about him, they would write to condemn him if anything. Even nearly 200 years later, the ones who would write about him most were generally those following his tradition or those who were his critics wanting to stop his tradition.

Our historian could be puzzled. This man is known all over the world today after all. Why would no one make a big deal about his life?

The mistake many people make is the same with Jesus. They look at how He is today and assume that it must have been the same for those people back then. The truth is, it wasn’t. Jesus just really wasn’t worth talking about. In fact, what I tell people is that it doesn’t surprise me how few sources outside the NT mention Jesus. What surprises me is that any of them bother to do so.

Many skeptics make a big deal out of what is called the argument from silence. The principle one must keep in mind with silence is that where we would expect silence anyway, the argument from silence is weak.

There are some claims that we would not expect to see mentioned because they’re mundane. The fact that the president had breakfast this morning would not be worth mentioning in a future biography. Most people do that already. The fact that he is in a tight political situation with Syria would be worth mentioning.

Let’s suppose however that someone shows up centuries from now who is unaware of who the president is and they pick up a biography. They read it and find no mention of Michelle Obama anywhere in it. They could be justified in thinking that Obama wasn’t married. Why? Because an important aspect of any president we’ve had is who their first lady was. Note they could have justification, but they’d still be wrong.

When someone writes something claiming it is historical, they write it for two reasons. The first one is that they think that it is true and they want you to believe it. The second is they think that it is false and they still want you to believe it. One could write about a belief they wish to criticize, but they want you to know they think their criticism is true.

Also, we have to keep in mind that in the ancient world, much has been lost. We could say some of it has been destroyed by some groups, including the Christians, but we can also say much has been lost due to the ravages of time. For instance, we would love to have Thallus’s record of the darkness at the crucifixion. We don’t. Most likely because it has been lost over time. Furthermore, keep in mind how much would have been lost in Jerusalem where the most would have been said about Jesus! After its destruction, Josephus even said it looked like there had never been a city there.

Suppose there was an event that took place and 100% of the people noticed this event. Then suppose that 100% of the people recorded it. Already, this is extremely unlikely. 100% of the people who could write wouldn’t even mention the rule of Caesar due to writing about their own interests. Still, stay with the argument. Now suppose 15% of those writings have survived. What are the odds we will have a statement about that event happening today?

Answer: 15%.

This gets even more complicated when we realize that we live in a post-Gutenberg society. Today if something happens, it hits the written word before too long. Blogs can be written near instantly. Newspapers will have it all the next day. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites will have the news everywhere. It will show up on the major news networks as well and even with pictures in many of these places. Why? Because we have the means to do that today and it works well. If we see someone in our society who is incapable of reading, we find that person to be an anomaly. How can you make it without reading? Gutenberg made it so that books are more accessible to people and therefore made reading more of a necessity.

Now go back to the time of Jesus.

Let’s suppose in Judea about 10% of the population could read. Also, keep in mind that even if you could read, being able to write was a totally different skill. Furthermore, paper would not come about cheap. It was a costly process to make and ink was just as costly. Then, you also had to pay someone who could send your message to its recipients. In fact, the cost of writing one of Paul’s epistles if put by today’s standards could be around $2,500.

You can go this route if you want to, or you can go the route of oral tradition whereby you could have items memorized and in a society where memorization was prized. After all, if you could not make a note to yourself and read it later, you will make it by improving your memory over time. Furthermore, Jesus’s parables were often memorable and easy to learn. We can have a parallel today by seeing how easy it is to learn a song after hearing it a couple of times or to tell a joke after just one hearing.

In the oral tradition, the story would be told to a community and that community would pass it on and check itself regularly to make sure the facts were still the same. Minor details could change, but the gist of the story had to remain the same and checks and balances were in place to make sure it happened. In reality, this tradition was more valued than the written tradition because it had more checks and balances to it.

So you can write your message down which would cost thousands of dollars and be heard by few, or you could have the story spread orally.

It was no contest.

Hence, when we are told “Why didn’t anyone write this down for decades?” the response is “Why should they?” It was only when the apostles began to die off that they wanted to get their teaching down for the future generations as apostolic authority was very important. Until then, there wasn’t much need.

“Well why would no one else really want to mention the Son of God doing miracles?”

Question. How many of you have investigated Lourdes? How about perhaps Benny Hinn? How about any miracle claims? Now Lourdes I think has some credibility to it. I don’t attach any to Benny Hinn. Yet few of us have really bothered to really investigate miracle claims from any of these sources because they’re written off right at the start. If you have a worldview that says “Miracles can’t happen” then are you really wanting to take the time to investigate Lourdes or just write it off? In fact, those of us who have a worldview that says that miracles can happen rarely investigate Lourdes. We can be just as skeptical!

To the ancient world, someone doing miracles was viewed with great suspicion like a televangelist today and people sought to explain away miraculous claims. Just look at the way Lucian liked to expose a false prophet in his own time.

Do we really think someone sitting in Rome who is concerned about political and economic situations in the Roman Empire is going to want to go and investigate claims of someone like Jesus doing miracles in Judea based on what for him is just hearsay? No. He’s going to dismiss them just as much as you or I would.

Oh yes. Jesus is in Judea. Let’s talk about that. It was an important part of the world as trade routes went through there and it did connect three continents, but it was also a place of strange customs. The people held to what was then seen as a bizarre monotheistic viewpoint and where tolerated only because their belief was old. Judea did not produce great politicians or ethicists or philosophers. The only Jewish philosopher we have of the time, Philo, lived in Alexandria.

Why would anyone take a Jew from this area seriously?

Then of course, there’s the idea that Jesus was crucified. If anything says Jesus is not worth mentioning, it’s that he was crucified. There’s no point in listening after that point. Jesus was guilty of treason to Rome and was seen as guilty of blasphemy to YHWH. On both counts, he would not be mentioned by Jews or Greeks both. Crucified people were not worth talking about, except perhaps only to add further shame to them.

So what do we have of Jesus? He never really traveled in his adult life past Judea. He never held political office. He did not fight any major battles. He was said to perform these questionable practices called miracles. He was from a land that was just bizarre to people. His own hometown in there was a small place not worth talking about. He was crucified.

“But he was the Son of God!”

So He claimed, and yet people looking at that above paragraph that talks about Him would say “If He was the Son of God, you think He’d have avoided crucifixion and have done a bit more.” That claim wasn’t taken any more seriously than you take the claim of the man in the local insane asylum who claims to be the Son of God.

Who talks about Jesus the most? His students, and this is the same for most any great figure in ancient history who’s a teacher. Muslims talk about Muhammad the most. Buddhists talk about Buddha the most. Mormons talk about Joseph Smith the most. Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about Charles Russell the most.

We can look back today and realize Christianity did in fact become the dominant world religion, but no one would have seen that coming at the start. Until around the time of Constantine, it was seen as still something that could be shut down in fact. Even afterwards, Julian the Apostate tried to shut it down and restore paganism, which, of course, he failed at.

Today, we expect people to talk about Jesus. More people can read and write. We have more ways of distributing the written word and its much cheaper. We see the effect today that Jesus did in fact have on history. The Roman Empire was wrong and Jesus was right. Today, we must mention Him.

Back then it was not so, and it should not surprise us.

It is for reasons like this that the argument from silence so often used just doesn’t work. Where we expect to see such silence anyway, the argument is weak, and we can rightly expect that such silence would surround the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

  • [NPeters] “…Nothing special about Joseph Smith. The historian looks and notices that few people outside the church really were interested in the life of Smith.”

    With apologetics of this caliber, who needs skeptics?

    Contemporaries of the Mormons knew they were whack-jobs, hence their constant migration westward to Utah. Enough said about this clever, and maybe revealing, comparison to Xianity all the better.
    In your attempt to strawman the historian, you chose to sleep with the dogs. Prepare to wake with their fleas.

    -b

  • Nice article Nick!

    I notice that when skeptics revert to arguments from silence, especially in regards to the figure of Jesus, they rarely pay attention to the historical “background” in which Jesus was said to have existed. In fact, I find that most of them don’t even really think through idea of Jesus being completely mythical, and actually apply it as a historical hypothesis. Once they do, it becomes completely obvious that such an assertion/hypothesis is absurd in regards to history, and has no explanatory power to it. It does not explain why a figure was invented in such a short time, who was then set in ancient Palestine, in the midst of conflict surrounding Torah-interpretation, the resurrection, the kingdom of God, pagan oppression, and the various other revolutionary ideas that were prevalent in ancient Palestine.

    And even then, most fail to consider that if we put Jesus back into his context, it very clearly shows that Jesus would’ve been regarded as a bizarre apocalyptic prophet, who the normal bystander would have no need to comment on [much less a historian who lives in Greece or Alexandria!], and the authorities would keep watch on. And that significantly lowers the probability of finding a statement about Jesus in extra-Biblical sources from 15%, to a much a lower percentage [if we figure then that 50% of the people present observed the event, and then considering the lower literacy rates, our percentage of actual written materials on Jesus would go down to about 5% of 50%, or 2.5%. Then applying the fact that only 15% of all writings actually survive from the ancient world, we then arrive at an even lower figure of 0.375%. Even then, we are assuming that the 5% of the 50% who observed such events were actually concerned enough to write about events they would consider either superstition or blasphemy to God, which would also lower the percentage of actual written records!]. So, we would be correct, in fact, if we were to assume that only small amounts of secular records attesting to either the belief or existence of Jesus even decades after Jesus lived. It would make perfect sense then why the main story of Jesus has only been preserved in oral traditions and written records through the early Christian communities. It would also make sense why Paul seems to comment relatively little on the life of Jesus [presuming that Paul probably new only brief snapshots of Jesus’ life].

    Josh Steiner

  • [NPeters] “But no. For the ancient world, Jesus was not worth talking about.”

    Ok then. So the first 6 chapters of Acts of the Apostles aren’t historical?

    • Acts 1-6 doesn’t talk about “the ancient world” – it talks about Judea and its immediate surroundings. Most surviving history from this period was written by those outwith the area that Jesus lived and preached, particularly Roman authors who were NOT interested in the supposed antics of a Rabbi in a backwater, primitive province.

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  • I think people today, Christian or not, tend to expect too much from the historical written record. It was costly and difficult to produce tablets, scrolls, and books. If you think about how few people in ancient times actually knew how to read, even in high literacy areas like Judea supposedly was, then it shouldn’t be surprising that writing wouldn’t be a top priority for the apostles. Note, only two (or three) of the twelve apparently bothered to produce a written Gospel. I’m reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s claim, while working on the multi-volume “History of Woman Suffrage,” that she would rather be making history than writing it.

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