Publius who? That is the point of this post. Assertions that there is as much evidence for Jesus as for any other person in ancient times, or that if we reject the historicity of Jesus then we must reject the existence of everyone else in ancient history, are based on ignorance of how we really do know about the existence of ancient persons.
This is my postscript to the previous post and suggests a case study on the relevance of literary criticism (and a few other things, like primary evidence and external controls) to historical methodology. I have argued the negative side of this in relation to Jesus many times, and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, I focus on one case where the methodology I discuss is used to positively establish historicity of ancient persons.
Seneca mentions a Publius Vinicius the stammerer in one of his letters discussing the methods appropriate for a philosopher’s discourse. I have reasonable grounds for thinking Publius Vinicius was a historical figure 2000 years ago. This is in spite of their being no primary evidence for the existence of Vinicius and despite his not being a major player in the history of the period.
My confidence is based on the following:
- primary evidence for emperors Claudius and Nero (e.g. coins) giving me a comfortable assurance they existed;
- surviving copies of a number of histories and other literature containing discussions of these figures (e.g. Seneca), along with a series of literary judgments on the nature of those works that give me some confidence in the identities of their authors, their provenance, the extent of their factual reliability, etc.; and independent and external supports (including additional secondary and literary evidence about which literary judgements are made) for much of their narrative contents (e.g. Tacitus’s discussion of Seneca as portrayed by Suilius).
From this starting point, I have very strong reasonable grounds for accepting the historicity of the philosopher Seneca, and in the genuineness of some of the surviving writings purportedly by him.
The same starting point (with its literary judgements) gives me good reasons for accepting that when Seneca refers to his knowledge of various Roman speakers within the context of illustrating his arguments with figures known to his reader(s), I can therefore conclude that his exemplars really did exist.
Publius Vinicius the stammerer was one of these examplars. Therefore I have reasonable grounds for concluding that PV existed.
It may be that Seneca’s letters were more artificial than a face-value reading suggests. Maybe he was concocting his correspondent and settings as foils to express his philosophical thoughts. There would be nothing about that given the nature of the epistolary genre and its variety of functions in the times referred to. But that particular literary judgment will not impact on other literary judgments that he was attempting to reinforce his message by means of reference to people his readers knew.
Besides, we have another historian speaking of the same name, Publius Vinicius, in another context, and from the same time period. This strengthens my reason to speak of PV as having been a historical person.
This is about as far as the nature of the evidence of ancient history will allow us to go in allowing us reasonable grounds for believing in the historicity of certain individuals. The evidence is of a completely different order for modern history.
If we had similar evidence for the historicity of Jesus then I could be just as certain of his existence as I am of the existence of Publius Vinicius the stammerer.
But for Jesus?
For Jesus we have scholarly arguments for why a certain saying or deed in the gospels was historical, but in most cases of which I am aware such arguments are entirely circular when it comes to arguing for the historicity of Jesus himself. These arguments begin with the assumption of his historicity, and of the historicity underlying the narrative construct of the Gospels, and then argue through criteria grounded in those assumptions (e.g. embarrassment, double dissimilarity) to confirm those assumptions — as I’ve argued many times, now, such as in my historical methodology post.
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