Is there a problem when contemporary sources don’t mention Jesus? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
One of the hallmarks of internet atheism today is to hold that Jesus never even existed and there’s no evidence that He did. Now this position is one that is laughed at in the academy of New Testament scholarship, but on the internet, it’s treated as if it’s a lively debate. (These same people will be howling if you dare question evolution, which also isn’t really questioned in the scientific academy and since I am not a scientist, I do not raise up questions to it either. It makes no difference to me.) It’s quite amazing that for all the people I meet who claim to be freethinkers, they all seem to think exactly alike.
A popular tactic to use is one called Remsburg’s list. For instance, on site called Positive Atheism has a reference to Remsburg’s list by putting up chapter two of Remsburg’s own book. You can see it here. To the unsuspecting Christian, this seems like something remarkable, especially since in our day and age Michael Paulkovich has come out with a similar list with his joining the mythicist bandwagon.
To an unsuspecting Christian this list looks powerful. To an uninformed atheist, this list looks like a silver bullet.
Alas, I must say I am more skeptical than my skeptic friends apparently. You see, when I come across a claim, I actually want to question and investigate it. Let’s see the claim this way.
Jesus was a wildly popular figure in the ancient world.
Since Jesus was so popular, He should have been talked about by everyone.
Jesus was not talked about by everyone.
Therefore, Jesus didn’t exist.
To begin with, the whole thing is a total non sequitur. There are any number of reasons for not mentioning people and this would include more famous ones not noted by their contemporaries such as Hannibal, who nearly conquered Rome, and Gamaliel, who was one of the greatest teachers of Torah in Judaism. None of these were worthy of a mention by their own contemporaries. (And it’s quite odd to think that a general who nearly conquered the Roman Empire would go without a mention, but a crucified failed Messiah (In the eyes of the world) should have been mentioned. Of course, there is more to the answer than this.
Let’s first consider that Jesus was wildly popular. Not really. Jesus was a flash in the pan in the ancient world as it were. In His lifetime, many people did talk about Him, but His greatest popularity was with the peasants in the area. The educated elite saw Him as a threat and not someone they would want to talk about. This is in fact only in Judea. As I have argued elsewhere, for the rest of the world, Jesus was not worth talking about. Let’s list some reasons why those outside of Jesus and who heard about Him later on would not want to talk about Him.
He had a low honor birth. He was born in a shameful part of the world in a low-honor town and could have in fact been seen as illegitimate. His immediate parents were peasants.
Aside from Egypt as a small child, He never left the area of Israel.
He never went to battle.
He never ran for political office or held political office.
He did not write any books. (And actually, while Paulkovich considers this odd, rabbis did not write books nor did many great teachers. Their followers often did. See Sandy and Walton’s The Lost World of Scripture.
He was seen as a miracle worker. (Think charlatan. This might convince eyewitnesses, but if you weren’t there, what are you going to think? You’ll more likely treat Him like most people treat Benny Hinn today.)
He did not establish a philosophical school.
He was crucified.
I cannot emphasize that last one enough. Jesus would be seen as a failed Messiah figure. The Jews would have considered Him a blasphemer to YHWH and He didn’t even conquer the Roman Empire and set the Jewish people free like surely the Messiah would do. The Gentiles would have seen Him as someone who challenged Rome and got crushed by them. That He got crucified would put an end to any of His career and thus render Him someone not worth talking about. Add in a bizarre belief in a resurrection, which would have been shameful since most people saw the body as a prison you would want to escape, and well that’s just another example of superstitious people.
The shocking thing is not how few people talked about Jesus. The shock is that anyone did at all.
But now let’s consider some of the people on the list. Many of them were not people who would mention Jesus anyway. Ptolemy was writing about astronomy. Why would he mention Jesus? Why would Philostratus write about Jesus? He was trying to promote his own guy and a great way to shame the Christians would be to not even mention Jesus. Why would Epictetus? These were teachings on stoicism and personal philosophy. Martial wrote poetry and satire. Why would any historian of Rome need to mention a failed Messiah?
So let’s go into some other figures.
Philo is often mentioned, but we need to see evidence Philo had a great interest in writing about failed Messiah figures. It’s also not accurate to say that Philo was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. He wasn’t. Even if he had been, a crucifixion would have ruled Jesus out as someone worth talking about. Of course, if he had seen him and believed he was resurrected and wrote about that, then skeptics would count that testimony as biased and not accept it.
Plutarch wrote about lives of virtue to be emulated, but they were not Jewish figures. Furthermore, to have Jesus be crucified would immediately put him down as a list of people to not emulate.
For Justus, we do not possess his work. We just have a Christian much later saying Justus did not mention Jesus. Again, why should he? Justus from what we gather was interested in political figures. Herod would be included. Jesus would not be.
Figures like Josephus and Tacitus did mention Jesus but lo and behold, these are interpolations. (Read that as “Idea difficult for my viewpoint so I have to say it’s questionable.) These ideas are not popular with actual scholars of Tacitus and Josephus, but then again, keeping up with scholarly work has not been a favorite pastime of mythicists.
In conclusion, looking at the list, there are several people who would have had no interest and the position ignores the ones who did mention him. Arguments from silence are notoriously bad arguments and if your position hangs on it, you might need to seriously question it.