Silent night, nothing to write...
The birth of Christianity, part 09
Silent night, nothing to write,
all is calm, all is quiet.
Nothing is said about this god,
miracles, wonders and
earthquakes about. Nothing 'bout zombies or sun standing still... Nobody did, but they will.
If the “gospel of Matthew” is to be believed, the greatest prophet and god to ever walk planet Earth was born anywhere between 12 to 4 BC and crucified between 26 and early 37 AD at the latest. According to the “gospel of Luke”, this Joshua was born in 6 AD and started preaching when he was about 30 years old, so around 36 AD. This would leave very little room for Jesus’ ministry. The “about” the author uses in Luke 3: 23 needs therefore to be taken very widely and measured against the references given about John the Baptist in the same chapter 3. We have our reasons to place the start of Jesus’ ministry around 33 or 34 AD in Luke’s gospel, allowing for a similar 2 or 3 years ministry as in the other gospels, with a crucifixion at 36, early 37 at the latest. At its outer margins, we could say that the gospel Jesus lived from 12 BC to 37 AD. Of all those years, it is the years of his ministry, death and resurrection that would later on cause massive waves in human history (or at the least the beliefs about these years). The most remarkable, miraculous and literally most noteworthy years for anyone able to see, hear, read and write would have been the years 30 to 37 AD.
All gospels mention some events that would have boggled the mind of anyone being a witness to them, and at points the gospels do emphasize that some of these events were witnessed by thousands of people. They also tell us that the witness accounts of these events already spread throughout the entire Roman province of Judaea (Idumea, Judah and Samaria), the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas (Galilee and Perea), the territory of the tetrarch Philip I (Iturea, Trachonitis and possibly Golan heights), the Decapolis and as far as Sidon and Tyre in Syro-Phoenicia. But did they?
In our references category we've been able to compile a list of 166 authors of the first century AD. As you can see below, we have further trimmed this down to 40 authors who were contemporaries of the alleged ministry of this Jesus. Some of them would not only have been in the position to write about Jesus, but would have taken a keen interest in the amazing miracles performed by the gospels character that were all the buzz from the 30s AD onwards in the eastern Mediterranean. There's a ton of them and we've only recycled a few of the most remarkable ones to check which author wrote about which event. A few of the authors certainly stand out as possible witnesses and candidates who would be eager to "write god's coat tails".
We wouldn't have had any problem checking one of the boxes in above table with an 'x', but as you see... there's nothing to see. Even the single contemporary 'Christian' author who was preaching about this mediator between god and mankind, tells us virtually nothing about him. Fair enough, Saul does say that this Jesus was born from a woman. Then again, that seems to be the case for just about 100 % of all humans and a good part of all demigods of the Greco-Roman world. Saul also let us know that Jesus was a descendant of king David, but that goes against the whole 'divine conception and virgin birth' paradigm that seemed to be a later literary development about this Jesus. It is only with the gospels that we get some details about a biological, human Jesus. The gospel according to Mark is generally considered to be the first one, written between 70 to 80 AD, which would put it at least 30 years after the death of Jesus. We don't know who the authors of the gospels were. There's different ways we can look at those epic stories. It is generally believed that they were penned down by authors who were informed about this Jesus' life and deeds by first- or secondhand witness accounts. For the sake of argument however, we are willing to go even further and assume that these authors were in fact Mark, Matthew, Luke and John and more over witnesses themselves [date of authorship of the gospels would certainly allow that].
That raises a whole bunch of questions however. One of the bigger ones is: why did they wait 30 to even 60 years to write down in their old age what they saw and heard? Especially since they wanted to share the best news for mankind ever? And why were they the only ones apparently capable of writing about some of these events? They themselves mention thousands of witnesses and some of those witnesses would have been just as educated and wealthy enough to write about it, even if only to deny that these things indeed happened. Based on those gospels, we can certainly come up with a few hundred people that would have been able to and similar to above table, we compiled a second one that allows us to at least 'Mark' some of the boxes with a 'cross'.
Perusing through the four gospels, one could come up with literally tens of thousands of witnesses to the miracles performed and lived by Joshua the Anointed. Its authors certainly made a point of making that perfectly clear. We limited above table to a mere 102 witnesses. Combined with the first table, that gives us 142 people who would have been alive during some or all of the events linked to Jesus' life and all of them had the means and education to leave us with written documentation. [That is almost the entirety of our reference list of authors of the first century AD; and counting them all together would give us 268 potential witnesses and / or authors, contemporary or near-contemporary].
Let us now zoom in on one of the most remarkable weekends of the first century AD, the Passover of 33 AD (or 34, 35, 36...) and arguably humankind's existence. Population estimates for Jerusalem vary widely. Making it not too easy on ourselves, let’s go with the low end of that spectrum and assume that Judah proper’s capital counted 20,000 inhabitants. Being the Passover feast however, pilgrims from as far as Babylon and Ethiopia would have flocked to the city. Again the numbers differ greatly. Josephus would have us believe that 2 million pilgrims would have come to Jerusalem in the week prior to the festival. We will cut that number down to a mere 20,000 and assume some 40,000 people were in Jerusalem that Passover weekend. For most of the pilgrims coming from outside of Palestine (who themselves were only a few among most) such a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have been an extraordinary, if not once in a lifetime event. Couple that memorable adventure with: a three hours long “eclipse” and earthquake, the Temple curtain being torn from top to bottom, followed by another earthquake on Sunday while dozens of resurrected Jewish sages and saints were wondering the streets of Jerusalem and you have an event that thousands of people would have talked about and several hundreds of people who would have written their family, friends and acquaintances about. Even if we consider that no more than half a per cent of all present would be literate, that still yields 200 potential authors. We should not forget however, that since 37 BC Jerusalem was the capital of a large kingdom and a political, cultural and religious center that would have counted a disproportionately large literate population [i.e. the Talmud mentions the existence of ca. 400 synagogues in Jerusalem prior to 70 AD (*)]. As the above table indicates, the members of the Sanhedrin alone would consist of 71 educated, literate priests and teachers of the law. In spite of all the above, we have only one author who gives us the aforementioned sequence of events on Passover weekend: Matthew. According to the scholarly consensus however, "his gospel" was written between 80 to 90 AD (with a wider possibility range of 70 to 110 AD). Even if we assume that Matthew was born around 10 AD, a witness to the events in the mid-30 and writing out of memory in the 70s AD then we circle back to our question above: why wait so long to write all of it down? And if we assume that the other gospel authors were equal witnesses to "Matthew", this question would apply to them as well. On top of that comes the question why these other authors seem unaware of any earthquakes, while "John" deems the 3 hour solar eclipse unworthy of mention too.
Not a single person of the hundreds above would have needed to know anything about this Jesus. Not a single one of them would have had to be aware that these events occurred because a god had been put to death right under their own eyes, and not one of them would even have had to be a follower of this alleged preacher and anointed revolution leader. Anyone could have written about this remarkable sequence of events on this remarkable Passover without the need to recognize an itinerant cynic philosopher as a divine being, so there is absolutely no reason to assume they would not have… if these events did really occur. The (in-)famous Saul of Tarsus is the only author who writes about Jesus and even he claims to not have witnessed any of the amazing events described in the gospels. Yet if he really was who he says he is through the few letters he left us, then how could he not have? And why does he never appeal to the authority of Jesus and his teachings when addressing his audience, but instead his own based on his appointment by hallucinogenic revelation? Historically, god certainly seems to prefer working in mysterious, almost undetectable ways.
Absent evidence, silent lambs
We can only study what we are left with. Any conclusions or hypotheses are only as good as the information they can be based on. Conversely, can we draw any conclusions from material we do not have? Is the absence of unambiguous historical documentation about this Jesus evidence that there was nothing to be reported? Both this post as the list of first century authors in our reference post are well aware of how much material from the past may be forever lost to us. This reality applies to any proposition or claim. We certainly don’t exclude the possibility of a historical Jesus having existed. You may have learned as much reading our preceding posts in this series. On the other hand: sometimes there is no smoke because there just isn't a fire (yet*).
The impact of the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Dead Sea Scrolls on the knowledge about early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism cannot be overstated. But even these literary treasure troves did not provide the historical confirmation of the Jesus character some may have hoped to find in them. That doesn’t mean that no more material could turn up in the future and it is very possible that all existing theories, propositions and conclusions have to be thrown out when it would. With the possible exception of Saul [and we use the ‘possible’ intentionally], we observe so far that between 30 AD and 70 AD there simply is no one mentioning this Jesus, let alone the amazing supernatural events attributed to him. If thousands of lambs really flocked to this shepherd and recognized him as the long expected Jewish messiah or even a god-turned-human, then this 40 year long silence of the lambs is a miracle in its own right… and a very long silent night.
DPA/RD/PF, 06 July 2022
Notes, sources, references:
(*) Talmut Ketubot 105a: "The Gemara asks: And were there no more judges? Didn’t Rabbi Pineḥas say that Rabbi Oshaya said: There were 394 courts in Jerusalem, and a comparable number of synagogues, and a comparable number of study halls, and a comparable number of houses of teachers of schoolchildren. The Gemara answers: There were many judges, but when we say that there were a small number, it is specifically concerning those who issue decrees that we say so."
For online reading of the Talmud, suggested source: https://www.sefaria.org/
An extensive composite article on synagogues including first century: Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, David Davidovitch, Raphael Posner et al, "Synagogue", Encyclopedia.com > Philosophy and Religion > Judaism > Judaism > synagogue https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/judaism/judaism/synagogue
Joseph Scales in: "Book Notes: Synagogues in the Works of Flavius Josephus: Rhetoric, Spatiality, and First-Century Jewish Institutions", 23 September 2019, Ancient Jew Review, https://www.ancientjewreview.com/read/2019/9/23/book-note-synagogues-in-the-works-of-flavius-josephus-rhetoric-spatiality-and-first-century-jewish-institutions
Wikipedia, “Silent Night”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night
Wkipedia, “Caiaphas”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caiaphas
Wikipedia, “PontiusPilate”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate
Wikipedia, “Tiberius”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius
Wikipedia, “Herod Antipas”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Antipas
Wikipedia, “Decapolis”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decapolis
Wikipedia, "Solar eclipse", > Historical eclipses, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse
Titus Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities”, 17 through 18.
Bob Seidensticker, "What Did Paul Know About Jesus? Not Much.", 17 December 2012, Patheos.com, > Blogs > Cross examined, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/12/what-did-paul-know-about-jesus-not-much/
"Johanan ben Zakkai", Your Dictionary > Home > Biography > Johanan ben Zakkai, https://biography.yourdictionary.com/johanan-ben-zakkai
Hershel Shanks, "Ancient Jerusalem: The Village, the Town, the City", 05 May 2022, Bible History Daily < Biblical Archaeology Society, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/ancient-jerusalem/
Magen Broshi, "Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem", June 1978, Biblical Archaeology Review 4: 2, Biblical Archaeology Society Online Archive, Biblical Archaeology Society, https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/4/2/3
David Van Biema / Jerusalem, "Jerusalem At the Time of Jesus", 16 April 2001, Time Magazine > World http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2047474-2,00.html
Shmuel Safrai, "Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus", 01 September 1989, Jerusalem Perspective, https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2392/
(yet*) Purely based on the emergence of clear "Christian" writings, it seems like the fire of Christianity was definitely kindled by the nineties AD. Opposed to the 30-40 year literary silence (save Paul, and perhaps the philosophers from whom Christianity may have borrowed, i.c Philo of Alexandria, Nicolaus of Damascus, authors of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of course the various schools within Pharisaic Judaism), we have a "volcanic eruption" of Christian authors from the end of first through the second century. We may well come back to this in later posts, as this one is perhaps only scratching the surface of this mysterious aspect of the birth of Christianity.
Comet P1/Halley, as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch Large Scale Penomena Network
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