All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.
If Tim O’Neill (TO) is true to form he won’t let the fact that he insisted there is only one historian from antiquity who mentions anyone who might be considered a messianic claimant in the Jewish war of 66-73 CE dismay him. He will in all likelihood dismiss his oversight as insignificant, and claim that the opposite of the fact he was trying to make to support his case will be interpreted as equally strong evidence for his point! That’s how he responded when someone pointed out another claim of his — that we have no contemporary records of Hannibal — was also wrong. (O’Neill 2011)
TO’s sophistic analogy
Despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal. If we have no contemporary mentions of the man who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power, the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd. (O’Neill 2011)
But TO’s comparison of the evidence we have or don’t have for Hannibal is misleading. He is drawing a quite false and confused analogy when he says that we should not expect any contemporary evidence for “an obscure [and “unimportant”] peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee” because we don’t even have any surviving contemporary records of Hannibal and other famous ancient persons.
This is simply very bad reasoning. Sophism at its “best”. The first premise of the argument is that contemporary records of the great and famous like Hannibal and Boudicca and Arminius did not survive. The second premise is quite unrelated: there were no records that were ever made of Jesus. The reason we have no contemporary records of some famous people of ancient times is that they were lost. Yet the argument for the absence of records about Jesus is not that they were lost but that no-one bothered to make any in the first place.
For the analogy to work we would have to believe that there were records of Jesus made but that they also were lost in time.
But the fact is Christians themselves came to assume responsibility for what ancient writings were preserved, so there was a powerful motive and means for those interested to preserve records of Jesus if they did exist, or at least preserve mention and epitomes of such records.
Further, though we do not have contemporary records of a number of famous persons we do have records that are derived from contemporary sources about them. If we only had anything similar among secular sources for Jesus it is almost certain that no-one would ever have questioned the historical existence of Jesus.
Imagine if a Roman or Greek historian wrote something like the following about Jesus. The historian Polybius is discussing the cause of the second Carthaginian War:
Why, then, it may be asked, have I made any mention of [the historian] Fabius and his theory? Certainly not through any fear that some readers might find it plausible enough to accept: its inherent improbability is self-evident . . . My real concern is to caution those who may read the book not to be misled by the authority of the author’s name, but to pay attention to the facts. For there are some people who are apt to dwell upon the personality of the writer rather than upon what he writes. They look to the fact that Fabius was a contemporary of Hannibal and a member of the Roman Senate, and immediately believe everything he says must be trusted. My personal opinion is that we should not treat his authority lightly, but equally should not regard it as final, and that in most cases readers should test his assertions by reference to the facts themselves. (Polybius, Book 3, from Ian Scott-Kilvert’s translation, Penguin, pp. 186-187)
So we do, in effect, have more contemporary sources for Hannibal than TO want to concede, but they are explicitly conveyed to us through later historians such as Polybius. Yes, agreed we do not have direct access to them. But we do have evidence that they existed, that there were contemporary recorders of Hannibal. We have no evidence for the same with Jesus.
Why not treat the Gospel sources equally with the Historical writings?
But don’t we have the same with the Gospels? Don’t we have oral traditions conveyed in those and doesn’t Luke say he is drawing upon older records? So theologians have generally interpreted the Gospels and their sources but this interpretation is at best a hypothesis — contrast the clear attribution of Polybius above. The real difference between the Gospels and a work of ancient historiography like Polybius’s is in its “genre” or “type of discourse”. (See posts on Clarke Owens’ discussions of literary criticism.)
One type of literature is interested in theological messages and faith, and to that end uses metaphor, parable, and other types of symbolism, re-writing narratives for theological ends, and uses the language associated with “fantasy”, while the other type uses different language for patently different purposes that we associate with an interest, at least in large part, in relaying historical information (“facts”). To decide whether the latter can be trusted or not will require tests against controls external to the text. If we can see confirmation in archaeology or in other trusted and provenanced documents for some parts of Polybius, then we can reasonably have more trust for him where we don’t have such confirmation.
That’s how historians work, or at least ought to work, with their sources. Biblical scholars very rarely do that, however. And TO who professes to be an historian of sorts ought to know better. Unfortunately I don’t think even enough historians, especially amateur ones, stop to think about their rationales for the way they interpret and analyse their source material.
Next post we’ll continue with this theme and examine the evidence that can help answer the question whether Jesus would have been significant enough to have been noticed and mentioned by other (non-Christian) writers of the time.