According to the Gospels, Jesus was famous. His renowned ministry and high-profile healings drew huge crowds from Syria to the southern Decapolis. He miraculously fed 5,000 people at one sitting and 4,000 at another. He even purportedly raised the dead.
During his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he was followed by multitudes throwing palm fronds and shouting, “Hosanna!”
At his death, according to Matthew who had a flair for the dramatic, a three-hour supernatural darkness fell across the land. There were earthquakes, a torn temple veil, and long-dead “saints” were milling about. Luke, who by his own admission was not an eyewitness, claims Jesus ascended to heaven before crowds, his fame spreading rapidly to Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
First century Judea was a relatively well-documented time and place. Yet, curiously, known writers around the region failed to chronicle these momentous events. Many discuss far less interesting would-be messiahs but ignore the Jesus who really performed the magic.
In his book “Nailed,” David Fitzgerald explains the “argument from silence” and briefly discusses a few of the most prominent writers of the first centuries who would have mentioned Jesus, had they known of him.
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Nicolaus of Damascus: Court historian to Herod the Great, he wrote a history of the world up to the end of Herod’s reign. Though his works do not survive, Josephus discusses them at length but neglects to mention the star or nativity in Bethlehem.
Philo of Alexandria: From a wealthy and prominent family intimately connected to the royal house of Judea, Philo created Hellenistic Judaism, a synthesis of Greek and Jewish philosophy, and expounded upon the Greek idea of Logos, the word made flesh. So one would expect an actual flesh-and-blood Logos might invite comment by Philo. He even specifically documented fringe Jewish cults like the Essenes and Therapeutae, yet he penned not a word about the biblical Jesus.
Seneca the Younger: Stoic philosopher, playwright, and tutor of the emperor Nero, Seneca spills much ink on the topic of superstition, lambasting every religious cult of the time — except Christianity. It was as though he’d never heard of it. A few centuries later, Augustine, in his “City of God,” tried unconvincingly to explain away this glaring omission.
Gallio: Seneca’s older brother, mentioned in Acts as the magistrate who threw the Apostle Paul’s case out of court. According to Acts, Gallio never heard of Jesus before Paul’s story, and he apparently didn’t share the tale of the amazing miracle-worker with his brother.
Justus of Tiberias: A native of Galilee, he was the personal secretary to Herod Agrippa II (who allegedly met Paul). Justus wrote a history of the kingdom of Judah during the purported life of Jesus, yet says nary a word about him. We know this because the 9th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, reported his displeasure upon finding no Christ in Justus’ chronology.
Flavius Josephus: In his “Antiquities of the Jews,” a brief, disputed paragraph about Jesus exists. However, the vast majority of scholars agree it’s a later insertion. The only debate is how much is forgery. About the year 250, Church Father Origen complained that all that was known of Jesus came from the Gospels. He was frustrated by the scarcity of corroborating evidence and criticized Josephus for not having mentioned Jesus in his “Antiquities.” Had the disputed passage been in the original writing, it would have been seized upon by Christians like Origen who were hungry for this kind of confirmation.
Pausanias: A Greek travel writer in the 2nd century, he stopped in Antioch, Joppa and Jerusalem to chronicle gods, holy relics and legends — yet not a whisper of Christ.
Other 2nd century chroniclers in the region, such as Maximus of Tyre and Aelius Aristides, also failed to cite Jesus or his teachings.
Some try to hang their hats on the scraps that do exist, like the 2nd century chronicler Tacitus who briefly reported on the rising Christian cult. However, he also documented the widespread Isis cult, yet few would argue this lends credibility to the goddess’ historical reality.
So when is absence of evidence, evidence of absence? Contemporary writers should have known what Jesus said and did, and they certainly had reason to discuss it. Considering the multitudes who supposedly witnessed the miraculous events, the lack of non-biblical corroboration for the Gospels and Acts is a serious problem. The silence is deafening.
Believers defend the silence by claiming Jesus was not widely known until much later. But you can’t have it both ways.
In the end we’re left with two choices: Either Jesus was just another wandering preacher with a meager following and the Gospels grossly exaggerated his life events, or, like Osiris and Romulus before him, he was a mythical character historicized.
Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.