Three 1st-Century Voices That Didn’t Make the Cut (#8)

Three 1st-Century Voices That Didn’t Make the Cut (#8) August 13, 2021

Hi and welcome back! It’s Friday again! And that means it’s time to check out our list of 1st-century writers who should have known about Jesus and Christianity, but said nothing about them. This time, our focus centers on some names that often get included in such lists, but maybe shouldn’t be on them. These writers either didn’t write anything that even vaguely touched on religious or philosophical topics, or didn’t write anything that survived. Today, let’s look at some of them: Phaedrus, Columella, and Marcus Servilius Nonianus. And I’ll show you why they don’t make my cut.

illumination on columella book 1st century writer
An illumination found on a copy of Columella’s work. (Wikipedia, CC-SA.)

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we meet the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Silent 1st-Century Voices.

We already know going into this series that nobody contemporaneous with Jesus — meaning, alive and active at any point during his actual supposed lifetime — said anything about him or his followers. Of course. It’s even fashionable for skeptics to print lists of 1st-century writers who were utterly silent on these topics, to drive home that point. I appreciate their effort. The world needs to know the truth on this score.

But in skeptics’ rush to print lists of 1st-century writers, sometimes it seems to me to be just a teeny bit disingenuous for us to include writers that we shouldn’t expect to have said anything about those subjects. Or, for that matter, for these list-makers to include writers whose work is long-lost. Whatever they might have said, we don’t know anything about it.

Today, we’ll cover three 1st-century writers that fall into one or the other of those two categories. I still want to cover them, but I want it said right up-front that I don’t consider their silence to be particularly damning. That silence simply forms a part of the overall absence of evidence that permeates Christians’ claims about their religion’s earliest history — including their claims about their religion’s founder.

And then, we’ll talk about why even these voices are important to know about.

Phaedrus: A 1st-Century Fabulist.

Our first 1st-Century also-ran is Gaius Julius Phaedrus.

Like most of the people we’ll meet today, we don’t know exactly when Phaedrus lived and died. By following hints given in his own poetry, some people think that he was born in Macedonia in 15 BCE as a slave. His owner brought him to Rome, after which Emperor Augustus (who died in 14 CE) freed him. He may have published a book of poems during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, so between 14-37 CE.

At some point, Phaedrus may also have had a run-in with Sejanus, a name we’ve seen before in this series (here). Sejanus died in 31 CE. Phaedrus himself probably died around 50 CE — but again, we don’t know.

We do have a little of his work that’s survived. Mostly, Phaedrus wrote fables. A fable is simply a story with a strong moral that features nonhuman creatures that have been anthropomorphized somehow. (The expression “sour grapes” comes from a fable.) And mostly, Phaedrus’ fables were either translations or retellings of fables written by Aesop centuries earlier. His work wasn’t popular during his lifetime, but by the 80s, famous writers like Martial were both imitating his style and talking about him with others.

We’ve lost a great deal of Phaedrus’ work, unfortunately. What survives comes to us mostly in fragments quoted by later writers and translations made centuries later.

But that’s not to say his work is entirely lost. I rather liked this 1745 translation for schoolchildren. Project Gutenberg also offers an 1887 collection of translated fables.

Grading Phaedrus.

These fables are interesting. Many are even eye-opening in their way. And we do see fascinating hints about Phaedrus’ own life. (See “The Poet, on Believing, and Not Believing” and “Caesar and His Slave” in the Gutenberg file.)

Obviously, Phaedrus never talks about Jesus, Christianity, or the earliest Christians. But if he died mid-century, I wouldn’t really expect it. He wasn’t close to any historians or historical circles, wasn’t known for his philosophy, and didn’t seem to care much about what was going on outside of Rome. His focus, Aesop’s fables, comes from many centuries earlier.

So I don’t consider his silence all that damning. It’s part and parcel of the overall silence of the 1st century’s educated writers. He becomes part of the fog of silence we encounter, but he’s not a primary note.

I grant him a C. None of his work addresses Christianity in any way.

Columella: A 1st-Century Agriculturalist.

We know a bit more about Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, more popularly known simply as Columella. He lived from 4-70 CE. We think he was born in Gades, in modern-day Spain, and that his parents were Roman citizens. After he finished his military career, Columella headed to his properties in central Italy to be a farmer for the rest of his life.

And that, friends, is exactly.. what.. he did.

As part of this endeavor, Columella wrote a 12-volume work called De re rustica. As you’d suspect, it is entirely about farm management: how to treat and maintain soil, how to farm grapes, olives, and other such fruits, how to manage livestock of all kinds and maintain wild animal enclosures, and how to manage the farm’s workers and the farmer’s own household.

You can find some of this work translated here. It shows Columella to have been a perceptive and wise fellow — at least in the realm of managing a large farm.

Grading Columella.

As with Phaedrus, Columella didn’t seem to care much about religion or philosophy. His focus rests entirely in agriculture and large-scale farm management. In Book 1, he talks a lot about previous sources he consulted and people in the field he respects. None of them are Christians or Jews. I’d have been pretty surprised to see such a note from him. Religion just doesn’t ping his radar.

That said, I do like this quote from Book 1:

For, as it is the part of a wise man to endure the blows of fortune with a stout heart, so it is the mark of a madman to create misfortunes for himself voluntarily [. . .]

Columella was a smart cookie!

At any rate, I grant him a C for the same reasons Phaedrus got one. He wrote a lot, we still have a good bit of it, and none of it addresses Christians’ claims in any way whatsoever. Nor would I expect it to do so.

Marcus Servilius Nonianus, a 1st-Century Senator.

Now, let’s step into the big time — relatively speaking. Our previous 1st-century voices today have been lower-ranked. Marcus Servilius Nonianus became an ordinary consul in 35 CE, which was the highest elected rank in Rome. It was the final step in the cursus honorum, that formal leadership track, that ambitious Romans pursued. He also served as the governor of Africa from 46-47 CE. One historian thinks he was Stoic.

Before he died in 59 CE, Servilius Nonianus wrote a history of Rome that many at the time considered one of the best ever written. They set his history on the same shelf as those of Livy and Tacitus. Some historians even think that Tacitus used this history as a source. Pliny the Younger, who is the nephew of Pliny the Elder that we talked about earlier, even tells us that a public recitation from this work impressed Emperor Claudius, who ruled from 41-54 CE.

However, we don’t even know the name of his book. It’s long lost. It probably would have jumped him to an A+ if we had it, but it’s gone, gone, gone, baby. What we can say for sure is that this guy wasn’t Christian and that none of the information we do have about him indicates that he’d even have been interested in the ideas or concepts contained within Christianity.

As interesting as he seems in these third-party anecdotes, I must grant Marcus Servilius Nonianus a D.

Christians’ Mythology About Their Origin Story.

Christianity was not, in fact, kick-started by a rockstar savior who revolutionized his world and drew careful attention from all the biggest names around. Christianity was not, in fact, a blazing-white-hot popular religion that people back then flocked to because it was so, I dunno, DIFFERENT I guess from its competitors at the time.

Y’all, these are hardly revolutionary ideas.

Indeed, I’d reckon that almost all progressive or at least reputable-seminary-educated Christians would completely agree with me. In fact, they’d likely consider me a bit childish for even proclaiming these truths like they’re anything new or even controversial.

But evangelicals and other literalists do believe the opposite of both truths. They take it as read that Jesus was a “highly influential” rockstar. They completely believe that Christianity “[took] off like wildfire” from its creation — cuz it was the winning team, of course.

Those two ideas have been part of Low Christianity folklore for a long time now. And neither position is corroborated by any contemporary sources. 

That verdict includes the three sources we checked out today.

These three writers were silent about Jesus and the earliest Christians, just like all the rest. That’s important to know. It’s just that their silence isn’t as deafening as that of, say, Philo.

The Past Whispers in Broken Fragments.

I’ll continue to mention our also-rans as we continue on with our Sacred Timeline.

In my opinion, no 1st-century source is useless or irrelevant for our purpose. It’s just that sometimes it’s okay to say that we wouldn’t expect one of these sources to talk about what we want to learn right now. Some of them have a very narrow focus, and the work of others has been largely lost. And that’s okay.

Heckies, that’s what this series is all about: exploring the whispers of the past — all of them that we can find.

If those whispers conspicuously never include anything about Jesus or the earliest Christians, if those topics are beyond-irrelevant to the whisperer we’re listening to right then, well, that’s important too.

Readers, I thank all of you for exploring all of it with me!

NEXT UP: Why evangelicals’ main process for dealing with anger just doesn’t work.

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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