Why Aren’t There Non-Religious Sources Confirming Jesus And His Miracles?

The primary source documentation for the life of Jesus are the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  But for skeptics this isn’t enough.  ‘Why aren’t there any non-religious sources for the life and works of Jesus?’.  I think it’s a good question, but a self-defeating one.

For one thing we have four independent sources (See: Independence Anyone?) of significant length, which is pretty good as far as ancient accounts for a single person goes.  But the problem seems to be that they were collected and compiled under one cover.  As biographies of Jesus, I think it could be argued that they were not likely intended to be religious texts even though they are now included in the Bible and used for religious purposes.  They record who Jesus was and the things He reportedly did and taught.

As I note in Independence Anyone?, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in this demand for independent material.  By preferring “independent” materials over the NT sources it mistakes what the Bible itself actually is.  The Bible is merely a collection of independent sources.  There is a tendency to look at the Bible as a single work because it is now under one cover.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Gospels were intended religious texts.  Why are they considered religious texts?  They contain miracles?  Reference Jesus’ teachings about God?  Ok, I can accept that.  But now here’s the rub.  This means then that there doesn’t exist by definition any non-religious accounts for Jesus’ life and miracles.  If any account features what He taught and what He did, it pretty much counts as a religious text.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that if there were a “non-religious” work with as much detail as the four evangelists include, it would be considered a religious text.

It just seems that this request is impossible to fulfill.  There are plenty of extra-biblical accounts which ought to be adequate for anyone making this request, but since the demand for non-religious accounts persist, it would seem they are not.  But why not?  They don’t record Jesus’ miracles or His teachings?  Are we seeing the circularity here?

Comments

  1. The Bible is by no means a collection of independent sources. The disciples were as biased as it was possible to be. They were friends with Jesus and passionate believers in him. There are no other eyewitnesses or Roman sources for example. The closest we get are writers hundreds of years later who didn’t see what they are describing. You would think that people would record or write letters etc about the dead coming back to life and Jesus’ other miracles, but apparently not

    • Robert

      The important question is were the authors biased to believe the events took place before they witnessed them? I doubt it.

      For example before I witness a friend of mine rob a package store with my own eyes I’m not incline to think he would do it. But after seeing it I would be heavily biased in my reporting who it was and what he did. Does that mean my testimony can’t be trusted simply because I’m biased toward believing my friend is a robber? Do we need to find someone who doesn’t believe he robbed the store to give an account of the event?

      By your standard, if i question evolution to explain the biodiversity we see, I can dismiss evolutionists claims because they are biased to believe it.

  2. That’s an amazing link John. (to extra-Biblical accounts) I was only familiar with about half of those ancient references. It’s amazing to me that people sometimes still questions whether Jesus existed or not. The evidence is overwhelming that he was at MINIMUM an amazing teacher who was both revered and hated. Thanks for sharing the link!

    I’m wondering why the writings of Clement are not also cited more frequently. While his writings are certainly “religious” (he was the Pope, after all), he lived within ~100 years of Christ and attests to authenticity of much or most of the New Testament. This, to me, is really powerful evidence that the New Testament accounts are authentic.

  3. I think the Gospel of Luke (or, as it probably originally existed, “Luke’s historical record sent to his friend, Theophilus, recording the known history about this amazing man, Jesus!”) as well as his history of the early Church (Acts) comes across as especially scholarly and objective, if one were looking at historical texts in a serious study.

    I lean towards agreeing with you on this one, John. I get their point that the sources were “biased,” but all sources are biased to one degree or another, so I’m not sure that the complaint holds up as much as some might think.

  4. In both this post and the “Independence Anyone?” post you said:

    For one thing we have four independent sources…

    Do you feel that the 4 gospels selected to make the Christian Bible did not share material and thus are independent? If that is not what you meant, I think you chose your words poorly. If it is what you meant, I think the vast majority Biblical scholars would disagree. Not that numbers matter — you might be right even when the majority disagree. I was just surprised to here you make that claim.

    • Some material may have been “shared”, but the accounts are four different authors whose perspective was ultimately different from one another. In the same way if 4 modern biographers of say, Richard Nixon may use the same source when writing their bio, and quote from the same source doesn’t mean the 4 are not independant sources for the life of Nixon.

      The Evangelists are independent sources in that even though they share similarities the way any multiple biographies will share the same sources when writing about a subject. They are not chapters in the same book. The Bible is a compilation of separate individual documents collected under one cover. Just like a triloy of novels might be condensed under one cover, but are three different books. I hear Readers Digest does this a lot.

  5. DogTags says:

    Even if the accusation of bias makes the independent accounts of the New Testament somewhat unreliable, they were written while the eyewitnesses were still alive. If anyone could contradict their accounts, they likely would have. If anyone wanted to put an instant stop to the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus, they could have produced the dead body of Jesus. They couldn’t.

    Instead of asking “Where are the non-religious accounts of the life of Jesus,” the better question is “Where are all the contemporary, contradictory accounts of the life of Jesus”.

  6. (1) When you say “some” material “may have been” shared, are you implying that very little material was shared or that you doubt anything was shared?

    (2) Yes, there are clearly 4 different authors but that is not the same as 4 “independent” sources. Your word choice is wrong and misleading.

    (3) Yes, their perspectives were different from each other — that is obvious.

    These guys copied each other — it was not 4 independent witnesses. I think all scholars agree on that. Your choice of “independent” is misleading. This is hinting at the “criterion of multiple attestation”. See the “Limitations” section of the Wiki article for beginners. There are many other sources showing why this is misleadingly wrong.

    But maybe you believe they were all eye witnesses and just happened to say a lot of stuff very similar and that they did not copy each other to any significant degree. If you do believe that, then your words are true to your beliefs.

    Either way, I think you are wrong.

    • Their “copying” has been attributed to referencing an even earlier document source. When I say some, I mean some. Not all, not most.

      I also think the term independent is only misleading if the presumption that they are all basically copies of each other, which they are not. There are plenty of differences between them. I think it is misleading to suggest they are all the same documents with different author attributions.

      Matthew and John were direct witnesses. Mark was Peter’s companion, and Luke was a companion of Paul who also interviewed eyewitnesses. Regardless of how suspect this may seem to you or other skeptics, for historical documentation’s sake, it’s considered damn good documentation.

  7. I never said, “they are all the same document with different author attributions.”

    The authors used large portions of other writings — not “some”.

    Bart Ehrman (who I am sure you are not fond of) writes a good short piece explaining why the 4 gospels were unlikely written by eye-witnesses. Many others agree with him on this — even many Christian scholars. I am not sure of percentages of course.

    But no matter. You have spelled out how we disagree:

    From what I see you typing, you think:
    (1) John and Matthew were eye-witnesses

    (2) The gospel writers, being eye-witnesses, had little reason to copy. For when you witness the same thing, your story will sound similar.

    We disagree on both of those counts.

    • I dont have a problem with Ehrman. He was making some sense in Forged, but then went off the deep end when he extrapolates to conclusions which arent warranted.

      I know you never said that, but you imply that they are so similar they might as well be the same.

      1) Yes

      2) No. I think they would likely quote from the same or similar other sources. Knowing what happened and seeing the source was accurate and using it is not a liability in my opinion.

  8. Oooops, here is the short explanation by Ehrman.

    I usually don’t dialogue with conservative Christians and so don’t hear your opinion too often — most Christians I talk to on the web or in person have a far less fundamentalist view of Christian scriptures. I guess I didn’t expect you to hold those opinions.

  9. If you hold # 2, and you agree the story was gospels where written when Bart estimates (as do many scholars), then your choice of the word “independent” is highly suspect, even for your position.

    Instead, you might want to say, “4 individual authors”.

  10. Marshall Art says:

    Bart Erhman has more detractors than followers, I would wager. With all due respect to John, WinteryKnight.wordpress.com has many fine videos of debates with Ehrman and better scholars. He also has many lectures about the reliability of Scripture and such. Ehrman’s name comes up a lot with solid refutations of his positions. True, many secular and left leaning Christian scholars think he’s the cats, but as John suggested, he will go off the deep end.

    • Another fault to Ehrman, he has been accused of being two different people. When he is speaking to a popular crowd, i.e., books, lectures on universities to students, debates with conservative scholars he claims the Bible is practically unknowable as to what it said, its authorship is in doubt and barely any of it is relaile. But when he is speaking amongst scholars out of the spotlight, he is closer to their opinions than he is when he speaks publicly.

  11. I have absolutely no desire to defend Ehrman. No need to side track the issues too much. Yes, scholars can speak with multiple voices — as can parents. Context is everything. Heck many fundamentalist preachers tell us what Yahweh demands of his People while they have secret extra-marital affairs (homo or hetero) or beat their wives or scam for money. It is for these folks that we need to reserve the phrase “going off the deep-end”. The question is, are Ehrman’s different voices really so different as some would state. But again, I don’t care about the Ehrman attacks. So let’s get off that topic.

    Instead, again, it is important to state, that different from many Christians, you think the authors of Matthew and John were witnesses. That is an important difference. If you found out that the weren’t witnesses but instead got their stories from hearsay or other texts, would that change your view of the gospels significantly?

    BTW, Prof. Mark Goodacre has a good, very short, podcast criticizing The criterion of multiple attestation — a common tool used by believing scholars.

  12. Marshall Art says:

    “Heck many fundamentalist preachers tell us what Yahweh demands of his People while they have secret extra-marital affairs (homo or hetero) or beat their wives or scam for money.”

    Bad example for making your case. This is an example of a preacher who speaks the truth Biblically while dealing with his own imperfect adherence personally. Not the same thing.

    “If you found out that the weren’t witnesses but instead got their stories from hearsay or other texts, would that change your view of the gospels significantly?”

    What good are such hypotheticals? They’ve nothing to do with what is, or what is as best we can know it.

  13. Marshall Art says:

    @ Sabio,

    Has anyone told you how typical a question like yours is? It’s very common for people like yourself to “ignore” those who expose the holes and bad logic of your arguments. It makes you feel better. I get that.

  14. Nah, Marshall, it is your rhetoric and tone. It takes a lot of time to type and find links. If you sounded like you were really interested in reaching understanding, I may bother. But I don’t detect that in you. You may be a charming in person, but here on this site, you don’t feel like someone I want to keep dialoguing with. Thus, I usually ignore your comments. Just letting you know. You can think it is for any number of other reasons, if you wish.

    I can offer one suggestion, though: Seek first to name a few things you agree with the speaker or which you have in common. It may help. (and done sincerely, of course)

  15. Marshall Art says:

    Ah, Sabio, so you’re a psychic and can “detect” my meaning, intentions and attitude. I see. I believe it is more accurate to say that you infer from my comments what is not intended due to it conflicting with your position. I see no reason to go out of my way in order to satisfy the sensitivities of an opponent whose ability to ascertain nuances not easily expressed in print is unknown. Any back and forth between you and Dan Trabue should give you an example of the trouble this can cause, as well as the unfair restrictions it places upon whomever you engage.

    As to name a few things with which I agree or have in common, should I make them up if they don’t seem to yet exist? Would that make you happy? My suggestion to you is to find a way to thicken your skin.

  16. Sorry, Marshall, I did not follow your allusion to “back and forth between you and Dan Trabue”.

    As for needing “thick skin”, you are the first to accuse me of being thin-skinned. Having done Emergency Medicine for 20 years, I have learned well to walk away from fruitless entanglements. Like I said, if I am going to spend time talking with someone, I have to have good reasons.

  17. Mashall Art says:

    Sabio,

    My bad. I meant to say “back and forth between anyone and Dan Trabue”. Don’t always have the time to proof read.

    Your thin skin is evident in your lame suggestion that I am unable to engage in discourse in an open minded manner. Your employment history has no bearing on this as it isn’t a case of any fruitless entanglements with me that is at issue here, but rather your certainty about that which you have on means of ascertaining, particularly about me. The real problem here is that you dislike the fact that, at least in this case, I’ve shown how your analogies (the preacher who is an adulterer) are irrelevant and meaningless to the conversation. And the stretch for the hypothetical is a typical distraction from the points being made. I can see why you’d prefer to ignore, as such an entanglement would only likely expose the desperation of such “arguments”.

  18. @ Marshall,
    (1) Ah. Yeah, I don’t follow threads here much so don’t know anything about Dan Trabue. So that comment goes by me.
    (2) Your psychoanalysis of my desperation and fear of exposure is cute. But I was sincere: I would not mind talking about those things at all. I just find conversation with you totally unattractive. So I don’t. If your style changed, I may. But I think it is clear you are very happy with your own style. You have lots of folks here who love chatting with you. I leave you with them. Besides, if you will notice, my comments were directing aimed at John Barron.

  19. @ John Barron,
    Before my inspiring, albeit distracting exchanges with Marshall, you said:

    In the field of textual criticism, they are considered independent sources.

    .

    I only know Textual Criticism and Biblical Criticism as very superficial layperson. I think the efforts there have taught us much — even outside of Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I wish Muslims would apply it to their tradition — but death threats to those applying it would possibly abound.

    Anyway, my impression is that “independent sources” is not merely “different individual people”. If different individuals copied from the same source to make their story, these would not count as “independent sources”.

    The wiki article on “Biblical Criticism” says:

    The criterion of multiple attestation or “independent attestation” is an important tool used by scholars. Simply put, the more independent witnesses that report an event or saying, the better.

    The gospels are not always independent of each other. There is a possibility that Matthew and Luke copied contents from Mark’s gospel.[

    So, as to how much they are “independent” of each other, people debate. But that “independence” is not defined merely by different individuals I think is clear.

    So, did you ever get to listen to Prof. Goodacre’s podcast — which addresses the Multiple attestation (“independence”) issue? Had you heard of him?

    • I am always frustrated Sabio when skeptics, whether professionally or popularly hold the bible to more strenuous standards than other ancient records. Multiple attestation is considered valuable and scholars who have 4 testimonies even if some of them borrowed from each other would consider their contents as almost certainly having happened.

      It is only when we apply the criterion to the bible do the standards somehow become nearly impossible to fulfill. Now all of a sudden none of it is all that important. Its game rigging because of a bias against the supernatural.

  20. @ John Barron:

    (1) Skeptics
    John, I assume you are a skeptic. You seem like one. You are skeptical of Islam and many more faiths. I assume by “Skeptic” you mean people who question your flavor of Christianity. [this is a rhetorical question]

    (2) Criterion Bias
    Before I address this — which I think is very important, I need you to respond to the main point of my comment in order to make progress. If you are interested. To be clear, I am asking you to admit or deny that:

    “independence” is not defined merely as “different individuals” [your original claim].

    You have already admitted that the gospel writers have most probably copied from similar materials.

    After that, we can discuss your frustration with the varying degree of trust people put in ancient documents.

    • Well, when you use the term merely, you suggest ‘only’. So no individual attestation is not ‘merely’ determined by different authors since different authors could put their names on the same work. But there is enough difference in the gospel accounts that they are considered individual sources.

      But when i use the term skeptic I am specifically referring to atheists and agnostics most usually when discussing theism. When discussing the bible, a skeptic is someone critical of the Bible’s authenticity.

  21. Question to John: To be clearer about the “Skeptic” thing. If you substituted “non-Christian[s]” for Skeptics, or perhaps “Christianity-doubters”, would it still work for you. Or does it lack the rhetorical punch you are trying to capture?

  22. You said:

    But there is enough difference in the gospel accounts that they are considered individual sources.

    So it seems that we have a subjective decision here.
    If the amount of copied material is 100% you’d agree that they are not independent.
    If the amount is 5% I’d imagine you’d declare them independent.
    So I guess we don’t know where your line is.

    I think the huge amount of obviously copied material puts huge questions into their independence. You think otherwise. So we can agree to disagree, I imagine. Right?

  23. It would be nice to have more independent sources than we have for the Jesus story. Why put greater criteria on these documents than other ancient docs? Easy: If an ancient doc is pushed on me by people to decide if it is true because if I decide wrongly, I burn in hell. Well, I will demand a higher criteria. That seems pretty simple.

    We disagree on the independence of the Gospels. You even think the authors of some of the Gospels were original witnesses. We disagree on that too. These are crucial elements to the credibility of these stories.

    But there are much bigger problems than that for many non-believers. And of course, you’d feel them in error.

  24. Sabio argues that because any numbers of authors draw upon one source, that they are not independent. I would think it would be more important to prove whether or not they relied solely on that one source, or if that one source was one of many. As it stands, he implies that they both copied it as their only source and merely did so in their own words. I don’t know if this case can be substantiated. I’m also not aware of anyone who knows with certainty that they knew nothing of Jesus and His life aside from what they copied, or even states such a thing.

    • MA

      The ‘but what if…’ arguments stem from a late date for the authorship of the Gospels and New Testament. The skepticism for this is also based on certain other biases held which lean toward the supernatural accounts of Jesus being fabrications. Ehrman in my opinion argues the best for late authorship, but even he can only accomplish his conclusions through extrapolations and generalizations.

  25. We have show here the arbitrary, subjectivie, rhetorical use of “Independence” when talking about evaluating the validitty of information. A difficult subject. Thus, to flippantly declare authors as “independent” ignores thes complexity for rhetorical purposes.

  26. I John Barron you have no intention to listen to Biblical scholar Mark Goodacre’s podcast criticizing the “Multiple Attestation” criterion. I asked twice and supplied the link twice. Here you are a third time but I won’t ask again:

    http://podacre.blogspot.com/2012/03/nt-pod-61-criterion-of-multiple.html

    • Sabio

      I am familiar with those criticisms of multiple attestation. I find them self serving dismissals in this context because in “secular” contexts multiple attestation is considered good enough to be sure the testimony is accurate. This however isn’t so for the Bible because of the naturalistic bias with which most critics filter it through. So because the multiple testimonies contain the supernatural, now its not so relevant to have multiple attestation. I get it, it’s just weak and presumptive.

  27. You are familiar with Mark Goodacre’s criticism because you heard them, or you are assuming? Again, question never answered.

    And, as I said earlier:

    If an ancient doc is pushed on me by people to decide if it is true because if I decide wrongly, I burn in hell. Well, I will demand a higher criteria.

    Lots of ancient documents describe supernatural events that are never witnessed today with all the videos cameras available now. There is good reason to doubt the ones of the past — no matter how many people claimed them.

    • Didnt I just say I am familiar with those arguments? Question answered.

      And as to what you said earlier, since you are the arbiter of what qualifies as enough, and more, and higher, you have enacted a set of criteria which can always be moved depending on what it is you want to disbelieve. Not very reasonable.

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