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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A persistent meme among skeptics is that there are numerous ancient writers and historians who fail to mention Jesus and this is evidence that Jesus did not exist. The source for this particular meme appears to be John Remsburg, a teacher and member of the Kansas State Horticultural Society. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Remsburg published a book, The Christ. The book itself is little remembered, but a list of ancient writers contained within it has reached a limited level of infamy on the internet. Now known as "Remsburg's List" and sometimes sensationalized as "A Silence that Screams," the list is used to supposedly show how many ancient writers did not mention Jesus and therefore suggest or prove that Jesus did not exist or was nothing like the Gospels' portrayal.

J.P. Holding has done a comprehensive take down of this list, leaving little direct work to be done. As he concludes:

In almost all cases, Remsberg's writers are either the sort who would not mention Jesus anyway (being writers of either fiction, poetry, or on mundane and practical matters like oratory and agriculture, or historians or writers of another time or place). The few left over, like Plutarch or Tacitus, either did mention Jesus or else would be too bigoted to make the special diversion, unless (as with Tacitus) they had some corollary reason to look into the movement (Tacitus was trying to show Nero's cruelty).

Glenn Miller, while not addressing "A Screaming Silence" directly, also effectively refutes the argument that we would expect non-Christian ancient historians to give Jesus much attention.

To look at the failings of the theory from another perspective, let us examine the non-Christian evidence for the existence and ministry of Paul of Tarsus. Unlike Jesus, Paul had an official position as a leader among the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. Unlike Jesus, Paul traveled widely across the Roman Empire. He was involved in formal legal proceedings, including exercising his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. Paul also reportedly appeared before King Agrippa and two Roman Governors, was a miracle worker, and made the case for his faith in Rome. Unlike Jesus, Paul was a prolific writer, dispatching weighty correspondence throughout the Roman Empire. Yet he leaves no trace among Roman, Jewish, or Greek historians. Here, Jesus fares better, meriting explicit references by Josephus (see my defense of those references) and Tacitus. Paul is by almost every measure a better candidate than Jesus to have been mentioned by a contemporary secular historian, yet there is more silence about him than about Jesus.

As discussed by Holding and Miller, the failure of the elite historians of the Roman Empire to refer to figures like Jesus and Paul should not surprise us. They were by and large elitist, usually high Roman officials, and little concerned with Judaea or the few notable figures produced by the region. To look at this from yet another perspective, let us look at one of the leading Roman historians, Cassius Dio. The cream of the crop, Cassius Dio found it good practice not only to ignore Paul and Jesus, but the thousands Christians and their notable leaders throughout the Roman Empire. For Cassius Dio not only ignores Paul and Jesus, he fails to mention Christians themselves, despite having written in the third century A.D. By this time, there were -- according to sociologist Rodney Stark -- over a million Christians throughout the empire. There were notable persecutions of Christians by Nero and Maximinus Thrax and prominent Christian writers, such as Tertullian, Origen, and Justin Martyr. Christians had been discussed in Imperial correspondence and even mocked by notale Roman satirist, Lucian. Cassius Dio could not possibly have been ignorant of Christianity by this point, nor about its founder, Jesus.

It cannot be argued that the omissions are due to topic or time period selection. Books 57-80 of his Roman History cover 14 through 229 A.D. Classicist Peter Swan concludes that Cassius Dio's silence about Jesus and Christianity "can be taken as a pointed snub." Peter Michael Swan, The Augustan Succession, A Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio's ROMAN HISTORY Books 55-56, page 5. Indeed, Swan points out that Dio's silence is particularly notable when it comes to the miracle of the rain. "The motivation of Dio's silence is most apparent where he recounts how a heaven-sent rain saved Marcus Aurelius' 'Thundering Legion' from imminent destruction at the hands of German enemies (71.8.1-4). He gives no hint that there was a competing Christian version of the miracle. This his epitomist the monk Xiphilinus inserts on the well-founded suspicion that Dio has suppressed it (71.9.1-10.5). Swan, op. cit., page 5. So Cassius Dio is a perfect example of a Roman historian writing about the period of time and a subject that would encompass Paul, Jesus, and Christians, with access to plenty of information about them, yet deliberately avoids any mention of them.

Holding and Miller, and all the historians who adhere to the consensus view, are right to dismiss the argument from supposed silence as an argument against Jesus' existence.

11 comments:

'As discussed by Holding and Miller, the failure of the elite historians of the Roman Empire to refer to figures like Jesus and Paul should not surprise us.'

So Tacitus never got any information about Jesus from Roman sources, as they never wrote about Jesus or Paul.

As usual Steve is more concerned with the soundbite than with what was actually said or with history.

I doubt that Tacitus got any information about Jesus from another elite Roman historian's books on history. He certainly could have obtained information from other Roman officials or records. As Pliny's correspondence shows, there were letters going back and forth among Roman rulers about dealing with Christians, so there may have been some fact finding about this new sect that delivered to Tacitus information through Roman or provincial officials.

Atheists love to play this little game. I call it "send the dead guys back into battle." That's because mattered already settled are brought up again as though they were never mentioned before.

No example of this tactic is about historians mentioning Jesus. There are a bunch who did, and the atheists take issue with every single one. those arguments go like this:

List of historians who mention Jesus:

* Thallus (c. 50-75AD)

*Phlegon (First century)

* Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, c.93)

* Tacitus (Annals, c.115-120)

* Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, c. 125)

* Galen (various writings, c.150)

* Celsus (True Discourse, c.170).


* Mara Bar Serapion (pre-200?)

* Talmudic References( written after 300 CE, but some refs probably go back to eyewitnesses)

*Lucian (Second century)

*Numenius (Second cent.)

*Galerius (Second Cent.)

then they go through the list one by one "O this guy didn't say much about him, it's not really proved its him, it's made up and added latter, ect ect.

so you fight it out on each one and what it comes comes down to is on each every one of them "well he does mention him, may he didn't have good info or doesn't tell us much but he does mention him." The atheists will slack off with "but that is ot strong evidence it doesn't give us much to go on." So the apologist sort of ends it saying "yes but are mentions even though they may be not all that strong as evidence."

Latter the atheists send the dead guys back in they will say "there are no mentions of Jesus by any historians."

the way it ended it's proved they are mentioning him even though most of them are not using good evdience. But then when it's brought back up there are no mentions at all. This is kind of thing is just sop for atheists on the net.

So you would expect Romans to take notice of Jesus and send correspondence back and forth.

But never mention Jesus.

Layman simply invents sources which mentioned Jesus while scoffing that the fact that there are no mentions of Jesus means anything at all.

Yes these first century Romans mentioned Jesus, and as Metacrock claims, it is a 'silly game' to expect Romans to mention Jesus.

I just cannot think of anything more two-faced than claiming that unknown sources mentioned Jesus while simultaneously scoffing when atheists point out that no sources mention Jesus.

METACROCK
List of historians who mention Jesus:

* Thallus (c. 50-75AD)

*Phlegon (First century)

CARR
Oh please.

Thallus or Phlegon never used the word 'Jesus'.

Why are Christians so ignorant of the fact that sceptics actually know things,and can easily see through this bluster?

Thallus mentioned Jesus....

Just when Metacrock's reputation was actually staring to recover....

Carr,

Continuing to make up that people made up stuff. What sources are you suggesting I invented? I refer to correspondence that actually exists. Pliny wrote the emperor asking how to deal with Christians and the emperor responds. He refers to Christians and to Christ and asks for advice on how to deal with the group. Are you disputing the authenticity of this correspondence?

In response to your raising the issue of Tacitus' source of information, I also discuss the possibility that there may have been other such correspondence. I cannot rule out the possibility that Tacitus obtained some of his information about Jesus from other Roman sources. Thinking of Pliny, I considered it possible that Tacitus had corresponded with the emperor or another governor or notable Roman about the group of Christians. This is hardly inventing a source anymore than entertaining the possibility that Tacitus' only source about Jesus was from non-Roman sources. Obviously, Tacitus had some source for his reference to Jesus and discussing what that source or sources may have been is not inventing them.

You also seem to suggest that there is some tension between Meta's arguments and my own. Without endorsing his entire list, it is hardly a disagreement for him to note that some sources do refer to Jesus and me to explain why others do not. You see, when I use terms like "supposed" silence and point people to Tacitus and my article defending the authenticity of Josephus' references to Jesus, I am pointing out that I do not think that it is an actual silence. I did think it worthwhile, however, to point out why other ancient historians, including some on Remsburge's list, do not mention Jesus.

The only way your argument would have have some level of coherence, though not plausibility, is if you assumed that if any ancient Roman source mentioned Jesus that all of them must have mentioned Jesus.

Why you think such childish antics promotes your cause is a mystery.

An interesting extension of this principle is the history of Caesar Marcus Julius Philippus I, i.e. Philip the Arab; for whom there is some evidence of having at least tried to watch Christian Easter ceremonies in Antioch (on the way back from a military campaign in Persia) but being refused even entry into the small church by the local bishop until he made confession to his sins.

This is the minimum most classicists are willing to accept, though many go quite a bit further in accepting a few more important details to the story (most notably that Philip agreed and made confession, and that he was seeking to participate in the Easter rites); with the consequent inference, as was well accepted throughout the 4th century (in the face of the massively huge importance of Constantine) that Philip the Arab was indeed the first Christian Emperor.

(The Wikipedia entry on this, which can be found here, is very balanced and extensive, with good summaries of pro and con positions across the spectrum, especially in recounting the analysis of the great modern classical historian of Arabia, Irfan Shahid--I own his updated work on the topic, Rome and the Arabs, and can vouch for the article's accuracy there at least.)

The earliest known written works which might have referenced this (in a far more conclusive manner than surviving references), are letters from Origen to Philip and his wife Severa (daughter of a previous imperial family line, the last emperor of whom was rumored to syncretistically worship Christ along with Abraham and Orpheus, by the way.) Most historians are willing to believe these letters existed, but no copies of them survive, only scant references in Eusebius' history.

The relevant point is that even though a strong argument can be made from the evidence that Philip was a practicing Christian to some degree (though not a political activist in regard to it, unlike Constantine--and very much unlike Philip's successor Decius who instituted the first official empire-wide Christian persecution upon seizing the Imperial title after Philip's death in battle), no non-Christian historian mentions this incident at all.

JRP

Another example: no non-Christian source indicates Agbar VIII, king of Edessa, was a convert to Christianity. Harold W. Attridge, Biblical scholar for HarperCollins, in his Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, builds his case for the outright falsity of this notion from an avowed argument from silence including a lack of archaeological evidence in the coins available to him at the time. (On page 227 he extrapolates this to a refutation of Eusebius' account of the Apostle Thaddeus' mission to Edessa "as a legend without basis in historical fact", after which he spends time speculating "on the reasons why it was invented and promoted". This might still be a legend even if Abgar did convert.)

It happens, though, that there is an extant coin featuring more than "any hint of a Christian symbol" (as Attridge puts it), with Emperor Commodus on one side and a king of Eddesa on the other. The date is secure within the range of Commodus' tenure (i.e. before 192 CE), which places the Edessan king (client of the Roman Empire in an independent state) as Abgar VIII early in his tenure (he began ruling after the death of his father Ma'nu in 179 CE.) This coin clearly shows a cross in typical Christian styling and proportions as part of his crown. Yet it's the only such coin we have, even though we possess several other coins featuring Abgar VIII--including several with a crescent and a star, similar to later common Muslim motifs. Compare also, at the link above, a coin minted during the tenure of Commodus' successor Septimus Severus (himself rumored to have worshiped Christ along with Abraham and Orpheus!), where a clearly older Abgar features neither such a cross nor a star and crescent.

JRP

So you would expect Romans to take notice of Jesus and send correspondence back and forth.

But never mention Jesus.

that's an irrational statement if ever there was one. How could they "send comments back and forth" (presumably about Jesus) but never mention him?

I did quote people mentioning so there's no inconsistency there on my part.




Layman simply invents sources which mentioned Jesus while scoffing that the fact that there are no mentions of Jesus means anything at all.


So you are accusing him of fabricating quotes that should easy enough to prove. Don't it would be fair if we ban you when it's proven on the ground that you are the liar?

I'm gonna see to it that we do that. Show me the quotes so I'll be able to know which one's to look for.


Yes these first century Romans mentioned Jesus, and as Metacrock claims, it is a 'silly game' to expect Romans to mention Jesus.


It's silly expect all of them too or to expect a great many of them to, or to expect them to make a big thing of him.

any use of common sense, or a modicum of intelligence would tell someone the witness of a few but not many is totally consistent, ah but then there's problem, the modicum thing.


I just cannot think of anything more two-faced than claiming that unknown sources mentioned Jesus while simultaneously scoffing when atheists point out that no sources mention Jesus.

Gee really? I can't imagine anything more illogical or irrational than noting able to see what a rational and straight forward position that is. it really highlights the puerile nature of atheist thinking and the dishonesty of the hate group.

think again, eat your oat meal, deep breath:

"unknown sources mentioned Jesus while simultaneously scoffing when atheists point out that no sources mention Jesus."

do it this way

if "unknown sources mentioned Jesus" (you say above) then Jesus is mentioned, since Jesus is mentioned what's the point of whining that he's never mentioned?

METACROCK
List of historians who mention Jesus:

* Thallus (c. 50-75AD)

*Phlegon (First century)

CARR
Oh please.

O hey I'm convinced now. why did say this "o please" sooner man? come on, what a devastating argument.

Thallus or Phlegon never used the word 'Jesus'.

ahaha what a deceptive ploy! man you reallyk just can't think can you?

(1) We dont have any writtings by Thallus. Its' all coming second hand form Africanus.

(2) The latter says he did mention Jesus, we have as much reason to suppose that as we do to supposes anything else we know about him.

(3) as for the Phlegon:

(say wasn't he one of the banana splits?)

Origen and Philopon.

"Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events . . . but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions."

Origen Against Celsus

"And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place . . . " Origen Against Celsus

"Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and no other (eclipse); it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times . . . and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius Caesar." De. opif. mund. II21


Why are Christians so ignorant of the fact that sceptics actually know things,and can easily see through this bluster?

Thallus mentioned Jesus....

Just when Metacrock's reputation was actually staring to recover....

3/14/2010 02:21:00 PM

You also seem to suggest that there is some tension between Meta's arguments and my own. Without endorsing his entire list, it is hardly a disagreement for him to note that some sources do refer to Jesus and me to explain why others do not. You see, when I use terms like "supposed" silence and point people to Tacitus and my article defending the authenticity of Josephus' references to Jesus, I am pointing out that I do not think that it is an actual silence. I did think it worthwhile, however, to point out why other ancient historians, including some on Remsburge's list, do not mention Jesus.

right, not that I imagine there's a conflict either but I am not defending all the people on the list as "good evidence." I know they are not all good evidence. But the fact his the do represent either mentions of Jesus or some said they do in cases where we don't have their works.

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