Jesus of Nazareth was a highly influential teacher. He allegedly was a prophet with miraculous powers. He cast out demons, healed the sick, and even raised people from the dead. Then there’s the whole matter of his own resurrection. If Jesus was such a big deal, why isn’t he mentioned in the first and early second century beyond a few Christian sources? Wouldn’t Jesus have made more of an impact in his times?
This is a common complaint of skeptics, especially from the internet infidel crowd who question whether Jesus ever even existed. On the face of it, these questions appear reasonable, but history just doesn’t work this way.
THE ARGUMENT FROM SILENCE IS STILL A FALLACY EVEN WHEN APPLIED TO THE BIBLE
Now I hate to be the fallacy police, but this fallacious reasoning is called the argument from silence. You can’t cast doubt on a historical event that’s only mentioned in one source because you suppose that it should be mentioned in other sources. Here’s an example of this in action:
Archelaus took his father Herod the Great’s place around March of 4 BC. This is around the time when thousands of Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. (Josephus, Antiquities 17.9.3) There was a brouhaha with some angry Jews in the Temple and a group of Roman soldiers in which some soldiers were killed. Archelaus freaked out and sent a troop of armed horsemen to surround the Temple, with orders not to let anyone outside go in and or let anyone inside escape. He then ordered in soldiers and massacred 3000 Jews in the Temple. Passover was canceled.
This is a pretty fantastic event. But guess what? Only Josephus mentions it, no other contemporary Roman historian. (Although it does make sense of why Matthew tells us that Joseph was afraid to move back to Judea when he heard Archelaus was ruling there. The holy family ended up settling in Galilee, see Matthew 2:22-23.) That doesn’t mean historians doubt this event actually happened. But if we argued like the internet infidel crowd, we’d contend that Josephus was making things up. Examples of how the argument from silence fails can be multiplied:
- Marco Polo traveled to China and never mentioned the Great Wall.
- General Ulysses S. Grant didn’t say anything about the Emancipation Proclamation.
- We have no record of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD other than a personal letter from Pliny the Elder. The event killed 2000 people.
- The archives of Portugal make no allusion to the travels of Amerigo Vespucci.
- There are no mentions of Alexander the Great until 350 AD.
WHY THE SILENCE OF NON-CHRISTIAN WRITERS?
Here I could only speculate. But rather than theorizing, I’ll let the 19th-century historian George Rawlinson do it. In his work The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records, he writes:
“Pausanias must certainly have been aware that the shrines of his beloved gods were in many places deserted, and that their temples were falling into decay, owing to the conversion of the mass of the people to the new religion; we may be sure he inwardly mourned over this sad spirit of disaffection — this madness (as he must have thought it) of a degenerate age; but no word is suffered to escape him on the painful subject; he is too jealous of his gods’ honor to allow that there are any who dare to insult them…
Again, it is impossible that Epictetus could have been ignorant of the wonderful patience and constancy of the Christian martyrs, of their marked contempt of death and general indifference to worldly things — he must, one would think, as a Stoic, have been moved with a secret admiration of those great models of fortitude, and if he had allowed himself to speak freely, could not but have made frequent reference to them.
…Thus from different motives, — from pride, from policy, from fear of offending the Chief of the state, from real attachment to the old Heathenism and tenderness for it — the heathen writers who witnessed the birth and growth of Christianity, united in a reticence, which causes their notices of the religion to be a very insufficient measure of the place which it really held in their thoughts and apprehensions…
And the silence of Josephus is, more plainly still, willful and affected. It is quite impossible that the Jewish historian should have been ignorant of the events which had drawn the eyes of so many to Judea but a few years before his own birth, and which a large and increasing sect believed to possess a supernatural character. Jesus of Nazareth was, humanly speaking, at least as considerable a personage as John the Baptist, and the circumstances of his life and death must have attracted at least as much attention.
There was no good reason why Josephus if he had been an honest historian, should have mentioned the latter and omitted the former. He had grown to manhood during the time that Christianity was being spread over the world; he had probably witnessed the tumults excited against St. Paul by his enemies at Jerusalem; he knew of the irregular proceedings against “James the Lord’s brother;” he must have been well acquainted with the various persecutions which the Christians had undergone at the hands of both Jews and heathen; at any rate he could not fail to be at least as well informed as Tacitus on the subject of transactions, of which his own country had been the scene, and which had fallen partly within his own lifetime.
When, therefore, we find that he is absolutely silent concerning the Christian religion, and, if he mentions Christ at all, mentions him only incidentally in a single passage, as”Jesus, who was called Christ,” without appending further comment or explanation; when we find this, we cannot but conclude that for some reason or other the Jewish historian practices an intentional reserve, and will not enter upon a subject which excites his fears, or offends his prejudices. No conclusions inimical to the historical accuracy of the New Testament can reasonably be drawn from the silence of a writer who determinately avoids the subject.”
TL; DR version: They might have been well-aware of Jesus and the spread of Christianity, but they purposely avoided the topic as much as possible. It’s not as if people don’t suppress messages they don’t like today. To be clear: we can’t prove it, but it’s possible. It’s also possible that they just didn’t care about apparent fanaticism that was spreading from a tumultuous and despised Roman province, they had other things that were more important to them.
PAPYRUS ISN’T EXACTLY DURABLE
Papyrus isn’t built to last a few hundreds of years, let alone a couple thousand. What exactly are critics expecting? We have lost tons of ancient history to good old fashioned erosion. For example:
- 50% of Tacitus’ writings have been lost.
- Thallus’ writings have been lost.
- Herod the Great’s secretary Nicolas of Damascus wrote a Universal History of 144 books. None survived.
- We only have Livy’s early books and excerpts of his other writings.
- We only have fragments from early church fathers Papias, Quadratus and Hegesippus, and they’re only referenced by others.
- Justin Martyr mentions the “Acts of Pilate” but we don’t have any manuscripts of it.
COMPARATIVELY SPEAKING, THE EVIDENCE WE HAVE IS IMPRESSIVE
Including the New Testament writers, we have at least 42 writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life. This includes early Christian writers, heretical writings and 9 non-Christian sources.
|CLEMENT OF ROME||2 CLEMENT||IGNATIUS|
|POLYCARP||MARTYRDOM OF POLYCARP||DIDACHE|
|BARNABAS||SHEPHERD OF HERMAS||PAPIAS|
|THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH||QUADRATUS||ARISTO OF PELLA|
|MELITO OF SARDIS||DIOGNETUS||GOSPEL OF PETER|
|APOCALYPSE OF PETER||EPISTULA APOSOLORUM||GOSPEL OF THOMAS|
|GOSPEL OF TRUTH||APOCRYPHON OF JOHN||TREATISE ON RESURRECTION|
|JOSEPHUS||TACITUS||PLINY THE YOUNGER|
|PHLEGON||LUCIAN OF SAMASOTA||CELSUS|
|PETER||JUDE||AUTHOR OF HEBREWS|
Now by way of comparison, Tiberius Caesar (the Roman Emperor during the time of Jesus) was mentioned by 10 authors within his first 150 years of his life: Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Seneca, Paterculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Valerius Maximus, and Luke. As Mike Licona and Gary Habermas note in their book on the resurrection, the ratio of mentions of Jesus compared to the Roman Emperor at the same time during the same period is 42:10! If you take out the Christian sources, it’s 9:9. Not bad for a vagabond rabbi from a backwater Roman province.
JESUS HAD A HUGE IMPACT ON HIS TIMES
So it’s just not true that didn’t make an impact on his times. He left a large footprint that both Christians and non-Christians took note of. The skeptic arguing that we should have more historical documentation just doesn’t understand how history works, or they’d better appreciate the evidence that we have. And if you think about it, if secular historians mentioned his miracles, they would be considered believers. Their testimony would be considered just as suspicious as the gospel writers, according to the skeptic’s circular logic.
This alleged embarrassment of silence for the foundations of Christianity really turns out to be an embarrassing line of poor reasoning by the skeptic.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.