We have 5 literary sources for the life of Alexander the Great (late 4th century bce):
- Diodorus Siculus (1st century bce): 17th book of Universal History
- Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century ce): History of Alexander
- Plutarch (2nd century ce): Life of Alexander
- Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (Arrian) (2nd century ce): Campaigns of Alexander
- 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.