Michael Paulkovich, author of No Meek Messiah, has proclaimed that Jesus never existed. In his book, the author details his shocking discovery of “one-hundred-twenty-six authors from the time of Jesus who should have, but did not record anything about the Christian godman.”
Paulkovich’s case rests on three main pillars. First, the discovery that no ancient writers from the first few centuries CE mention Jesus. Second, the assumption that most writers should have mentioned Jesus, since he was the Son of God and all that. Third, the keen observation that Jesus never wrote anything himself. Although an undeniably compelling trinity of argumentation, it is not without its logical problems.
Let’s get one thing straight: There is nigh universal consensus among biblical scholars—the authentic ones, anyway—that Jesus was, in fact, a real guy. They argue over the details, of course, as scholars are wont to do, but they’re pretty much all on the same page that Jesus walked the earth (if not the Sea of Galilee) in the 1st century CE.
So that brings us to Paulkovich’s list: 126 ancient writers, 0 references to Jesus. The list has a few issues. Although everyone on it is indeed ancient, some are a little too ancient—as in, lived-a-hundred-years-before-Jesus too ancient (Asclepiades of Prusa, for example).
A great many of the writers are philosophers, some quite famous (Epictetus). Philosophers aren’t really known, now or then, for their interest in current events. Some writers are mathematicians, rhetoricians, satirists, poets, or epigrammatists (Martial). Unless we’re looking for an ancient limerick about Jesus, these are probably the wrong authors to be reading.
Fully fourteen of the 126 are doctors, including a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, and a gynecologist (Soranus). We can first point out that Jesus was supposed to have a gift for healing, so he probably didn’t take his annual checkup seriously. Also, even if Jesus did visit a doctor or fourteen, and even if they kept records of the savior’s health, we could never have access to those records because, you know, HIPAA.
There are some authentic historians on the list, though we can probably assume that someone writing a biography of Alexander the Great (Curtius Rufus) might not find an appropriate place to slot Jesus into that story. The vast majority of the authors listed, however, have none of their writings preserved for us, or mere fragments at most. It’s hard to say that a writer didn’t mention Jesus when all we have of that writer are a few lines quoted in someone else’s work.
We do have the writings of Sextus Julius Frontinus—but what he wrote was a treatise on aqueducts. Jesus may have been the fountain of life, but it was the Romans who had the decent delivery system. One must make mention of Phlegon of Tralles, though, of whom two works have indeed come down to us. The first, On Marvels, we might well expect to find a mention of Jesus in. The second, On Long-Lived Persons—less so.
A good number of the writers listed weren’t writers at all, but consuls, generals, even a king (Vardanes I) and an emperor (Tiberius). It must be noted that in this category of non-writers there are at least three who are characters in the TV series I, Claudius.
Long story short: of the 126 people listed by Paulkovich, there are only 10 or so whom we might expect to have written about Jesus. And it’s probably worth mentioning that there are, of course, writers from the first centuries CE who refer to Jesus, and even write quite extensively about him. But since those authors all got bundled into a collection called the New Testament, we should probably just dismiss them from the discussion.
By his own admission, Paulkovich isn’t the first writer (by which we mean philosopher or gynecologist) to take this approach. In 1909, John Remsburg compiled a list—strikingly bereft of characters from I, Claudius—of 41 authors who never mention Jesus. The premise of both lists is the same: if Jesus was super-famous, a “mythical super-Savior,” then how is it that no one talks about him?
The answer is very simple: in his own day Jesus wasn’t that important. He was just another wannabe messiah who ended up on the wrong side of the authorities. The prime candidate for “Son of God” in the Roman world was the emperor himself, who had coins, statues, and temples to back those claims up. Jesus had a small band of followers and a lot of stories about sheep.
Even his miracles (if you believe he performed any) weren’t that unusual. Emperors could do those too, and there were plenty of travelling doctors, minor deities, and semi-official magicians touting miracle cures. It’s difficult to gain a market share under those circumstances and Jesus didn’t have very good PR. Nutrisystem is less remarkable once you’ve seen the P90X commercials.
It took decades for the group of Jesus followers to grow large enough to gain the attention of local authorities and be given the slur-ish epithet “Christian.” And it’s only after that happened that people outside the group gave the slightest damn what—or whom—these eccentrics were talking about.
The pièce de résistance in Paulkovich’s argument is that Jesus himself never wrote anything about himself. Scholarly estimates place literacy in the ancient world at around 5 percent. It’s not surprising that a carpenter from Galilee didn’t have the education or resources to put stylus to papyrus. This is a question of education, not non-existence. It’s not like he’s some weirdo who doesn’t have Twitter (see below).
Of course, there are plenty of ancient figures who never wrote anything themselves—Aristotle, for instance. Though let’s not start giving Paulkovich any more ideas.
The argument isn’t improved by saying that Jesus was a God who should be able to journal in his leisure time. Deities don’t write things by hand. They tend to let human beings do the brunt of the transcription (you feel me, Moses?).
If Paulkovich’s logic were to stand, we could make similar arguments about other people—people who aren’t mentioned in the major writings of their day, who never wrote an autobiography, but who, based on their own grandiose claims and those of their followers, really should have gotten much more attention than they did. People like, say, Michael Paulkovich.
It is safe to say that there are no historians that have, to this point, included Paulkovich in their writings (and let’s be honest, the chances going forward aren’t great). What’s more, not a single mathematician, poet, philosopher, or gynecologist (probably—stupid HIPAA) refers to him even a single time.
Paulkovich has written nothing about himself—we have no biographical data on him. (In truth, it is hard to find almost anyone with less of a web presence than Michael Paulkovich—including, for the record, no Twitter account.) Though his name is on a couple of books and articles, someone else probably wrote those. At least, that’s undoubtedly what “Paulkovich” would say if we suddenly discovered a text claiming to have been written by Jesus, right?