By Chris Williams
Many of Christianity’s online critics opine the notion that Jesus never even existed. Part of their argumentation involves an argument from silence. In brief, this argument states that Jesus did not exist, because no contemporary writer ever mentions Jesus. Proponents of this view emphasize that many contemporary authors would have written about Jesus, if Jesus truly performed miracles and had such a massive following. The reality, however, is that this argument is a logical fallacy. Although an argument from silence can be logically valid in some cases, it is not legitimate when applied to the question of Jesus’s existence.
I contend that it is reasonable to concur with the vast majority of scholars that Jesus existed during the first century C.E. By “Jesus” I mean a Jewish man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate’s authority during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. This Jesus was also a reputed miracle worker. For the purposes of this blog entry, I will not assume that the New Testament gospels are factually accurate in every single detail that they describe. Instead, I will approach these texts the way the majority of scholars approach them: They are ancient documents and historians must apply careful methodological principles when mining through the gospels’ material. I will expound upon those methods below.
My discussion will be divided into three main sections: First, I will provide a crash course on ancient history and the basic methodological principles historians use to study ancient history. Second, I will discuss details that early Roman sources provide concerning the early Christian movement and I will use them to reconstruct a picture of the apostle Paul’s historical position in the first century C.E. Third, I shall conduct a brief survey of the data Paul provides concerning Jesus. Fourth, I will discuss some additional Jewish material that corroborates what the New Testament sources teach concerning Jesus.
In a perfect world, scholars would possess written documents from most of the ancient people who ever lived. In an ideal world, historians who study antiquity would have reports from writers who either knew the person under analysis or knew their close friends or family members. Unfortunately, however, these ideals are rarely the case for most ancient individuals. Although ancient authors generally valued eyewitness testimony and consulted eyewitnesses while compiling their various histories whenever possible, many Greek, Roman, and Jewish historical accounts are nevertheless predicated upon secondhand reports at best.
W. Walbank notes that Greek historians typically did not identify their sources. 1. Thucydides (460-404 B.C.E.) is one example. His exact date of death is unknown. M. I. Finley says, “All that we know about Thucydides is found in the few scraps he tells us about himself, and in a short, eccentric and unreliable biography from late antiquity credited to someone named Marcellinus.” 2. Betty Radice relays, “For much of the period he describes The Peloponnesian War is the only source that survives.” 3. Thucydides frequently relied on secondhand information and he never named his informants. Finley explains, “Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides never names his informants, and on only two occasions does he say that he was a direct participant: he suffered from the plague and he was a general at Amphipolis.” 4
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