“We can’t establish whether or not Jesus existed because we have no contemporary evidence for him” – Mythicist
Often you will find a mythicist (or somebody who is on the fence about the historicity of Jesus) uttering these words or something similar. Surely someone who could heal the sick, cast out demons, walk on water, feed the multitudes with only a few loaves, and raise the dead would show up in an contemporary account of some sort. The argument, however, isn’t a sound one.
The argument is based on the premise that Jesus made an impact during his day. Nobody who claimed to be the messiah and did all the things that Jesus supposedly did would have gone unnoticed. However, there are other supposed messiahs and miracle workers form first century Palestine who did all sorts of stuff and who don’t show up in any contemporary evidence. There were Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, The Egyptian and Theudas, for instance. For all these men there is no contemporary evidence. So Jesus wasn’t the only one going ’round in first century Palestine claiming to be the messiah and performing all sorts of miraculous things, he wasn’t unique in that perspective.
Performing miracles wasn’t looked upon back then as it is today. Miracles were a part of every day life. For the ancients, the line between the natural world and the supernatural world wasn’t as distinct as it now is for us today.
In the modern world Jesus’ miracles have played a substantial role in the evaluation of Christianity. Some have viewed the miracles as obviously fictional and have concluded that Christianity is based on a fraud, while others find in them proof that Jesus was more than merely human, the incarnate Son of God. Both of these extreme views miss the ancient perspective, which saw miracles as striking and significant, but not as indicating that the miracle-worker was anything other than fully human.” – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 132)
If performing miracles doesn’t make one more than human, why mention them at all? It could be that Jesus’ followers wanted him to come off as a guy who had a special connection with God. If you wanted to let that point come across, this was the way to do it. So with respect to his messiahship and miracles, Jesus wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that would have been worth mentioning.
Jesus Crucifixion and Death as Evidence for his Unimportance
The Gospels, and even our earliest source Paul, talk about Jesus being crucified. Crucifixion was reserved by the Romans only for the lowest of the low. They wouldn’t even submit their own citizens to such a humiliating punishment. The Romans treated Jesus as a criminal and crucified him. They most probably tossed his body in a mass grave after hanging on the cross for three days as they usually did. By then the body would have been unrecognisable.
“It is quite probable that there never was a trial of Jesus at all. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was a common method of torture and execution used by the Romans. The usual manner of execution among the Jews was stoning. So the execution of Jesus was a Roman affair, possibly with the cooperation of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. The Romans did not need to try a troublesome Jewish peasant in order to kill him. They tortured and crucified nameless lower-class people all the time. In order to get rid of Jesus, who had caused a disturbance in the temple, had made radical-sounding pronouncements and prophecies, and was rumoured to have aspirations to kingship, the Romans would have simply taken him by force and crucified hime the next day along with a few others they were getting rid of. There was no need for any trial, much less two or more before different “courts”. It would have been more trouble than a Roman governor needed for the desired result.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 181)
So Jesus was treated as a criminal and killed off by the Romans, crushed like a gnat. Given the historical context of the area (Jewish revolts and uprisings), the Romans wouldn’t have bothered at all with a rabble rouser like Jesus.
Jesus’ Importance After His Death
So if Jesus was so unimportant, how did he become so important after his death? After his death, his followers most probably started telling all sorts of stories about Jesus. A PR campaign initiated by Paul did a lot of good too. First amongst the Jews, but when most of them rejected Jesus as the messiah (a crucified messiah?), they brought the message to the Gentiles where it did catch on.
My initial response to the opening question always is: “why would there be any contemporary evidence for Jesus? What makes him so special?”. Let’s compare the evidence for Jesus to what we have on Pilate, the single most important man living in first century Palestine. How much contemporary records have we got about him? Very little. How many records survive from his reign? None. How many writings do we have from him? Zilch. If so little survives for the most important man living in Judea at the time, why would one expect the same level of evidence for someone as unimportant as Jesus?