The Conspiracy of Silence
Imagine that you were a history student assigned the task of writing a paper on the life of George Washington, America’s first president and one of the country’s most influential founding fathers.
On its face, this seems like a simple assignment. Encyclopedias and textbooks full of biographical information about Washington, written by notable scholars on his life, abound. Any one of them would provide enough material for a reasonably detailed report. However, this is not good enough for a diligent student such as yourself. To get the most detailed and accurate picture requires skipping the modern references, which were written centuries after the fact, and going straight to the original sources. You decide to base your report on first-hand evidence: letters written by Washington himself, accounts of his life written by people who knew him personally, and stories of his sayings and deeds recorded while he was still alive.
But, as you comb the records, you find something strange: you cannot seem to locate any first-hand sources. Though Washington is claimed to have done many wonderful things – leading the Continental Army, freeing the American colonies from British rule, presiding over the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution, becoming the first President of the United States – somehow, there are no records of these deeds written by people who actually saw them happen, or even by people who were alive at the time. The historians who were alive during Washington’s lifetime, as well as the ones that lived soon afterward, do not mention him at all. The first mentions of him come in disputed and scattered records written decades after his death; over time, these mentions grow more numerous until, by about a hundred years after his death, a chorus of historians who had never seen or met Washington themselves all testify to his existence and his deeds. It is their writings, not any first-hand evidence, that have filtered down to modern times to create the abundance of records we have today.
Would you begin to conclude that there was something very wrong here?
According to the New Testament gospels, Jesus’ fame spread far and wide throughout his lifetime. He was known throughout Israel and beyond (Matthew 4:25), renowned not only as a teacher and wise man, but also as a prophet and miraculous healer (Matthew 14:5, Luke 5:15, John 6:2). Great multitudes of people followed him everywhere he went (Luke 12:1). He converted many Jews, enough to draw the anger of the Jerusalem temple elders (John 12:11). He attracted the attention of some of the most prominent leaders of his day, both Roman and Jewish (Matthew 14:1, Luke 19:47). And when he was crucified, portentous and dramatic miracles occurred on a massive scale: a great earthquake (Matthew 27:51), a worldwide three-hour darkness (Luke 23:44), and the bodies of the saints arising from their tombs and walking the streets of Jerusalem, showing themselves to many people (Matthew 27:52-53).
If these things were true, it is beyond belief that the historians of the day could have failed to notice.
And yet, when we examine the evidence, that is precisely what we do find. Not a single contemporary historian mentions Jesus. The historical record is devoid of references to him for decades after his supposed death. The very first extra-biblical documents that do mention him are two brief passages in the works of the historian Josephus, written around 90 CE, but the longer of the two is widely considered to be a forgery and the shorter is likely to be one as well (see part 2). The first unambiguous extra-biblical references to a historical, human Jesus do not appear until well into the second century.
Few if any Christian apologists will mention these extraordinary facts, but as in the George Washington hypothetical, we can rightfully conclude that there is something wrong here. The rosy picture painted by the gospels of a preaching sage and famous miracle worker followed by crowds of thousands stands in stark contrast to the reality of the extra-biblical historical record, and that reality is that mentions of the man Jesus do not exist until almost the end of the first century.
Why is this? It is not as if there were no capable historians at the time. There was, for example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived from about 20 BCE to 50 CE. His own beliefs were influenced by Platonic elements that were in some ways similar to Christianity, and his writings show interest in other offshoot sects such as the Essenes and the Therapeutae; he wrote about Pontius Pilate and he was, by some accounts, living in or near Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and, presumably, the attendant miracles. Yet none of his works contain any mention of Jesus or Christianity.
Other writers of the time show the same pattern. Justus of Tiberius, a native of Galilee who wrote a history around 80 CE covering the time Jesus supposedly lived, does not mention him. The Roman writer Seneca the Younger, who was born around 3 BCE and lived into the 60s CE, wrote extensively about ethics but says nothing about Jesus or his teachings. The historian Pliny the Elder, born around 20 CE, took a special interest in writing about science and natural phenomena, but his thirty-seven-volume Natural History says nothing about an earthquake or a strange darkness around the supposed time of Jesus’ death, although he would have been alive at the time it happened. In fact, not a single contemporary record exists of the darkness, and there was a widespread failure to note the earthquake, much less the appearance of the resurrected saints.
The only rational way to explain this, if we are not to postulate a “conspiracy of silence” among ancient writers, is that the miraculous events recorded in the gospels never happened. And some non-fundamentalist believers might indeed choose this option. Yes, some might say, the gospels are the work of men. They may have exaggerated Jesus’ fame and maybe even invented a few miracles to give the story more pizzazz. But this does not necessarily mean Jesus himself never existed. Might the gospels have preserved a core of historical reality, telling a story about a preaching, reform-minded Galilean rabbi that was built upon and embellished by later generations?
In response to this, it should be noted that the historians of the time not only fail to confirm the particulars of the gospel accounts, they fail to mention Jesus at all. But if he had been a real person who did even some of the things the Bible says, it is not at all unreasonable that at least some historians would have taken notice; Josephus and others do write about other would-be messiahs of their day. Of course, if one postulates a Jesus who did not perform miracles and did not attract much notice during his lifetime, it can never be proved that such a person did not exist. However, as part 3 will show, there is a superior way to explain the origins of Christianity, one that better explains all the evidence without positing a historical Jesus at all.
The gospels cannot help in proving the historicity of Jesus, since the accuracy of the gospels is itself what is in question. When they make extraordinary claims that contemporary records fail to corroborate, as argued above, this alone casts doubt on their reliability. Additionally, their numerous internal contradictions suggest that their authors were not recording historical events they remembered, but rather telling a story, changing events where they felt it necessary to make a point. Finally, and most importantly, the gospels themselves are not first-hand witnesses. In fact, the very first unambiguous references to them do not appear until the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, around 150 CE! This fact, combined with other evidence, has led to the conclusion that they were written, at the earliest, near the end of the first century – decades after the events they purport to describe, more than enough time for fact to become inextricably entangled with mythology and legend. Nor are the gospels independent witnesses. It has long been known that Mark, the simplest and therefore most likely the earliest gospel, provided the basic story upon which Matthew, Luke, and probably John as well simply elaborated, adding and changing details. At best, then, what the gospels provide is one anonymous, late, theologically driven source providing details which other, contemporary sources fail to confirm.
If Jesus Christ had been an actual, historical person, we would expect to have first-hand, contemporary documentation: records of his words and deeds written by people who actually saw him, or who were at least alive during his lifetime. We would expect the record of his life to be plentiful from the very beginning. On the other hand, if he was only a legend later turned into a real person, we would expect not to have any first-hand witness to his life. We would expect the historical record to be scanty and details elusive or non-existent at first, these details appearing only later as the stories about him grew in the telling. We would expect clear references to him not to appear until long after his supposed death. And of course, this scenario is exactly what we do in fact find.
Christian apologists often insist that the evidence for Jesus’ existence is so strong that to deny he ever lived would force one to deny the existence of many other historical figures as well, such as Alexander the Great or Abraham Lincoln. This comparison, however, cannot be sustained. We know that people such as Alexander or Lincoln were historical precisely because we do have first-hand evidence: artifacts made by them, things they wrote, things their contemporaries wrote about them. In Jesus’ case, however, we have none of these things. The pattern of evidence much better fits the birth and growth of a legend. No matter who first said it, to uncritically accept the historicity of Jesus is to strain at gnats while attempting to swallow a camel.
But can the man Jesus be dismissed so easily? Modern-day Christian apologists say not. Despite the lack of first-hand evidence, they claim, there is still good reason to believe that their messiah really did once walk the earth. Part 2 will therefore critically examine the evidence they present, demonstrating that it does not hold up under scrutiny.