Saturday, July 08, 2006

Why Don't We Have Earlier References To Jesus In The Historical Record?

I recently heard Gary Habermas, in response to a question somebody asked him, comment about the contrast between online skeptics and mainstream scholarship. He commented that while the concept that Christianity was largely derived from ancient pagan mythology is commonly accepted in online skeptical circles, it's far less popular in mainstream scholarship. The same can be said of many other arguments popular among online skeptics. We're often told that Jesus probably didn't exist or that it's a major problem for Christianity that no sources refer to Jesus during His lifetime, for example. Yet, mainstream scholarship doesn't doubt Jesus' existence, and mainstream scholarship recognizes that the absence of earlier references to Jesus isn't of much significance.

Last night, Christopher Price posted an article about the common skeptical claim that the absence of earlier references to Jesus is a major problem for Christianity. I recommend reading the article. He gives many examples of other historical figures who aren't mentioned by any sources until decades after their death. Those historical figures include people who were contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles.

The evidence we have for Jesus is good. It's significantly better than what we have for many other significant figures of ancient history. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona comment:

"New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, who served as an editor for and contributor to a large scholarly work on the Gospels, provides four reasons why more was not written on Jesus in his time: 'the humble beginnings of Christianity, the remote location of Palestine on the eastern frontiers of the Roman empire, the small percentage of the works of ancient Graeco-Roman historians which have survived, and the lack of attention paid by those which are extant to Jewish figures in general.'...What we have concerning Jesus actually is impressive....let's take a look at Julius Caesar, one of Rome's most prominent figures....Only five sources report his military conquests....If Julius Caesar really made a profound impact on Roman society, why didn't more writers of antiquity mention his great military accomplishments? No one questions whether Julius did make a tremendous impact on the Roman Empire....Tiberius Caesar was the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus' ministry and execution. Tiberius is mentioned by ten sources within 150 years of his death: Tacitus, Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Seneca, Valerius Maximus, Josephus, and Luke. Compare that to Jesus' forty-two total sources in the same length of time. That's more than four times the number of total sources who mention the Roman emperor during roughly the same period. If we only considered the number of secular non-Christian sources who mention Jesus and Tiberius within 150 years of their lives, we arrive at a tie of nine each." (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 127-128)

There are many possible motives for a source to not mention a particular historical figure, even if he was aware of that figure's existence and his significance. A Roman historian might have a low view of the importance of Jewish history, a contemporary of Jesus may refrain from discussing Him because he's unsure of what to make of Jesus, etc. Craig Keener writes:

"Without immediate political repercussions, it is not surprising that the earliest Jesus movement does not spring quickly into the purview of Rome’s historians; even Herod the Great finds little space in Dio Cassius (49.22.6; 54.9.3). Josephus happily compares Herodotus’s neglect of Judea (Apion 1.60-65) with his neglect of Rome (Apion 1.66)." (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 64, n. 205)

One example Christopher Price cites in his article is John the Baptist, who isn't mentioned by anybody until after his death. John the Baptist is also significant in another context that skeptics often mention. If it was as common and as easy as skeptics sometimes suggest it was for ancient people to fabricate miracle accounts for their religious leaders, then why don't we see it with John the Baptist? Ethelbert Stauffer noted:

"This evidence in the sources [for Jesus' miracles] cannot be discounted psychologically on the ground that in those days all stories of miracles were credulously accepted and uncritically spread about. For the Jews of antiquity were extremely realistic in regard to miracles, and at least the opponents of Jesus among them were highly critical. Had that not been so, the miracles of Jesus would not have been so vehemently discussed and so gravely misinterpreted. Neither can we dismiss the matter of Jesus’ miracles by contending that in those days miracles were ascribed to every prominent historical or religious personality. For that was not the case. The men of the New Testament considered John the Baptist, for example, as the greatest human being before Christ, and yet he was not regarded as a miracle-worker. Josephus, too attributes no miracles to the Baptist. The Mandaeans hail the Baptist as a mythological savior and attack Jesus as his satanic adversary. But they, too, say a great deal about the (demon-inspired) miracles of Jesus, and not a word about any miracle wrought by John the Baptist. Islam has high regard for Jesus, still higher for Mohammed. But although many miracles are attributed to Jesus, none are ascribed to Mohammed….Jesus’ miracle-working is historically unassailable" (Jesus and His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], pp. 10-11)

Much of what skeptics claim about Jesus can be seen to be absurd if we apply the same standards to other historical figures. Part of the problem with online skeptics is that they're not only ignorant of early Christianity, but also are ignorant of ancient history and the standards of historical research in general.


  1. He gives many examples of other historical figures who aren't mentioned by any sources until decades after their death.

    And I don't worship them, either. So what's the point?

  2. Ted, I wasn't discussing the reasons why Jesus should be worshiped. Why are you changing the subject? And given your past behavior (assuming you're the Ted who's posted similar comments here in the past), why should anybody think that you would interact reasonably with any evidence you would be given?

  3. And I don't worship them, either. So what's the point?

    The claim that Jesus did or did not exist is separate from the claim that He should or should not be worshipped.

  4. The claim that Jesus did or did not exist is separate from the claim that He should or should not be worshipped.

    So, even if it turns out that Jesus never existed in the first place, there will still be those who worship him anyway. Got it.

  5. Yeah but the question at hand is an existential claim, i.e., did Jesus exist.

    Worship has *nothing* to do with this.

    I mean, conversely, even if it turns out that Jesus *did* exist in the first place, there would still be those who do not worship Him anyway. Got it.

  6. My thoughts exactly.
    Keep up the good blogging.
    "All my music is free."