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One Reason I Don’t Believe: The Silence of History

bart ehrman quote

The 2019 population of the Jerusalem was 936,000, according to Wikipedia. In 1948, the population of Jerusalem was 87,000. According to Wikipedia, the first-century population of Jerusalem was around 80,000, though this population would swell during Passover and other religious observances. When I lived in Yuma, Arizona, I observed a similar swelling of the population when the snowbirds arrived to spend winter in Yuma. Whatever the population of Jerusalem was during the three-year public ministry of Jesus, there were plenty of people who observed his works. Surely, there were thousands of eyewitnesses who could have written something about Jesus’s miracles, and his death, resurrection, ascension back to Heaven. Surely, there were eyewitnesses who could have written something about the acts of the Apostles and the early church. Why then, is there little or no historical record for the life and work of Jesus or the early followers of Jesus? God striking church members dead or causing the followers of Jesus to speak in unknown tongues surely were notable events, yet there is no record of them outside of the Bible. Why is this?

According to the Bible, the events leading up to the death of Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead, took place during Passover.  After the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus, Jesus ascended back to Heaven, and on the Day of Pentecost, while the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room, they were filled (baptized) with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2)

Acts 2:1-6 states:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

This miracle of speaking with other tongues caused quite a stir and, as a result, on one day:

Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

In fact, according to Acts 2:47:

And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Every day people were being saved, baptized, and added to the church, or so says the author of the book of Acts.

In Acts 3,4 we find Peter and John going to the Temple to preach the gospel. While they faced great adversity from the Sadducees over their preaching that through Jesus people could be resurrected from the dead, Acts 4:4 states:

…many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.

So, in a short amount of time, the Acts narrative moves from 120 followers of Jesus being gathered in an upper room to 3,000 people being saved, baptized, and added to the church, to 5,000 men believing the preaching of the gospel. Yet, outside of the New Testament, which was written decades after the events recorded in Acts 1-4, there is no historical mention of a large number of people becoming followers of Jesus. There is no mention of 3,000 people being publicly baptized on one day. There is no mention of a large gathering of Jesus’s followers in the outer court of the Temple.

In fact, there is no non-Biblical historical record for any of the astounding events recorded in the Gospels and Acts. Suppose a well-known man died in the community you live. You saw him die. With your own eyes, you saw his dead, embalmed body. Yet, three days later, this same man came back to life and was sitting with his family and friends at the local Applebee’s. Do you think such a miraculous event would make the front page of the newspaper? Do you think it would be trending on Twitter? Do you think everyone in your community would quickly know about the dead man brought back to life? Yet, when it comes to Jesus the miracle worker, a man who purportedly raised people from the dead, cast demons out of people, gave sight to the blind, restored the hearing of the deaf, walked on water, and walked through walls, there is no non-Biblical historical record of any of his works.

According to the Bible, Jesus was well-known in Jerusalem. When he came riding into Jerusalem on a colt (or an ass, you decide) people lined the streets and cheered him. This same man, a short time later, was arrested, publicly humiliated, nailed to a cross like a common thief, and buried in a borrowed grave. Three days later — however you count three days — (please see  I Wish Christians Would be Honest About Jesus’ Three Day Weekend) this same well-known Jesus resurrected from the grave and appeared to over 500 people. Pretty newsworthy stuff, right? Yet, outside of the Bible, there is no historical record of these events.

Even more astounding, according to Matthew 27, at the moment Jesus died:

And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

At the very moment Jesus died, the veil of the Temple, a curtain that was likely 30 feet wide, 60 feet high, and four inches thick, (using 18 inches as the measurement for a cubit) was torn in half. And according to the Gospel of Mark, there was an eclipse at the moment of, or right before Jesus died. Ponder for a moment such astounding events, yet, outside of the Bible, there is no record of them ever occurring.

If that is not astounding enough, consider that the Bible says when Jesus died the graves of the saints were open and out popped resurrected followers of Jesus. These resurrected saints went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people. Yet, not only is there no non-Biblical historical report of this happening, none of the other gospel writers or Paul mention it. Surely, dead relatives and dead fellow believers resurrecting from the dead and walking about the city of Jerusalem would be important to 1st century Christians, yet outside of Matthew, no one mentions it.

Yes, later Christian authors, working from the text of the Bible and stories passed down to them, speak of these events being true, but why are there no Roman or Jewish historical writings that mention these astounding events?

I am well aware of the various arguments that can be made, but I don’t buy them. It seems far more likely that these miraculous, astounding events never happened. Yes, Josephus possibly said:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

I say possibly because what Josephus actually said is a matter of great debate (the oldest manuscript of Josephus’s writings is dated a thousand years after his death). Regardless of the authenticity of the aforementioned passage, Josephus does not mention, outside of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, any of the miraculous events that occurred at the time of the death of Jesus. Why is this?

This is one of the reasons that I do not believe the central claims of Christianity are true. While this is not proof for there being no God, it does call into question the narrative that many Christians proclaim is pure, unadulterated truth.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Bruce, is there a good reference summarizing what contemporaneous records do exist? I’ve read this argument belore, and it always leaves me wanting. In other words, it’s one thing to say “Here’s the list from the Jerusalem County Clerk of every criminal executed by the Romans during Pilate’s rule. See, there’s no Jesus on the list.” But if the reason Jesus is not on the list is because there is no list at all, then that’s not so compelling.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      Hey Van,

      It’s a general observation, looking at the totality of the available historical evidence. The NT is filled with fantastical stories of events that would have been the talk of the town if they had occurred. From the slaughter of children under the age of two to graves opening up and zombies walking through Jerusalem, you’d think there would be one non-Biblical historical record of these events. It is no longer sufficient to say, well the Bible says…. We now know that the Bible is not eyewitness testimony, that many of the events recorded in the NT were written 25-80 years after the fact by, in many cases, unknown authors. While I think the Bible does contain historical data, it’s not enough evidence to lead me to accept the claims Christians make for God, Jesus, and the early church. I’m sure someone might say, surely this all can’t be a lie. Well, that was a big argument for me when I was a Christian, but now that we have a contemporary story to look at, Mormonism, it’s quite easy to see how a completely fabricated bit of nonsense can be turned into religious teachings believed by millions of people. (and the same could be said for Scientology)

      Ben Carson is in a lot of trouble because some of the stories he told in his Bible, an autobiography, are not true. If all we read was his Bible, then we’d likely accept his version of events. But, we have access to historical records and people who knew Carson and participated in the events in question. By looking at this evidence, we can conclude that Carson either lied, misspoke, or wildly exaggerated his stories. So it is with Jesus. Granted, time poses a big problem, but surely there is some sort of extra-Biblical historical evidence we can look to to corroborate the stories found in the Bible? So far, history is silent. And the same can be said for much of the OT history.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I thought the consensus on the Josephus quote was that it is indeed an addition; something about it not matching the rest of the text very well. But I’m not an expert on this, and I could be mistaken.

    Playing Devil’s Advocate here: Maybe the reason why Jesus wasn’t documented well was that the world was awash in street preachers who (some said) could heal and whatnot. That some subset of these guys ran afoul of the Romans and got eliminated was probably not big news. (And yes, I know the gospels do not record a seditious Jesus; when did an authoritarian government ever need accuracy?)

    Now, rising from the dead and such, and the followers baptizing lots of people — that too might have happened without documentation… because at that point it was religious stuff. The Romans Empire was stuffed with religious figures to be worshipped and with miraculous tales.

    “Hey, I heard about this guy Jesus who rose from the dead!”

    “Really? Cool. Does he have a temple?”

    “No, he was an itinerant Jewish preacher.”

    “Bummer. Look, I have a sacrifice to make to Hera — she sorted out some problems I’ve been having — and then I’ll meet you at the baths this afternoon. We can talk more about him then. See ya later!”

    All I can say about God is, if he wanted his son really noticed, there were places and cultures where the whole sequence of events would have been a lot more verifiable. But then, that particular deity demonstrated questionable judgment in many places throughout the Old Testament. His timing on the whole death and resurrection thing was just another failure in judgment.

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      Karen the rock whisperer

      And to those who might say that Jesus has been noticed for two thousand years… I’m a geologist. Two thousand years, and we’re already poking holes in the story? Sorry, that’s a minor blip in time as far as I’m concerned. I documented the last 800,000 years of sedimentary history in my home valley in my Master’s thesis, and even THAT is a just a blip in time. 2000 years? That’s smaller than an error bar. Surely a deity as big as the Christian one is supposed to be can do a bit better than that.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      You raise a good point, one that Polly and I talked about today. If the miracles are fabrications and Jesus was just some sort of religious teacher, zealot, political subversive, street preacher, or magician, then it reasonable to think that there would be no non-Biblical historical record of him. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the Jesus story of the Bible…but I suspect that most of the words and acts attributed to Jesus are legends or fabrications, little more than a great campfire story.

      Polly and I have known each other for almost 40 years. Even in our short relationship, the stories have changed over the years. What’s the truth? How much of what we now say about events 30-40 years ago is the truth? Hard to say. Perhaps the best we can say is that the stories we tell approximate what happened. Now imagine the story of Jesus, told over 2, 000 years…can we really say much more than….there was a Jewish man named Jesus who lived and died?

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    Matt Martin

    Richard Carrier gave a lecture (available on YouTube) about how the Jesus of the Gospels almost certainly did not exist as he’s depicted therein and that early Christians would have recognised that. At some length he explains that the Gospels were written in a very particular way that marks them out as mythologies.

    If I understand correctly (and I may be wrong) the Jesus Paul talks about in his innumerable epistles seems to be quite different to the Jesus of the Gospels. Paul is pretty clear that his Jesus was a supernatural being and he seems utterly ignorant of many of the happenings in the life of the Jesus of the Gospels. I’m also lead the believe that the Pauline letters were authored before the Gospels.

    That’s not to say that there wasn’t some character about at the time who inspired late 1st century and early 2nd century writers of the Gospels.

    What I find most interesting is the shift over the last decade or so in the academic debate on the historicity of Christ. There was a time, not so long ago, when anyone advancing the Jesus-as-Myth hypothesis was dismissed as a fringe swelling loon. These days it seems to be gaining traction as a viable and respectable position to hold in scholarly circles.

    I should add that I am not a scholar of antiquity or scripture (I’m merely an interested amateur with too much time on his hands) and my observations should be viewed in that light.

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      Matt, Remember that Paul was walkin’ down the road one day and poof, started hearing and seeing things. That’s pretty supernatural too. People enter altered states of consciousness and shit-happens. Look at the ‘holy roller’ phenomenon or the young person on the verge of emotional collapse who arrives at the Emergency Department of the local whoop-it-up church and gets himself into a FEELING state where all that emotional baggage abreacts and becomes basically hearing and seeing things in a stoned fashion, a hyperness of knowing, a fit of sorts. The real weight of the emotions, the real need for sharing his baggage gets curve-balled into a wild dance of being saved. And all around him people are saying Yes, Jesus! And hoogalahmoogy boom-boom! He goes home all full of the ‘supernatural’ but next week he ends up at emerg again, booga-booga bing bing donglong doo-doo…
      When you pick up the Bible, having said ‘I believe’, anything is possible and people hearing voices or seeing things that nobody else sees is all good and Yes, Jesus! But holy John Wayne riding a donkey, once you let go of belief and you go back to read that stuff, it just makes makes your eyebrows dance and twitch like a crackhead.

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    Daniel Wilcox

    But one needs to read the rest of Bart Ehrman’s writing. This partial quote is misleading.

    Ehrman, while pointing out that the famous miracles of Jesus are highly unlikely, does think that the historical figure of Jesus did exist.

    I’ve read a number of his books including his latest How Jesus Became God (a well written book) and in all of them he assumes that Jesus exactly existed. So do the vast majority of secular historians.

    Keep in mind that most other famous Jews and people of Palestine also aren’t mentioned by Roman historians. They considered Jews ignorant barbaric riff-raff.

    Erhman writes that “there’s no doubt that the historical Jesus is the most important person in the history of western civilization.”
    and, “One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

    Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”

    Bart Ehrman is the author of ‘Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,’ now available from HarperOne.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      It is only misleading IF someone is a mythicist and is using it to imply that Ehrman is supporting their position. Since I am not a mythicist, the quote fits well with what I have written here.

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        August Rode

        I have to confess that I see precious little to distinguish between “never existed” and “might have existed but wasn’t much like he’s described” in any practical sense.

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          Bruce Gerencser

          I tend to view Jesus like I do some of the articles and comments I’ve read about Bruce Gerencser. Yes, Bruce Gerencser exists, but these folks have never met him and don’t say much about him that is historically accurate. ? Used to irritate the heaven out of me, but now I find their blabbering quite entertaining.

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    Slightly unrelated, but last year I saw the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, during Christmas vacation, which was quite interesting. I was sort of on the brink of deconverting then as I also went to church that Christmas wondering whether I still believed it all.

    Anyway, in the movie God is portrayed as a petulant child. He is unhappy and sends plague after plague to the Egyptians out of spite. In the movie, they’d explained the plagues as a sort of natural consequence, bloody water leading to dead fish, leading to lice, frogs and other pests, leading to dead livestock etc. which sort of made sense and normalized the plagues a little bit.

    Afterwards, I began googling if there was any historical evidence for the exodus. Shouldn’t the Egyptians have recorded these horrible plagues, not to mention losing first-borns and an entire slave population? But no, there was nothing, not in Egypt, not in the desert etc. Just like Joseph’s presence as a steward should be traceable as well. The religious reason for there being nothing was always that the Egyptians had hidden or burnt the records, being ashamed etc. and, of course, behind that was the devil covering everything up. Reasons for the clear lack of evidence usually were similar to that: big science, or ancient (whatever fits best), conspiracy and that’s why there is no evidence. Somehow God didn’t think to stop those evil conspiracies either…

    It just made me angry. I’d believed it all for so long and to suddenly realize that an exodus of such a magnitude would not have been possible without a shred of evidence….. It provided another crack in my already dissolving faith at that time. Whether it is about Jesus’ existence and the varification of his miracles/resurrection, or about things like the flood or the exodus, it often comes down to the Biblical account and whether or not you believe it, as other evidence is quite lacking.

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      August Rode

      When one’s best argument for the existence of something is the complete lack of evidence for it, that really should set some alarms ringing.

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        Yes, it felt as if there was always some sort of excuse as to why there wasn’t any evidence, usually involving the devil or the occult.

        I began realizing more and more that apologists tend to apologize for all the unanswered questions and things that just don’t fit. That it is about saying: I can see this may look bad/untrue but if you just believe and make an exception because we’re talking about God here, it suddenly is all magically right and true.

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    Melody, please please don’t ask questions! God answered it all in the one true answer to all questions, his holy word. So, sheesh, why do you want to be a Satanist? Pretty soon you will advocating for same-sex marriage and approving of fathers having sex with their sons (I am not sure of the Bible verse relating to that but ask marfin because God told marfin and marfin told Bruce…) Anyway, all the answers are in the book and you are almost perverted already by just thinking about history…. look carefully at history HIS-story! Okay? Got it now? By the way, I believe you are a HER not a HIS, right.? Have you considered God’s personal plan for your life, Melody? Do you have a man to answer to as your proper and biblical way to approach God? Beware the path of questions. All has been answered! 😉
    (Whatever you do, don’t read Bart Ehrman! I will share a little secret with you. Look at his name, Ehrman, and say it several times slowly, Slowly….. Ehhhrman, Ehrrrrorman, EERRorman, ERRORman…. There! You see? Thank the Lord for HIS male insights! We are truly trying to help youz women.

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      LOL, I know… Questioning is bad, mindlessly agreeing good. Got it. 😉

      I’ve sort of waited for a long time to understand and figure out God’s plan for me. So far, he hasn’t been very helpful. Guess that means it’s up to me 🙂

      • Avatar
        August Rode

        “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” — Martin Luther

        So, yes, questioning is bad, mindlessly agreeing good.

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          Looks like even Luther had his doubts: why else would he argue so strongly against it? “It never comes to the aid of spiritual things…” sounds to me as if he had a few run-ins with reason himself.

  7. Avatar

    As others have pointed out, Ehrman is not a mythicist and firmly believes that the evidence supports a historical Jesus, in the sense that there existed a real person on whom the myth was based. In this regard, the evidence for Jesus is consistent with that for other minor characters of his time, namely almost none. Using exactly this approach, however, renders any of the special events traditionally associated with Jesus doubtful in the extreme, because then the sheer excitement of having witnessed such things would have meant that they were documented at the time.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    OK, so they didn’t have newspapers, let alone TV or social media, in those days. But the Jews and the Romans certainly didn’t lack for scribes, chroniclers and historians. So I agree with Bruce that someone would have recorded the incredible deeds attributed to a guy named Jesus. Books, plays and more have been written about far more ordinary things.

    Joseph Smith received the volumes that became the Book of Mormon or that Muhammad received the scriptures that became the Qu’ran because these events happened in the absence of witnesses, yet people believe those stories perhaps even more fervently than most Christians believe stories of the miracles, resurrection and all of the other things attributed to Jesus. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people believe the stories in the Bible even though they were set down long after they supposedly occurred.

    What was that about a tree falling in the forest?

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Bruce Gerencser