Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Gospel Jesus: an odd penchant for obscurity

One of the objections many atheists have to Christianity is the obscurity of Jesus in the historical record.  Here is allegedly, the greatest event in human history- an episode marked by extraordinary events- yet we cannot corroborate these claims outside the gospels.  Somehow, nobody outside a small Judaic cult noticed these events.  And pretty much, nobody from this cult bothered to write it down until decades later.  

The odd thing is that when you bring up this objection, when you point out that not one contemporaneous account even mentions Jesus, you get the same response.  It's claimed there are lots of sources that can corroborate the gospels.  Usually the Christian will rattle off the usual sources- Josephus, Tacitus etc.  

What this really means is that they've read something second or third hand.  They haven't bothered cross-checking the claims to ensure:
1) that the account is contemporaneous.
2) the account actually corroborates the fantastic claims of the gospels.

So let me help out a bit.  You can see from the table I've picked up five fantastic things that Jesus is alleged to have done.  There's the virgin-birth, which only 2 gospels describe and they don't really agree on.  There's the leprosy curing- that was basically incurable until modern antibiotics were developed.  The next two describe events that should have caused others to notice.  Having lots of formerly-dead people visit Jerusalem would I imagine, attract a bit of local attention.  Inexplicable long episodes of darkness, accompanied by earthquakes, should also have gotten a mention by contemporaneous sources.

Then I've listed a whole bunch of historical sources from the 1st CE in chronological order and crosschecked them against the gospel claims.   The shaded rows are contemporaneous (at least in part) with Jesus.  Not one even mentions him.

Then as we reach the later sources, then there is nothing that corroborates those gospel claims.  No mention of three hours of darkness. No mention of earthquakes or the dead visiting Jerusalem. No mention of the ability to cure the incurable leprosy. The actual details supplied are too sparse to flesh-out anything of substance about Jesus.

Virgin Birth
Cured Leprosy
Dead awake & visit Jerusalem
3 hours of darkness on cross
(65-70 CE)


(80-85 CE)
In reign of Herod (before 4 BCE)
Adds earthquake
(80-85 CE)
In Census of Quirinius (6/7 CE)*

(90-100 CE)


(59 BCE- 17 CE)
No mention
Seneca the Elder
(54 BCE- 39 CE)
No mention
Philo Judeas
(20 BCE- 50 CE)
No mention
Pliny the Elder
(23-79 CE)
No mention
(37-100 CE)
Bk 20:9.1 – James had a brother Jesus, called Christ
Justus of Tiberias
“1st C CE”
No mention
(46-120 CE)
No mention
(56-117 CE)
Pilate executed a man called Christus for whom Christians are named
Pliny the Younger
(61-112 CE)
Confirms early Christians worshipped Christ as a god in Trajanic-era
(69-122 CE)
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

 * the pesky gap between the claimed birth-dates of Jesus in Luke and Matthew are one of those problems that torpedoes the tactic of trying to use the gospels to prove the gospels are accurate
** I've omitted the forged section from Josephus.  The lack of historical records for Jesus is something that has long embarrassed Christians and likely motivated this later 'embellishment'.


  1. As Dan Barker said, in Bible College, students recite the list of sources but none of them ever check them. They just assume it must have been done by someone and is in a book somewhere if ever they should need it.

    The possibility that the list could be anything BUT historical evidence for Jesus is never even considered. Jesus' historicity has been proved and that's an end to the matter. Confirms what we know anyway. QED

  2. Exactly- it's painfully obvious that many Christians do not make any attempt to verify that Tacitus etc, says what is being claimed.

    The use of apologist websites which basically repeat the same myth- rather than the original sources- is a good advertisement of their lack of familiarity with the ancient records.