1) Did anyone who was alive at the same time as Jesus write of him? Yes.
2) Did anyone actually write about him during 30-33AD, the years when he was supposed to be someone that people had heard of? Nothing of that kind exists, to the best of anyone's knowledge, but that is no real surprise, and I'll explain why that doesn't disturb historians.
Let's be specific:
1) Who was it that lived at the same time as Jesus and wrote of him? The first to do so was St Paul. He was a younger (probably) contemporary of Jesus, and a 'secondary source', as historians call it. He was initially independent - the first to write as a (former) non-Christian who had heard of Jesus and was opposed to the Jesus movement. See my Paul blog about this evidence. Future blogs will deal with other early Christian writers who could controversially have been alive in Jesus' lifetime, but the point of this present blog series is to rely on evidence that even reasonable sceptics generally find themselves in agreement with, and for that reason this series will focus on the generally accepted fact of having letters written in the 50s by St Paul.
2) But nothing written during 30-33AD? That is what the rest of this blog is about. (The three year figure is based on how John tells Jesus' story. Anyone who prefers the 27-30AD dating, adjust the question accordingly! - See Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, pg 24. on the case for 30-33AD.)
3) Bear in mind that this post is only about contemporary records. Of course much was written posthumously about Jesus - indeed the urban myth that ancient non-Christian authors are completely silent about Jesus after his death is dealt with here.
What about the King Abgar letters?
Okay, to afficionadoes, I'll say this: I'm not counting the tradition which says that King Abgar of Edessa wrote to Jesus and that Jesus wrote back. Sure, Eusebius (Book 1, chapter 13) wrote that up to his day, the letters were preserved in the library in Edessa. But few consider Eusebius a discerning critic here. Eusebius was getting carried away with the idea of people in foreign lands hearing of Jesus' miracles between 30-33AD, just as some sceptics do. But that bears no relation to the much more humble picture of Jesus in the biblical gospels. (And need it be said, when anyone in a foreign land wrote that they had heard of Jesus, they were a secondary source more remote than St Paul.)
Let's get back to Jerusalem, and back to the point of determining the existence of a first century Jew. Actually, the problem isn't just about finding something from a specific three years. The problem is bigger than that.
Jerusalem before 70AD - everyone's contemporary records lost
Writing history about events in Judea in the first century, which I did for my Masters Degree in Church History, you bump into a few problems. The biggest one is this. Jewish and Roman documents in Jerusalem, the papers of those distant days which Christ-hunters would love to read, to the best of our knowledge went up in smoke. This was when the pagan Roman army destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70AD. And not just the Romans - some Jews had torched the archives first, especially anything to do with debts, as told by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. The Romans did a pretty good job of it themselves: 'they set fire to the repository of the archives' (see Josephus, War, Chapter 6.3.) You get the picture.
Another example illustrates the point: there was an important Jewish group in Jerusalem called the Sadducees in those days. And yet no known Sadducee document exists in our world today, despite them being an elite. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Even though the Sadducees were a highly significant group. How important? Well, for a start the Hasmonean dynasty relied on the Sadducees' backing in the first century BC, and they continued to play a role in Jerusalem politics in the first century AD. And Josephus wrote as a historian about the Sadducees (eg Josephus Antiquities, 13.171-173). But time has preserved not a single one of the Sadducees' documents. And that's how it is with much of the writings of the ancient world. (See this.) Given that they were around in more or less the same time and region as Jesus, this serves as a lesson to us about what we can reasonably insist on expecting to find.
Another striking example: even from the Roman war in Judea 66-73AD, not a single contemporary document survives. No meticulous Roman records. No contemporary reports in any author. Zero. Zilch. Nothing.
How about eyewitness documents from the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD? All lost. Writings by eyewitnesses of the fire in Rome haven't survived, and to read about it we have to go to secondary sources such as - guess who? - Tacitus.
You see, from the ancient world it's typical for little or nothing to survive in terms of documents. But no-one doubts that the Roman army fought and defeated the Jewish forces in Jerusalem, or that the Great Fire of Rome happened. Meanwhile, Josephus' books are the only ones written in the first century to describe the Jewish war.
We’ll never know for sure whose names were in those records. Many famous Jews, not just Jesus, could have been mentioned in the records. We know some of their names though. Apart from Jesus, there were Jewish high priests such as Annas and Caiaphas. Rabbis such as Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Meir. Political rebels such as the Jew Theudas. We know about them from later writers. But did any writers mention them while they were alive? Probably, but we will never be able to say that we ‘know’ that to be so, because of the problem of the loss of Jerusalem’s records.
Let the significance of that sink in. Their contemporary records are all gone. No copies survive. So blame the Roman army or the Jewish fire-starters if you like. That means that saying anything about contemporary records for anyone of the time is hazardous. Saying that there is nothing about Jesus written during his three public years doesn't signify anything very much because all was lost. But no-one knows what was lost. You can't prove anything from it.
It may help to think of a modern comparison. Black and white silent films. Huge amounts of these films were made, more or less a century ago. And, incredibly, only about 25% of these films have survived (according to the US Library of Congress - other estimates are even lower). The rest of the silents are all lost, even work by Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. A great loss to film lovers. It is a shocking loss of so many neglected films from only about 100 years ago. As you would expect, the survival rate of things that were written on papyrus 2,000 years ago is even worse, much much lower.
Tests we cannot perform
So it would count for nothing to say (as has been claimed by some) that since there were Jewish scribes in Jesus' day, then you would expect to see something they had written about Jesus. That is a claim. That is not evidence. You have to have a way to assess a claim like that. One way to do so is to look at all the surviving writings of Jewish scribes from Jesus' day to find out whether or not he is mentioned in them, and compare that with how much other Jews of the day are mentioned in them, in the hope of being able to use such a test to draw some conclusions. But we can't do the test - because the scribblings of Jewish scribes have not survived either. So scribes may or may not have written what Jesus was saying - we can't say either way. (It is likely that some who saw themselves as pupils, and Jesus as their teacher, did make notes - this was a normal Jewish practice, but exploring that possibility is for another blog on another day.)
And it would also count for nothing to say (as some do) that the Romans kept meticulous records, and that there should be - but isn't of course - an official Roman record of (say) Jesus' trial. Such a claim would count for nothing because, of course, there is no record of anyone's trial in Jerusalem from those years. It is not as if we have the rest of the records of Jerusalem trials from which Jesus is suspiciously absent! As if! We have no trial records for anyone - not just for Jesus, but not for anyone! And the same goes for other kinds of records.
If we still had their meticulous records, we could do the obvious test - look in them, find out whether or not Jesus is mentioned in them, compare that with how other Jews of his day are mentioned in them, to see if we can draw some conclusions. But again, we can't do the test - because official records of Roman Judea of those years have not survived. As said, that is why no-one on either side of this debate ever quotes from them. Anyone who might know where such records might be found would become a millionaire from it.
Since we cannot perform those tests, we can resort to testing evidence in other comparable cases, insofar as anything is a reasonably valid comparison. We can for instance test the general claim
made by some that the miracles attributed to Jesus would have caused more or less contemporaneous independent reports to be written, within the three or so years when his ministry is said to have taken place, and that such report would have been saved somehow for posterity.
The test here is not whether or not Jesus did any miracles. The test is regarding the claim that we can just suppose that other people would have written what they heard (or saw) about it. An analogous situation where we can test that assumption is framed in this question: did contemporaries of St Paul report any of the miracles attributed to St Paul in his own day? (if we set aside the reports of them in the Book of Acts for a moment). This is really to the point. We know that St Paul went all around the Roman world talking about what God was supernaturally doing - in Paul's own words: "I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles." (2 Corinthians 12:12) So from this we know for sure that Paul was spreading news far and wide of the miracles that were happening around him. So the test is: did independent contemporaries of Paul report it? It may be surprising to some but the answer is no. We have no evidence of that - even though we know Paul was spreading word of it. None of it seems to have made an impression on the writings of the contemporaries of Paul who were writing at the time. Not a mention of these rumours of Paul's miracles appears in non-Christian authors. These rumours were just not reaching other authors' ears or were just not believed by them or were just not relevant to what they were writing. So the result of such a test as we can perform is that we cannot assume contemporary independent reports about Jesus (within the famous three years of his ministry) should have come down to us. In this light, the absence of contemporary writers' mention of miracles by Jesus just doesn't prove a single thing, whether or not he is supposed to have performed any.
So anyone who says, "Don't you think if there were rumours of a miracle worker in the Roman empire, those people who kept meticulous records, then surely those stories would have been written down by someone?" - anyone who says that has to reflect that in the case of the known rumours of Paul's miracles, ancient authors didn't do anything of the kind. Whereas the sceptics' objection is that rumours of miracles could not possibly go uncommented upon, on the contrary we have this clear example where they precisely did go uncommented upon, in the selfsame era. That's a bare fact. Any non-mention of any rumours of miracles by Jesus (setting aside whether there were any such rumours) would belong in the same category as the non-mention of Paul's claimed miracles.
By the way, some sceptics say that the things in question were the sort of stuff reported only by irrational people who had a supernatural worldview (particularly Christians in this case) and that therefore report by Christians in particular is disqualified. That would be a misleading point to make. Every ancient writer had a supernatural worldview, Christian or non-Christian!
But to get back to the point of contemporary records: records written while noteworthy people were still active - you don't expect to find much of that kind of text. Not if you're a reasonable and well-informed reader - even a sceptic - who knows about ancient texts.
Even people who were more famous than Jesus appear in no contemporary written record, including the famous Jew Gamaliel. (Come to that, St Paul mentions first-hand that he met Peter three times - and Peter was obviously very important to the church - but there aren't any contemporary non-Christian authors who mention Peter at all in any surviving test. You just can't assume that the outside world was that interested in them. And you just can't assume that time would have preserved such texts. Most texts from the ancient world are lost anyway.) An even more famous example with no contemporary record: Hannibal was internationally famous but our first history about him was written about seven decades after his death. How about Boudicca's revolt in Britain in the first century - a major moment in the Roman history in Britain - no contemporary documents whatsoever. Not a sausage. Some left contemporary records - Julius Caesar for example - but that doesn't go for everyone in the ancient world (and he was the greatest leader of the greatest empire of his day, which means he leaves a big footprint!)! The absence of an ancient record is typical, not unusual.
In any case, the idea of Jesus being famous as a miracle worker far and wide abroad is not a claim in the Bible. In fact Acts 25:19-20 tells us of a Roman official a few decades after Jesus' life who had not heard of him.
What was lost?
What might have been in the lost records of Roman Judea? Records written on wax or clay or papyrus scrolls. Perhaps census records in Palestine, but any such are entirely lost in this period. Perhaps tax records of Jews - lost. Perhaps genealogies (family trees) of Jews? Contemporary records all lost. Of course many Jewish families would have kept their family histories by oral tradition and used writing only for practical purposes (common to do so in the ancient world), so we cannot assume genealogies would always have been written down anyway. Military or civil reports? Only posthumous records survive, nothing written at the time these famous events were happening.
Of course two genealogies for Jesus are preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke but we don't know when these were first written, and there are issues with how much they are literal and how much symbolic anyway.
The truth about ancient records
I hear the funniest things said. Some say that Jesus would have been mentioned in newspapers, but there were no newspapers in those days in Judea to the best of our knowledge, and not to be confused with the Acta Diurna which was probably restricted to reporting events in and around Rome (see page of 155 in "Ancient Rome's Daily News Publication With Some Likely Implications For Early Christian Studies," Tyndale Bulletin 67.1 (2016): 145-160). (If the Acta Diurna included notices of events in the wider empire, then a library copy of the Acts Diurna could have been Tacitus' source for his comments on what the Romans did to Christ. However, Rome's Acts Diurna have not survived and so there would be no way to evidence this.) Some say that Jesus' exploits in his three years of ministry would be internationally famous and recorded within those three years, if he was real. But you don't find them saying that about anyone else who was a semi-public figure in Judea for a mere three years! In any case, what sceptics should be trying to assess is the credibility of Jesus' public profile in the gospel-version of Jesus and here's the thing: anyone reading the gospels finds that Jesus spent most of those three years shunning publicity, telling people to keep quiet about him, mainly staying rural. If that is the Judean persona whom sceptics want contemporary records for, they should consider how reasonable that ask is! The real question is what evidence would you expect of such a person anyway? And how much can really be deduced from none existing when, perhaps, none would be expected?
What about statues?
People ask why no statues of Jesus from those three years? Two reasons: Jews didn't do graven images, and that's that really; but also, the Jesus of the gospels didn't hold public office anyway. We're dealing with a life story that says that even when an instruction was issued to put 'King of the Jews' on his death cross, protestors argued it should say instead only that 'He claimed to be king of the Jews'. He never held office. Seriously, who on earth would possibly make a statue of him? His Jewish followers would object as a matter of religious principle and no-one else would care.
What about authors who were alive and writing at the time of Christ?
You see a lot of nonsense written - or rather copied and pasted - about ancient people who supposedly should have written about Jesus if they had heard of him. I have been through a lengthy list of the same - a list produced by John E. Remsburg - and on that list have found only six who could feasibly, possibly have been writing at the time of Jesus' public ministry - 30-33AD - and they don't amount to much of a case. These are the six:
- Columella – wrote about agriculture, which is his eligibility for the list gone!
- Florus Lucius wrote a dodgy history of Rome that ends before Christ was a public figure. That’s his eligibility gone.
- Paterculus – possibly died too soon to have heard of Christ. He wrote a Roman history ending before Christ was a public figure.
- Philo – lived in Alexandria in Egypt. To quote Bart Ehrman: "“We do have the writings of the important Jewish philosopher Philo from the early to mid-first century. He never mentions Jesus, but we would not expect him to do so, as Christianity had probably not reached his native Alexandria by the time of his death in 50 CE." (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pg 57.)
- Seneca – born in Spain in 4BC and raised in Rome. His more famous work is on philosophy and plays for the theatre. He didn’t write on our topic, and it is not thought that he was a published author until after the time of Christ.
- Valerius Maximus – his work mainly mentions famous Romans. It may well have been published before Christ was a public figure anyway. He barely merits a place in this six.
And that's the lot. If you see other names on such a list of ancient people who supposedly 'should have mentioned Christ', you can be sure that they were living and writing after the time of Christ. And you can find out more about all these writers in my blog here.
The fact that these six far-flung writers of Jesus' time don't mention this Jewish teacher isn't a reflection on Jesus, it's a reflection on what they were writing and when they were publishing it. It certainly isn't sensible to try to argue that Jesus should have figured in their books during the years 30-33AD. You can't prove anything about Jesus - for or against his existence - from this.
Piecing history together
As mentioned, because of the war and the destruction of Jerusalem, contemporary written records of Jesus or most of his contemporary Jews in Jerusalem don't survive before AD 70, just archaeology. This doesn't mean that no Jews existed in Jerusalem in the first century before 70AD. A precious few tell us about themselves. Paul writing in the 50s tells us he visited Jerusalem, as did a Jew called Philo who lived and wrote in Egypt and died some time after 40AD (but who gives very little biography about himself sadly). Josephus too was in Jerusalem - after Christ - I will come to him.
With a story like this to critique, of a man in a Judean backwater who was elusive for much of his three years - and Jerusalem's records destroyed in a war in 70AD - where is evidence going to come from? But the historian piecing together the first century history of Judea can’t give up without a fight. There is evidence. Because away from Jerusalem, here and there, other people put pen to paper and preserved posthumous memories about those people, information that was not lost in the devastation of 70AD. While all Jerusalem's original records are lost, the records written in places further away are not.
The Jewish historian Josephus lived in the first century, and there are three passages in his histories that are of particular interest.
The Dead Sea Scrolls (preserved in fragments in jars in arid caves) are a goldmine for understanding how Jews thought in the centuries before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, But they are mainly about the world before Christ. They don’t mention Jesus but they are useful for reconstructing the world of that era.
Of all the records written further away from Jerusalem by Jews, the earliest of all relating to Jesus are the words of the Jew whom Christians call Saint Paul, the younger contemporary of Jesus - even knowing Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have died. This is the earliest of the posthumous accounts of Jesus. Of course, what you are expecting is for me to lay out the evidence that this Jesus did actually exist.
This blog series is a data-gathering exercise, starting from the ground up. So, like any sceptical historian, it is good to go for our earliest source - Paul - as a priority, even though he is a 'secondary source' about Jesus.
You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?
Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?
Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?
So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)
Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?
Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?
Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?