“In the entire first century, Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of correspondence. Zero…zip references!”
Dr. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
So goes one widely-circulated Facebook meme (from: “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth“; HarperOne 2013), perpetuated mainly by the atheist crowd. Of course, when I pointed out that it was not entirely accurate, I received the following reply from one astute observer: “The professor quoted is a noted bible scholar, a senior professor, and an ex-Christian. He is more believable than you.”
Well, then! I guess that just settles it, right? After all, this man is a noted scholar of the New Testament and, therefore, his authority on the subject simply must not be questioned! And, that’s perfectly fine for those who are willing to lap up the disgusting medieval gruel they are fed without considering that there just might be something a little more healthy, and factual, for them out there.
The actual full quote reads: “To most modern people, it is surprising to learn just how little evidence there is for Jesus outside the Christian sources. He is not mentioned in any Roman source of the entire first century. Never. That strikes people as surprising. He is mentioned a couple of times within about 80 years of his life by two Roman sources (Pliny and Tacitus; I’m not sure Suetonius can be used). And he is almost certainly referred to twice in the Jewish historian Josephus, once in an entire paragraph. But that’s it for the non-Christian sources for the first hundred years after his death. It’s not much. But it’s something, and since these are not sources that based their views on the Gospels (since these authors hadn’t read the Gospels), it shows that Jesus was indeed known to exist in pagan and Jewish circles within a century of his life. The really compelling evidence, though, comes in the Christian sources. Mythicists write these sources off because they are Christian and therefore biased, but that is not a historically solid way to proceed. Christian sources do indeed have to be treated gingerly, but they are sources every bit as much as pagan and Jewish sources are. What I show in Did Jesus Exist? is that there are so many Christian sources that can be used by historians that there is really no doubt at all that Jesus at least existed. Just to give an example (so as not to repeat my entire book here): by any credible dating, the apostle Paul must have converted to believe in Jesus within two or three years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death. And Paul knew some facts about Jesus’ life; he knew some of his teachings; he knew his closest disciple Peter; and he knew his brother James. Personally! If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think that his brother would know about it. The historian can not simply ignore what Paul has to say since he was a Christian. Taking his biases into account, we can use his letters for information about Jesus. And among other things, they show beyond a doubt that Jesus existed as a Jewish teacher in Palestine in the 20s CE. Otherwise we cannot explain Paul or his letters. That’s just one important piece of evidence for the existence of Jesus.”
The fact of the matter is that the quote in the meme is taken out of context, since this can be shown, and Dr. Ehrman is not arguing that Jesus never existed, but is arguing that the writings of the followers of Jesus cannot be fully trusted. In fact, Dr. Ehrman goes out of his way, in another quote, to state that Jesus certainly did exist. To these things, I concur.
The latter quote reads, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence.” (B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged: writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285).
Now, I don’t care one whit whether someone like the man who questioned my statement finds me to be “believable” or not, based on his own perception of the cosmos. But, I do care about basic facts, and I get bloody tired of those who simply ignore them in order to try to make their absurd points. Time and time again, these atheists have been determined to somehow “prove” that Jesus never really existed at all so that they can comfort themselves in their little fantasy that, if he did not even exist, then there is no reason to consider him as a historical reality, i.e., as a real person, not to mention a person anything like he who is presented by the writers of the New Testament.
What? The New Testament? When was that written? Hate to break it to you, atheists, but the entirety of the accepted New Testament was written during the FIRST century, as were most of the writings that were deemed unacceptable for inclusion therein.
Now, the atheist will immediately counter that none of this was written by “a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet”. Well, most scholars of the New Testament will accept Luke as a historian, at the very least. And he is supposed to have been a Greek. But, if one does not wish to accept this, then can one at least accept that Paul himself was a scholar of the Hebrew religion, schizophrenic as his writings were? Beyond this, anyone who has done even a meagre study of the New Testament must be aware of the fact that we really don’t know who wrote the majority of the books contained therein. These books are attributed to one person or another, but there is good reason to doubt the authorship of most. So, since we don’t really know who wrote many of the books that make reference to Jesus, it is entirely possible that some were written by, say, some religious scholar, philosopher, politician, or even a poet.
An even greater point must be made by pointing out the wanton destruction of documents and inscriptions from the first century (and later) that has taken place over time. What this means is that, we really don’t know enough about what was written to say that no mention of Jesus was made. There very well could have been works written about Jesus that no one knows about today (and references are made to such works) because they have been entirely lost and are not quoted in any extant document that we do have today. And, that is exactly the point. The above quote should at least read “not mentioned in any extant document….” That is, if one is determined not to accept any New Testament writings as sources.
But, even that would be false because we do have the historian, Josephus. Josephus lived and wrote during the FIRST century. Oh, but someone will argue that he was a Jewish historian, so he cannot be counted! Well, that little nuance could easily be countered by the fact that Josephus did not write his works until after he had been captured by the Romans and had accepted his place, as a slave, among them. He was, in fact, a Roman historian, mainly writing about his own people. Dr. Ehrman and I agree on this point.
Now, I know the arguments about the passages from the works of Josephus that mention or allude to Jesus, and I am not going to reiterate them here since I went over them quite thoroughly in my fist book, “Apocalypse and Armageddon”. Suffice it to say that the majority of reputable scholars accept that Josephus wrote something about Jesus, but that what he wrote has been rewritten, multiple times, by later interpolators. This, in fact, can be all but proven. Thus, we may never know exactly what Josephus actually said about Jesus, but we can be reasonably confident that he, in fact, did write at least something about him.
I state all of this just to demonstrate that no one can make a definitive, blanket statement such as the one in the meme, quoted above, and be seen as entirely credible by those who actually know the history of the time. The FACT of the matter is that Jesus (whether he is simply referred to by “Christ” or in some other way) is mentioned in extant first century writings, period.
But, if one does not wish to accept any of this, there is still the Roman politician and historian, Tacitus. He wrote Annals, which mentions “Christ”, probably just after the close of the first century, in about 116 CE. But are we really petty enough to quibble over a few years? After all, why should anyone have written about a Jewish criminal unless one believed he was the Messiah? Historians only mentioned him when it served the purpose of what they were writing about.
The same goes for the Roman historian, Suetonius, who wrote the Lives of the Twelve Caesars in 121 CE, mentioning “Christ”. Yes, I am also aware of the arguments that the latter may refer to someone with a given name similar to that term, but, again, I have gone over this thoroughly in “Apocalypse and Armageddon”. In addition, Pliny the Younger at least refers to Christians in a letter written to Trajan in 112 CE. Trajan also wrote back to him, referring to them.
But, even better than this is the philosopher, Mara bar Sarapion, who wrote a letter referring to the execution of “the wise king” of the Jews in about 73 CE, during the FIRST century. Yes, some may argue that we really don’t know when this letter was written, but most reputable scholars accept this time frame.
Others, including Thallus, Phlegon of Tralles, Lucian of Samosata, the Babylonian Talmud and Celsus, either mentioned “Jesus”, “Christ”, or “Christians” later in the second century. The fact that these latter works were penned during the second, rather than the first, is mere quibbling. It neither proves, not even suggests, anything. The FACT of the matter is that mention was made, period. And this list leaves out a whole host of church fathers and others who wrote volumes from the second century onward.
To reiterate from an earlier blog post: “the frank fact of the matter is that, outside of Christian sources, including the New Testament and other books not included in the canon, there were at least thirteen ancient sources that can be listed. They are Josephus (although, as I showed in “Apocalypse and Armageddon”, most scholars today believe the reference to him and Pilate are later interpolations, and I concur with this), Tacitus, the philosopher Mara bar Sarapion, Suetonius (always a Christian favorite), The Babylonian Talmud, Pliny the Younger, the emperor Trajan (indirectly), Thallus, Phlegon of Tralles, Lucian of Samosata, and, most important of all in my view, Porphyry, Celsus and the emperor Julian (the Apostate). Conversely, for the sake of emphasis, the number of ancient sources for Pontius Pilate (whom no one argues did not exist) are much fewer – four in all. They are Josephus (again, in an apparent later interpolation), Tacitus, Philo of Alexandria and the Babylonian Talmud (and perhaps others). AND, if this is not enough, it is well known that Pilate corresponded with the philosopher Seneca (whom Paulkovich also thinks should have written something about Jesus) because we have letters from Pilate to Seneca. However, we have no mention of Pilate in anything written by Seneca even though they clearly knew one another. Case closed.”
In addition, from another earlier blog post (because some also try to prove that Jesus was not real because of some perceived comparison to Apollonius of Tyana): “ALL arguments claiming that Jesus was not a real person because of some perceived lack of documentation for his life fall completely apart exactly by tying his life to the life of Apollonius of Tyana. Why? Because of a serious lack of documentation for the life of Apollonius of Tyana!
Those who want to claim that there is not enough historical evidence for the life of Jesus actually use the life of another person to compare him to, who has even less historical evidence for his life! Shocking, isn’t it!”
As I detailed in said earlier blog post, “the sources for the life of Apollonius of Tyana are the following: “The Life of Apollonius of Tyana”, written by the sophist Philostratus at the request of the empress Julia Domna (160-217 CE; wife of the emperor Septimius Severus) and completed after her death (thus, not even a contemporary source since Apollonius died in about 100 CE); a work purportedly by Apollonius himself entitled “On Sacrifices”, parts of which have been preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea; some letters purportedly written by Apollonius (no longer extant); a “Biography of Pythagoras”, purportedly written by Apollonius (no longer extant); a book written by an imperial secretary, Maximus, detailing the supposed works of Apollonius in Aegaea, Aeolis (no longer extant); and a biography of Apollonius by Moiragenes (no longer extant).
All of these latter sources were used by Philostratus for his work. Thus, in reality, we have ONE source for the life of Apollonius of Tyana. And it was written over one-hundred years after his death. In addition, not one of the sources mentioned can be considered to have been penned by a real historian. AND, not one of those mentioned by Michael Paulkovich in his book “No Meek Messiah”, whom he states should have at least mentioned Jesus, mention Apollonius in any way whatsoever. AND, if that wasn’t enough, not one of the sources that mention or allude to Jesus mention Apollonius at all, period.”
Thus, the frank fact of the matter is that there are NO extant sources for the first century Apollonius of Tyana’s life that are earlier than the THIRD century CE. NONE! Yet, those who deny the historicity of Jesus will willingly accept that of Apollonius of Tyana without much thought at all.
The truth is that there is no valid reason to posit that (1) there are no first century references in any form to Jesus, (2) that this, in some way, proves that he was not a historical person, and (3) that his life can in any realistic way be compared to Apollonius of Tyana. Zero…zip!
Facts: There are, in fact, references to Jesus from the first century, while there are none for Apollonius. The writings that are extant about them are not “proof” or anything, but there is still more anecdotal evidence for Jesus than for Apollonius. The comparisons between Jesus and Apollonius are flimsy, at best, and contrived, at worst.
Dr. Ehrman actually rejects all of the above – the idea that there are no first century references to Jesus and the idea that this somehow proves that Jesus may not have even been real. But, he accepts the idea that there is some realistic comparison between Jesus and Apollonius, which I disagree with.
To be clear, I have not here stated that Jesus was who he was claimed to be by most. I do not ascribe to his divinity in any way, shape, or form. As far as my research is concerned, he was a mere man, just like all the rest (including Apollonius, if he really existed), who initiated a revolution and was executed by the Romans for it. But he DID exist, and he WAS mentioned in first century texts, period.
I happen to be a biblical scholar too, and biblical scholars often disagree, sometimes to a great extent. But one should always base one’s agreements or disagreements on actual facts, not perceptions. The atheist tries very hard to somehow “prove” that Jesus never existed. This is an absurdity that only the lazy and those willing to ignore facts will accept. Even the biblical scholar they quote says that Jesus was a real person. Just a little research easily reveals this. Case closed.