Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Did Jesus exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

You see a lot of excited blogs written - or rather often copied and pasted - about classical authors 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. Remsberg[1] and occasionally added to by others. Investigating their lists I have found only six authors 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. I'll explain why that doesn't disturb historians. 

In fact, surprising as it may sound, we can't say with any certainty that we have any Roman text written specifically during 30-33AD about anything, never mind about Jesus. If anyone knows better, and does know any surviving Roman text definitely written between 30-33AD about anything at all, please let me know. This lack of anything may come as a surprise to those who thought that first century Judea is really well documented in surviving Roman texts. No, it isn't. Official records of Roman Judea written pre-70AD are lost - that is why no-one on either side of this debate ever quotes from them. 

Yes, the idea is sometimes expressed by non-experts that the Romans kept meticulous records from which Jesus is absent. But I'm often tempted to reply, "From that time and place? What meticulous records? Photographs, or they don't exist!" From that time and place, there's no such thing as any meticulous records to be had. You never find any such records quoted, named, listed, photographed, published. There's nothing for Jesus to be missing from. 

So the idea that Jesus is found to be absent from meticulous records falls away. No such test has ever been done. Zero Roman records written in Roman Judea during Jesus' life - meticulous or otherwise - on any subject at all have ever been found. Without an evidence base, no test can be done on 'meticulous Roman records'. Jesus has not been found to be absent from any such records. There are no extant records to be absent from. (Actually, even from the Roman war in Judea 66-73AD, not a single contemporary document survives either. No meticulous records. No contemporary reports in any author. Zero. Zilch. Nothing.) 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 there. In fact, Josephus' books are the only ones written in the first century to describe the war, and that's after the fact.

Indeed, authors of the past were silent about any number of things without that meaning very much. Did you know for instance that Marco Polo never mentions the Great Wall of China? Alexander the Great had Aristotle for a teacher, but Aristotle's extant writings never even mention Alexander's name! Nor is there any mention of the triumphal entry of Columbus in the archives of Barcelona, or the travels of Amerigo Vespucci in the archives of Portugal. Indeed, unless a mention of something ought of absolute necessity to be in a text, we ought not to make too much of its absence. (See St John the Author of the Fourth Gospel, C.E. Ludhardt, 1875, page 123.) More: Richard Grafton's sixteenth century Chronicles cover some ground (perhaps plagiarised!) of the history of England, but in covering the reign of King John he is silent about the Magna Carta (see Walter M. Chandler, The Trial of Jesus from a Lawyer's Standpoint, 1908, page 42). Or did you know there is interest in the fact that the contemporary Roman authors Statius and Martial never mention one another by name (see Martial XIV: The Apophoreta, Text With Introduction and Commentary, T.J. Leary, 1996, page 56). Josephus feels forced to try to explain why the city of Rome is never mentioned by Herodotus and Thucydides (he puts it down to it being too far from seaboard, perhaps unaware of the nearby Greek settlement of Paestum!). (See Josephus, Against Apion, I. 63-68.) Elsewhere, Roman historian Dio Cassius mentions that the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but the only extant eyewitness of the eruption (Pliny the Younger) doesn't name them. 

You've got the idea by now. Silence all over the place about any number of important things, whether we have official records or not. To make a case for an argument from silence, the thing you are looking for really has to be part of a class of things that the author normally records, necessarily in a document that we actually have today, and even then nothing is guaranteed as you can see. And the argument also has to be valid. For example, Jesus' public ministry may not have begun until 30AD. So anything that may have been written before 30AD is not valid, and doesn't help either side in this debate. 

I explain more in another blog post. (The said post also digresses to explain the striking absence of any Roman writings bothering to mention a certain man who wrote autobiographically that miracles accompanied his own ministry. Yes, another miracle worker was spreading word about his own miracles around the Mediterranean - only to be completely ignored by all surviving Roman sources. No, it's not Jesus. But that's another story. And it's in the other blog post. The point here simply being that even when we know that word got around about such an extraordinary thing in the ancient world, no surviving Roman records record the fact.)

If an argument from silence depends on the absolute necessity of mentioning something in this or that book, sceptics have a problem. With nothing better to go from in terms of Jesus' contemporaries, naysayers pin their hopes of showing Jesus to be conspicuously absent by testing authors who are not a startlingly obvious case to be writing about Jesus in the first place.

These are the six contemporary writers anyway. I'm leaving off this particular list a seventh, St Paul (who was significant as an initially independent (former) non-Christian who had heard of Jesus and was opposed to the Jesus movement; and who was also a contemporary of Jesus, as explained in the timeline here, and wrote the earliest surviving writings about Jesus). The list of six:

  • Columella – born in Spain C. 4AD – wrote about agriculture, which is his eligibility for the list gone! He was in Syria a few years after Christ, but that isn’t the stuff of a gardening book.
  • Florus Lucius – born in north Africa – no-one knows when - wrote a dodgy history of Rome up to Augustus (Augustus died in 14AD): that is, his story ends before Christ was a public figure. That’s his eligibility gone. 
  • Paterculus – born in Italy before Christ, possibly died about the time Christ was embarking on his ministry, died too soon to have heard of Christ. He wrote a Roman history ending before Christ was a public figure. He barely merits a place on this list.
  •           Philo – the most interesting case to consider. Born before Christ (around 20BC) and died after Christ (a certainty since he wrote about the Emperor’ Caligula's blasphemous antics c.40AD) perhaps around 50AD. The dates are important. Here’s why.
    o   If we are testing for works referencing the reputed time of Jesus Christ's ministry (reputed to be around 30AD give or take a couple of years), then that dating means that any works that may have been written before 30AD are not valid here. Only works written after Philo turned fifty years old come into consideration for searching for references to Christ. Anything which was possibly written before Philo turned 50 falls out of consideration. 
    o   Following on, how are we to tell which works he definitely wrote after he turned fifty? And if we can tell, then just how much of his work does that leave in consideration? Well, it's difficult to say, because much of Philo's work is frankly difficult for scholars to date. Where there is a specific historical reference we can narrow the dating down, such as where he writes about Caligula's antics, which at least gives us some work known to be within the right time-frame (i.e. after 30AD), but much of his work must fall out of consideration if we can't pin it down to after he turned fifty, which I'm afraid we must accept if we are going to be rigorously scientific about it. The evidence base before we even start is more restricted than we might have expected if we didn't know of these problems. But really Philo is the only notable candidate to reflect on, so let's go on.

    o   Arguments from silence are rarely worth their salt, often not valid at all as explained above. For example, in Egypt where Philo lived, there was a Jewish temple in Onias, at the same time as the Jerusalem temple, so you would expect Philo to have known of it; and Josephus and the Talmud and Mishnah mention it, so an argument from silence could suggest strongly that Philo should mention the Onias temple too. Does he? No, he doesn't. This shows how perilous arguments from silence can be.
    o   To expand on this, we might presuppose that Philo should have recorded it if there were strong rumours of a miracle-worker, but that doesn't belong to any class of things that Philo habitually records.
    Or we might presuppose that Philo should have recorded it if there was talk of a great moral teacher going around, but again that doesn't belong to any class of things that Philo habitually records. Given that Philo didn’t even mention the famous Jewish teachers Shammai or Hillel (of whom he was a contemporary) in any of his known works, to argue that he would have to mention Jesus is not valid. Philo doesn't even mention Gamaliel, come to that. 
    o   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?, 57.) What Ehrman is hinting at is that very few people had opportunity to hear about Jesus. His influence was localised, and his public presence was relatively invisible in backwater Galilee during his brief ministry. The movement after his death was coy about risking persecution, and did not consist of large numbers either. If any Christians had even reached Alexandria, there were probably very few of them and it was a big city that you could easily disappear in. And we don't know if they would have been proselytising or lying low. Any proselytising was slow progress by word of mouth. Come to that, any rumours from non-Christian sources would have been limited in those snail-mail days. It's too adventurous to say with any confidence that a philosopher ought to have known of them or cared about them.
    o   In addition, Philo very possibly wouldn't check it out if, among the stories he heard, there was one about a man doing miracles. He very possibly wouldn't think it was his job to do so, especially in a world where claims of the supernatural were numerous. A sophisticated educated man like him could easily react the same way as modern people tend to do, with lazy scepticism, or else not hear a version that sounded special. 
    o   Actually, to qualify what Ehrman says, we do not even have all the works written by Philo. There are gaps. For example, regarding the work mentioning Caligula, (called "Embassy to Gaius"), only two of his five volumes survive, so what was in the other three volumes we don't much know. It's straightforward to say that the loss of so much of Philo's work renders inconclusive - almost totally invalid - any argument from silence. Even of what survives, it's a mixed picture. Some of his works we have in Greek, some only in an Armenian translation, and some only in fragments. So, we are not in a position to say for sure that Philo did not mention Jesus, only that he is not mentioned in the surviving works we do have, of which a limited amount can be dated to after Philo turned age fifty and thus valid for the test. It's a very limited evidence base for testing.
    o   What about the man himself? A resident not of Israel but of Alexandria in Egypt. Not a chronicler but a philosopher. Information about Philo’s life is not as good as we would wish. For example, in only one of Philo's surviving works do we have a mention of him making a specific trip to the Jerusalem temple, and even this mention is in a work of which we have only a couple of fragments preserved by Eusebius. The mention of this trip to the temple is in the fragment  On Providence 2.64. It reads: "There is a city of Syria, on the sea shore, Ascalon by name: when I was there, at the time when I was on my journey towards the temple of my native land for the purpose of offering up prayers and sacrifices therein, I saw a most incalculable number of pigeons on the roads". And, yes, that's as much as you get about Philo's visit to the temple. With evidence like this, we do not know factually how often Philo went to the temple, even if it is probable that he would have gone more often. This dearth of biographical information about Philo (Josephus tells us a little, not much about him) means we don't know how much time he spent in Jerusalem or thereabouts. I have seen a claim by sceptics on the internet that Philo was in Jerusalem at the time when Jesus is said to have been crucified. This is simply nonsense. The above mention of Philo's trip to the Jerusalem temple is the only one we have. We don't know for sure what year to place Jesus' crucifixion in - 30AD or 33AD is the usual choice in debate - so these claims by sceptics that Philo was there at the very time and failed to mention Jesus are bogus.

    o   So although Philo is the nearest author we have to a non-Christian contemporary who could have mentioned Jesus, Philo isn't the sort of writer who necessarily would have, and we can't examine his lost works. (Of course, if there were a mention of Jesus in Philo, no doubt some sceptics would vigorously assert that it would be a Christian interpolation! The fact that no Christian did interpolate a mention of Jesus into Philo by the way adds weight to the general view of scholars that the mention of Jesus by Josephus in his Antiquities Book 18 does not have to be wholly a Christian interpolation, as Stephen Bedard points out.) I've given that a more than fair assessment, so what next?
  • Seneca the Younger – 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. In any event, the case would generally have to be based on the dubious premise that Seneca was interested in writing about things that he did not believe. It's blindingly obvious that Seneca did not believe any Christian claims that reached his ears. We know this because if he had believed such claims, then he would have become a Christian. He did not become a Christian. Therefore, we know that even if he heard of such claims, he did not believe them. Seneca to my knowledge was not interested in writing about things he didn't believe. It's altogether an odd argument to try to make out from this kind of thing that Jesus didn't exist. (It is suggested by some sceptics - without actual evidence - that Seneca would have heard of Jesus from his brother Gallio if Jesus existed, some time between 51-65AD. However, the only available evidence indicates that Gallio was spectacularly uninterested in getting into the subject. (See Acts 18:12-17.) So Gallio is the least likely candidate to be spreading word about Jesus. We are in the realm of suggestions for suggestions' sake. 
  • Valerius Maximus – a contemporary of Christ, but 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. They have a common trait - they don't write detailed accounts of classes of things  where Jesus ought to be found, such as "first century Jewish messianic figures 20-50AD", "Jewish moral teachers", "middle-eastern miracle workers" etc. That weakens any argument from silence. There is also the case of missing works. Those six who were writing during his lifetime are not candidates for writing about Jesus at all, except perhaps for Philo, but for reasons given, that's not overly remarkable in itself. The best response to questions such as 'Why are Jesus' contemporaries silent about him?' is to reflect on what a small and unpromising group of writers we have for the purpose. In other words, 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 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. If you need to reflect on Jesus at all, you are also stuck with the problem that the New Testament documents portray him as a surprisingly anonymous figure and not a famous one at all. In the biblical gospels and Acts, we repeatedly encounter people who have never heard of Jesus. It is bizarre in the extreme to suppose from such a portrayal that word of him should have reached faraway lands. 

Aside from Remburg's list, it has been suggested to me that I also consider a few others whose lives overlapped with some portion of Jesus' life: the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula; Aulus Cremutius Cordus, Seneca the Elder, Gallio, and a couple of writers who I deal with further below. The list is more strained here. Firstly, Augustus and Aulus Cremutius Cordus were dead before Jesus' public phase had even begun, so we can rule them out unless they were zombies writing posthumously. As for Tiberius' writings, all that survive are fragments of quotes in Tacitus and his like. Nothing to see here. (I could also mention that Tiberius' lost writings were used as the basis for a biography about him, but what good is that?) Caligula was barely 20 years old by the time Jesus was dead, so quite what he was supposed to be writing is anyone's guess. (By the way, what do we have contemporaneous with and about Caligula's reign? No writings of his own, but only the works of Philo and Seneca that mention him. Sceptics are appealing to evidence that doesn’t exist when they try to avail of Caligula’s writings. Where is there any credible methodology in their doing so?) As for the spectacularly uninterested Gallio - see above - and what writings of Gallio could anyone be referring to anyway?

That leaves only Seneca the Elder to pin hopes on. He died in the same decade as Jesus, about 37-39AD. None of his surviving works (link there for you to see for yourself) are obvious candidates. 
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 the case for them writing about Christ has to be critically assessed too. Here they are, the ones listed by Remsberg.

Actually, here are some not mentioned by Remsberg:
  • St Paul and other authors whose works are collected in the Bible (over two dozen texts) mention Christ. Paul in particular was a contemporary: he lived at the same time that Christ was said to be living. And Paul had some independence on the matter, having come to it first as an opponent of the church. He wrote about Jesus' life-story post-his own conversion but his knowledge went back to before his conversion, back to when he was persecuting members of the church. But Remsberg doesn't list Paul.
On the other hand, five names which are listed by Remsberg for which his evidence is particularly flimsy:
  • Damis – first century, if he existed at all. Some scholars think Damis’ writings were a forgery, written in the first half of the early 3rd century (written by Philostratus, born c. 170AD). There is no mention of Damis prior to the 3rd century.
  • Justus of Tiberius – born in Galilee, active in the second half of the first century. None of his writings survive anyway so we can’t check what they say. Photius, a ninth century reader of the lost works of Justus records that Justus does not mention Jesus, but this does not tell us anything useful such as whether anything about Jesus belongs to any class of things that Justus normally would record – an essential to this kind of argument from silence. 
  • Lysias – who? Which one? Listed by Remsberg but I am unable to identify him at all.
  • Phaedrus – famous for putting Aesop’s fables into verse, but where and when he was born is unknown. File under mid-first century.
  • Quintius Curtius – nothing is known about this author except that he wrote about Alexander the Great, probably mid-first century.
Another listed by Remsberg:
  • Josephus – born in Jerusalem in 37AD, Jewish historian, mentioned Christ in Ant. 20: 200-203 (see chapter 9 at the link there), as well as in a more controversial passage which Remsberg conveniently labels a forgery.
  • (Remsberg also did not mention Mara bar Serapion – a letter probably written after 70AD by a philosopher from Syria – possibly mentions the death of Christ, but the jury will always be out on this one.)
Remsberg did list these thirteen:
  • Writers of satirical poetry: Martial, born in Spain c.40AD; Persius, born in Italy about 34AD; Petronius, born about 27AD – no-one knows where. I’m afraid you don’t expect to find Palestinian Jews on this bookshelf.
  • Writers of epic poetry: Publius Papinius Statius, born in the 40s, his main poem being about Oedipus’ sons; Valerius Flaccus, his main poem in the 70s, Argonautica, being about Jason and the Golden Fleece, and died about 90AD; Silius Italicus, born about 28AD, possibly in Spain or Italy. I’m afraid you don’t expect to find Palestinian Jews on this bookshelf either.
  • Dion of Prusa/Dio Chrysostom – born after Christ died, in Turkey (Bithynia) in the 40s. Wrote particularly on political, moral, and philosophical subjects.  Much of his historical and philosophical work hasn’t survived. Much else has, but not on our subject area.
  • Lucanus (Lucan) – born in Spain in 39AD, a poet of works unrelated to the matter in question here. His surviving works are on Julius Caesar and Pompey (century before Christ) and a tribute to a member of a leading Roman family. Committed suicide in 65AD. Not a prime candidate for material on a Palestinian Jew.
  • Pliny the Elder – born in Italy in 23AD. His main surviving work is his Natural History. Another bookshelf where you don’t expect to find a Palestinian Jew.
  • Pompon Mela – Spanish geographer, of unknown years.
  • Quintilian – born in the 30s in Spain, wrote about Roman education and oratory. Learn about the skills of classical orators here. Not a place to look for a Palestinian Jew.
  • Theon of Smyrna – Probably born after Christ’s death, in light of his dying about 135AD – may be a second century writer. An author of works on mathematics and philosophy. 
As you can see, people had plenty of things to write about, just like we find in a modern library. You wouldn’t expect mentions of Christ to pop up randomly everywhere. What we don’t have either is a collection of works on the large scale of a modern library. These authors’ entire surviving works could easily fit on your bookshelves at home.
Various Christians’ writings mention Christ, but Remsberg doesn’t list them for some reason. He mentions these as if none of them mention Christ, which is a strange attitude for him to have, as you can see:
  • Lucian – born in Turkey in the second century (c. 120AD), he mentions Christ and Christians in The Death of Peregrine 11-15.
  • Phlegon – second century writer, he mentions Christ according to Origen (Against Celsus, book 2, chapter 14), but the work referred to is lost.
  • Tacitus – born in the 50s, perhaps in northern Italy. He mentions Christ., although Remsberg conveniently labels this a forgery
  • Pliny the Younger – born in Italy in 61AD, he was a lawyer. He mentions Christ.
  • Suetonius - born about 69AD, probably in Italy, wrote about the Roman Emperors, and little else survives of his work. Possibly mentions Christ, but the jury will always be out on whether or not Chrestus (Latin) refers to Χριστός (Greek spelling of Christ) in Suetonius.
That leaves just ten more second century authors. Frankly we’re getting further from the first century, and as we do so, the significance of whether or not Christ is mentioned diminishes.
  • Appian – born in the 90s in Alexandria, Egypt, writings not about the historical period in question.
  • Arrian – born in the 80s in Asia Minor, wrote about Alexander the Great (a hero of a few centuries before Christ), so again not the historical period in question.
  • Aulus Gellius - born, probably in Rome, about 125AD. It’s typical Romano-Greek subject matter.
  • Epictetus (his real name unknown) – born in the 50s in Turkey (Phrygia) and moved to Greece, taught philosophy. His philosophical teachings were actually written by his pupil, Arrian in the second century. We’re still very much with typical Romano-Greek culture.
  • Ptolemy – born in the 90s, lived in Alexandria, Egypt, wrote notably on astronomy, geography and mathematics.
  • Favorinus, born C. 80s in France. A philosopher, and only fragments of his work survive.
  • Hermogones – born in Turkey (Tarsus) in the mid-second century, famed for his work The Art of Rhetoric. Learn about the skills of classical orators here. Not a place to look for a Palestinian Jew.
  • Juvenal – born in Italy in the second half of the first century, wrote grisly comic satires. I studied these in Latin for my classics degree. Not an author where you would expect to find mention of Christ.
  • Pausanias – born in the second century, possibly in Turkey (Lydia), a geographer who wrote about Greece. Not promising material, this, is it?
  • Plutarch – born in Greece about 46AD. He especially wrote comparisons of Greek and Roman figures. No room for a Palestinian Jew there then.
As mentioned, Remsberg chooses not to list the many second century Christian authors who mention Christ.
If Remsberg meant to prove that a vast array of classical authors who should have said something are completely silent about Christ – actually that IS what he thought he was doing! - he singularly failed in this endeavour.
And finally…
Apollonius – (if this is the Apollonius whom Remsberg meant!) born in Egypt after 200AD, wrote a poem about Jason and the Argonauts.
Otherwise, supposed first century miracle worker Apollonius doesn’t appear in a history until the first half of the early 3rd century (written by Philostratus, born c. 170AD).

And that's it. The Remsberg list is shambolic. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It doesn't do what it says on the tin. And here's the thing. Sceptics, it seems to me, want others to see themselves as the sensible ones, the people who can smell the coffee. How anyone can not detect the smell when Remsberg's list is under their noses is beyond me! It is not enough to think of yourself as a sensible sceptic - you need the evidence and analysis skills to go with it. Copying and pasting the Remsberg list is a sign of scepticism for its own sake. Trying to get to the truth of things - that is the difficult task, and that is what my blog is about.

For my blog gathering data from the ground up about the existence of the Palestinian Jew Jesus, start here.

[1] The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidence of His Existence, by John E. Remsberg, reprinted by Prometheus Books, New York, 1994, pages 171-3

Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction
Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

You are here - 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?

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