Another instance of dishonest handling of evidence in Historical Jesus studies?

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by Neil Godfrey

It is commonly said that the miraculous events in the Gospels concerning Jesus do not diminish the historicity of Jesus or his story because ancient historians and biographers also regularly narrated tales of the miraculous in connection with famous people we know for a fact to have been historical.

This is a misleading claim. The way in which the miraculous tales were told of people we know to have been real is generally very different from the way similar myths are narrated in the Gospels. I give one example here.

One of the first books I read when beginning my quest to understand Christian origins was The Birth of Christianity by John Dominic Crossan. In that book Crossan compares pagan biographies of emperors (Augustus, Tiberius) with the Gospels as sources of historical information. The assumption is that the Gospels themselves are entitled to be read in a way comparable to how nonbiblical historians read ancient documentary evidence of other famous persons.

Crossan compares the miraculous birth of Augustus “recorded” by an ancient historian to that of Jesus in the Gospels. The point is to demonstrate that such a clearly mythical tale told about the origins of an emperor is something we can expect in ancient biographies of real people.

Suppressing the facts to make a false comparison

But in order to present this comparison Crossan has to suppress information from the consciousness of the reader. If a less educated reader who has not read the works of this ancient historian (and Crossan has many lay readers who fall into this category and is clearly conscious of them when he writes) that reader would be left with the false impression that the ancient historical biography is indeed comparable to the Gospels when they tell of Jesus’ birth.

Here is how Crossan identifies a miraculous tale in the Gospel of Luke with a similar miracle found in an ancient historical writing of a known historical figure (my emphasis):

I give one example, concerning the divine conception of Jesus . . . . [T]o say that he had no earthly father and that Mary conceived him virginally is an historical statement open, in principle, to proof or disproof. Those are matters of fact and open to historical discussion.

The conception of Jesus is told by the evangelist Luke writing in the 80s of the first century. It is a miracle of divine and human conjunction, a child conceived from a divine father and a human mother. It occurs without the participation of any human father.

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, ” Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, ” The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:26-35not identical translation used by Crossan)

That text makes claims that are historical, that are empirically verifiable, at least in part and in principle. It does not speak just of God but of a woman, Mary, who belongs to this earth and to its history. How does the historian respond? .  .  .  . Hold any decision . . . and read this second story.

The conception of Octavius, Augustus-to-be, is recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars, written during the first quarter of the second century. This divine conception took place over half a century before that of Jesus.  .  .  . This is how his mother, Atia, conceived him (Rolfe 1.264-267):

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.

Augustus came from a miraculous conception by the divine and human conjunction of Apollo and Atia. How does the historian respond to that story? (p. 28, Birth of Christianity)

But when one reads the account by the historian Suetonius for oneself one sees something different that breaks the back of Crossan’s attempt to put the Gospel tale on an equivalence with the ancient historian’s.

Firstly, Suetonius does not at all relate this miraculous birth of Augustus as “a fact”.

  1. He presents it among a long list of miraculous omens that he says “were said” to have been noted by others — he cites sources and respects the independent judgment of his readers;
  2. He presents his story as a traditional rhetorical motif commonly used in descriptions of the death of a great man;
  3. He presents two birth accounts — another that is clearly meant to be taken as historical — so he does not leave the reader with no choice but to accept the miraculous version.

Just before describing Augustus’s death, Suetonius writes:

Having reached this point, it will not be out of place to add an account of the omens which occurred before he was born, on the very day of his birth, and afterwards, from which it was possible to anticipate and perceive his future greatness and uninterrupted good fortune. . . .

According to Julius Marathus, a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury . . . .

I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia’s womb. . . . .

As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather’s country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there. . . .

And many more wildly freakish omens are listed. See paragraph 94 in the online text.

Point 1: Context

When one reads the miraculous birth of Augustus as one of along list of the most bizarre omens that were said to be reported or rumoured by others, including the contents of the dreams, Crossan’s serious question, “How does a historian respond to these ‘reports’ that are told about historical persons?” suddenly becomes risible.

Suetonius’s intent is clearly rhetorical. He as good as states that he is listing such omens for dramatic effect so the reader can be moved appropriately when he proceeds to describe the death of this great man.

Note also what appears to be another standard myth associated with greats — the threat to kill the newborn. Why did not Crossan bring out that detail and compare it with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth? Would it make the whole exercise of comparison for the sake of establishing historical credibility just too nonsensical?

If the miracle in Suetonius is actually read within such a nonsense context, then the Gospel miracle itself — being of the same kind, by Crossan’s admission — can no longer be considered a matter of any sort of dilemma of any historiographical or philosophical kind for any historian.

Luke, on the other hand, tells the story of the birth of Jesus as a tall tale pure and simple. It reads more like an outright mythical “just-so” story we would find in Ovid or the Homeric Hymns.

Point 2: Sources cited

Suetonius by no means presents these omens as facts he can verify as the all-knowing narrator. His list is replete with “they said” or, in the case of the miraculous birth, “I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena.

Theologumena are Discourses of the Gods. We have no way to assess the character of the original as found in those books.

But we do see here that Suetonius is at least prepared to give the reader a chance make up his own mind about the veracity of the information. Ancient historians very commonly do this whenever they speak of miracles in connection with historical characters — something we don’t find in the Gospels or Acts.

Suetonius does not say that Augustus was the divine son of Apollo. He leaves it for the reader to accept that if he wishes. He only says that Augustus “was regarded” — by whom? — as a son of Apollo.

Luke, for example, makes no such qualification. He presents the story from the perspective of the omniscient narrator and leaves the reader no choice but to accept the miracle as part and parcel of the complete story package.

Point 3: Suetonius also told the real story of the birth

Another interesting point emerges when one reads Suetonius for oneself. While Luke speaks of the birth of Jesus at the beginning of his narrative, Suetonius also speaks of the birth of Augustus at the beginning of his — but in that place he tells a completely different story of the birth of Augustus. The fanciful one above is only listed among a list of weird omens that are collated for dramatic effect at the point of the death of Augustus.

Suetonius presents his historian’s account of Augustus’s birth in completely different — realistic and sober — terms. He informs us of Augustus’s family tree history. We learn of his grandfather and father and their accomplishments. He repeatedly tells readers that the father of Augustus was Gaius Octavius. He tells us the exact date and place of Augustus’s birth. The complete account of the Life of Augustus by Suetonius, as published in the 1913 Loeb edition, is here on Bill Thayer’s site.

So unlike the Gospels, the Roman historian presents two birth accounts. One is quite natural and worthy of any rational historian. The other is clearly rhetorical to dramatize the exit of a great figure from this life.


Next time we hear a biblical scholar claim that the miraculous stories in the Gospels are no different from the miraculous stories told by ancient historians about real people, check the sources and challenge that scholar to justify his or her claim.

“I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions .  .  .  .  Don’t take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself. There is plenty of information. You have got to learn how to judge, evaluate and compare it with other things. You have to take some things on trust or you can’t survive. But if there is something significant and important don’t take it on trust. As soon as you read anything that is anonymous you should immediately distrust it. (From Chris Hedges’ article in Truthdigg quoting Noam Chomsky, also in InformationClearingHouse)

(That’s the other thing. The Gospels are anonymous and do not cite sources. Unlike the Lives of the Caesars by even one of the worst of Roman historians, Suetonius.)

Maybe I only read good nonbiblical histories, but I don’t seem to find this same distortion of evidence used to make a point in histories about Constantine, Justinian or Alexander.

It seems to me that HJ historians are pressured to misrepresent evidence in an effort to somehow “strengthen” their bogus insistence that the Gospels really are “recording history” like any “other” ancient history.

Decorated column base, Temple of Apollo, Didym...
Image by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr
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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Another instance of dishonest handling of evidence in Historical Jesus studies?”

  1. Thank you so much for debunking those who would claim that History conclusively proves the Bible. I study Classics/History, and much of my own study revolves around the same issues (although I focus predominately upon the cross-cultural religious borrowing during this period).

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