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What evidence should we expect about Jesus? Smithsonian Magazine answers

Smithsonian owns all rights. I use under fair use.

Smithsonian owns all rights. I use under fair use.

I was browsing magazines at the library and saw the cover of the January/February Smithsonian (pictured). I grabbed it because it caught my interest with the article title. What impressed me most, however, was the several points made within the article. Though it at times took a conspiratorial tone, overall the point of the article was to show what daily life would be like in 1st Century Palestine.

One of the most interesting points is one that I think is often missed by the recent resurgence of those who are arguing that Jesus never existed. Namely, what kind of evidence should we expect to find when looking for the historical Jesus (if any). From the article:

“The sorts of evidence other historical figures leave behind are not the sort we’d expect with Jesus,” says Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University and a leading authority on Galilean history. “He wasn’t a political leader, so we don’t have coins, for example, that have his bust or name. He wasn’t a sufficiently high-profile social leader to leave behind inscriptions. In his own lifetime, he was a marginal figure and he was active in marginalized circles.” (49, cited below)

I think this quote shows much of the confusion that exists in Jesus mythicist circles. We can’t read 21st century expectations onto 1st century realities. Although Jesus is certainly an influential figure now, when he was crucified, he had disciples who had abandoned him and the only followers who stayed with him were women. Women were seen as unreliable witnesses in that time and place, and so the notoriety of Jesus, was of course, quite low. He was another messianic figure who had been crucified. It was only when some of these same women claimed to have seen the Christ as the first evangelists, spreading the message to the aforementioned disciples and beyond, that the message and fame of Jesus began to spread.

We cannot measure the evidence for Jesus’ life by what we would expect of similar figures today–or, worse–of what we’d expect from someone with Jesus’ influence now.


Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus” in Smithsonian (January/February 2016).


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