Saturday, 29 July 2017

Was Jesus internationally famous in his own lifetime?

Was Jesus internationally famous in his own lifetime? I am going to cover what the Bible tells us about Jesus’ reputation, and then point towards what we can learn from outside the Bible.

Let's start with a piece of evidence little quoted on this issue. Acts 25:13-20 tells us of a Roman official, a few decades after Jesus' life, who had not heard of him. In fact, this official has no idea how to deal with the story that there was a man called Jesus who died and rose from the dead. It’s news to him. So what's going on here?

There is good reason for inquiring about what the biblical gospels say here. It's this: some sceptics wonder why a miracle-working teacher of wonderful things was not famous enough to get mentioned by more first century writers. This scepticism can be based on only one thing: that the gospels do indeed portray a miracle-working teacher, and this contributes to the premise of the objection. On that basis, we can start only by examining the premise of the objection. That means we have to see what the gospels really say in regard to the reputation of a miracle-working teacher. Whether one rates the veracity of the gospels high or low makes no difference to the test: the gospels picture contributes to the premise of the objection, and so their role in the premise itself has to be investigated.

What does the Bible tell us about Jesus' fame?

As far as we can tell, for three years at the end of his life, Jesus was somewhat famous in many small rural villages around Galilee which he often visited. And he was possibly unknown in bigger towns nearby such as Tiberias and Sepphoris because he seemed to avoid them. And he was known a bit from his rare trips to Jerusalem in tourist seasons (religious festivals). And that was about as far as his reputation went. Jesus was nearly famous in his lifetime, but not quite. Let’s explain what the Bible reveals about his lack of a major reputation.

What did people think of him?

The elites

When the Jewish religious elites heard of Jesus, they mostly took a dim view of him. If they were a source of any reputation about him, it would have been a poor reputation. The very people who could have spread word internationally – the elites – merely tried to undermine him. They saw he had a growing reputation for teaching about religion, but the elite religious experts responded merely by trying to trap him with trick questions. They saw he had a growing reputation for healing miracles, but their response was to undermine him by accusing him of being possessed by demons.

The elites saw him as a threat because he was building a rival religious following. They wanted to stamp that out. The elites were trying to keep a lid on him. No way were they going to do or say anything that would allow him to get a good reputation in their own country. No way was Jesus going to get an amazing reputation thanks to them at home or abroad. No way was news going to get out from them that here was an amazing religious teacher and healer.

In the days before mass communication, it was easier to suppress news.

Ordinary people

What about ordinary people power? One of those things that is not obvious until pointed out is that Jesus did not spend time in the major towns and cities where more people could have seen and heard him (apart from Jerusalem). Any visits to major centres in Galilee such as Tiberias and Sepphoris are conspicuous by their absence in the biographies of Jesus. Okay, so if Jesus was not in the big towns, where was he? Mainly, he preached, travelled and stayed in the countryside and small villages in Galilee. This sort of behaviour is hardly making international fame any kind of aim at all.

The earliest biographies go to lengths to let us know why word about Jesus was slow to get around. They tell us again and again that even in small villages, Jesus shunned publicity. If you were a PR guru in the first century, Jesus was your worst nightmare. We find the repeated message that Jesus did not want to be gossiped about in Mark 1:40-44; 5:39-43; 7:32-36; 8:24-30; 9:9; Matthew 9:30 Time and again, Jesus tells people to keep quiet about what he is doing:

“Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone” (Mark 1:43); “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this” (5:43); “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it” (7:36); “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30); “Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this”” (Matthew 9:30).

We got a glimpse in there that not everyone did as Jesus told them to. Word was getting out. But by and large, Jesus seems to have been quite successful in keeping a lid on it. Why? In large part, Jesus did not want the authorities to catch up with him the way they caught up with the unfortunate John the Baptist, until he had spread his message.

Even in the countryside, Jesus shunned crowds at times, often not taking the opportunities presented to grandstand. His response when larger crowds started to follow him was to meet their needs and then send them on their way, so that he could go and preach somewhere else. When crowds tried to make him famous, after the feeding of the five thousand, his response was typical of him:

“they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15)

That will have put a stop to that movement spreading.

And when Jesus did talk more candidly, it was mostly just within ‘the family’ so to speak: e.g. Matthew 11:2-5 i.e. with the friends of John the Baptist.

If anyone is asking why Jesus was not internationally famous during his public ministry (three years or so), then the answer is there to be seen. It’s not rocket science. Jesus kept a lid on it.

Only really in the last week of his life did that change.

The Romans

Judea was under military occupation. The Roman occupiers were keeping the peace, and they treated local religious disputations as something to stay away from unless they were out of control. So the Romans would have been put off going anywhere near the sound of Jesus’ religious disputes with Jewish leaders. They did the minimum they had to do.

The Jews said Jesus was an enemy, so the Romans executed him, showing no interest whatsoever in whether there were other Jews with a better impression of Jesus. In the biblical gospels, when Jesus is on trial, no-one gets to speak of Jesus as an amazing teacher and a miracle worker. Only the elites get to speak about him. That is bad news for Jesus. His life ends there. As mentioned, Acts 25:13-20 tells us of a Roman official a few decades after Jesus' life who had not even heard of him. 

Results just in: nearly famous, then.

For his three years of public ministry, the Jewish religious elites were suppressing any good reputation Jesus might have; the Romans were staying away from local religious disagreement; and Jesus’ friends by and large were following Jesus’ instructions to keep quiet about him. When crowds came to Jesus, he would defuse the situation so that he could go and preach in another village. It’s a perfect storm for keeping Jesus out of the international news. But it seems to be how Jesus wanted it to be.

Neither in his lifetime, nor in the years just after his death, was Jesus internationally famous. This rarely mentioned fact is found in the Bible, but scarcely gets noticed.

So why do so some people nowadays expect to find evidence of Jesus surviving from his own lifetime painting him as a much admired miracle-working figure, and complain when they cannot find it? It can only be that some people are looking for a very different Jesus from the one that the Bible tells us about. Looking for a different version, which is not in the Bible, and then complaining that it cannot be found is not a sound method for understanding the past.

We might protest that surely if miracles were happening, news would be everywhere. But that is not the way things are, then or now. Things can be suppressed. Things can be ignored. Stories can be disbelieved. Evidence can be lost. Things can go unrecorded. Authorities can have agendas. The religious and political authorities of Israel and Rome tried to get rid of Jesus and his followers, seeing them as the losing side who they surely wanted history to forget. Needless to say, I could list here ministries active today about whom miracle stories abound, and surely most of my readers would have to admit that they have never heard any of their amazing reports. And this is true even in our days of mass communications!

Amazingly, the elites ultimately failed. And within about two decades of Jesus’ life, he is mentioned in dispatches by Paul. Another decade onwards, and there is the story of his ministry years told in a gospel or two (Mark and Luke).

What do we find outside the Bible?

Outside of the Bible, our key problem is that so little evidence from the ancient world survives in general that we can’t always form a judgment as to what was happening. I have covered this in another post in detail.

1 comment:

  1. Is there a way I could email you with a couple of historical questions concerning your area of expertise?