Jesus Always Existed

a place for the best evidence of the historical Jesus

Refuting Rembserg's List

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of an available listing of ancient historians that, we are told, do not mention Jesus. The list is offered with the implied argument that because these writers to not mention Jesus, we have good reason to believe that Jesus did not exist. The ultimate source of the list may be one of two sources.

The first source is John Remsberg, and his book, The Christ. Remsberg lived in the 19th century and came up with a list of some 40 ancient authors whose silence about Jesus he considered mysterious. The second source is a more modern one, Michael Paulkovich. He built on Remsberg’s list and ended up with a total of 126 authors whose silence about Jesus he considered inexplicable.

While this long list of names may amaze the undiscerning, a closer look reveals several problems. Some of the writers did indeed mention Jesus; most by far, though, would have no reason to mention Jesus, and also did not mention Christians, though they certainly existed in the time many of these writers lived, even by the admission of critics like Remsberg and Paulkovich. Many of them also make no mention of Jews, or of persons who, socially and otherwise, would have been considered equals of Jesus, such as the Jewish teachers Hillel, Gamaliel, and Shammai. [1]

The question Remsberg and Paulkovich never answer is, “Why should any of these authors have mentioned Jesus?” The list is presented as though it is obvious that merely by being in the same century as Jesus, some irresistible and mysterious force required these writers to make mention of him. The question is usually framed in this fashion: “How could X writer have failed to mention the existence of a miracle-working Son of God in their very midst?”

The question, however, lacks a certain perspective: It assumes that the writer in question not only heard about Jesus as a miracle worker and the Son of God, but also either believed it, and/or believed it to be worth reporting, even if they thought the reports were false. Never asked is the question, “What would a typical pagan writer make of the story of Jesus?” The implied argument idly assumes that some degree of immediate belief would be the reaction of a pagan writer who heard about Jesus, such that they would inevitably give a full report of his activities. But how, in fact, would the typical ancient pagan writer have reacted to the story of Jesus? Their reaction would have been one of immediate dismissal and disgust. John Meier, author of A Marginal Jew, reminds us of several reasons why someone like Jesus would not make it into the typical Roman or Greek history. [2]

  • As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a “blip” on the screen. Jesus did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; he never traveled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a “celebrity” that he became known.
  • Jesus was executed as a criminal, providing him with the ultimate marginality. This was the most significant reason why historians would have ignored Jesus. He suffered the ultimate humiliation, both in the eyes of Jews (Deut. 21:23 - Anyone hung on a tree is cursed!) and the Romans (He died the death of slaves and rebels). On the other hand, Jesus was a minimal threat compared to other “Messiahs” of the time. Rome had to call out troops to quell the disturbances caused by the unnamed Egyptian referenced in the Book of Acts. In contrast, no troops were required to suppress Jesus’ followers. To the Romans, the primary gatekeepers of written history at the time, Jesus during his own life would have been no different than thousands of other everyday criminals that were crucified.
  • Jesus marginalized himself by being occupied as an itinerant preacher, and his teachings did not always jibe with, and were sometimes offensive to, the established religious order of the day.
  • Jesus lived an offensive lifestyle and alienated many people. He associated with the despised and rejected: Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the band of fishermen he had as disciples.
  • Jesus was a poor, rural person in a land run by wealthy urbanites. Most historians belonged to this upper class and would have looked down upon Jesus as a backwards peasant with a limited honor rating.

Given all of these factors, it is the burden of those who present one of these lists to demonstrate that any given writer ought to have mentioned Jesus, and do so with much more than simply astonished incredulity. Furthermore, they must argue why a writer would have interrupted a particular work to report about Jesus. As we will see, many of the authors listed were not even writing about anything remotely connected to Jesus (Jews, first century history, etc.). It is absurd to expect an author whose subject is something like, Spanish geography, to go out of their way to mention what (to them) would have been idle tales of a backwards, Jewish preacher.

A somewhat different form of this objection is stranger yet. It is objected that many writers also do not mention Christians. Why this is problematic is hard to say, since the letters of Paul, some of which even Jesus-mythicists say are genuine products of the apostle that were written between 50-65 AD, testify to the existence of Christians. Though not quite the same as the Jesus-myth thesis, we will also address this claim as it relates to more recent Jesus-myth theories.

Why the Silence?

There are other reasons why texts of the ancient world may be silent about certain matters, and the silences of these texts will seem as strange to us as the silences seem about Jesus in any of these sources.

Here are a few illustrative examples supporting this “silence”:

  • The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD buried the two villages of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing tens of thousands of people. The eruption would have been seen and heard for hundreds of miles, including by citizens of nearby Naples, a major city of the Roman Empire. We might suppose that there would be literally dozens of firsthand accounts of this eruption, but in reality, there is only one. The Roman historian Pliny the Younger mentioned his firsthand experience of the eruption some thirty years later, although he did so not in a formal history, but in a letter to his friend, the Roman historian Tacitus. Furthermore, the only reason he even wrote that account is because his uncle, Pliny the Elder, had died in the eruption, and Tacitus has requested information for the sake of honoring the elder Pliny and not because of the eruption itself. Note that this means we have absolutely no contemporary accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius that were written for the sake of recording the eruption as an event. If the elder Pliny had been on vacation somewhere else at the time, we would have absolutely no contemporary accounts of this major event. Of course, we do have some later references to the eruption, by people who were not contemporaries. But several people on Remsberg’s and Paulkovich’s lists were contemporaries of the eruption, and there is not a hint of it in their writings.
  • Another critical event not mentioned where we might suppose it ought to be was a slave revolt during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between the allies of the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. The Greek historian Polyaenus, who lived some 600 years later, records a revolt by slaves associated with Syracuse, one of the Spartan-aligned cities. However, this revolt is not mentioned by Thucydides, who was a contemporary of the war (460-395 BC). In spite of this, historians generally agree that Polyaenus accurately records that a slave revolt happened. So why would Thucydides not mention it? One suggestion is that Thucydides was showing his disdain for slaves as a lesser class of human beings, and so did not want to report any events that made them seem like they had their own will, or could take initiative. Another point made is that the rebellion did not ultimately do much to change the course of the war. Yet another suggestion is that this was just one of several examples of rebellions Thucydides had to choose from, and he just happened to leave this one out. [3] Whatever the case may be, this would be a good example of how the activities of a despised group (like the Christians were) could be conspicuously omitted from a historical record.
  • Consider also the treatment of the so-called “heretic Pharaoh,” Akhenaten (d. 1336 BC). Akhenaten’s religious deviancy earned him a great deal of postmortem scorn, and efforts were made to effectively erase him from the historical record, by vandalizing his monuments or destroying them entirely. Those efforts did not fare very well, since we know about Akhenaten today, but they show how a deviant religious movement might be dealt with by its contemporaries and successors.

Unlike Akhenaten, the Christians and Jesus did not have the means to create monuments. But the gatekeepers of history, who were mostly creatures of Rome, would have little interest in preserving records of a deviant teacher and the movement that followed him. Indeed, the most obvious reason for an author of this period to mention Jesus or the Christians would be because it would have been useful for them in sending a message about someone or something else. An example we discussed in a prior chapter was that of Tacitus, whose reference to Jesus and the Christians equipped him to say something uncomplimentary about Nero.

There is one other reason we might note for why Christians were not specially mentioned by these authors. In Paul’s time, and until after the destruction of Jerusalem, Christians were considered by the Romans to be a subset of Judaism. For that reason, unless a writer also mentioned Jewish sects like the Pharisees and the Essenes, it is unreasonable to expect them to have mentioned Christians.

The bottom line: It takes much more than simply pointing out an allegedly problematic silence and letting it “speak for itself” to prove that a silence is meaningful. We can best demonstrate this now with a survey of authors listed by Remsberg, Paulkovich, and others, who are allegedly problematically silent on either the existence of Jesus or the existence of Christians.

In Alphabetical Order:

Aelius Theon wrote on training of orators.

Albinus has only one surviving work, an introduction to Plato’s dialogues.

Alcinous wrote a handbook on Platonism. (There is some confusion respecting him and Albinus.)

Ammonius of Athens wrote on Aristotle.

Alexander of Aegae also wrote commentaries on Aristotle.

Antipater of Thessalonica wrote epigrams (pithy sayings).

Antonius Polemo was a 2nd century author who wrote on rhetoric.

Apollonius Dyscolus was a 2nd century expert on grammar.

Appian was a Roman historian of the second century who wrote a history of Roman conquests from the founding of Rome to Trajan; only about half of his books have survived fully intact.

Appion of Alexandria was a second-century historian who wrote a history of Rome in 24 books.

Apollonius was…well, not sure. Historical sources list over a half dozen men with this name; it is not clear which one Remsberg refers to, so we cannot comment. The closest to the time of Jesus is a grammarian and linguist from the 2nd century.

Archigenes was a physician. We have only fragmentary remains of his work.

Arateus was a physician who wrote on diseases.

Arrian lived in the second century, and wrote works concerned with Alexander the Great, who lived 300 years before Jesus—quite a stretch for a mention!

Asclepiades of Prusa was a physician, and lived in the 2nd century BC!!

Asconius wrote on speeches of Cicero.

Aspasius wrote commentaries on Aristotle.

Atilicius was a jurist who wrote legal works.

Attalus lived in the 300s BC!

Aufidius Bassus was a historian whose work is mostly lost.

Aulus Claudius Charax was a second century author and historian. His work is lost to us.

Aulus Gellius was a second-century lawyer who put together collections of essays on law, antiquities, and various other subjects.

Bassus of Corinth was an adversary of Apollonius of Tyana. His writings are lost.

C. Cassius Longinus was a Roman consul in the BC era.

Calvisius Taurus was a Platonist author.

Cassius Dio was a Roman historian.

Chaeramon of Alexandria wrote a history of Egypt and related works on Egypt, which are lost to us.

Claudius Agathemerus was a physician whose works are lost to us.

Cleopatra the Physician wrote works on alchemy which are now lost.

Cluvius Rufus was a Roman senator whose works are lost.

Columella wrote about agriculture and trees.

Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus was a general, politician, historian and erotic poet. His works are lost.

Cornelius Celsus wrote on medicine.

Cornutus was a Stoic philosopher.

D. Haterius Agrippa was senator. His works are lost.

D. Valerius Asiaticus was also a senator.

Damis wrote the biography of Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan philosopher from the late first century. Damis lived in the second century and likely does not mention Jesus because he had his own philosopher to promote; namely, Apollonius.

Demetrius was…well, that depends which one you mean. Paulkovich wasn’t specific. He might mean the first century Cynic philosopher. If so, his works are lost.

Demonax was a Cynic philosopher.

Demosthenes Philalethes was a physician who wrote a book on eye diseases, which is lost.

Dio Chrysostom was an orator of the second century who wrote eighty orations on literary, political, and philosophical subjects.

Dion Prusaeus was an orator, a specialist in speaking skills.

Domitius Afer was an orator. His work is lost.

Epictetus wrote nothing. All his teachings were set down by a disciple.

Erotianus was a compiler of Hippocrates’ words.

Euphrates of Tyre was a Stoic philosopher.

Fabius Rusticus was an historian of Nero’s reign. His work is lost.

Favorinus was a skeptical philosopher of the second century who wrote works of rhetoric. His works are lost.

Flaccus was a poet of the first century who wrote a work called the Argonautica which describes the voyage of the Argonauts in the time of Homer (over a thousand years before Jesus was born).

Florus Lucius was a Roman historian who wrote about the Empire from the time of its origins to the reign of Augustus.

Fronto was a grammarian and rhetoritician.

Gaius Asinius Quadratas was a third century historian from whom we have only fragments.

Gordius of Tyana was referred to in letters of Apollonius.

Gnaeus Domitius was a politician. His works are lost.

Halicarnassensis Dionysius II died in 7 BC. He wrote on history and rhetoric.

Hermogones (the only one I could find) was a second-century Stoic painter whose material was addressed by the Christian author Tertullian. It is not clear if this is who Remsberg refers to.

Heron of Alexandria was a mathematician.


See the rest of the entries, and more information, in Debunking the Jesus Myth Vol. 1.