by Neil Godfrey
I have sometimes discussed how we know what happened in the past or who existed as historical persons. Most of what I have said is my own reflection and inference from what I understand of how “history works” beginning with my own studies in university history majors. Part of our required reading was What Is History? by E. H. Carr and it was this book that introduced me to the question of “what is a historical fact”, and very soon other works on the same questions, some of them responding to Carr, were added to my reading list.
But the question of “historical fact” was rarely addressed at the level at which it is addressed when asking “Did Jesus exist as a historical person?”
What is often addressed in works on historiography is the nature and reliability of sources used by historians and the need for testing these for bias, genuineness, etc.
But I don’t think I ever read a discussion by historians that raised the question about how we know anyone (say, Julius Caesar) existed in ancient times. Many histories will explain how we know anything at all about the person and events they cover and will cite the various primary and secondary sources used.
But I don’t think there are very many history classes in the world that systematically train students how to know if Caesar or Churchill actually existed.
The closest would be classes that teach students to know how to evaluate sources used for a study of such persons.
What I think generally happens when the question of the historicity of Jesus is raised is a blurring of different ways of knowing about things in history, or simply a failure to stop and think through how we do know what we know.
There are different types of knowledge and it helps to distinguish them when we are addressing a question like whether a particular person existed in history.
There is first of all “public knowledge”. We know stuff because it’s what we are taught very early and what everyone knows.
We grow up in cultures that take a lot of historical events and persons for granted. They are our cultural heritage.
So in schools we learn about Caesar and Churchill, say, at very early ages. Our learning is reinforced by references to such names, even if often times only incidentally, in the broader culture, whether through various media (movies, novels, newspapers) and in casual conversations. And we don’t learn that Caesar and Churchill “existed per se” so much as we learn about what they did — it is their narratives (not their existence per se) that we learn about as historical realities.
We trust the information we are taught in schools because schools, by and large, exist as socially supported institutions that are entrusted to pass on knowledge that is true and right.
Schools maintain that trust by working within socially accepted rules or legislation that maintain certain standards for teachers, governing bodies and curriculums.
These standards are usually tied directly to other institutions that are also guardians of “true knowledge” for society, such as institutes for higher learning, research and training.
And people who enter these institutes of higher learning or advanced research are drawn from the community that has itself been socialized through the school system and wider community conversations and media.
We grow up, in other words, accepting the bulk of what is our “social knowledge” (e.g. the existence of Caesar, of Churchill) on trust.
School students are not taught to prove for themselves that the sun is the centre of the solar system and that it does not revolve around the earth. They may at some stage be taught how this can be proven, but most people will never be able to prove it for themselves. Few people “know” the earth is not the centre of the solar system because of they have personally investigated and understood how to know this as a scientific fact for themselves. So much of our knowledge is passed on to us by “trust” that it is correct, as explained above.
I am not suggesting that this is wrong. It is simply the way it is and has to be given our social structures and the vast amounts of knowledge we need to have to function as mass, hight-tech societies.
We can call knowledge we acquire through this sort of socialization ‘public knowledge’. It is not usually something whose veracity we have investigated and researched and independently tested or proven for ourselves. It is public knowledge whose larger function enables society to hold together.
As a form of public knowledge the existence and life of Jesus is as much a “fact of history” as is the career of Julius Caesar or the life of Michelangelo.
This knowledge often never reaches the larger public or if and when it does it usually happens over extended time periods.
Those who can personally prove that the earth is not the centre of the solar system are among those who are probably engaged in testing hypotheses to find knew knowledge.
What scholars at the higher institutions study is not “how to know if Caesar or Churchill” existed.
Students enter courses of advanced historical studies asking historical questions about historical persons and events.
What, for most part, is of initial interest — and relevance — to students is historical inquiry into questions that relate to public knowledge.
This is why historical studies can sometimes stir heated controversy in society.
I recall shock and disbelief when I first heard the very idea that the USA vaporized two Japanese cities in order to force an end to the war in such a timely fashion as to put a brake Soviet Russia’s territorial advances. What that question drove me to was an exploration — and evaluation — of the documentary evidence for myself. There was never any question of the historicity of the war with Japan, or of the dropping of two atomic bombs, or of the Cold War, or of any of the political and military figures involved. Historical questions were a matter of evaluation and interpretation of the available evidence.
It was the same with the explanations for the rise of the “Middle Ages” and the responsibility for the First World War or the rise and character of the British empire or the reasons for the French Revolution. The facts were well enough established. What was open to question was our interpretation of those facts — and the documentary evidence associated with those facts.
Historians do not study questions like: Did the French Revolution happen? Did Churchill exist? Did Jesus exist?
They ask questions about the meaning of the facts, or how to explain or understand the facts, or how to write the most meaningful narrative about the facts, and which facts are relevant to explaining other facts! Very often they will also do research to see if there are other hitherto overlooked facts that need to be addressed when discussing or explaining a particular question.
Historical Jesus scholars to this extent are no different in their intentions from other historians. They are seeking to explain or understand what sort of person Jesus was. In intention this is no different from historians who write works seeking to increase our understanding of other persons in history, whether Alexander the Great or Hitler.
So what is a fact?
I began with a reference to E. H. Carr’s “What Is History?” and the question raised in that work “What is a historical fact?” Carr’s question was not “What is a fact” but “What is a historical fact”? He was asking what is it about “a fact” that makes it a part of the narrative of history. Lots of things happened in the past — there have been millions of people doing and experiencing zillions of things every day — but very few of them ever make the history books.
So what is a “fact” per se? Is it a fact that Jesus lived? That Julius Caesar lived? That Churchill lived? How do we know?
We “know” most of the things we share publicly with others through enculturation or socialization — via educational institutions, through various media, through simple social discourse.
So are the things we learn about through these means “facts”?
Is something a fact if it is said to be a fact by a trusted institution, such as a state funded school or other government supported body?
Some things I was taught in school are no longer facts and are no longer taught in schools. Knowledge changes.
Do “facts” change? Or does what we “know” to be a “fact” change?
By the normal understanding of the word “fact” we can say a fact is a fact is a fact. We may learn something we “knew” to be a fact was not a fact after all. But that is to say our knowledge (of what is a fact) changes. Facts themselves don’t.
Yesterday I read that neutrinos have been found to travel faster than light. If confirmed, that would mean that we were wrong when we thought that nothing could travel faster than light. All that will change will be our knowledge — not the facts themselves.
Facts, Data and Evidence
How do we know Julius Caesar existed?
His existence for most of us is a matter of public knowledge. It is not something we have verified for ourselves any more than we have personally verified that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around.
The bottom line is that we only have data. Interpretation is needed to make that data meaningful as “facts” and “evidence”. So when we come to history we have lots of gravestones and archival material that we “interpret” to inform us that there was a major war between 1939 and 1945, and we have similar data that enables us to establish (interpret) the fact of Churchill’s or Washington’s existence. We have similar physical data that we can interpret as evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar. It is the same in the natural sciences.
So in this sense I can accept that World War 2 was a fact of history, even though at one level this is an “interpretation” of the archival and other data. Interpretation does not change “the fact” of all the material evidence that clearly there was a lot of death and destruction going on.
Likewise in a criminal investigation. The detective only has a blood-stained knife, lots of signs of a struggle and a blood drenched cadaver with multiple matching stab wounds in its back. The detective must “interpret” that data to conclude that there has been a murder. But everyone will agree that it is “a fact” that a murder has been committed. The detective’s job is then to explain the who’s and why’s and how’s of the fact of that murder.
Newton had the fact of an apple falling (the story may well be apocryphal but that doesn’t affect the argument), but he interpreted this as some sort of evidence for unseen forces. We now speak of the fact of gravity. And now scientists seek to understand the why’s and wherefore’s of the fact of gravity.
Ditto for evolution. We only have data, but interpretation of that data enables us to speak of the fact of evolution. The only question left is explaining the why’s and how’s of the fact of evolution.
In ancient history we have archaeological artefacts and literary texts. A piece of pottery, a coin, a monument with an inscription on it, are not really the “facts” of ancient history. They are data that require interpretation to give them meaning. Once coin or a monument with an inscription may be interpreted as evidence for something about, say, Julius Caesar. Let’s say the coin and monument are interpreted as evidence that Julius Caesar was a powerful ruler in first century b.c.e. Rome. So that’s how we know Julius Caesar existed.
The data is the raw (uninterpreted) coin, monument, or literary text.
The evidence is data interpreted to give it meaning.
The fact of history is a past event or situation or action or person that the historian discovers or believes has happened on the basis of the evidence, or interpreted data.
So we have “facts” that the historians and detectives and natural scientists seek in their own respective ways to understand and explain.
History itself is the weaving of selected facts into a narrative that makes some sort of sense to modern readers.
Facts and Evidence
It’s worth clarifying a little more the difference between facts and evidence.
Facts and evidence are quite different concepts. A fact may or may not also be evidence.
A blood stained knife matching a wound in the back of a corpse is evidence for a fact that a murder has been committed.
Many pieces of pottery with certain decorative patterns are interpreted as evidence for a fact that people belonging to a certain cultural or ethnic group inhabited a particular region at a certain time.
A collection of manuscripts is interpreted as evidence for a fact of a wide range of gnostic views extant in Egypt prior to the fourth century.
But the same set of manuscripts might become an object of historical study for their own sake. A historian may seek to trace the history of the Nag Hammadi texts from their discovery, to the way they have been tested for authenticity, how they have been interpreted and changed our views of ancient religion. In this case the same manuscripts become the facts the historian is investigating. But if the texts are used instead as information for gnostic beliefs, then they are studied as the evidence for the fact of gnostic beliefs.
So when anyone naively asks how we know — as we do from public knowledge — Julius Caesar existed and that there was even a Roman empire centuries ago, they have a right to be given assurances that there is indeed verifiable evidence for this knowledge.
We can ask teachers or specialists to supply us with this evidence. We don’t just take their word for it on trust. Or we don’t have to. We expect specialists to be able to explain how they know, where and how we ourselves can verify the evidence, etc, and why they interpret data the way they do. Unless they can do this they do not deserve our trust. Authority of any kind must always be required to justify itself.
So the child asking its parents or the new student asking her first year university history teacher has a right to be told how we know Julius Caesar or the Roman empire even existed. We have physical remains such as coins and monuments. This data is studied and interpreted in ways that lead us to conclude that they are evidence of political power with a wide reach and indicate a central role by a man called Julius Caesar. Some of these interpreted remains are what historians might refer to as “primary evidence”. That is, they are physically located in the very time and place in question.
We also have secondary evidence, evidence not physically located in the time and place in question, but that nonetheless contains information relating to that time. The surviving manuscripts may be centuries later. Some may appear to be copies of words written by eyewitnesses.
How do we know if these texts are testifying of genuine historical facts or if they are fictions?
If we have primary evidence for the events and persons they are discussing then we clearly have good reasons to believe their original authors are writing about genuinely historical events and persons. But we need something more than this matching of content to inform us if they were writing fiction or non-fiction.
We have an ancient “novel” about Alexander the Great and a treatise on the lives of Roman real emperors that reads more like a fictitious and lurid scandal sheet than genuine history. There is very little history to be gleaned from such documents as these.
But we do have other literary evidence that does give us more confidence. These are texts that
- contain information that is corroborated by primary evidence
- are written in a genre that gives us confidence that the author’s intent was to discuss real events
- are corroborated independently by other ancient texts
I have given examples of this many times in other posts that I link to at the end of this post. That’s a three-fold assurance. Occasionally evidence meets only two of those points, as with the evidence for Socrates (only points 2 and 3 are satisfied in the case of Socrates), and there is some room for legitimate doubt, as discussed here and here.
The above three-fold assurances are pretty much the same sorts of evidence that give us confidence when reading evidence for modern historical events such as the Holocaust:
- Documents are corroborated by physical primary evidence at key places
- Documents are written in a genre that gives us confidence that the author’s intent was to discuss real experiences and events
- Documents are further corroborated independently by other documentary and textual and photographic evidence.
The only difference between modern and ancient historiography is that, since there is less data to work with in ancient times, the sorts of questions historians of ancient times can ask are more limited than what we can explore for modern events.
What I read in most ancient historiographical genres are efforts by authors to give readers confidence in the reliability of their claims. The authors
- generally identify themselves,
- they explain their sources,
- they explain why they favour one tradition or account of an event over another.
I have discussed this also several times (such as here.)
All of this allows us to have confidence in many of the “minor characters” of history that appear only in the literary sources and who have left no primary evidence themselves. Again, this is something discussed often enough in the past such as here.
We can go further than this and read of other persons and events in some of the literary sources we have on other grounds come to trust. Even though these persons or events may gain a single mention in one literary text, because of the reasons we have for our confidence in that text (especially a three-fold trust as discussed above) we can have reasonable confidence that even those “minor” persons and events are also historical.
Other times it simply does not matter if a person is historical or not. Their real significance in history is that they represent certain ideas and it is the ideas that are of historical evidence. Some would even put Socrates in this bracket. Others Pythagoras or Hillel.
Questioning the historicity of Jesus
So where does all of this leave the one who has asked for the evidence for Jesus?
What is the best the experts can offer this naive enquirer?
Obviously there are no physical remnants of Jesus or his disciples.
But no panic. Most people are comfortable enough believing Socrates was real despite the absence of physical evidence for him.
So what about genres? Many biblical scholars say that we have four biographies of Jesus. But not all agree that the gospels are biographies. If we address seriously the nature of genre itself we find very solid arguments for rejecting the notion that the first gospel is a biography. See, for example, the case advanced by Vines. Compared with the depth of Vines’ theoretical arguments about the very nature of genre, Burridge’s case for the gospels being “biographies” is without any theoretical underpinning and scarcely even deserving to be described as “scholarly”.
Moreover, the gospels avoid all those features that so many other ancient histories and biographies do in order to persuade readers of their validity: their authors
- do not identify themselves;
- they do not explain their sources (even Luke’s reference to sources is very vague and his preface has more in common with prefaces of non-historical works than histories, as discussed here and here);
- and they do not explain why they prefer one tradition or report over another that contradicts it. They simply contradict one another without apology.
On the other hand we do find evidence in the gospels that they have sourced their stories from midrashic interpretations of Old Testament scriptures and adaptations of other literature.
The primary encouragements offered to readers to believe their reports come in the form of tales of the miraculous, fulfilled prophecy and loss of eternal life for the nonbeliever.
It is not good enough — well, it’s not for me — to say that the Gospels can be considered reliable to some extent as historical sources because their authors are “clearly sincere” and “wanting us to believe them”, or because we can “find the contours of a real historical person” in their narratives.
Such judgments are entirely subjective and lack any of the controls that underpin any justification for believing in other “historical facts” that make up our public knowledge.
Sometimes historians researching questions can begin to question their sources in new ways that undermines some aspect of public knowledge. When this happens public debate and controversy is inevitable. Switzerland experienced this when historians began to question the historicity of William Tell. Some Swiss today refuse to accept their findings. The Babri Mosque in India has been at the centre of a bloody “history war” with many Hindus declaring it to be the site of Lord Rama’s birth. I imagine few scholars would be found publicly questioning the historicity of Rama in the streets of Ayodhya. In Germany Professor Gerd Ludemann “was expelled from his post as professor of New Testament and assigned a professorship of the history and literature of Early Christianity thereby losing all his academic rights and being forced into a ghetto existence within the theological faculty” at a State funded university.
To question the historicity of Jesus today, to simply compare its the foundations of historical Jesus studies with the methods used among other historical studies, generally draws ad hominem fire from the status quo. I don’t mean that this is always delivered in a crass abusive manner (though it very often is). The first response to one raising the question of sources for the historicity of Jesus is very often simply a more subtle ad hominem: What other persons are you so sceptical about? Why are you sceptical about Jesus and not, say, Caesar or Socrates?
That sort of response does not earn specialist authorities any trust. Authority should always be made to justify itself. People who ask questions of intellectual authorities do not deserve to be treated as unreasonable. It is easy to see how we can justify beliefs in Cicero, Cicero’s slave, Caesar’s wife, Socrates’ wife, Seneca’s philosopher rivals, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, etc. No authority, not even a scholarly one, justifies itself when it resorts to ad hominem in response to the same question asked of Jesus.