Monday, September 07, 2015

Why Do Sources Not Refer To Jesus Until After His Lifetime?

People sometimes suggest that the absence of any sources writing about Jesus during his lifetime is a major problem. Why wouldn't anybody have written about him if he existed or, at least, if he was as significant as Christianity claims he was?

Other prominent religious leaders in Israel who lived around the same time, such as Gamaliel and John the Baptist, also aren't mentioned in extant documents dating to their lifetime. Many prominent philosophers and political and military leaders of the ancient world aren't mentioned in extant documents until after their death. There are a lot of potential reasons for that.

We need to distinguish between what's written and what's preserved. Jesus was written about in his lifetime. The titulus on the cross is an obvious example (Matthew 27:37). He probably would have been written about in other contexts surrounding his execution as well. (See the references in Acts and elsewhere to how Jewish, Christian, and Roman authorities frequently used letters to communicate, including in contexts of religious persecution and trials: Acts 9:1-2, 15:22-30, 23:25-33, etc.) Luke refers to "many" accounts of Jesus that circulated before he wrote (Luke 1:1-2). Even if Mark and Matthew were among them, those two alone probably don't explain a term like "many". Richard Bauckham has observed, "Such notebooks [as ancient rabbis used] were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4:13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them." (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], 288) Most likely, a much larger number of documents discussing Jesus than the ones now extant were circulating in the early to mid first century. It's likely that some dated to Jesus' lifetime. Are we to believe that no authorities wrote anything about Jesus in the context of his execution, that people were producing "many" (as Luke put it) accounts of Jesus just after his life without having written anything during his life, that everybody refrained from the practice of using notebooks to record anything about Jesus during his lifetime, etc.? Most likely, our lack of documents about Jesus from his lifetime is a matter of nothing being preserved, not nothing being written.

We have no reason to expect somebody like Philo of Alexandria, living in Egypt, to mention somebody like Jesus (or Gamaliel, John the Baptist, Paul, etc.) just because he was a contemporary. Whether you mention one of your contemporaries is determined by a lot of factors: the topics you're writing about, your audience's interests, whether you think other sources have discussed the figure in question adequately, etc. People often deliberately neglect a subject, even to the point of ignoring it, to show contempt or to accomplish something else:

"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)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], n. 205 on 64)

Jesus didn't become a prominent figure until shortly before his death, and events developed rapidly and shifted radically over the next several years (Jesus' crucifixion; reports of his resurrection; the conversion of former opponents, like his brothers, the "great many" priests of Acts 6:7, and Saul of Tarsus; the expansion of the church). An account written about Jesus a year before his death would be significantly incomplete a year later and even more so five years later. Similarly, people wanting a biography of Ronald Reagan today probably would prefer one written ten years after his death to one written thirty years before he died. The later biography would be more complete, would represent a more mature reflection on Reagan's life, etc. If the later biographer has better credentials, that would provide more reason to prefer his later biography over the earlier one.

As I've documented elsewhere, early opponents of Christianity corroborated much of what the early Christians said about Jesus, including on such important issues as his birthplace, his performance of apparent miracles, and the empty tomb. There's no reasonable way to deny that those non-Christians would have been relying on earlier sources, whether written or unwritten. And the notion that they had no written sources on Jesus is tremendously unlikely. The fact that they were corroborating so much of what Christians were claiming goes a long way in explaining why they didn't have much motivation to write more or preserve more. By contrast, if Jesus didn't exist or was much different than Christianity claimed, and that's why we don't have texts referring to him during his lifetime, then the non-Christian corroboration of Christian claims makes far less sense.

Christians, who were initially much smaller in number and culturally far weaker, would have been focused on preserving their own most valued documents. They didn't have as much access to non-Christian documents as non-Christians did, and they weren't the ones primarily responsible for preserving those documents. When the early Christians were choosing which documents to preserve, they had good reasons, like the ones discussed above, for preserving documents written after Jesus' lifetime rather than during it.

A courtroom analogy might be helpful. Though we'd like to have video of a crime that's been committed, testimony about the crime written while it was occurring, etc., we usually don't have that. And few people, if any, argue that we need it. Rather, we're satisfied with testimony about the crime given after its occurrence, sometimes years later. And even if some testimony about the crime predates the trial, it's often the trial testimony that gets more attention and is more likely to be preserved over time for various reasons (people were testifying under oath with the potential for legal consequences if they were dishonest; testimony preserved in legal documents has the credibility of the legal system behind it; testimony given later rather than earlier can be more responsive to arguments and concerns that developed over time; legal documents are often easier to attain than something like a record of a private conversation a witness had with another person; etc.).

But wouldn't the early Christians have had an interest in preserving at least some accounts of Jesus that were contemporary with his lifetime? Even if non-Christians didn't want to preserve such sources, because the facts surrounding Jesus' life favored Christianity, why didn't Christians preserve at least some of the relevant material? Most likely, they did. Luke's "many" sources referred to in the opening of his gospel may have included some sources contemporary with Jesus' life. I've argued that the Shroud of Turin is a preserved artifact from Jesus' lifetime. Later sources, like Justin Martyr and Origen, show an interest in non-Christian corroboration of Christianity (e.g., Justin's citation of a Jewish document or tradition about Jesus in section 108 of his Dialogue With Trypho). But the Christians who made an effort to preserve such material probably were few and far between.

That's usually the case with people in general, both Christians and non-Christians, in every generation. The average person doesn't have enough interest in evidential matters to preserve a large amount of evidence over a lengthy period, like two thousand years. The large majority of Christians would have been satisfied with the sort of material we see in the New Testament, which includes the testimony of eyewitnesses and former enemies of Christianity (James, Paul). Similarly, it would be good if the information we had about the lives of ancient non-Christian philosophers and political leaders came from a larger number of contemporaries and eyewitnesses, if more monuments and other objects pertaining to their lives had been preserved, etc. But that didn't happen. Some people would have wanted to preserve that sort of additional evidence over time, but the large majority would have been satisfied with less evidence. And the small minority who wanted more usually wouldn't have preserved that additional evidence for something like two millennia, down to our own day. That's true of the evidence we have for ancient history in general, not just the evidence pertaining to Christianity.

In the earliest generations of Christianity, the truthfulness of the religion, including hostile corroboration of it, would have seemed more obvious than it did later. Initially, there would have been less of a need to preserve early sources. Many of the facts surrounding Jesus' life would have been widely agreed upon or could have been sufficiently verified by the oral testimony of living sources. Preserving written sources became more important later. In some ways, skepticism would have become more plausible over time. Early on, most Christians wouldn't have seen much of a need to address the sort of radical skepticism that's developed in more recent centuries, to the point of even denying Jesus' existence. Skepticism has become more radical for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it's had to become more radical in an attempt to get around the evidence we have. It doesn't follow that the evidence is insufficient. For example, Josephus wrote about Herod the Great nearly a century after Herod's death. The lateness of Josephus' material doesn't prevent critics of Christianity from using that material to argue against the infancy narratives at Christmastime, for example.

To get a better idea of how most early Christians probably viewed the evidential status of Christianity, think of the letters of Paul. In his letters, we have the testimony of a contemporary and eyewitness of Jesus (an eyewitness of his life after the resurrection, at least), one who knew members of Jesus' family and his closest disciples, one who had been an enemy of Christianity initially, one who preserved even earlier material in his letters (e.g., the creed cited in 1 Corinthians 15), one who referred to events in his day that align well with Old Testament prophecy, etc. That he wrote shortly after Jesus' life rather than during it doesn't take much away from Paul's testimony. To this day, skeptics have nothing close to a good explanation of the evidence for Christianity in Paul's letters. It would be helpful to have more evidence pertaining to Paul's life and the issues he addresses in his letters, but it's a matter of preference, not necessity.


  1. "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many."

    An no historian wrote once-in-a-history mass resurrection event? How is this even vaguely possible?

    A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it. Is it more likely that he did not exist at that period?

    1. Jon Sorensen,

      I've addressed Matthew 27:52-3 here. Why did you make no effort to interact with such counterarguments, which have been circulating for a long time? You don't seem to know much about the subject, even though you brought it up.

      You write:

      "A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it."

      You're ignoring the distinction I made between what's written and what's preserved. You're ignoring what I said about the Shroud of Turin. You're also ignoring what I said about why certain documents would have been preserved and others wouldn't have been. And you're ignoring what I said about hostile corroboration of the Christian claims. If Jesus didn't exist or was much different than the early Christians claimed, why were the Christian claims corroborated by early non-Christian sources? There probably is some other explanation for why no sources from Jesus' lifetime have been preserved. The notion that no sources have been preserved because Jesus didn't exist, or because he was much different than Christians claimed he was, is too problematic. It's an inferior explanation of the evidence. Why did you ignore all of these points I made in my post above?

      And what's the relevance of "a God walking couple of years in Judea and Galilee"? How does his deity significantly undermine anything I said?

    2. "An no historian wrote once-in-a-history mass resurrection event? How is this even vaguely possible?"

      i) Suppose Josephus wrote about it, or Tacitus. Would you believe it? No. You'd dismiss that as a superstitious legend. You'd just take that as proof positive that ancient historians were credulous and uncritical.

      ii) Suppose you had a modern-day report of a "mass resurrection event" in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Suppose you had multiple eyewitnesses. Would you believe it? No. You'd say what's more likely: that it's a hoax or that something like that really happened?

      iii) It also depends on how you visualize this unique "mass resurrection" event. The account doesn't describe observers watching the graves open. Rather, it only talks about the result.

      Depending on when they died, they'd generally be unrecognizable. Only living friends or relatives would know who they were. Most folks wouldn't know these people ever died in the first place.

      For that matter, if they died when they were old, but were rejuvenated, then even people who knew them might not recognize them right away.

      "A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it. Is it more likely that he did not exist at that period?"

      i) Jesus didn't *appear* to be a God.

      ii) So you fall for the mythicist view that he didn't even exist?

      iii) In fact, many people wrote about it. It's in a collection of writings called the NT.

  2. Jon Sorensen

    "An no historian wrote once-in-a-history mass resurrection event? How is this even vaguely possible? A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it. Is it more likely that he did not exist at that period?"

    1. You obviously didn't even bother to read the post.

    2. The NT attests to historical events including Jesus' existence and a "mass resurrection event." There's no good reason to doubt the historical reliability of the NT.

    3. Even an atheist NT scholar like Bart Ehrman has argued for accepting Jesus' existence.

    4. There's plenty of extra-biblical corroboration (e.g. here).

  3. Here's a thread in which I discuss a document about Jesus during his lifetime, a record from the census mentioned in Luke 2, that may have survived into the patristic era.

  4. A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it. Is it more likely that he did not exist at that period?

    That's a strawman representation. During His 3 1/2 years ministry Jesus didn't go around publicly proclaiming loud and proud "I'm God, I'm God. Worship Me!!!!!" If you're actually read the Gospels then you'd know that Jesus veiled His messiahship for most of His ministry. He let His miracles "do the talking" as evidence that He was the prophesied messiah. Not only did Jesus veil His messiahship (usually only acknowledging it in private), He also veiled His divinity. If Jesus went about publicly and unambiguously proclaiming His deity in Israel, He would have been immediately stoned to death. In the Gospel of John there are a few instances recorded were Jesus hinted at His divinity and was nearly stoned. How much more if He asserted plainly?

    Your caricature of "A God walked couple of years in Judea and Galilee, and nobody wrote about it," is analogous to a celebrity walking around in a shopping mall shouting "I'm a Celebrity!!! I'm a Celebrity!!!" and nobody wrote about it in the local paper. When in fact, the celebrity was wearing a disguise (as he normally does in public) not wanting to be recognized.

    It wasn't Jesus mission to convert the world Himself directly. In God's plan and providence, God designed the church to evangelize the world later on. A skeptic might argue, why not? Why didn't Jesus just stay on earth and continue preaching His gospel after his resurrection? That seems like an inefficient way to do evangelism when he's now immortal, ageless and has a glorified body that clearly isn't normal. Just watching Jesus never age would be miracle enough to convert every single person who ever followed His life. Why leave it to fallible humans to do the job later on? Well, that assumes a view of God's salvific intentions that doesn't comport with Calvinism, and most of the Triabloggers are Calvinists. In Calvinism, the salvation of every single individual isn't the highest goal God has for the world. God has providential and historical cosmic plans which are more important than the salvation of any single individual. God's ultimate goals are His greater glory and the greater good of the elect. That involves the occurrence of historical events and salvific methods that seem counter-intuitive.

    1. I wrote:
      If Jesus went about publicly and unambiguously proclaiming His deity in Israel, He would have been immediately stoned to death.

      In which case, His ministry wouldn't have lasted 3 1/2 years. Preaching that message among conservative and zealous Jews of the 1st century would have resulted in Jesus' ministry lasting maybe a day, or a week, or a month, or a few months at the most. In which case, there wouldn't have been enough time for Jesus to teach all the kinds of things that are recorded in the gospels about the nature of God, the Kingdom of God, salvation, faith, love, truth, good works, mercy etc.

  5. The earliest Resurrection “encounters” were based on “visions” of Jesus instead of actually seeing him in the flesh.
    In the earliest reference (c. 50 CE) to the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, we read:

    “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

    Paul includes himself in his list of those to whom the risen Jesus “appeared”. He makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others. The Greek verb Paul uses for all these appearances he mentions is the same one – ὤφθη (Greek – ōphthē) meaning “appeared, was seen” – in each case.

    “The choice of this word is significant because it does not necessarily imply the actual appearance of a person, but may only indicate an unusual phenomena…the use of the word ὤφθη in enumerating other visions in the Pauline lists…excludes such details as prolonged conversations, meals and resumption of ordinary life, on which the gospels dwell.” – Charles Guignebert, “Jesus” pg. 523

    The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. “The dominant thought is that the appearances are revelations, an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself…they experienced his presence.”

    There are many instances where it’s used of spiritual “visions”.

    For example: Acts 16:9-10 “And a vision appeared (ōphthē) to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia…And after he had seen the vision (horama), immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia.” Is there anyone who thinks the Macedonian man’s physical body was actually standing in front of Paul when he “appeared” to him?

    Same thing in Mark 9:4/Matthew 17:1-3, Moses and Elijah “appeared” (ōphthē) to Peter. Matthew 17:9 calls the experience a "vision". Did their physical bodies actually appear?

    The word is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the OT) to describe how the Lord God appeared to the patriarchs (e.g., to Jacob in a dream, in Gen 31:13). In the LXX stories that use this word, the emphasis is more on the presence of God and on its power to reveal than on the “reality” of the experience.

    “When Paul classifies the Damascus appearance with the other in 1 Cor 15:5 this is not merely because he regards it as equivalent….It is also because he regards this appearance similar in kind. In all the appearances the presence of the risen Lord is a presence in transfigured corporeality, 1 Cor 15:42. It is the presence of the exalted Lord from heaven. This presence is in non-visionary reality; no category of human seeing is wholly adequate for it. On this ground, the appearances are to be described in the sense of revelation rather than making visible.“ – Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. 5 pg. 359

    1. We know from the book of Acts, Paul’s description of his encounter on the Damascus road makes it clear that this was a vision – a light from heaven and a disembodied voice – not an encounter with a physically-revived former corpse returned to life.

      Acts 9:3-8 “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him….”

      Acts 22:6-11 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me….”

      Acts 26:13-18 “About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions….”

      Acts 26:19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”

      We also know that the companions of Paul did not see or hear the vision/voice properly. This indicates that the experience was, at least in some sense, subjective to Paul. If Jesus' physical body was present then it would have been seen by the companions.

      Acts 9:7 “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.”

      Acts 22:9 “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.”

      As far as the appearances go Paul makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others in 1 Cor 15. So if we’re to take the accounts in Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-11, 26:13-18 as historical then the appearances mentioned in 1 Cor 15 were originally understood to be spiritual "visions" instead of actually seeing a physically resuscitated corpse. This comes as no surprise considering Paul himself admits to having "visions" and "revelations" of the Lord (2 Cor 12:1). By Paul's own admission, he was "seeing things." Paul indicates no knowledge of an empty tomb nor does he refer to any of the physical/bodily details that end up in the later gospel accounts.

      Acts also records Peter as having “visions” in Acts 10.10-16. At the beginning, Luke says that ‘a trance came upon him’, and afterwards that he was perplexed at ‘what the vision which he had seen might be’ (Acts 10.17). Later, Peter begins to explain it, saying ‘I saw a vision in a trance’ (Acts 11.5). This makes Peter a particularly suitable candidate for ‘he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve’ (1 Cor. 15.5).
      So we have evidence that two of the eyewitnesses mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:5-8 were susceptible to having “visions”.

      In the earliest manuscripts of Mark (c. 70 CE) there are no resurrection appearances. In Matthew (c. 80 CE), only Jesus’ feet are mentioned and he appears on a mountaintop but “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). The exact "nature" of the appearances in Matthew is questionable. In Luke 24:39-43 (c. 85 CE) we find the first explicit reference to Jesus' physically resurrected body and John (90-120 CE) gives us the Doubting Thomas story. Also in John, the deity of Jesus is stressed which is nowhere mentioned in the synoptics. How could they have failed to mention the obviously important detail that Jesus was God? This seems to be clear evidence of a legend growing in the telling with the earliest beliefs being that of “visions” then to bodily encounters all the way up to Jesus being God in the flesh in John. If this story were true we would expect a lot more consistency than we actually get from the documents.

    2. Faith Slayer, Steve responded to some of your comments in a recent post HERE.

    3. I've added my own response to Faith Slayer in the thread linked by ANNOYED PINOY.