A Mythicist Cliche

One typical Mythicist claim is that the Gospel Jesus – a great teacher and miracle worker – is not mentioned by contemporary historians and Roman legal and political writers. Hence, they conclude, Jesus never existed. But is this idea about “history’s silence” a sound one? My question is quite the opposite, namely, why should we expect Jesus to have been mentioned in contemporary records?

The basic assumption is that contemporary records would mention significant people and events. This seems sensible. But not so much when applied to Jesus. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent most of his missionary career in Galilean towns, which were considered “podunk” backwaters by the influential centers in Judea, especially in the capital, Jerusalem.

When we recall that when Jesus had his “fifteen minutes of fame”, it was not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem. That is, his only noticeable public – and therefore “historical” – impact purportedly took place in the very short week between his entrance into the city on “Palm Sunday” and his arrest on the Thursday evening of that week.

His entrance into the city is said to have been heralded by a relatively small crowd of pilgrims who gave him a royal welcome by spreading palm branches on the road he traveled as a sort of “red carpet” treatment. It is then told that Jesus entered the Temple precincts and disrupted the selling of sacrificial animals. This is the famous but ill-named “Cleansing of the Temple” – the “driving out of the moneychangers”. Even after this provocative act, the Gospels relate that Jesus was permitted to return to the Temple to teach. But it is also told that from the moment of “the Cleansing” onward, the priests, apparently biding their time, started to conspire to get rid of Jesus (Mark 11:15-19). The story is that they whispered in Pilate’s ear that Jesus had disrupted the all-important Temple trade – on which Rome depended for its “cut” of Jewish wealth; and that Jesus was preaching about a kingdom whose king was not Caesar. Apparently Pilate saw these two factors as dangerous enough to have Jesus arrested and executed.

That’s it. One short week in Jerusalem; the quick dispatching of a backwoods Galilean prophet: these were the only real historically pertinent items in Jesus’ career. Due to their brevity and general lack of consequences, it is almost ludicrous to expect historians to have recorded them. After all, Jesus’ real significance in the Greco-Roman world evolved over decades, after extra-Judean missions to “the Gentiles”, and after mass conversions to the pacifistic, monotheistic movement had begun to be a bureaucratic headache to Roman officialsin the wider Empire. Jesus’ actual importance many decades earlier, in Judea in the year 33 CE, was extremely minor to both Jews and non-Jews. He was, except of course for his followers, a mere flash in the pan.

Therefore, I believe that the Mythicists are wrong-headed to lay heavy significance on the fact that no contemporary sources mention Jesus. The most probable reason is: he just wasn’t worth mentioning – even had they known of him.

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