"What kinds of things did the pagan authors of Jesus time have to say about him?" asks Dr. Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenum (Oxford University Press).

"Nothing," he answers.

"Strange as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus by any of his pagan contemporaries.", Ehrman asserts in his book.

"There are no birth records, no transcripts of his trial, no death certificates; no expressions of interest, no slander, no passing references. Nothing. In fact, if we extend our field of study to the years after his death - including the entire first century of our era - there is not a single reference to Jesus in any source either Christian or Jewish of any kind. I should point out that we have a large number of documents from the period: writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, government officials... Not to mention the large collection of stone inscriptions, private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of these documents does the name of Jesus even appear".

Why is the first pagan historical evidence that Jesus existed years after his crucifixion (Flavius Josephus)?

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    There is mention of John the Baptist from Jewish sources. Herod Antipas' demise following his disastrous war with King Aretas IV of Nabatea was seen by Jewish sources to attributed (divine judgement) for his execution of John the Baptist.
    – M__
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 11:51
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    IMO the why goes to the realm of speculation. Why did a historian thousands of years ago record what he did, when he did, and not record event X by timeframe Y? How many pagan historians were there that even focused on religious movements? The second question may be more answerable but the first and yours seem opinion based, we can't ask them why they did something, why others didn't do something, or know if there are records we haven't found
    – depperm
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 12:19
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    Take a large random selection of German newspapers written before Hitler was 33 years old, and try to find any evidence that he existed. It wasn't until later, when he became somewhat more famous and powerful that anything appears. Jesus didn't make it past 33, and he didn't become famous (except among his own small following) until much later. Why would anyone at the time have even thought to have recorded anything? And if they had, consider how overwhelmed that record would be by records of all the other equally insignificant events of the time. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 16:35
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    The assertion that "if we extend our field of study to the years after his death - including the entire first century of our era - there is not a single reference to Jesus in any source either Christian or Jewish of any kind." is blatantly false - the entire New Testament was already completed by the end of the 1st century, with the possible exception of one or two books.
    – user52135
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 17:36
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    "There are no birth records, no transcripts of his trial, no death certificates" Does Ehrman say why we should expect such things? Do we have many of these for anyone at that time and place? For ex., for birth registration for Roman citizens (Jesus wasn't one), "There are 21 extant birth registration documents of Roman citizens." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_registration_in_ancient_Rome This would make it exceedingly rare to have extant copies. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 18:56

3 Answers 3


There are two major issues with finding any written evidence.

The first is that the writers would have needed to find it important enough to write about. Everything had to be handwritten, so people were not looking to write down everything.

The second is that they may have written, but the documents have not come down to us. To claim we have "a large number of documents" is an exaggeration. Papyrus was widely used to write, and it decays within a hundred years except under exceptional conditions. (Desert, for instance. Egypt has a lion's share of documents from this era, occasioning fierce historians' disputes about how typical Egypt is.) The effect was that for a few centuries after Christ, any document that no one bothered to copy was utterly lost.

As a consequence, a vast number of documents are lost to us. Many writers are only known from quotations by other writers, or even quotations of their works within quotations from other writers who are quoted by a third author.

Argument from absence is therefore very weak.

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    A third problem is that in order for there to be a specifically pagan source on Jesus, he needs to have looked into all the evidence and not been convinced by it, while still having been convinced it was important enough to look into and write about.
    – user52135
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 1:03
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    @DarkMalthorp He could be aware of a superstitious practice among women and the poor and not bother with the evidence.
    – Mary
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 1:05
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    We don't even have the full line of Roman governors of Judea, or exact start / finish dates for many of them...where exact = to the nearest year. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 5:27

I would venture to guess (and guess regarding why somebody did not write something 2000 years ago is all one can do) that the reason no pagan writer mentions Jesus until years after his crucifixion is because Jesus' impact did not begin to be felt outside of Israel, and specifically the immediate areas of Jerusalem and Galilee, until after His resurrection.

To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. - Acts 1:3-9 

He came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel and it was not until His ascension that His disciples were commanded and empowered to go into all the world and make disciples. The world shaking impact of new life in Christ did not begin to permeate the pagan world (pre-Twitter) until the face to face preaching of the gospel. Prior to the Apostle Paul's missionary journeys the pagan world at large would have been completely ignorant of Jesus.

  • Personal note: Beware of salesmen like Ehrman who present 'historical' information colored by an agenda.
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    Indeed. Might as well ask why, in 4000 AD, we don't have records of John Cooper (circa 2000 AD) from Bucktail, Nebraska. Until Christianity properly started taking off, Jesus was, to anyone that wasn't a jew, a nobody hick from a podunk village in an insignificant "nation".
    – Matthew
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 15:51
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    On top of that, a) He was an embarrassment to the Jews, who were trying to suppress His teaching and may have deliberately destroyed or otherwise tried to suppress records, and b) Romans razed Jerusalem and much of Israel in 70 AD, quite possibly erasing whatever the Jewish authorities missed (source). (And on top of all that, I second the "personal note".)
    – Matthew
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 15:53
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    @Matthew Yes, good point. Add to it what happened after the Bar Kokhba revolt. It's also important to keep in mind that the early Christian population was perhaps (probably, IMO) quite small. We're talking thousands of people in the 1st century. Jesus was an obscure (for the Roman Empire), marginal figure who briefly (a few months?) flourished in popularity in Judea before being executed as a common criminal. Where is the documentation about the 2 other criminals executed with him? Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 18:46
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    "Why don't we have all sorts of discussions by highfalutin contemporaneous ancient celebrities about an obscure Galilean who took the form of a servant and was crucified as a common criminal?" <<< Basically what Ehrman is asking. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 19:03

Documentation Evidence Any expectation of Documentation or written Evidence must take into consideration all the natural disasters and human wars that took place during the era in question. And when we look at the first century Mideast, we are confronted with both types of calamities to the max! The Mideast is known for its earthquakes. Dilapidated temples, colosseum ruins, destroyed villages dot the landscape like so many mushroom patches in a virgin forest!

In fact, remember that in 30 AD there were two Earthquakes surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 27:51, 28:2). The Jewish Talmud recorded the fact that the Sanhedrin had to move to another location beyond the Temple for their meetings, 40 years before the Destruction in 70 AD: 30 AD! They considered this a bad omen.

Consider that in the Destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, which was burned and flattened to the ground, all documentation was destroyed. There were no longer any record of the Genealogies, which invalidated the lineage of the priesthood forever! Surely any reference to Jesus by the rabbinical schools would also have been wiped out.

Having noticed this, Documentation did continue to exist, written by the Apostles and disciples in the first century. No skeptic can legitimately discount this evidence of the life of Jesus. Fortunately, the Apostles had been warned by Jesus to flee Judea before the Roman invasion, so were able to keep their notes intact. (Matthew 24:15-16)

Secular Documentation Several important documents do exist, written by secular historians and government officials during the first couple centuries. Tacitus, a reliable historian (55-117), wrote in Annals, XV,44:

Consequently to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for a moment, broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

Other important Greek and Roman writers and historians also documented the Life and Times of Jesus and His disciples. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bythinia (109-111) wrote to Emperor Trajan describing the Christian worship and conduct in society. (Epistles X.96)

A second century Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata, also wrote of Christ and His disciples. Note that he is basing his info on previous generations of knowledge. So, just because he is writing later, his testimony cannot be dismissed:

(Christians) still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world...The poor wretched have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time...Furthermore, their first Lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and by living under his laws. (The Passing of Peregrinus, 11-13)

Beyond this, Julius Africanus quoted the historian, Thallus, concerning the darkness that accompanied the crucifixion of Jesus (Extant Writings, 18). And the Babylonian Talmud, based on the records of the Jews, alleged that Jesus was killed on "the Eve of the Passover" and that He practiced sorcery and led Israel astray. (Sanhedrin 43a)

Gospel Story Combining all the historical documentation, an honest seeker after truth can come up with the Gospel of Jesus, a real life individual who broke into human history in the first century with a Revolutionary Kingdom message of Love!

The eye-witness testimony of the Apostles is repeated in historical documentation, by men whom secularists consider reliable.


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