Skeptics and critics of Christianity raise the question of why Jesus Christ is not more prominent in the secular histories of the first-century, outside of the New Testament gospels.
One observation that can be made historically about the Roman Empire during this time-period is that it was relatively tolerant of the diverse religious beliefs of the geographies and peoples it controlled, as long as this tolerance did not encourage political unrest.
The New Testament gospels record as early as the ministry of John the Baptist that some Roman soldiers came to listen to his teaching (Lk. 3:14), and presumably participated personally in being water baptized, without risk or harm in any way to their careers in the Roman army, in the same way that soldiers in Ephesus might attend temple services honoring the goddess Diana (Acts 19:27-28), without jeopardizing their military careers.
The gospel of Matthew records early in the ministry of Jesus a Roman centurion asking Jesus to supernaturally heal a servant sick of the palsy (Mt. 8:5-13; Lk. 7:1-5).
Early in the ministry of Peter, another Roman centurion named Cornelius in the city of Caesarea is described as being a devout man who was a Gentile “God-fearer” along with all of his house, who sent for Peter to come and preach to them about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. (Acts 10).
It can be reasonably assumed that some Roman soldiers were assigned to all large gatherings of Jews in Jerusalem going out to hear Jesus teach outdoors, and would have witnessed first-hand and up-close the miracles of multiplying the few fish and loaves of bread to feed thousands of people gathered on a hillside (Mt. 14:15-21, 15: 32-39).
So, what would it have taken to get a contingent of Roman senators to travel all the way from Rome to the distant and unimportant province of Israel to view the supposed supernatural activities of an obscure prophet in the city of Jerusalem?
What magnitude of notoriety would produce such international acclaim as to capture the interest of the world-at-large in the first-century, within the broad cultural tolerance of religious beliefs allowed to be practiced in the Roman Empire, that would generate more than only the small notice and slight concern over events occurring in Jerusalem, for the governing body then in Rome?
Even Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea saw no threat in the ministry of Jesus, and proclaims after his first interview of Jesus: “I find in him no fault at all.” (Jn. 18:38).
The fundamental point here for why the life of Jesus Christ is not a biography splashed all over the secular histories of the day, is that the humanism of going our own way (Isa. 53:6) that is central to worldly conventional normalcy and thinking…does not and never will mix with the concept of God displacing our ways with His higher ways in picking-up our crosses to follow God into journeys of faith.
At the close of Paul’s ministry, as he awaits his trial in Rome, the local Jews who come to visit Paul say: “But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22).
This raises one of the most profound questions regarding the rise of Christianity in the first-century, of how do you get a perfect person all the way to the rejection of the cross of Calvary?
How is it that the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews must be the person who is crucified for the sins of the world, and resurrected to be the brazen serpent for salvation fore-glimpsed by Moses in the Exodus in the desert (Num. 21:5-9; 2 Ki. 18:4).
What this demonstrates for people today, is that the same Creator God in the Bible who utilizes prior fitness throughout the geological eras in natural history, to set-up prior conditions for living organisms to flourish, can also coordinate human moral reasoning capacity, the broad array of moral concepts, and the divine life-script for Jesus Christ the Son of God, and moderate all of these factors to get the Messiah to also be the Passover Lamb of God atoning sacrifice for mankind’s sins.
This actualizes into real-world experience the saying: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:32).
For people to know the truth they need to first have the intellectual and moral reasoning capacity to recognize truth, next the broad array of moral concepts active and in-play within human relationships, and finally “the way, the truth, and the life” demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ the Son of God incarnate, all coming together in the first-century.
This is an excerpt from my book Pondering Our World: Christian Essays on Science and Faith.