Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

We have 5 literary sources for the life of Alexander the Great (late 4th century bce):

  1. Diodorus Siculus (1st century bce): 17th book of Universal History
  2. Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century ce): History of Alexander
  3. Plutarch (2nd century ce): Life of Alexander
  4. Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (Arrian) (2nd century ce): Campaigns of Alexander
  5. M. Junianus Justinus (Justin) (3rd century ce): epitomized the work of Pompeius Trogus (Augustan age)

Is it fair to accept these as evidence for an historical Alexander while not accepting the canonical gospels as sources for an historical Jesus? I think so for three reasons:

Reason 1. The above sources for Alexander are about someone whom the sources themselves portray as a real human, while the canonical gospels are about a figure who is clearly not human:

  • a mere touch or word from Jesus heals and raises the dead;
  • he confronts demons and speaks with Satan who carries him through the sky to mountain tops from where he can see the whole world, and angels feed him and a divine voice speaks to him from heaven and changes his physical form;
  • he has the power with a mere word to stop people in their tracks so they drop everything and leave their occupations and families to follow him immediately; and to even cause those who come armed to arrest him to fall over backwards; and even without a word to look a lynch mob in the eye and just walk calmly away unscathed;
  • he reads minds and foretells the future;
  • he cannot die (except for 3 days max);
  • after he dies he can return as flesh and still walk through walls;
  • he can walk on water and command the weather and kill a fig tree overnight with a single word;
  • he can order 2000 pigs to jump in the lake and 5 bread rolls to self-multiply to feed thousands;
  • he can, like a Hercules or Samson, single handedly expel the entire vast Temple complex of its personnel despite security guards;
  • and he can fly up through the sky into heaven;
  • and he knows the right spots to catch fish every single time! (and even knows where to catch one with a coin inside it to pay his taxes)

The subject of the 5 sources for Alexander is by contrast a human one. Myths and legends may attach themselves to him but they do not consume and transform him into something other than a fellow member of the human race. It is the human accomplishments that are the subject of ancient historians; it is the divine (non-human) nature of Jesus that is the primary subject of the gospels. Modern scholars don’t need to set up committees to try to find “the historical Alexander” or decide such a quest is impossible.

Without the myths the histories of Alexander would still be substantial histories. Without the miracles of Jesus there would be no-one to write about: a Cynic type teacher is crucified, full stop? Jesus is who he is because of the miracles, especially his inability to stay dead more than three days. The history of Alexander is about his human deeds and because of these he is so renowned that the mythical attached itself to him. The deeds of Jesus on the contrary are not human deeds, but non-human, miraculous deeds. The mythical has not attached itself to Jesus: it IS Jesus.

History is about people, human cultures, human nations and societies. But we know ancient histories did sometimes include the mythical beside the natural. Examples: Herodotus, Livy, the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings). But when Livy writes of Romulus being zapped up into the sky and later reappearing as a spirit to his followers we know we can discount his story as mythical, and indeed probably the very existence of Romulus as mythical. Livy’s history of Hannibal, however, has moved beyond mythical time and into historical time, and he writes, well, ‘history’.

History is a study of humanity. It is theology that is a study of gods and mythology a study of myths.

Reason 2. The authors of our sources for Alexander identified themselves. We can establish to some extent when they lived and wrote, who else knew them, and a little of their personal backgrounds. We can assess their reputations and the reception of their works in their broader culture. Contrast the anonymity of the gospel sources. The names attached to them today did not appear with them until late in the second century. We can only speculate about when they may have been written and where.

Historians, even modern news media, and normal courts, do not typically trust anonymous sources, and quite rightly. But the anonymity of the gospels almost certainly, I would think, have helped them win acceptance among a certain religious community given their spectacular claims. Anonymity would allow rumour and speculation even from the beginning to enhance their mystery and fascination.

Reason 3. The histories of Alexander cite their sources. They thus sought to establish their credibility with their peers and within their broader communities. Where their sources conflict the authors very often present the conflicting versions and even at times admit they can’t decide which one to believe. This approach gives readers a prima facie confidence in what they are writing. Naturally further study may help modern scholars to ascertain how accurate or truthful all the stories are, but it is clear that they are dealing with works that at least make a claim to be attempting a serious historical or biographical account.

Contrast the gospels. Only the third gospel (Luke) makes brief reference to other sources but more in the succinct style of a preface for a technical treatise, not a contemporary history’s prologue. This sole mention that other sources even exist is strangely silent on the identification of those other sources. Not a whisper of conflict or confusion about any of the events told in this or any other gospel ever surfaces.

This is strange indeed, and most unlike the practice of the histories of Alexander. Authors who want to persuade others of the truth and historicity of their claims can be expected to identify both themselves and their sources — as those who wrote of Alexander do.

Studies in fact show that Matthew and Luke are using the first gospel, Mark, as one of their primary sources, and they are not just using him — they are re-writing sections of Mark for to bend him to their own theological agendas. Mark’s Jesus called Peter Satan and denigrated him savagely; Matthew sought to rehabilitate Peter by having Jesus instead, in the same scene, declare him the Rock on which he would build the Church; Luke was content merely to omit Mark’s Jesus calling Peter “Satan”. Even the gospel of John shows evidence of having used Mark as a source: consider the stylistic way Peter’s denials bracket Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin. One may well conclude that there was but one source for Jesus, the gospel of Mark, that later gospel authors re-wrote for their own theological agendas. And Mark’s sources, as other posts here have shown, was a re-write of OT stories such as those of Elijah and Elisha.


The above histories of Alexander gained a broad cultural acceptance that would have been impossible had they been anonymous and told as novels (without citing known sources). We also have that little thing of primary evidence in coins to establish the historicity of Alexander. One obviously would not have expected coins of Jesus in his own time. But it would have been nice to have a named author, cited in Josephus and Tacitus, say, and who explained exactly what his relation with Jesus or his followers had been, and identified his sources and was prepared to give competing versions of an event that had come to him. But even if we had all that, we would have to conclude he was a satirist, poet or novelist if his topic was not even a human being to whom myths attached themselves, but rather a character straight out of heaven itself.

  • 2007-04-22 12:23:09 UTC - 12:23 | Permalink

    This seems to be a rather weak justification of the reliability of the sources for the historical Alexander. I’ll reply in more detail on the individual points later. I just want to make the brief comment right now that even if the Gospel writers did identify themselves and their sources more extensively the hardened skeptic will claim that this is just a rhetorical device to legitimate the Gospel writer’s fiction. I can think of a better explanation: the fact that the Gospel writers choose not to directly or indirectly identify themselves in the Gospel (but what about John and the ‘beloved disciple’?) or their sources suggests that they expected this story and its authority to be familiar to Christians in general. They did not need to justify themselves because they were simply codifying in written form what most Christians knew all along from the oral tradition which preceded the Gospels. I won’t argue at length for that here, it’s just a suggestion.

    Now, about historical and geographical detail in Acts, here’s Loveday Alexander:

    “Place-names may also be used in a narrative to create an impression of geographical verisimilitude-the sense that the narrator (and hence the reader) was ‘really there’. Here our study has shown that, despite the importance of travel for the novels, it is not really the case (as is so often assumed) that topographical verisimilitude is a major preoccupation in romance. Chariton is extremely sparing in his use of geographical names, with the action focused overwhelmingly on three major locations. Even if we add in the names used in ‘secondary’ narrative, Acts has a far higher proportion of names to narrative. Xenophon has a greater variety of locations than Chariton…but he cannot match the density of names which Acts displays for the relatively small area covered in Paul’s mission. When we add to this our earlier observation that Luke’s narrative world is a contemporary one, we are left with a level of topographical factuality which recalls the periplous literature, with its pragmatic attention to detail, rather than the novels. And the realism of this topography is enhanced by the noticeable use of redundant names which combine with the we-narration to create an impression of eyewitness participation: in fact, precisely of the autopsia which Luke promised his readers in the Gospel preface” (pp.115-116, “The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Context”)

    I would only add that it is question-begging to simply assume (which I don’t think Alexander actually does) that Luke is merely trying to create the IMPRESSION of eye-witness participation, rather than his narrative being the PRODUCT of eye-witness participation. Must we always think of the early Christian writers as devious charlatans out to pull a smoke-screen over their readers by misleading them in terms of the intent and context of their writing?

    Alexander’s further comments on the impression of factuality in Acts vs the novels:

    “Eros does not figure anywhere in the book, even negatively: contrast the role of celibacy in some of the later apocryphal acts…The exotic setting does not quite live up to the expecations of the novel reader. Syria-Palestine turns out to be neither bandit-infested wilderness nor pastoral countryside, but a network of cities and streets which exhibit much the same humdrum features as the rest of the Mediterranean world. Travel takes place not in the archaic fantasy landscape of Greek romance but in the real, contemporary world of the Roman empire, and it is described in intensely (even boringly) realistic terms: unlike the novelists, this narrator takes the trouble to find out about winds and harbors, cargoes and ports of call…Within the epistemological space created by Luke’s preface, then, there is no real room for doubt as to the broadly factual status of his narrative” (pp.157-158, 163).

    Here I would note again that it is question-begging to assume that the writer simply ‘went out of his way’ to obtain accurate middle 1st-Century information about ports, cargoes, etc. (which as I stressed in one of my previous posts was in any case hard to come by without first-hand personal experience). It is far simpler and more reasonable to suppose that the reason the author has knowledge of these things is that he was actually there.

    I’ll also post the Hemer notes a bit later, but for now I’ll just note that Tyson does not actually engage in any depth with Hemer’s arguments for historicity. His references to Hemer’s book are limited to summarizing Hemer’s argument for a particular date for Acts, and noting that ‘unintentional detail’ should probably be seen as a narrative device. In the footnotes he points the reader to Vernon Robbins’ work on rhetorical devices in Acts, without noticing that Hemer himself criticized (convincingly, in the view of many scholars) Robbins for arguing that these details should be taken only as rhetorical devices.

  • 2007-04-22 17:30:51 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

    You wrote: “I just want to make the brief comment right now that even if the Gospel writers did identify themselves and their sources more extensively the hardened skeptic will claim that this is just a rhetorical device to legitimate the Gospel writer’s fiction.”

    This is really an ad hominem attack — you are saying that the people you presumably are trying to argue against are not serious about historical research, that they are intellectually dishonest.

    It is also yet one more case of a straw man if you are leveling it at me.

    How about arguing with the propositions put out there instead of just ducking behind the ad hominem/straw man: “well even if XXX then those I argue against would say YYY”

    So the story was so familiar that they didn’t need to identify themselves or their sources? The 4th gospel tells the same “familiar” story as the synoptics?? So they were not attempting to persuade anyone new with the gospels?? The “beloved disciple” is an identification of the author?? Justin was so familiar with the gospel story that he contradicts it in major point after point?? Paul demonstrates no knowledge of this familiar story even though he could have settled several disputes in his churches if he had just by appealing to it. It was so familiar that the Gospel of Peter and other gospels popped up with totally different versions??

    You pointed me to Burton Mack in an ealier post: you certainly will have to convince him for starters that anyone knew the story of the gospel till Mark put pen to paper.

  • 2007-04-23 02:57:56 UTC - 02:57 | Permalink

    Whoa, time out.

    When I refer to the ‘hardened skeptic’ I am not talking about you. But I assure you it is not a straw man. I see characteristics of this shadowy figure all the time in online discussions about the New Testament.

    Yes, your mention of all those ‘other’ Gospels proves my point. Those ones were always associated with a specific person, namely a person with great authority in the early Church. Their writers knew that they would have to have flashy credentials if they were to convince anyone that they were really telling the truth about Jesus. And notice that, even though the Gospel of John is quite different from the synoptics, when you compare the four canonical Gospels to all the other apocryphal ones, the differences between John and the synoptics begin to seem quite inconsequential.

    In what ‘point after major point’ does Justin contradict the Gospel story? Doesn’t he say that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead by God? And that he sent out his disciples to preach the Gospel in all the world?

    One thing that skeptics don’t seem to understand is that the words of Jesus were not preserved just for their ‘practical’ value, or made-up for that purpose for that matter. If the latter were true, Jesus would be resolving disputes that much more closely resembled the situations the early Church was facing. Jesus would utter some word that would solve the issue of the circumcision of Gentile believers. He would preach against Gnostics. But no, the issues he deals with are those which would have been on the front burner for an intinerant preacher and prophet in Galilee. The early Christians were not interested in settling issue once and for all through dominical pronouncements.

  • 2007-04-23 03:00:21 UTC - 03:00 | Permalink

    Again I’m not sure where you found my endorsement of Burton Mack. I for one disagree with his entire approach, namely that the Gospels tell us more about the communities which produced them than about Jesus. It’s funny how scholars like Mack think that we can find almost nothing about Jesus in the Gospels, even though they are exclusively about him, but we can determine with complete accuracy what the community was like which produced them, what they were up against and whom they were fighting. That’s not historical method, that’s exegesis by speculation.

  • 2007-04-23 06:22:50 UTC - 06:22 | Permalink

    If you really don’t mean to include my arguments or approach with those of “hardened sceptics” then why address that issue as part of your reponse to what I post.

    My one sentence suggestion of one possible effect of the canonical gospels being put out anonymously initially was not the central point of my argument, yet your response has focussed entirely on posing an alternative explanation for their anonymity.

    You have not addressed my point of anonymity (or any of the other points) for the 2 sets of texts except to say that even if the gospels were not anonymous critics would only find some other excuse to discount them. That’s hardly an argument against my point. Just trying to speculate another reason why they might have been anonymous is no argument either.

    Incidentally, you also began your ealier post with: “This seems to be a rather weak justification of the reliability of the sources for the historical Alexander.” Just a clarification if needed: I am not sure if your choice of the word “reliability” was meant to say what it means to me, but I was not suggesting that the histories are ‘true and accurate’ histories in all respects, but that they need to be still critically analysed — my point is that nevertheless they are prima facie historical sources in the 3 ways I argue.

  • 2007-04-23 06:42:49 UTC - 06:42 | Permalink

    My reference to Burton Mack derives from your comment responding to my “Pharisees in Galilee”:

    You wrote: “No, the preference for canonical sources for most historians is
    a posteriori, when they realize that there really is a difference in quality and usefulness between those materials and the apocryphal ones (except perhaps for the Gospel of Peter, which some scholars think does contain valuable historical material). There is no conspiracy, no ‘neo-conservatism’ in a very cynical, skeptical, post-modern academy (where people get the idea that biblical studies are driven by ‘confessional’ interests is beyond me when such vocal skeptics like Gerd Ludemann and Burton Mack are so widely respected and cited). There are just a bunch of scholars, each trying as best they can according to their own intellectual integrity to contribute to the ongoing historical discussion about early Christianity. If anything, specialists in NT studies (and even those from divinity schools, for that matter!) are the ones most likely to be skeptical and tendentious about their research.”

    My response: I am not always clear on where your critiques on my posts are directed. You seem to often address my arguments in terms suggesting extreme (not quite honest) scepticism, even as if I had some agenda to establish Jesus was a mythical character, yet many of my arguments are from the likes of Mack and co. You clearly do not regard Mack as such an extreme ‘sceptic’. (What’s wrong with the word ‘sceptic’ by the way?)

    I get the impression that you would argue against any argument of mine that disputes the historical truth of any point in Acts or the gospels.

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