A reader has a question about extrabiblical testimony to Christ

He writes:

I’ve been discussing a number of topics with my brother who is an atheist. In particular he has asked me about a number of events that should be in the historical record such as the census that required Mary, Joseph, and Jesus go to Bethlehem to be accounted, the earthquake and three-hour darkness at the Passion. Do you know of any place where I can get some information about theses events?

Also, I was making a Lewis-esque argument concerning the truth of the Gospel. I argued that the Apostles had nothing to gain from inventing the Gospel, since all they received from it was stonings, beatings, and crucifixion. However, he pointed out that early Mormons and Joseph Smith were persecuted as well. I don’t really know much about the history of Mormonism to make a good comparison. So, do you know of any good resources I could use in this case?

There is actually good reason to say that Luke’s account of the census squares pretty well with the history we know.  There is also good reason to say that the “Jesus never existed and the whole gospel account is fiction” school of New Atheist criticism is remarkably addicted to the notion that 21st Century atheists are 2000 years smarter than those stupid ancients.  It is a thesis believable only to people who worship rather than use the intellect.  As I pointed out in the Gospel According to Steve Martin:

Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)... exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!”

I can’t help but think of that as I read [John Dominic] Crossan’s take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a Risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David”, Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?

Well, a lot of options are open to the creative gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?

But no, according to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.

In fact, of course, both the gospels and Acts are chockablock with historical details that make it clear we are not looking at fictional characters or myth, but actual human beings.  Some of those characters are attested in extrabiblical sources, both literary and archeological.  Pilate is one.  Annas and Caiaphas are two more.  Sergius Paulus (whom Paul converted) was another.  So is Erastus (another disciple of Paul’s).  Another interesting connection is Alexander and Rufus, whom Paul greets at the end of Romans and whom Mark notes were the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross.  In fact, an impartial reading of the gospel makes it very clear that the New Testament records all sorts of details which are inexplicable as “myth” but perfectly explainable as the memories of people who were either present at the events recounted or very close to those who were.  People say, “But the gospels were written decades later!”  So what?  Nobody finds it incredible if somebody writes a memoir about the Carter Administration, yet the synoptic gospels are separated from their subject by a span of time roughly comparable to our distance in time from the Age of Disco.  John is probably separated from his subject by a distance in time roughly corresponding to our distance from Eisenhower.  Impossible to have accurate memories of Elvis or the Mickey Mouse club?  Bah!  My mother can tell me details about what she was doing on a Canadian farm in the 1930s. 

Speaking of which, Luke’s birth narrative, for instance, bears all the earmarks of testimony from the only possible source of the information: the Blessed Virgin Mary.  And, as we are coming to discover, it squares well with the available information we have from other sources.  Here’s Michael Barber, Scripture scholar:

Luke’s Account
What about Luke? The issues here revolve around Luke 2:1-2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Three major problems emerge: identifying the year of Herod’s death, determining the nature of Augustus’ “enrollment,” and the chronology of Quirinius.

Herod’s death. This is important because we know Jesus was born during Herod’s reign―therefore, obviously, before his death. Most scholars today date his death to 4 B.C. His death was linked to a lunar eclipse—and since one occurred during March of 4 B.C. this year has been recognized as a perfect candidate. However, a growing number of scholars are recognizing problems with that view. Many are now looking at an eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. (See John Pratt, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod,” in Planetarian 19/4 (1990): 8-14). In fact, this would fit in well with the witness from the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus was born between 3 and 2 B.C.

Caesar’s enrollment. Many people have dismissed this element as unhistorical since such enrollments have been seen as occurring for tax purposes and Herod, as king, would have collected his own taxes. Yet, many have argued that there may be another rationale behind the enrollment. Josephus recounts that Judea was required to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar during the end of Herod’s reign (Antiquities XVII. 41–45). Archeological evidence confirms it was taken in other places around 3 B.C. In fact, Orosius (5th cent) says Augustus required all to be enrolled with an oath. This oath apparently was established not long before 2 B.C., when Augustus came to be called “first of all men.”

Quirinius’ census. Quirinius’ role is the most difficult detail. Some scholars assert that Luke has made a mistake. We know that Quirinius became governor later and took a census in 6 A.D. Has Luke made a mistake. Why would Luke associate him with an earlier enrollment.

Luke’s language here may be significant. In describing Quirinius, Luke uses the same term he uses for Pontius Pilate, a regional procurator, in 3:1, hegemon. Pilate was not a governor, but a regional authority. Perhaps Luke is indicating that Quirinius had some role as administrator prior to his appointment as governor. Justin Martyr testimony concurs with this as he records that Quirinius was procurator in Judea at this time (First Apology, 34).

In fact, Luke tells us that this was the “first” enrollment—implying he knows about a later one. He apparently mentions it in Acts 5:37.

For more information on the timing of the birth of Christ and the census, I strongly urge you to check out the Ignatius Study Bible, which has a fascinating discussion.

As to such things as the earthquake or the darkness at noon, I wonder why anyone imagines that there would be secular records of these common events?  Today, somewhere on earth, there were any number of earth tremors.  Can you tell me about each one?  How about a tremor forty years ago?  Why suppose that anybody outside the Christian community would have noted such a quake at the moment of Jesus’ death?  There is, in fact, acknowledgement of the darkness at noon by a couple of ancient pagan sources, but it’s not a slam dunk that they are themselves relying on non-Christian sources for that.  They might just as easily be saying “Granted there was a darkness at noon as the Christians say.  But it was just a natural eclipse”.  And it may well have been natural for all we know.  If not an eclipse, it may have been a storm.  Or it may have been a miracle witnessed only locally (as for instance the Dancing Sun at Fatima was only visible locally).  70,000 people witnessed the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima.  And yet outside the locality, life went on as normal.  That was in the relatively media-heavy early 20th century.  In the first century, there was no media.  How much of an impact would such an event make?  I see no particular reason for it to have any impact outside the Christian community, which alone was able to correlate them with the really central event: the death of Jesus.

We have to remember that mere “occurrences” don’t become events until they have meaning for us.  We hear, for instance, that some shrine in, say, Iraq gets blown up by a suicide bomber and think, “More violence in the mideast” but then get on with our day.  We read about a storm someplace or a quake here or there and then almost immediately forget about it.  That’s normal.  It is only when something “coordinates” these events and makes them part of an Important Memory that we start to speak of them as Significant.  So for the early Church it was Death of Jesus + Quake + Darkness that made the Quake and Darkness memorable.  No death of Jesus and the quake and darkness would have been unnoticed (as quakes and ominous dark skies—which are happening somewhere on earth right now—go unnoticed by people who are not involved in them, and even by people who are involved if the quake is not too severe).  Here in Seattle we had a quake on Ash Wednesday 2001 that was memorable to us, but give it forty years and how many people in, say, Kansas City will be able to say from memory, “There was a quake in Seattle on Ash Wednesday 2001.”  Subtract a media and a scientific interest in recording quakes (something the ancient world distinctly lacked) and the lack of any contemporary record of the quake becomes perfectly understandable. I remember the quake and associate it with Ash Wednesday because I think a quake was a particularly appropriate start for Ash Wednesday.  But most of my secular Seattle neighbors had no idea it was Ash Wednesday.  So I will not be surprised at all if, in a generation, people have only the dimmest memory of it as “that quake when I was a kid” and people not from the immediate area have no knowledge of it at all.

What *is* notable is that the pagan sources who discuss the darkness at noon (like every ancient source Christian, Jewish and pagan) take for granted that Jesus was a real historical figure and not a myth.  In this, the ancients demonstrate vastly more common sense than postmoderns who are unsure Jesus existed—and infinitely more common sense than the current cottage industry of historical illiterates who are sure he didn’t exist.  I chalk up the “Jesus never existed” school of thought to the temporary fad about the Da Vinci Code and the current trendiness of our sophisticates (who have often not even read the gospels) explaining them as “myth”.  I imagine that within a few years even the silliest of the New Atheists will have to grudgingly admit what all real historians already know: that at the very least, any person of modest common sense must acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by Pontius Pilate somewhere around 30 AD.  There’s lots more historical data than that once people stop subjecting the gospels to a hermeutic of suspicion reserved solely for these documents and not applied to any other ancient document.  But that will do for a start.

The main thing is this: There’s no particular reason for Jesus to be attested much by extrabiblical sources contemporary with him any more than there is reason for Socrates to be noticed by Ezra and Nehemiah, Meso-American records or the Buddha.  Jesus doesn’t start to impinge on Greco-Roman consciousness till a couple of decades after his execution.  One Roman historian notes riots in Rome over “Chrestus” and that, because of them, Claudius expelled the “Jews” (Romans couldn’t tell the difference between Jews and Christians).  That’s also mentioned in Acts.  Some time later, Nero finds Christians a useful scapegoat and kills Peter and Paul (whose relics are still venerated at Rome) along with a bunch of other Christians.  Now and then, Jesus gets a mention from guys like Pliny.  But really, why should Romans care any more about him than the New York Times is likely to run a front page story about a cab driver killed in an accident in Bucharest?  In antiquity, the norm is that the local community who cares about the rabbi, swami, guru, philosopher, hero or thinker is going to be the one that preserves his memory.  Nobody organizes Socrates Seminars to complain that the only witnesses we have to the existence of Socrates are the sinister lying conspiratorial Athenians Plato and Aristophanes.  Nobody issues “Aha!” announcements that the Platonic Socrates and the Aristophanic Socrates are very different characters (since Aristophanes includes him in this comedy in order to make fun of him, while Plato records him in order to revere his memory).  Nobody complains that since Socrates is never mentioned in contemporary Roman, Egyptian, or Jewish literature, it is impossible for him to have existed or for us to know anything about him.  This sort of absurd treatment of historical evidence is only reserved for Jesus of Nazareth.  In the case of any other figure from antiquity, four accounts deriving from contemporary witnesses or those close to witnesses, all telling almost the identical story (and in the case of the synoptic gospels, doing it in almost identical language at times) would make a historian drool.  You don’t get that sort of documentation very often in ancient sources.  But what would be, for scholars of Socrates, a feature, is, for determined skeptics about Jesus, a bug.  People quibble about minor differences of detail between the gospels and overlook the gigantic commonalities between the witnesses.  It’s like people poring over the variety of testimony from witnesses to the assassination of JFK and concluding that these differences prove Kennedy never existed, rather than sensibly concluding that something rather than nothing happened—and that the something is pretty much what all the witness agree happened.  Of all the things affirmed, not just by the eyewitnesses who died for their their testimony, but by even his ancient enemies both Jewish and pagan, nobody ever suggested he did not exist.  Only the folly of the New Atheism could embrace that whopper.

As to the comparison with Mormonism, there are three problems:

First, Joseph Smith is the sole witness to the claims he makes.  Everybody else is a true believer, but does not themselves claim to have seen Moroni or the rest of it.  In the case of Christ, there are over five hundred eyewitnesses.  That’s a lot of opportunity for somebody to crack under threat of torture or murder and spill the beans on how the whole thing was (as it had to be if false) a lie and a fraud.  Nobody ever did.

Second, where is the St. Paul of Mormonism?  He’s a very anomalous figure and hard to explain apart from an encounter with the Risen Christ.

Finally, the apostles didn’t just die martyr’s deaths, they lived martyr’s lives.  Joseph Smith, in comparison, grew in wealth and power (not to mention that manly dream of multiple wives) right up until he went down (guns blazing) in a gunfight with the mob that came to get him.  One looks in vain for the traces of the apostolic martyrs hacking away at their persecutors with swords.  Indeed, the gospels actually record (again and again) the embarrassing vignette of Peter whacking off Malchus’ ear in order to make clear that this sort of thing was Conduct Unbecoming an Apostle.

It’s one thing to die as a sucker for a lie told by Joseph Smith (as some Mormons did).  It’s quite another thing to die for a lie told by oneself (as the apostles did if the Resurrection is false).  Joseph Smith, blasting away at his enemies, shows us how liars die.  The apostles, going with dignity to a variety of awful deaths, show us how honest men die.