On the “No Contemporary References to Jesus” Controversy

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by Neil Godfrey

A few weeks ago I was asked to comment on Tim O’Neill’s post, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. I think that was the one. So I caught up with it on my return from Thailand last night so I can respond at last. (If there is another one I was asked to respond to then feel free to advise me.)

My first point is that I don’t think I have ever taken a lot of time to look into who of the authors of the first century c.e. said nothing about Jesus and why this should be surprising if Jesus existed. As I understand it, such lists of names of “who at the time should have mentioned Jesus but didn’t” are presented as part of an argument to prove that Jesus did not exist. I have no problem with people wanting to take that line of argument and try to make their case but it is not where I am at and it is not a line of argument I have tried to follow.

My interest has been to try to explain the evidence for Christian origins according to the standard and best methods followed by historians of ancient history and so far it appears to me that that evidence is best explained by hypotheses that have no place for a historical Jesus. In other words, I do not see any evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus. That is not the same as saying I believe we can prove that Jesus did not exist. I don’t recall ever trying to “prove” that Jesus did not exist. I have often attempted to set out arguments, generally based on either or both serious biblical scholarship and the sound methodologies of ancient history, that demonstrate how the gospels and letters of Paul can well be explained without any need for reaching back to a historical Jesus.

So back to the lists of “who’s who among those who did not mention Jesus”. Here is how I see the best way to approach such lists. I have not done this exercise myself so present it here as what I think I would do if I had the time and interest to take it up.

I would take the arguments of both sides, of those who set out all the reasons such authors should have mentioned Jesus and of those who set out all the reasons we should not expect to see references to Jesus in them. And then I’d try to do my own homework on each of the authors to learn what I can about his background, interests, and what some of the scholars have to say about his work, etc.

Maybe some of you are twigging to where I am leading. In other words I am setting up the two hypotheses and then getting background information. If that reminds you of a Bayesian approach you are right with me.

I’d take each author in turn and ask how expected is the absence of a reference to Jesus in our manuscripts given all that we know about each author and 1) the non-existence of Jesus; and then 2) Jesus failing to attract the attention and interest of the author; and then compare the results.

In other words, I would not take up each argument, the one for and against, and tackle it on its own, either looking to poke holes in it or finding ways to buttress it. Forget the argument and trying to pick winners. Do serious historical research and thinking about the evidence in the light of both hypotheses and background information. Be prepared for the final balance to be tilted either way.

At the end of the day I do not see what difference the result would make to my historical interests in Christian origins. It might make a difference to those attempting to either prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. But as I have said several times now, that’s not a question I want to venture into. To me, the historical question is how to explain the evidence for Christian origins. If we need a historical Jesus to explain it then so be it; if a simpler hypothesis does not require such a figure then so be it.

The key point for me is the absence of known contemporary references to “the historical Jesus”. That brings us back to the methods set out by various ancient historians themselves, such as Moses Finley, which are in sync with the methodological principles set out by the so-called “minimalists” such as Philip R. Davies. I would love to set up an annotated archive page of all the posts I have done on that topic for easy reference.

Oh, and one more detail —

I explicitly mentioned background information in relation to each of the authors. But implicit in what I said is another spectrum of background information, too, and that’s what we mean by a “historical Jesus” figure. Do not rely on what anyone else says a source says, but do your own checking. For example, Tim O’Neill says that according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus there is no indication that Jesus was known beyond Galilee and refers to Mk 1:27-28 and 6:14. But more careful investigators will not overlook Mk 3:8 that also has his reputation extending as far as Jerusalem, beyond Jordan and up into Tyre and Sidon. And then one will have to ask the extent to which such a description is based on a need to emulate and transcend the following of Moses given the larger “midrashic” suggestions in that section of Mark. And do we take as historical the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that implies people knew about him before he came on the scene, etc etc etc.

But if Jesus was a nobody who did not even have a widespread reputation for healing (and despite Tim O’Neill’s attempt to suggest the contrary, even sceptical or critical scholars who accept the historicity of Jesus as a relative “nobody” generally acknowledge he had a significant reputation as a healer) then we need to have a good hypothesis to explain how the early converts were made to “Christianity” from the basis of such a figure in the first place.

In other words, it is going to be difficult to come up with a way to assess the rightful expectations of mention of such a figure in our extant writings. Perhaps we need to work with several hypotheses: no Jesus; minimal Jesus; a medium Jesus (as per a critical scholar’s construct); a max Jesus (as per an apologist view).


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36 thoughts on “On the “No Contemporary References to Jesus” Controversy”

    1. Why do you ask? Anything is possible. (I am away from home at the moment and can check my reference books when I do return to see if there are manuscript or other indications of a variant history of the passage.) But the passage makes perfect thematic sense in context given the gospel’s abundance of gentile-jewish linking themes, the messianic secret ironies throughout the gospel and its extension of the wider context transvaluing the exodus and travels of Israel to Sinai.

      I might even suggest the contents of the verse are unlikely to reflect “historical memory” or we’d be more likely to find some independent corroborating notice in the extant evidence.

    2. The geographical domain of Mark may be related to the geographical domain of the Israelites and Moses, per Jesus as the new Moses. And exegesis per Isaiah 9:1.

      Cf. Neil Godfrey (6 August 2010). “Mark: failed geography, but great bible student“. Vridar.

      [Per] Isaiah 9:1. There are three geographical referents here, in order:
      1. the way of the sea
      2. the other side of Jordan
      3. [Galilee – Greek/LXX] [region – Hebrew] of the gentiles

  1. That Tim O’Neill would neglect to mention, even to rebut in some way, the reference to Jesus’s fame even extending outside Judea, is a real blow to me against his credibility as a debunker of mythicism.

  2. The “No Contemporary References” argument only tends to show that a New Testament Jesus didn’t exist. Every generation has its unremarkable witchdoctors/exorcists. But who would fail to historicize one from whom thousands had eaten multiplied food?

    1. Exactly, someone with a following of thousands who had a triumphal parade entering Jerusalem and caught the attention of the regional authorities should have been mentioned during his lifetime.

    2. “The ‘No Contemporary References’ argument only tends to show that a New Testament Jesus didn’t exist.

      Well, that a first century Jesus as portrayed in the NT is [much] less likely to have existed (he may have, or he may have been from another time eg. 100 yrs later ie. ~130 ad/ce.

  3. I address the “no contemporary accounts” issue in my book, but as you say, its really just a side note. It certainly isn’t evidence in and of itself, but it is important to note, Obviously if there WERE contemporary accounts that would be significant, so the fact that there aren’t any has to be clarified.

    But really the lack of contemporary accounts is all the more significant when you consider other early Christian writings, like the Epistle of James, which I believe may have been written by the “real James”, i.e. the James that was a central figure in the early movement.

    Even this letter doesn’t talk about the real Jesus. This gets back to you point of, how would such a person, who made no writings themselves, and whose life no one gave an account of, and who wasn’t noted by anyone outside the community, have been such an important figure that he was worshiped as the savior of the world who would return and destroy the world and create a new paradise? How could there be people believing so fervently in the person who, produce no writings, drew no crowds, performed no miracles, and, apparently didn’t even have any teachings of note?

    Because keep in mind that nothing in the early Epistles, either from Paul OR James or some of the others, actually purports to be passing on teachings of Jesus.

    Paul isn’t worshiping Jesus because of Jesus’ teachings. He is worshiping Jesus because he is the Savior who can destroy the material world and create a new immaterial paradise.

    So remember, there are no contemporary accounts, EVEN FROM Christian sources! And none of the earliest sources convey teachings of Jesus either. The earliest sources all simply worship the heavenly messiah.

    Indeed, as I demonstrate in my book, the first writing that we can decisively show to purport to convey teachings of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark, and as I demonstrate, these are actually Paul’s teachings put into the mouth of Jesus. All “teachings of Jesus” develop AFTER the writing of the story called Mark.

    The lack of information about Jesus the person in the letters of Paul, James and Hebrews belies idea that these people were worshiping Jesus because of the actions and teachings of a person. And I don’t go into this in my book, though I’m thinking about adding it to a 2nd edition already, but the Epistle of James goes into an extensive discussion on the important of WORKS, and in James’ discussion of works, James cites Elijah and Rahab as examples of the importance of works.

    How on earth could James fail to cite Jesus as an example of the importance of works if Jesus were a real person who was being worship because of things he did that convinced people that he was worthy of worship? And if Jesus did no works of note, then why would he have been worshiped? If he did do works, then why wouldn’t James have cited them? This is actually a huge omission. Yes, it’s an argument from absence, but this is huge absence.

    Yeah, about half way into the publishing process is when I really started thinking more about the Epistle of James, but I was so far down the road at that point I didn’t want to make any major changes to delay the publication further. But I’m putting together several tings to add in a 2nd edition.

    But yeah, you can never prove Jesus didn’t exist due to lack to contemporary accounts, but it’s an important thing to note nevertheless.

  4. I’m not sure what kind of information mythicists would accept to change their minds to accept a minimal Jesus. After all, are we going to say it’s a “coincidence” that Paul met a brother of the lord named James (Gal 1:19), and Mark also happens to identify a brother of the lord named James (Mark 6:3)? I would agree we know virtually nothing about Jesus, but I think on this point the most natural reading would be in favor of historicism.

    1. Yet in GMark, this brother James is not associated with Jesus’s movement, unlike the James Brother of the Lord in Galatians. Are you suggesting that GMark was deliberately downplaying the role of James in early Christianity?

      1. I’m not sure what your objection is? James would have come to faith after Jesus died, probably through visions – which is why Paul says visions of the risen Jesus were a necessary, but not sufficient condition of being an apostle (1 Cor 9:1). Mark doesn’t deal with what happened when people started having visions of the risen Jesus.

        1. Have you considered why you must speculate about how Jesus’s brother James became a Christian? Why is it that his conversion (if it happened) is not in the Bible? This leaves to me the possibility that the figure of James the Brother appears in 2 guises in the Bible. One as James the Brother of the Lord who was a rival to Paul whom Paul did not get along with. The second as James the Brother of Jesus whom Jesus condemned and who, in GMark, is involved in an effort to try to denounce Jesus as a lunatic. In later Christian tradition, including your speculation, these two Jameses were merged as one, but this need not be the case, as I see it. The possibility that I am toying with is that GMark, written by a Pro-Pauline Christian, incorporated many details into the narrative (whose core authenticity may be real) in order to denigrate James the Brother of the Lord and his circle because they had been opposed by Paul. Thus, GMark portrays Peter as a fool, coward, and deserter, mirroring Paul’s condemnation of Peter/Cephas as deceitful/cowardly and an adherent of James’s improper form of Christianity. According to this interpretive scheme, James Jesus’s Brother in GMark – who condemns Jesus and is condemned by Jesus – may have been a similarly coded reference to James the Lord’s Brother – and rival to Paul.

          1. Here are Dr. James McGrath’s thoughts on the argument for James being a biological brother of Jesus:

            1 Paul refers to Jesus in a way that indicates that he believes he was a human figure descended from David.

            2 Paul refers to “James the Lord’s brother” and to “the Lord’s brothers.”

            3 We have no evidence for the use of the phrase “the Lord’s brother(s)” as denoting anything other than biological brothers of Jesus.

            4 Even if we were to allow (despite the lack of evidence) that the phrase in the plural could denote Christians, since Paul is writing of meetings with Christian leaders, there is no way that he could have been using it in that sense in Galatians, since it would not have served to distinguish this James from others.

            5 Other sources refer to Jesus having a brother named James. Some attribute to him a leadership role in the early Church in Jerusalem parallel to what Paul indicates in his letters, and some also look back to him as having opposed Paul, again in agreement with Paul’s own letters.

            In McGrath’s words, “What exactly is it that you still need in order to be convinced that Paul was most likely referring to James as the literal biological brother of the Lord?” lol See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/11/james-the-lords-brother.html

            1. What exactly is it that you still need

              I need a reliable extra-biblical/scriptural account that supports the historical existence of James being a biological brother of Jesus.

              1. So you only accept as historical elements where there are extra-biblical/scriptural account that support what we find in scripture? Such hyperskepticism would seem to render useless most of what we understand as historical knowledge. Surely there are accounts of siblings of Roman rulers that are not so multiply attested, but are still accepted by historians?

                There seems to be a plain reading of the text, and mythicists are doing mental contortions to avoid it. What about Galatians 4:4? That says Jesus was born under the law. Wouldn’t that mean Jesus was circumcised? It seems kind of odd thinking of a celestial entity being circumcised.

              2. “So you only accept as historical elements where there are extra-biblical/scriptural account that support what we find in scripture?”

                Run into any talking snakes or talking donkeys lately?

              3. On the contrary. Ancient historians do not rely upon unprovenanced stories involving uncritical tales of myth as sources for any historical events — as far as I can recall.

              4. John MacDonald wrote: “Such hyperskepticism would seem to render useless most of what we understand as historical knowledge.”

                Others will have to judge for themselves if critics of the historicity of Jesus are guilty of hyper-skepticism, e.g. Allen writes: “[N]o reliable extra-biblical/scriptural accounts exist to support the historical existence of, inter alia, Jesus of Nazareth, James the Just or John the Baptist.” —Allen N.P.L. (2015) Clarifying the Scope of Pre-Fifth-Century C.E. Christian Interpolation in Josephus’ Antiquitates Judaicae (c. 94 C.E.). Unpublished Philosophiae Doctor thesis, Potchefstroom: North-West University. [Allen curriculum vitae]

              1. @John MacDonald: But if Catholics ignore the plain meaning of the references to James as Jesus’s brother, this makes it more possible that other Christian groups (including the first Christians) did the same.

            2. Just like Jean Dixon listed so many reasons that prove astrology is true; just like Von Daniken wrote a book of many reasons aliens built the Great Pyramid; just like the Flat Earth Society compiled a dozen reasons the moon landing was fake; just like medieval prosecutors found all the evidence they needed to prove witchcraft was rife….. Just looking for and listing arguments to favour one’s hypothesis is the worst form of “scholarly research”. It is a sham process. Scientific researchers, serious researchers, look for evidence to disprove their theories; a judge and jury are appointed to assess both sides of a case . . . …

              1. It’s just AS Jean Dixon listed…; just AS Von Daniken wrote..; just AS the flat earth society compiled…

                Why’s your grammar weak?

            3. McGrath could be right, and it could be as clear and simple as he puts it, but the various Jameses just don’t seem to fit right.

              – There’s a “James, the brother of the Lord,” (as well as other “brethren of the Lord”) that Paul doesn’t seem to think too much of, which would seem odd if they were the actual biological brothers of his Messiah.

              – There’s the “James, the bother of Jesus, who was called Christ” from Josephus, but it seems really odd that if Josephus really did write that passage, and it really did refer to the biological brother of Jesus, why doesn’t something reflecting the martyrdom of an actual brother of Jesus appear in Acts or other Christian literature?

              – There’s the “James the Just” referenced by Hegesippus, but his martyrdom is unlike that of the James described by Josephus.

              – There’s the Epistle of James, in which the author describes himself as a servant to God and Jesus, but never as a brother to Jesus, though he does make numerous references to his “brethren” — non biological “brothers and sisters of the lord” perhaps?

              – The Gospel of Mark references brothers of Jesus named “James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon,” but considering that the Gospel of Mark was probably not intended to be taken literally, those names could all just be symbolic and/or just reference common names of the era (“Tom, Dick and Harry”).

              – The Gospel also references that the James who was a disciple of Jesus was James, the brother of John, sons of Zebedee, not the brother of Jesus.

              It just seems like some of the James references may have originally been coincidental, and that efforts to connect them came later (particularly if the Josephus reference is an interpolation). In isolation they may seem informative, but collectively they work to cancel each other out.

          1. “The World of James”—fanfiction.
            James, Brother of Jesus, and the Jerusalem Church by Alan Saxby. wipfandstock.com: “[Saxby] opens fresh ground in our understanding of Christian origins through an exploration of the role of James in the founding of the church. Based on the author’s doctoral research, that the first Christian church, with its roots in the Baptist movement, is shown to be part of the broad contemporary Judaic movement for the restoration of Israel. The events surrounding the death of Jesus (their leader’s brother) both confirmed their commitment to Judaic reform and transformed their understanding of it. Despite the impact of that experience, they seem to have had neither knowledge nor interest in the teaching and ministry of Jesus in Galilee. Set in the world of James, this careful study of the difficulties and opportunities facing Judaic peasants in first-century Palestine proposes that James and his other brothers moved to Jerusalem (where work was available) several years before the final visit of Jesus and, under James’s leadership, became the kernel of a growing group of followers of the Baptist that would later emerge onto the page of history as the Jerusalem Church.”

            And reality:
            “[N]o reliable extra-biblical/scriptural accounts exist to support the historical existence of, inter alia, Jesus of Nazareth, James the Just or John the Baptist.” —Allen N.P.L. (2015) Clarifying the Scope of Pre-Fifth-Century C.E. Christian Interpolation in Josephus’ Antiquitates Judaicae (c. 94 C.E.). Unpublished Philosophiae Doctor thesis, Potchefstroom: North-West University. [Allen curriculum vitae]

    2. “After all, are we going to say it’s a “coincidence” that Paul met a brother of the lord named James (Gal 1:19), and Mark also happens to identify a brother of the lord named James”

      No, we’re going to say the author of Mark knew there was a James called ‘the brother of the lord’, probably as an honorific, and wrote him into his story. Not a coincedence, just semi-plagarism.

        1. @JohnMacDonald: 2 alternatives to the “Mark Correctly Knew that James was Jesus’s Fleshly Brother and Wrote GMark Accordingly” scenario present themselves to me.
          1. Mark knew that the reference to Brother of the Lord was not literal, but chose to present it as literal, possibly for some theological purpose (such as defending Paul by insulting Paul’s opponents).
          2. Mark thought that the reference to Brother of the Lord was literal and wrote GMark accordingly, but was wrong – Brother of the Lord was not literal.

    3. The case I put forward in my book shows that the author of Mark had read the letters of Paul and the character of Jesus is based on Paul himself. So there are no happenstances between Mark and Paul – “Mark” copied from Paul. #2, its clear that in GMark James Zebedee is the one who is supposed to represent the James that Paul met and identified as the leader of the movement.

  5. The “no contemporary references to Jesus” argument is predominantly a rebuttal to the assertion that ‘there is good evidence for the historical [human] Jesus’.

    It is not a complete argument against a historical Jesus.

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