Response #2 to the Non Sequitur program: “Not even the gospels say Jesus was famous outside Galilee”

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by Neil Godfrey

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For the previous response and a link to the Non Sequitur video see Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES.

At about the 49th minute of the Non Sequitur program Tim O’Neill makes the following claim:

Even if you look at what the gospels say about Jesus — and these are the gospels, by the way, that are trying to boost how significant and important he was — when we look at what they say about Jesus, they’re not actually making terribly big claims. The Gospel of Mark, for example, says he became really famous, he was doing these miracles, he became really famous, he was famous throughout the whole of… Galilee! You can walk across Galilee in a day in a nice afternoon at a brisk pace. So he became really famous across the whole of Galilee. It’s a bit like saying he became famous across the next six city blocks. So they’re not actually making a big claim for him to be famous at all. The Gospel of Matthew takes that bit (and he’s using the Gospel of Mark as his source) so the writer of Matthew tries to pump it up a bit and says he was also famous in Judea and Transjordan and the ten cities of the Decapolis and throughout the whole of Syria. So he’s trying to pump it up. But even in the gospels they don’t depict him as being terribly famous outside his back yard, and Galilee was a backwater even by Jewish standards, and Judea, generally, was a backwater by Greek and Roman standards. So even the gospels don’t make him out to be terribly famous. And remember I just mentioned about Theudas and the Egyptian prophet needing to have their followers dispersed by large bodies of Roman troops. Even the gospels make it clear that in their version of the story that Jesus was arrested by a handful of temple guards; there was a bit of a scuffle and not much happened. Even the gospels aren’t making him out to be terribly famous. So, do we have evidence that this guy was famous even in the Christian material? The answer is ‘no’.

Here is the Gospel of Matthew’s “pumped up” claim since the Gospel of Mark limited Jesus’ fame to Galilee:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. — Matthew 4:23-25

Here is how the Gospel of Mark, according to Tim, limited Jesus’ fame to “the six blocks” of Galilee:

And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem and from Idumaea, and beyond the Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, hearing [a]what great things he did, came unto him. — Mark 3:7-8

Jesus mistakenly thought he could hide if he left Galilee but Mark says he was wrong:

And from thence he arose, and went away into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered into a house, and would have no man know it; and he could not be hid. . . . . And again he went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis. And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to lay his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude . . . . — Mark 7:24, 31-33a

Matthew was not “pumping it up a bit”. He drew upon Mark for the topography.

I find a “Sam Harris mix” of statements here, though. The overall message is clear: the gospels (we are told) do not make Jesus out to be famous beyond Galilee. Yes, there is an exception, Matthew, but the message is then repeated: the gospels (we are told again) do not make Jesus out to be famous beyond Galilee. Presumably if one challenges the main point by drawing attention to Matthew, our dialogue partner can remind us that he mentioned that exception to the rule and that that was a beat up. But, … Matthew wasn’t a beat up of Mark, it was a repeat of Mark, and “the gospels” do not limit Jesus’ fame to Galilee at all.

Moreover, what is missed in the above is the theological basis of the geographical accounts. In Mark we are reading a Pauline type gospel where Jesus is reaching both Jews and gentiles (Kelber). In Matthew we are reading of Jesus as a “new Moses” (Allison): the crowds that followed Jesus surpassed the multitudes of Israelites along with “many foreigners” (Ex 12:38) who followed Moses out of Egypt; Luke-Acts structure the itinerary so that Jesus begins at Jerusalem and the gentile mission is timed to come after his ascension and is described in Acts; John, the most anti-semitic gospel, limits Jesus condemnation to the Jews. One might well argue that the gospels are not concerned with the extent of any “historical fame” but limit their geographic and ethnic markers to theological symbols.

What should we make of the suggestion that Judea was a “backwater”? I think it is possible to exaggerate its insignificance.

1. Judeans or Jews and their distinctive customs were well known throughout the Roman empire and make frequent appearances in the surviving literature from this period.

2. The conquest of Jerusalem was worthy of a triumphal march in Rome and the great monument commemorating that victory survives today. Vespasian used the victory to promote his imperial status as equal to the earlier Julio-Claudian emperors who arose from Julius Caesar.

3. The Roman historian Tacitus (55 ce – 117 ce) saw fit to write a lengthy account of Judea and the Jews: their origins, their social and religious customs, their geography, and recent history, including the war that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 ce. Judea clearly had more than mere “backwater” significance for him and his readers.

4. The gospels fail to make any mention of the major cities in Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias; and Caesarea was transformed into a major free city around the turn of the first century. Great building projects, including baths and theatres were a part of Galilee and Judea. Judean rulers, notably Herod Agrippa II, had close relationships with Roman aristrocracy, including emperor Claudius.

5. In the 130s another rebellion in this “backwater” required three years of heavy Roman losses before it could be put down. A generation later when Rome was humiliated by the loss of an entire legion to the Parthians the author Cornelius Fronto compared the loss to the humiliation of the Jewish revolt in the 130s.

My point is not to exaggerate the importance of the region but to remind us that we should not think of it as an unknown and insignificant “backwater”, either. As Tim O’Neill might say, “Let’s get history right!”

But my next point makes the above claim of Tim appear thoroughly informed and perfectly accurate. . . . .

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11 thoughts on “Response #2 to the Non Sequitur program: “Not even the gospels say Jesus was famous outside Galilee””

  1. What should we make of the suggestion that Judea was a “backwater”?

    Per the time period AD 26 to 36:
    • Jerusalem was part of Roman Provincia Iudaea or “Greater Judea”, which incorporated Samaria and Idumea into an expanded territory.
    • Galilee and Perea [the region across/beyond the Jordan] were not part of Provincia Iudaea at this time, but rather part of a Herodian Tetrarchy.
    • Tyre and Sidon were part of Roman Provincia Syria / Provincia Syria Phoenice.

    Gary Byers (26 January 2010). “The Biblical Cities Of Tyre And Sidon“. http://www.biblearchaeology.org.

    The names Tyre and Sidon were famous in the ancient Near East. They are also important cities in the Old and New Testaments.
    New Testament Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities. . . . Early in Jesus’ ministry, people from Sidon and Tyre heard about the things He did. They came to see Him (Mk 3:8) and be healed by Him (Lu 6:17).
    [Per the region of Sidon and Tyre] This was the same area where God sent Elijah when the widow fed him (1 Kgs 17:9). Elijah’s visit was to the port city of Zaraphath (Serepta to the Greeks and modern Sarafand), almost mid-way between Sidon and Tyre.

    1. re –

      [per Jesus’ visits to the region of Sidon and Tyre] “This was the same area where God sent Elijah when the widow fed him (1 Kgs 17:9). Elijah’s visit was to the port city of Zaraphath (Serepta to the Greeks and modern Sarafand), almost mid-way between Sidon and Tyre. Both these Old and New Testament visits to the region may be a reminder that the Promised Land extended as far north as Sidon. While full of non- Israelites, it was still part of Israel’s inheritance.” The Biblical Cities Of Tyre And Sidon, Gary Byers, 2010

      “The Elijah-Elisha narrative is a literary model for the Gospels: the Gospels’ foundational model is the Elijah-Elisha narrative.” Brodie, Thomas L. (2000), The Crucial Bridge: the Elijah-Elisha narrative as an interpretive synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a literary model for the Gospels, Liturgical Press.

      “”Much of the story called the Gospel of Mark follows the story of Elijah and Elisha from 1 and 2 Kings. In fact, I would call the story of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings the primary template for the Gospel called Mark. The story of Elijah and Elisha was popular and would have been well known to a Jewish audience. The borrowing from this story was intentionally quite overt. In fact, the similarities between the Gospel called Mark and 1 and 2 Kings go well beyond the literary allusions outlined in the prior table. For anyone seeking to understand the Gospels, I strongly recommend reading the entire books of 1 and 2 Kings. In doing so, you will see that there are really countless parallels between them and the Gospel called Mark.” Price, R.G. (2018) Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed (Kindle Locations 300-305). Lulu Publishing Services.

  2. • Decapolis (Δεκάπολις Dekápolis, Ten Cities) —originally a confederation of ten sovereign cities, that later grew in number.

    I suppose that O’Neill will claim that “the Decapolis” per Matthew 4:23-25, is larger than “about Tyre and Sidon” per Mark 3:7-8.

  3. Romans, Persians and Egyptians were all fascinated with Judaea.

    Let’s not forget the region was newly wrought away from the Hasmoneans who had nigh 100 years of autonomy. The region was outpouring with Jewish Messiah claimants both before and after Jesus. It can be argued that the whole shebang of messiah movements were themselves honorific of the true Messiah. False voices trying to capitalise on the prophecy.

    The possibility and probability that he was hidden from the powers that be within a sea of false messiahs is telling. Not that he was not famous enough, but rather the idea of an expected Messiah was anticipated by the elite as much as the impoverished and through some obscurity of history his actual identity was somehow not as well known. Perhaps that was his protection, his preservation.

  4. I had meant to add one more detail that indicates Judea was not quite a mere backwater in the eyes of Romans and have now added it as #3 to make up a list of 5 lines of evidence. I refer to a rather detailed account of Judea by the historian Tacitus.

  5. So Jesus was not famous outside Galilee which means the triumphal procession into Jerusalem didn’t happen because unfamous folks don’t get those, the Sanhedrin never tried the unknown Jesus because they didn’t know about him and Jesus was not crucified because he was just some anonymous guy.

    Well that clears everything up.

  6. • Raphael Lataster points out that if the “historical Jesus of Nazareth (sans miracles and divinity) is a virtually insignificant historical figure”, then it is possible that another different Jesus Messiah also existed—as a virtually insignificant historical figure.

    Lataster (2015). “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories – A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources”. Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies. 6 (1): 63–96. ISSN 2155-1723.

    [Per Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9, 1] Interestingly, even if “called Christ” was genuine, there is no necessary link to Jesus of Nazareth; there were many Jesuses in 1st century Palestine, and perhaps a few of them claimed to be or were perceived as being Messiahs. It cannot be reasonably assumed that any Jesus or Joshua who is called a Messiah or Christ must relate to the allegedly historic al figure of Jesus of Nazareth — since a purely historical Jesus of Nazareth (sans miracles and divinity) is a virtually insignificant historical figure, barely mentioned, if at all, in contemporary or near-contemporary historical accounts. —(p. 83)

  7. Regarding the relative silence of extra-Biblical references to Jesus Christ. Has anyone undertaken the angle of deliberate surgical removal or avoidance of the Jesus topic by the Roman particularly? The reason why I ask and infer this is that the gospels themselves seem to be written as a need to document something either because others have done so, or because there is much talk that is going by without being documented. To the Romans the account of Jesus’ resurrection would sound like their man escaped, that he survived. Others would want to know what happened and conclude that resurrection was the talking point amongst the people.

    So I’m saying the silence is also evidence of deliberate exclusion of Jesus as well. The blindspot of ascertaining truth from history is that we rely on what is written and not on what was omitted.

    1. When historians and biographers of that time wanted to establish the credibility of their narratives against different pre-existing views, they made the effort to explain why their accounts should be believed and why they were superior to, or more correct than, earlier accounts. They did this by explaining how they came by their information, and telling readers of the sources they used as verification. Nothing like that appears in the gospels. Even Luke’s prologue is untypical of that of ancient historians in that the author does not identify himself or give any particular details about his sources.

      In other words, I don’t think it can be said that the gospels “seem to be written as a need to document something….”. They “document” nothing — they are stories told without any explicit connection to any source, hence they are mere stories, nothing more.

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