On Jesus, Fame, and Contemporary Records from Antiquity
By Erlend D. MacGillivray
By Erlend D. MacGillivray
It is increasingly popular in some skeptical quarters of the internet, and from self-published amateur historians who advocate atheism, that the existence of Jesus as a historical person is (despite what professional historians conclude) suspect. The reasons they put foward to explain their skepticism are numerous. One popular claim is that because no extant contemporary source from Jesus’ time mentions him, this implies he did not exist. Using a conversational tone this article show why this argument does not work, and betrays the Jesus mythicists’ lack of awareness of ancient history.
So are historians wrong? Is the fact that there are no contemporary references to Jesus notable — suspicious even? Well, we should realize that any person in antiquity who would likely not be recorded in physical assets such as coins, epigraphs (etc.), that we are dependent upon literary documents to know about their existence. These are extremely rare from antiquity. We probably have less than .001% of all literature from Classical period currently extant. Apart from a few examples, and most of these emerge from specific events such as the Athenian-Spartan conflict, the Second Punic War, or the upheavals during the fall of the Roman Republic. There is a significant lack of contemporary reference materials from Classical history. We have almost nothing written from the time about dozens of Roman Emperors who ruled one of the largest and most literate societies pre-enlightenment Europe. We only have written sources regarding some of the most renowned generals, such as Scipio (who saved Rome from being destroyed by the Carthaginians), decades after their lives. Perhaps we might suggest that he didn’t exist too? Great philosophers who mingled with Emperors, politicians, and business men, who would have had infinitely more influence (and connections with literate people) than an itinerant Jewish preacher in rural Palestine. How much do we know about them from the time of their lives? Practically nothing.
People like the founders of Stoicism and Epicureanism; their writings were part of every educated Romans’ libraries and had followers (like Christianity) in every major city. So there must be thousands of copies of their writings? No. Apart from three letters of Epicurus almost nothing. Alexander the Great who conquered the whole known world. Well, we surely must have thousands of contemporary reports about him. Nope. We can fit it on about half a page of A4. Consider the “Loeb Classical Library” that has been published by Harvard University Press for over a hundred years. It translates and publishes all the major works from Classical Antiquity. Over 1,000 years of writing, during which time the West enjoyed its first Golden Age of literature. How large is this corpus of material? It can fit into just two bookcases (!)– and they are double the size they need to be: each volume supplies the Latin/Greek as well as an English translation.
Read Professor Robert Garland’s “Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens” and Graham Anderon’s “Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire”, try to note down in a spreadsheet how close the extant records we have for apparently well-known people in antiquity are (including actors, philosophers, religious charismatics etc). Generally decades, normally over a hundred years after their lives, and they are almost always referenced in one source. Look at the Jewish historian Josephus’ works. He lists dozens of Jewish leaders who were equal, and in fact exceeded, Jesus in fame and importance during their lives. Who else records them? No one, just Josephus. (by the way no-one mentions Josephus, supposedly this BIG Jewish commander and then client of the Emperor himself, he must never have existed as well!).
Want more? Okay. Forget football (or whatever sport the people in your country like the most). In antiquity the sport was chariot racing. Racing circuses were so widely attended that they would typically hold 20,000 spectators, and in bigger cities like Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage that number went up to around 100,000 people. In Rome that number swells to a remarkable 250,000 members of the crowd (by comparison the population of Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime was only around 40,000). The charioteers’ fan base was so fanatic that at their deaths people were even known throw themselves on their funeral pyres to commit suicide. So, lets take the most famous member of this most illustrious of groups- Caius Apuleius Diocles, a charioteer who surpassed all other charioteers. He was the Tiger Woods, or Cristiano Ronaldo of his day. In modern money he made around 15 billion dollars(!) in his lifetime. Well here we really must be on safe ground. With his number of adoring fans, it must be tedious for scholar of antiquity to catalogue the huge number of discussions, references, and allusions to him. Nope. Only one solitary inscription is a contemporary source. Everything else no longer exists.
The destruction of Pompeii, a large city and its environs including Herculaneum, completely destroyed and tens of thousands of people vaporized by a volcanic eruption. An event that is probably comparable in terms of shock to 9/11, and one that happened just 250km from the Roman capital. This must be recorded EVERYWHERE. Only no. It isn’t. Only one source from near the the time talks about it. So perhaps it, and all these other figures, must have been made up too- or perhaps people like these non-trained Jesus mythcist activists need a new argument, and skeptics and sensationalizing journalists need to start to reconsider who they have been electing to gain their knowledge of the ancient world and early Christian history from.
One interesting exercise to show how ancient fame vis-a-vis ancient literary records works is to compare Jesus with Cato the Younger. Cato was probably the most famous person during the time of Christ. We even have two classical authors saying they are fed up having stories of his life being constantly recollected by everyone. Now how many biographies of his life now exist? One, by Plutarch who wrote it over a hundred years later! This is a very good indicator that this argument from silence needs to be put to bed, not given the oxygen of media attention.
Let’s not be ignorant about this. Atheists would have a field day producing their self-published books, blog posts, plying journalists with their amateur/home-spun research, and having their readers high-fiving them if it served their skeptical cause to turn their “methods” to question such ancient people and events’ existence — yet they think that historians are only wrong about this one figure. It is online amateur activism parading itself as reasoned scholarship. Its enthusiastic reception in the skeptical community (which professes to stand for free-thinking and reason) should be a matter of deep concern, because it highlights their ability to accept a nonsense argument merely because it suits their disposition to like it. That is the real story here– not the supposed suspicious silence about Jesus.
The fact that this Jewish Messiah figure is talked about by a dozen non-Christian writers (see here, here, or a online lecture here) within a hundred years of his life is remarkable- unprecedented really. But this is a narrative that is sidelined, and just as illegitimately so as when some creationists can use bogus arguments to comfort, but ultimately deceive, their followers. Both are reprehensible, and both show complete ignorance of how to properly approach, understand, and responsibly interact with the field.
Liked this article? Please also consider historian James Hannam’s discussion (at the end of the webpage) of how this nonsense approach can be used to convince mythicists of the non-existence of practically every figure in ancient history; including one of its most famous figures- Hannibal Barca.
 E.g. Trebonianus Gallus and Hostilian.
 Later authors such as Valerius Maximus, Livy, and Plutarch record him.
 See Robert Sharpels, “The Problem of Sources.” In Mary Louise Gill and Pierre Pellegrin (eds.). A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell: London. 2009: 430-447. Consider also Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing. 2003. Trevor Curnow, The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z Guide. London: Gerald-Duckworth. 2006.
 For Epicurus’ letters see Diog. Laert. 10.35-138. On the Stoics, see Hans von Arnim ‘s1903-1905 Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, vols 1-3.
 See the discussion in Dawn L. Gilley and Ian Worthington, “Alexander the Great, Macedonia and Asia.” In Joseph Roisman and Ian Worthington (eds.). A Companion to Ancient Macedonia, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. London: Wiley-Blackwell: London. 2010. 186.
 See “Gaius Appuleius Diocles, the World’s Richest Sportsman” by Brenda Ralph Lewis: https://suite.io/brenda-ralph-lewis/45dj22j.
 See the discussion in Garland, Celebrity, pp.73-74.
 See Pliny the Younger, Ep. 6.16 and 6.20.
 Lucilius Ep. 24.6.1-3, Persius Sat. 3.45.