Jesus Mythicism and a Weak Argument From Silence: the Case of Michael Paulkovich

Jesus mythicists are often guilty of arguing from silence when they attempt to bring doubt to the historical existence of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. They will argue that because certain ancient writers did not mention Jesus when they “should” have, it follows that Jesus did not exist. There are several reasons why all historians find this argument unconvincing. We will note some of these in response to an atheist writer (almost all mythicists are atheists, it is worth noting) Michael Paulkovich who back in 2014 argued Jesus is not mentioned in 126 historical texts that should have mentioned him and therefore is a mythical figure (1).

A few caveats. Arguing from silence is something that needs to be clarified. There are times when making an argument from silence is acceptable and can even be compelling to render doubt about something. If, for example, my father tells me that he met the distinguished Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison in 1990 and then had lunch with him to discuss the future of the new South Africa, I would expect there to be evidence for this significant encounter. But if I could find no evidence of this encounter, perhaps there being no photos and no mentioning of it in my father’s diaries and journals, or nothing in the many media reports of the time, or if it is unknown to other relatives close to my father, etc., then a strong argument from silence could be made that my father did not meet Nelson Mandela in 1990. I would expect evidence for that event but the absence of evidence renders severe doubt. However, this type of argument from silence is far from what we find when it comes to the Jesus mythicists who argue that Jesus did not exist as a historical figure. Paulkovich, in his version of an argument from silence based on Jesus’ omission in 126 historical texts, concludes that Jesus is mythical. This might sound at first convincing to those new to this debate, especially in light of the author’s high number, but Paulkovich’s argument becomes severely problematic upon closer analysis.

We will not tackle every single one of the 126 writers Paulkovich mentions in his list; instead, we will take a few (who tend to represent dozens of others in the list) and show why historians have not found his claims convincing. To begin with, Paulkovich lists the names of authors who were never actually authors, which means one must wonder how he studied their writings. For example, we know of the mystic Apollonius of Tyana (of the first century CE) only through a biography authored by Philostratus (170-247 CE) roughly a century later; Demetrius the Cynic (of the first century CE) is described by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (BCE 4 – 65 CE); Marcus Cluvius Rufus (of the first century CE) is mentioned in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and a few other writers; Tiberius Caesar (BCE 42-37 CE) we learn about through Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. We can add dozens more to this list of whom Paulkovich says should have mentioned Jesus in accounts they never wrote.

Furthermore, an additional several dozen writers on the list wrote on topics that had nothing to do with Jesus and/or his historical context or location, so one must wonder why Paulkovich would expect them to have mentioned Jesus. Alcinous, for example, was a Middle Platonist philosopher of the second century; Epictetus (55-135 CE) was a Stoic philosopher who was primarily invested in ethics and education; Silius Italicus (26-102 CE) was a Roman poet who composed the Punica on the Second Punic War of 218-201 BCE; Soranus of Ephesus was a physician with interests in medicine and gynecology; Sextus Julius Frontinus (35-103 CE) was the governor of Britain with an interest in architecture; Gaius Valerius Flaccus (d. 90 CE) was an epic poet dedicated to Emperor Vespasian; Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 CE) was a surgeon with a broad interest in plants; Alexander of Aegae (of the first century CE) was interested in Aristotelian philosophy; Lesbonax (BCE 75-15 CE) was rhetorician who wrote about the Corinthian War (395-387 BCE), and so on with dozens of names on this list. The question this insight raises is why anyone would expect writers who were botanists, poets, philosophers, and physicians to mention Jesus? To the contrary, it is not at all surprising that they do not; in fact, it would be entirely surprising if they did mention a first century Galilean Jew from a small, rural village in Roman-occupied Palestine.

One may concede that a figure or two from Paulkovich’s list could have mentioned Jesus; in mind, I have Philo of Alexandria (BCE 20-50 CE) and Justus of Tiberias (of the late first century CE). However, upon closer analysis, that they do not mention Jesus in their writing is also unsurprising. Secondly, it also proves nothing that these two writers did not mention Jesus especially because, as we shall see, we have many other sources that do (but more on that in a second).

Philo is a stronger candidate than most on this list who “should” have mentioned Jesus because he was Jewish, lived at the right time, visited Jerusalem at least once, and left us many writings. But of the roughly 40 or so works of Philo that scholars have studied, only two of them (Against Flaccus and Embassy to Gaius) have content that isn’t theological or philosophical, so we are already dealing with a small sliver of his overall corpus. These two works do mention a few figures related to the Jesus story, namely Herod Agrippa and Pontius Pilate, but they leave most figures we know to have existed at the time unmentioned. For example, there is no reference to the nineteen high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem who held that office in Philo’s lifetime; there’s no mention in Philo of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, or of the other Jewish preachers, prophets, and Messianic claimants of the first century. But no historian would take this omission in Philo to mean that these groups and people did not exist. Clearly Philo had a specific reason for writing and for mentioning certain figures, and Jesus, like many other first century figures, did not make that cut.

When one looks at Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian of the first century, we learn from Josephus Flavius that his interests were primarily in the Jewish War and the history of the rulers of Israel from Moses to the time of Agrippa II. Unfortunately, we do not have any of Justus’ extant works, so we cannot gauge his levels of interest in itinerant preachers and messianic claimants of the first century. We simply do not know and we cannot use him to judge Jesus or any of the other many itinerant preachers of the first century.

But perhaps most surprising to anyone with some knowledge of history is that Paulkovich includes in his list ancient writers who do in fact mention the historical Jesus. Is it inconceivable then why Paulkovich would put Pliny the Younger (61-111 CE), Josephus Flavius (37-100 CE), Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE), and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69-122 CE) on a list of people who allegedly never mentioned him. We have examined several of these writers on this website, but suffice it is to say that these are the writers who we would expect to mention Jesus because of where they placed their focus. And that’s the problem for Jesus mythicism: they all mention Jesus as a historical figure. Josephus Flavius, our primary source for Jewish preachers, prophets, and faith healers of the first century, wrote an account of Jewish history and Jesus appears twice in it (one of the two passages is a Christian interpolation over an authentic core but nonetheless refers to Jesus, and the second reference is authentic in its entirety); Tacitus attributes to Jesus the origin of the Christian religion and mentions his death under the reign of Tiberius; the governor Pliny the Younger was concerned with the burgeoning early Christian movement and so writes to Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) to ask his advice on how to deal with those who believe in Christ; Suetonius refers to a “Chrestus” who might well have been Jesus. In all these cases we expect the writers to mention Jesus and they do; that’s a big problem for mythcism.

Perhaps a major issue most scholars will have with the mythicists, especially those like Paulkovich who argue from silence, is that they treat the New Testament primary sources unfairly and prejudicially. They assume that the New Testament, because its 23 letters and four biographies were written by followers of Jesus, is devoid of authentic historical information. But the mythicists seem to have the approach the wrong way around when it comes to scholarship: mythicists look for sources outside of the New Testament to confirm Jesus’ existence and when they find them (because they do exist) they try their best to reject them. In reality, however, if we want to know about the historical Jesus we need to go to the New Testament itself. This is because the New Testament contains the views of the earliest people to have written anything about Jesus and to have known those who knew him. In this regard, we have the Gospels, Paul, creeds, hymns, and the rest of the New Testament to use. There are good reasons, for example, to accept that the Gospels speak about real historical places, people, and events. Many of the figures and locations mentioned in them have been corroborated by archaeology and extra/non-biblical texts, so we can have confidence, in the absence of reasonable doubt, that they also refer to historical events. Indeed the extra-biblical sources like Pliny the Younger, Josephus Flavius, and the others are important, but they are supplementary to our primary New Testament letters and biographies. This means that the mythicists are placing their priorities in the wrong area and that, along with the other problems we have noted here, is why few think to take them seriously.

References

  1. Mail Online. 2014. ‘Jesus NEVER existed’: Writer finds no mention of Christ in 126 historical texts and says he was a ‘mythical character’. Available.

3 comments

  1. Is it possible that we don’t see those early authors mentioning Jesus at all because at that time, Christianity was still considered to be nothing more than a small Jewish sect/cult?

    • Correct. That is why those with only a specific interest in the events of Jewish Palestine around that time mention Jesus and his early followers. They had to really find it important and relevant for their accounts to mention him at all. The problem for mythicism is that several do mention Jesus.

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