If Jesus existed and was so famous, we should have heard a lot more about him in historical sources outside the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The fact that so little was written about Jesus indicates that he was the creation of the church.
On the contrary, the fact that we have as much information as we do about Jesus from non-Christian sources is amazing in itself. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 7-9] and Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 24-27] have indicated several reasons why Jesus remained a “marginal Jew” about whom we have so little information:
1. As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a “blip” on the screen. Jesus was not considered to be historically significant by historians of his time. He did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; He never travelled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a “celebrity” that He became known.
Sanders, comparing Jesus to Alexander, notes that the latter “so greatly altered the political situation in a large part of the world that the main outline of his public life is very well known indeed. Jesus did not change the social, political and economic circumstances in Palestine (Note: It was left for His followers to do that!) ..the superiority of evidence for Jesus is seen when we ask what he thought.” [Sand.HistF, 3]
Harris adds that “Roman writers could hardly be expected to have foreseen the subsequent influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire and therefore to have carefully documented” Christian origins. How were they to know that this minor Nazarene prophet would cause such a fuss?
2. Jesus was executed as a criminal, providing him with the ultimate marginality. This was one reason why historians would have ignored Jesus. He suffered the ultimate humiliation, both in the eyes of Jews (Deut. 21:23 – Anyone hung on a tree is cursed!) and the Romans (He died the death of slaves and rebels.).
On the other hand, Jesus was a minimal threat compared to other proclaimed “Messiahs” of the time. Rome had to call out troops to quell the disturbances caused by the unnamed Egyptian referenced in the Book of Acts [Sand.HistF, 51] . In contrast, no troops were required to suppress Jesus’ followers.
To the Romans, the primary gatekeepers of written history at the time, Jesus during His own life would have been no different than thousands of other everyday criminals that were crucified.
3. Jesus marginalized himself by being occupied as an itinerant preacher. Of course, there was no Palestine News Network, and even if there had been one, there were no televisions to broadcast it. Jesus never used the established “news organs” of the day to spread His message. He travelled about the countryside, avoiding for the most part (and with the exception of Jerusalem) the major urban centers of the day. How would we regard someone who preached only in sites like, say, Hahira, Georgia?
4. Jesus’ teachings did not always jibe with, and were sometimes offensive to, the established religious order of the day. It has been said that if Jesus appeared on the news today, it would be as a troublemaker. He certainly did not make many friends as a preacher.
5. Jesus lived an offensive lifestyle and alienated many people. He associated with the despised and rejected: Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the band of fishermen He had as disciples.
6. Jesus was a poor, rural person in a land run by wealthy urbanites. Yes, class discrimination was alive and well in the first century also!
A final consideration is that we have very little information from first-century sources to begin with. Not much has survived the test of time from A.D. 1 to today. Blaiklock has cataloged the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire (other than those of Philo) which have survived from the first century and do not mention Jesus. These items are:
- An amateurish history of Rome by Vellius Paterculus, a retired army officer of Tiberius. It was published in 30 A.D., just when Jesus was getting started in His ministry.
- An inscription that mentions Pilate.
- Fables written by Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman, in the 40s A.D.
- From the 50s and 60s A.D., Blaiklock tells us: “Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from these significant years.” Included are philosophical works and letters by Seneca; a poem by his nephew Lucan; a book on agriculture by Columella, a retired soldier; fragments of the novel Satyricon by Gaius Petronius; a few lines from a Roman satirist, Persius; Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis; fragments of a commentary on Cicero by Asconius Pedianus, and finally, a history of Alexander the Great by Quinus Curtius.
Of all these writers, only Seneca may have conceivably had reason to refer to Jesus. But considering his personal troubles with Nero, it is doubtful that he would have had the interest or the time to do any work on the subject.
- From the 70s and 80s A.D., we have some poems and epigrams by Martial, and works by Tacitus (a minor work on oratory) and Josephus (Against Apion, Wars of the Jews). None of these would have offered occasion to mention Jesus.
- From the 90s, we have a poetic work by Statius; twelve books by Quintillian on oratory; Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law Agricola, and his work on Germany. [Blaik.MM, 13-16]
To this Meier adds [ibid., 23] that in general, knowledge of the vast majority of ancient peoples is “simply not accessible to us today by historical research and never will be.”ReferencesBlaik.MM – Blaiklock, E. M. Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.Harr.3Cruc – Harris, Murray. 3 Crucial Questions About Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.Meie.MarJ – Meier, John P. – A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991.Sand.HistF – Sanders, E.P. – The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Press, 1993.From Tekton Aplogetics