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There is an apologetic argument that goes like this:

If the gospels were not factual, then we should expect to find other writings from the same time which refute them. We do not, therefore the gospels are factual.

One assumption of this argument is that the gospels (or at least one) were originally written soon enough after the events were said to have taken place, that people who witnessed Jesus's life and death would have still been alive.

My questions is: Are there any examples from that time, location and culture which fit this category? In other words, that could compete the sentence: "...we should expect to find other writings from the same time which refute them, just like we do with XXX"

  • I'm familiar with the argument, but what I've never understood is the necessity for contemporary refutations. Religion and spiritual belief was not usually an argument at the time. "So you believe this guy they killed was actually the Jewish god? Okay, whatever." That was about the extent of non-believer's reactions: indifference and apathy. Jewish leaders, on the other hand, actively worked against the growing Christian population. It's pretty obvious they believed Christians were (and still are) blasphemers. It goes to follow that they do not believe Jesus raised from the grave. – 3961 Jan 29 '15 at 20:48
  • What exactly would a refutation look like anyway? Basically, "Nope, Jesus did not raise." Okay, but why should that be any more significant that another claiming the opposite. There's was no Jesus presenting himself to prove it to us, so it all hinges on the few (the apostles) claiming to have seen the resurrected Christ. All the others merely believed the apostles testimony, while the doubters did not. – 3961 Jan 29 '15 at 20:51
  • So the issue is actually that non-believers have to prove the non-existence of something (a resurrected Jesus) or produce Jesus' body. They could not produce a body, but that's not proof of a resurrection, nor even really evidence for it. Believers, on the other hand, had to prove the non-existence of a body or present a resurrected Jesus. They didn't present a resurrected Jesus, but that is not proof of it not happening (as there is an explanation). – 3961 Jan 29 '15 at 21:27
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    @Fredsbend It was more than just the apostles, 1 Cor 15 says there were 500 who saw him. The letter is dated maybe 20 years after, but that mini creed is thought by some to be pre Paul. That doesn't change the impossibility of proving either side, but it argues against the resurrection being an idea fabricated long after everyone who could have seen it was dead. – curiousdannii Jan 29 '15 at 21:50
  • @curiousdannii No doubt there were Christians in the 1st century. What I question is the soundness of the apologetic argument presented in this question. – 3961 Jan 29 '15 at 21:58
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I have never heard of any contemporary account that directly refutes the gospel story, and it is unlikely that a refutation of the gospels was ever written. Although we can never know, it is unlikely that the pagans were at all concerned, or threatened, by the emergence of what they still regarded as a new strand of Judaism. The Jews were, at that very time, preoccupied with the events of the First Roman-Jewish War and its aftermath, including the loss of the temple, the inability to sacrifice to God, the disbandment of the priesthood, and the future direction of the faith.

Philo of Alexandria, who was an early contemporary of Jesus, wrote about all the Jewish sects and movements that he knew of, but never mentions Jesus. That does not mean the gospels are not historical, just that news of Jesus never reached Philo in Egypt.

Josephus wrote about Jewish history late in the first century, but he seems either unaware of or uninterested in the gospel story. His brief mention of Jesus in the Testimonium Flavianum is clearly second hand and appears to have been heavily redacted by later Christians.

Of course, even if a meaningful refutation had ever been written, we could expect it to have been destroyed along with the pagan and gnostic documents that were burnt during the Christian rampages of the fourth and fifth centuries. Even gnostic Christian books were not spared, with the Nag Hammadi library, sealed and buried in the Egyptian desert to avoid the destruction of these sacred book, as silent testimony to the thoroughness of the sanctioned destruction of literature that did not meet official approval in the fifth century.

Barbara Geller says in 'Epilogue', published in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, page 427, that by the end of the fourth century, both anti-pagan and anti-Jewish legislation would serve as licences for the increasing number of acts of vandalism and violent destruction directed against pagan and Jewish places of worship carried out by Christian mobs, often at the instigation of the local clergy. Helen Ellerbe says in The Dark Side of Christian History, page 46, the Church burnt enormous amounts of literature. She says Christians burnt down the library of Alexandria in 391, with its 700,000 rolls - although the number of scrolls may already have been substantially reduced by early fires dating back to the time of Julius Caesar. The destruction of books was random, with books on science, mathematics and engineering joining those on philosophy and religion. On page 44, Ellerbe says that in some cases the Christian church's burning of books and repression of intellectual pursuit set humanity back as much as two millennia in its scientific understanding.

  • I think you are mostly right with this answer, but what exactly are you referring to with the "Christian rampages". Perhaps less inflated language and a source is appropriate. – 3961 Jan 29 '15 at 22:10
  • Agreed. That last paragraph kept me from an up vote. What event are you describing here? There was no systematic purge of heretics. – Affable Geek Jan 29 '15 at 22:57
  • @fredsbend (and Affable Geek) I think I sometimes assume that something is common knowledge when it isn't, and I should get out of this habit. I have added some explanatory material and citations, including an online citation that explains why the Nag Hammadi texts were hidden in the desert. – Dick Harfield Jan 30 '15 at 0:44
  • @AffableGeek (and fredsbend) Also,Michael Gaddis devotes an entire book, 'There is no Crime for Those who have Christ' to religious violence in the Christian Roman Empire (books.google.com.au/…). I hope this helps – Dick Harfield Jan 30 '15 at 0:45
  • Thanks for clearing that up. Here's a +1. I think with this, you should perhaps stress that these mobs would have attempted to destroy them. Do you have links to these books that you cite? Just to be sure we refer to the right ones. – 3961 Jan 30 '15 at 2:47
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There could not have been any writings refuting the gospels because these were not written until, at least 50 to 90 AD. And there would have been very little circulation due to two main reasons: they were manuscripts (books wouldn't appear until the 15th century) and 95 to 98% of people were illiterate at the time. Also Christianism was not considered an important new religion at first, most people saw it as a sect within Judaism. The first written quotation of Matthew (the early church considered it the earliest gospel at the time) was made by Ignatius in the early 2nd century.

So the lack of refutation most certainly does not prove that the gospels were factual.

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