Hi and welcome back! We’re about to start a new topic that I expect to last a while: 1st-century writers. First, though, let me show you why this topic is so important to me. See, these 1st-century writers’ utter silence about one particular subject rattled my faith in Christianity in a way that I would never recover.
(I bet you already know what that one particular subject was.)
I Was a Young Fundamentalist.
Back in the 80s/90s when I was a very fervent little cat, I had one thing drilled into me repeatedly about the evangelicals I’d joined in my teens:
Christianity was, out of every single religion on Earth that had and has ever existed, 100% totes for realsies. Everything in the Bible super-happened for sure, just as it depicted. That’s because our god had personally written/dictated every single word in it. He couldn’t lie, ever, so obviously we could absolutely trust the Bible as his word to us.
And I completely believed this notion, which many Christians call literalism. It led to another position called inerrancy, which is that the Bible is absolutely without error of any kind. (I shorthand both as “literalist,” usually, because Christians who go for the former almost always buy into the latter too. Just be aware there’s shades of nuance.)
I reckon most evangelicals today buy into literalism and inerrantism. Back then, however, only fundamentalists did. My time as a fundamentalist ended in the mid-1990s, right around the time evangelical leaders successfully polarized their flocks.
In my day, evangelicals thought we fundamentalists were dangerously extremist. We, in turn, thought evangelicals were Fundies Lite who couldn’t hack the REAL Full Gospel. As I say often, we were both probably correct, in our respective ways.
All that said, at the time I thought Christians had one big pressing reason to be, well, fundamentalists.
Literalism Fits Authoritarians Perfectly.
When I was a kid, I loved mythology. My mom had a copy of Bullfinch’s and I devoured it many times. My folks took me to movies like Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian, and Winds of Change (also called Metamorphoses — a little-known gem from the 1970s that animated Ovid’s stories to narration by Peter Ustinov).
Winds of Change/Metamorphoses (1979).
But then I got hit in the face with the brash, belligerent, chest-thumping claims of fundamentalism. That’s when I learned that other people thought Christianity wasn’t a myth, but real.
Don’t get me wrong. All my life, I had believed in the literal truth of Christianity. Alas, though, the adults in my life didn’t exactly encourage me to take that notion to its logical conclusions. I was like that young fan in Galaxy Quest trying to act all cool to his hero when his hero reveals that the show was actually based in reality.
Just imagine if this scene had happened in a church setting instead, and you’ve got me when I first tangled with fundamentalists:
“I KNEW IT.” Scene from 1999’s Galaxy Quest.
And I took to this new fundamentalism thing like Achilles took to fighting. It fit my authoritarian-in-the-making mentality perfectly. It contained no shades of gray at all and no confusing contextual stuff to figure out. Instead, it provided a sourcebook that said what it meant and meant every single thing it said.
Heck, about 4 years after I left Christianity, a big-name authoritarian Christian leader, Al Mohler, got really nonplussed when non-fundamentalists publicly pointed out one subject that the Bible can’t speak inerrantly about: slavery. It took him a good while to figure out a way to reconcile and hand-wave away any problems with that subject.
The Big Reason for Biblical Literalism, I Thought.
So I was a fundamentalist between the ages of about 16 and 24.
And here’s the big reason why I thought the Bible contained literal truth about everything:
The adults I trusted at the time taught me that history, science, and archaeology agreed with the Bible in every single way.
(Boy, my aunt-the-nun sure hadn’t taught me that!)
I did cut the Bible a bit of poetic license on science. Science denial had not yet become the firm-but-cheap marker belief that it is now for that crowd, so it was okay to be a fundamentalist and accept the Theory of Evolution and whatnot. A lot of people in my churches were just like me, too, though of course those churches contained many science-deniers too. But officially, our party line was as I’ve given it: absolutely every single thing in the Bible was true.
That meant that whenever people found something new about those topics that related to the Bible, that new thing would completely support whatever the Bible had to say about it. If someone unearthed a city in the Near East that the Bible had talked about, it would of course turn out to be built and abandoned/destroyed at the times the Bible claimed and in the way the Bible had said.
And if the Gospels said that Jesus was a 1st-century rock star in and around Jerusalem, then of course contemporary evidence agreed with them.
Jesus the Rock Star and His Number-One Fan: Me.
This may sound kinda weird, or who knows, maybe it’ll make perfect sense.
When I was that age, the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus interacting with others absolutely fascinated me. Those stories put Jesus into a public and relational context, I guess. And the Gospels contain a lot of those stories. Sure, some of them involved people who probably couldn’t read or write. But a lot of other folks who interacted with Jesus almost certainly could.
Here are two partial lists from Bible.org of those people and the context and contents of their interactions with Jesus. (They’re wrong about Saul/Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh. But overall these lists work okay for our purposes. As Got Questions accidentally points out, Saul/Paul had every reason in the world at least to have heard of Jesus before his conversion.)
Jesus talked to a lot of people, but more than that, he got noticed by even more people.
The 1st-Century Evidence I Expected.
Here’s how Jesus entered Jerusalem, as told in the Gospel of Matthew:
A massive crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
The crowds that went ahead of Him and those that followed were shouting [. . .]
When Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowds replied, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” [Matthew 21:8-11]
This guy wasn’t a nobody. The whole town turned out for him. After he died but before he resurrected and floated away into Heaven, he pranked his followers by traveling with them incognito to Emmaus — and when he pretended not to know about his own execution, his followers acted completely shocked. One asked him,
“Are You the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in recent days?” [Luke 23:18]
So as you might guess, I fully expected to find 1st-century writers abuzz with this event — and many others besides. Jesus’ trial and execution should have been very big news. His resurrection, with all the weird events surrounding it? Someone should have said something.
Dude should have been all over contemporary writing.
The 1st-Century Evidence I Actually Got.
But Jesus was nowhere to be found in those college library stacks.
Those 1st-century writers didn’t mention him at all. Not one of them said a single word.
I had spent my adolescence leading up to college thinking that my elders, who kept telling me there was tons of evidence to support the existence of Jesus, were correct and that stuff was just complicated for normies to read. They assured me that in college, even in a secular college, I’d see all of it for myself at last.
… And you can guess exactly what happened when I got to college, I reckon.
I found none whatsoever.
Instead of evidence, I found Christians piously mangling the entire definition of contemporary to make what they did have fit into that description. Or embracing forgeries and frauds that flattered and confirmed their beliefs. Or coming up with more untrue claims to explain away why no 1st-century writers ever noticed Jesus or his followers at all during times when they absolutely should have. (Here’s an example of a Catholic dude doing all of these. One of his sources, the Babylonian Talmud, wasn’t even written before the fourth century!)
Basically, I found in realtime as a believer what Hector Avalos says all the time as an ex-Christian: the whole field of “Biblical studies” is a sad joke.
The overwhelming response I saw from Christians to this lack of evidence — even and especially from well-educated ones and leaders — was so patently dishonest that it knocked my faith for a complete loop.
Revisiting an Old Discovery.
For a long time now, I’ve been aware of a standard-issue list of writers who were active in the area and at the times necessary to be aware of Jesus during his lifetime. Here’s one example of such a list. Its formatting is wonky, so some entries in his table seem to contain two different names mashed together. Thus, he’s actually got more than 21 total names. Another site claims 66 such writers. This other guy doesn’t count his sources, but he’s got a lot! And this one’s got a diagram!
And for a while now, I’ve thought it’d be neat to read what those 1st-century writers had to say — and what they did not say. I know none of them talk about Jesus, because if any of them really had, we’d already know it because Christian apologists would never, ever shut up about it. The only reason they are so dishonest is precisely because they don’t have any contemporary corroboration for any of their myths.
That said, I still want to know what we do have of those 1st-century voices.
So on Fridays for the foreseeable future, let’s make a new list from scratch, one we’ve vetted, one we know for ourselves.
Let’s dive into these 1st-century writers’ world. Let’s see what we can find of theirs to read, learn what we can about their lives and times, and work out how important each of them is as an anti-witness for the Christian Gospels. And along the way, let’s also see how Christians engage (or refuse to engage) with the contradictions those long-dead writers present to their claims.
I hope you’ll travel this road with me. It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun!
(Series ground rules: We’ll be discussing writers who were as contemporaneous with Jesus as we can get, meaning they were alive during those critical years of 30-35 CE or thereabouts, and who had some vague reason to mention all the stuff going on in Jerusalem during those years. If we stray from that path, it’ll be for a pressing and stated reason. Along the way, we’ll be watching for mentions of supernatural goings-on in Jerusalem, Jesus himself, his followers, or even the ideas those earliest Christians squabbled about. I’ll announce the writer/topic on the previous Lord Snow Presides on Monday — so if you want to read along, you’ll have time.)