Most things we know we know because “everyone knows” them to be true. They are things we are taught at school and that remain unquestioned in our cultural life. Though much of this “social knowledge” will not be seriously questioned by most of us, we have trained specialists or scientists who will question and test some of it. So we have two types of knowledge: social knowledge and scientific knowledge.
Most of us know figures from the past existed as a form of social knowledge. I know evolution is a fact as a form of social knowledge, and with a little effort I have found I can also know it is true as a more secure, evidence-based form of knowledge.
Most of us know Julius Caesar existed because this is a matter of public record and taught in schools. Specializing students of history know he exists because they become familiar with the evidence: coins with his name and image, busts, books written by him, writings among his contemporaries like Cicero speaking of him. His existence (and career) is also a very powerful explanation of the way Rome and its conquered territories came to be ruled by an emperor.
There is a constellation of other persons in Caesar’s life for whom we don’t have the same strength of evidence. But the fact that those others are written about by authors who express intentions to address the facts of his life gives us strong confidence in the probability of their existence, too.
Some historical persons such as Socrates who have become part of the web of our social knowledge are from time to time questioned by specialist students and scholars. But many of these specialists are satisfied Socrates existed on the strength of the independence of the ancient testimonies. Not only is Socrates found among the writings of his reverential devotees like Plato and Xenophon, but he also appears comedy plays by a contemporary playwright as the but of crude mockery.
So when we get beyond social knowledge, specialist students can uncover the more empirical evidence for the existence of ancient persons. What persuades is where that evidence is multiple, independent and not self-serving or agenda-driven.
In the case of Jesus, all the incontestable evidence derives from a single “community”, the Christians themselves. Of course there were factions within that community, but we can still speak of them as a singular ideological community standing apart from the rest of the world. Not only does the evidence derive from a single ideological source, but it is all clearly agenda-driven. The references to Jesus are part of theological writings that express clear intentions to persuade readers to submit to the new religion that worships Jesus. (Some scholars will take exception to the claim that the early Christians themselves worshiped Jesus, but the writings we have about Jesus all signal their interest in having readers embrace Jesus as the central focus of their religion.)
We may know about Caesar, Socrates and Christ as a form of social knowledge that superficially gives us confidence that the historical existence of one is as certain as that of the other. But if we are interested in examining things at another level of knowledge through specializing investigations of the evidence itself, we find the foundations for each are as different qualitatively as the nature of the evidence for Washington and William Tell. (There is still a flickering of a lingering debate in Switzerland, by the way, as to Tell’s historical existence.)
It is not enough to say that Jesus was not a public official like Julius Caesar and for that reason we cannot expect the same extent of evidence for him. Obviously we can expect more evidence for a public figure. (Although the gospels indicate Jesus was more well known than many public figures whose records have not survived.)
What is significant is the nature of the evidence. We have on the one hand ideologically independent witnesses that do not testify of the name in a self-serving way, and on the other we have testimony that is ideologically confined and that uses the name to promote an agenda. The difference is as stark as day is from night.
Caveat: This qualitative difference alone does not mean that Jesus Christ was not a historical figure. But it does legitimize the debate.
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29 thoughts on “How do we know anyone existed in ancient times? (Or, if Jesus Christ goes would Julius Caesar also have to go?)”
Lately, Mark Goodacre has been discussing the historicity of Jesus.
NT Pod 47 ends on this curious note:
“…I think we should be wary of the kind of hyper-skepticism which begins from a position of thinking that we must know absolutely nothing. The denial of the existence of a figure like Jesus simply puts a kind of intolerable burden on the text that we’re studying. And after all, these are texts in which there are other characters who had historical existence. I mean, just think of someone like John the Baptist. I mean, John the Baptist is there in these texts as….as…somebody who himself, uh, we…we…do seriously doubt the existence of. And he’s mentioned in Josephus, the Jewish historian, as well.
And the thing is, if we start denying the existence of Jesus then we really have to deny also the existence not only of John the Baptist, but also Herod Antipas, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, Herodias, Peter, John, James… The list just keeps going on.”
So to recap, we can’t start questioning the historicity of Jesus because:
1. Hyper-skepticism is bad. I’m not sure where the line between “proper” skepticism and too much skepticism is, but I’m sure the scholars will let us know. From what I can gather, if you get too close to upsetting the status quo, you’ve already crossed the line.
2. Hyper-skeptical mythicists believe “we must know absolutely nothing.” Those party poopers!
3. Asking for external corroborating evidence for NT narratives is an “intolerable burden.” I wonder if this sort of plea is acceptable in the study of King Arthur, Robin Hood, or William Tell. Can an Arthurian Studies scholar just wave the “intolerable burden” flag if somebody raises doubts regarding the historicity of Sir Lancelot?
4. The scholars who carry the historical Jesus torch are like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. If they, heaven forbid, should budge on this issue then all of ancient history would come crashing down. Never mind, of course that we have multiple, independent attestation for Pilate, along with stone inscriptions. Forget the external physical evidence for Herod and his family. No, if Jesus goes, every cherished character in the New Testament will follow, sliding down that slippery slope into a hyper-skeptical black hole. And that would be intolerable.
I like Mark Goodacre as a person as well as a scholar, so it is sad to see him slip into this sort of special pleading.
Would he “fear” that if Daniel goes then so also Nebuchadnezzar and Darius would have to go?
I like Goodacre, too. I especially like his treatment of Q, which I think you could summarized as: (1) Can the synoptics as we have them be explained more simply? and (2) Where does the evidence lead?
But now I have to wonder — is this an intolerable burden on Q?
The idea that if you dispense with one ancient figure you have to dispense with them all should be countered with the idea that if you accept one mythical figure you have to accept them all. Why not believe in a historical Hercules, Mithras, Castor and Pollux, Sherlock Holmes, Paul Bunyan, Ned Lud … the analogy seems pristine.
Why ruin a perfectly invalid argument…
The analogy seems positively idiotic. People who take your view seriously need to read more. Really, when I see that it is a big clue that the person on the other end is uneducated and foolish, and thus should be ignored. Go pitch that idea to some professors see what responses you get.
Sorry to be harsh, but out side of narrow minded ideologues, stuff like that make you look stupid, because it is a stupid argument, I’m sure your capable of better. You should put more thought into your opinions.
Scolding someone, of course, is not an argument. If you have one, please render it.
I agree that he’s slipped into an almost apologetic-sounding special pleading here.
However, more than that, it disturbs me to hear a learned scholar in any discipline rule out a line of reasoning with the fear that it would “go too far.” Can the demand for external controls ever an intolerable burden? Is it ever legitimate for historians to rule out a method simply because they don’t like the outcome?
The difficulty, I think, with excerpting only the conclusion to the podcast is that it becomes much easier to trivialize. The point I am trying to make is to do with the way that ancient history works and what our expectations are. It is in the nature of the case that political characters like Pilate make an impact (for example) on the archaeological record whereas characters like Jesus and John survive only in memories that are ultimately cast into traditions and crystallized in texts. Tim mentions “multiple, independent attestation for Pilate, along with stone inscriptions” but this is my own point.
The way I would distinguish “healthy scepticism” from “hyper scepticism” is that healthy scepticism takes seriously the inevitable difficulties of working with ancient history whereas “hyper scepticism” makes unreasonable demands of the ancient historical record.
Would I fear that if Daniel goes, then Nebuchadnezzar and Darius would go? No. “The idea that if you dispense with one ancient figure you have to dispense with them all” is (at best) a caricature of the point I am making, which relates to the expectations that we bring to the work of ancient history.
‘It is in the nature of the case that political characters like Pilate make an impact (for example) on the archaeological record whereas characters like Jesus and John survive only in memories that are ultimately cast into traditions and crystallized in texts.’
You mean like traditions of Jesus being born in Bethlehem,talking to Satan in the desert?
Those sorts of traditions?
How did Jesus survive in Paul’s letters, or the Epistle of James?
Did Jesus survive as the big advantage that the Jews had been given? Or was that scripture?
Did Jesus survive as a person who testified to this new righteousness? Or was that the Law and the Prophets?
Did Jesus survive as the person who revealed a long hidden mystery? Or was that revealed by the prophetic writings?
Did Jesus survive as somebody for Christians to model themselves on? Or was that Job?
Did Jesus survive as somebody whose birth heralded in a new covenant? Or was that Abraham’s son?
And just where does the Gospel of ‘Mark’ say it is history?
If I understand you correctly, your contention is that “hyper-skepticism” sets the bar too high. Conversely, I would argue that conventional HJ studies is guilty of grading on the curve. That is, evidence that would normally be used to say “perhaps Alexander the Great did this” or “maybe Socrates said that” gets promoted because, well, that’s all we have.
I agree with Neil that historical skepticism doesn’t have gradations. You pick up a literary work from antiquity that makes a claim about an event, an utterance, perhaps both. Without corroboration, the most you can say is, “Well, that’s plausible.” Or, “Here’s what some people in antiquity (maybe only the author) believed.”
Did Alexander slice the Gordian Knot in half, or did he cleverly find the ends and unravel it, as no one else before him could do? (Both stories were told.) Or was it a bit of propaganda from Alexander’s successors? Or just a fun myth that got associated with his legend? It seems to me the honest historian would present all sides and say: “Here’s the kind of impact Alexander had on future generations; these are the kinds of stories they liked to tell about him. Did it happen? Who knows? We can see why both stories stuck. He created the largest empire to date using both violence and cunning.”
Compare this to the way HJ scholars turn the circular evidence for Jesus’ baptism into a “hard fact.” If this were any other character in history, scholars would say, “Later followers of Jesus came to believe that he had been baptized by John, whom they called the ‘forerunner’ of Christ.”
This is not an “intolerable burden” on the text. There are, for now at least, certain things we will never know about the ancient world. I do not come to this conclusion because I am hyper-skeptical, but because the methods at hand can only prove so much.
In fact, I would argue that hyper-skepticism is a red herring that masks the real problem here — namely, selective credulity when it comes to ancient characters that we, for whatever reasons, desperately wish to keep.
‘….’ancient historical record.’
You mean the anonymous , unprovenanced works called the Gospels which plagiarise each other and the Old Testament, and feature a cast of characters that had no recorded impact on Christian history to the extent that people who were there, like Paul,never mention them?
Why are those works an ‘ancient historical record’? What evidence led you to label the stories about Judas and Joseph of Arimathea ‘an ancient historical record’?
Or perhaps ‘evidence’ is one of those things that hyper-skeptics demand and which does not take into account the expectations that we bring to the work of ancient history.
We should not expect ‘evidence’ – for lo, there was none.
I don’t understand what is meant by “hyper scepticism” in this context. I would need to see some examples or illustrations of it. I once posted on what I think are some misunderstandings about the nature of scepticism, and this apparent distinction between “healthy” and “hyper” brings those comments to mind.
What are some examples of unreasonable demands of the ancient historical record? It would help me if I could be shown some examples, hypothetical ones will do, of what such demands look like in areas other than those related to Jesus.
Or what, exactly, is the nature of the unreasonableness seen in the question of Jesus here? Is it not really the case that HJ scholars are asking for privileged assumptions of historicity that are found in no other area of ancient history?
The following reduces the question to a personal level of mine.
Hyper-scepticism to me suggests a mindset that is bent on disproving or finding reasons to reject a belief. That is as far from my interest as crusading against UFOs. I am simply not interested in bothering with anything like that. I am not out to debunk Christianity. That’s John Loftus’s job. My interest is quite different. It is to understand as far as my means and opportunities will allow the origins and nature of early Christianity.
Sometimes people get upset if I don’t come out and give my particular argument for mythicism. There are two reasons I don’t. The first one is, I am not looking for an argument for mythicism. I am not trying to find reasons to support mythicism. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with doing that, only that it is not my own personal interest.
My interest is in understanding all I can about Christian origins. The mythicism I accept is a (very probable) conclusion reached in that study. One of my strongest interests is in studies of the Biblical books as literature. That is not a study in “mythicism” but a study in what can be gleaned of the minds of the authors, the interplay of their ideas, etc. Yes, out of that I see very legitimate reasons for acknowledging many (not all) mythicist arguments, especially many of those of Doherty.
I don’t see how “hyper-scepticism” fits any of my interest, outlook or methods. Is it “hypersceptical” to take questions and some conclusions in other studies to what I think are their logical conclusions? If so, what is the difference between “hyper” and “healthy” scepticism?
I suppose I am using “healthy scepticism” and “hyper scepticism” as general perspectives on the texts, i.e. trying to explain what I see as the legitimate concerns we should have about working with ancient texts and facing up to the inevitable gaps in the data set vs. making (what I see) as excessive demands of them. I must admit that I do see the scepticism over Paul’s witness to Jesus to be — from my perspective — somewhat excessive, and I think I would put that in the category of “hyper scepticism”. But it could be that I am too sanguine about the Pauline witness.
“But it could be that I am too sanguine about the Pauline witness.”
Are you talking about what Paul presumably learned from Peter and James or what Paul witnessed firsthand by revelation and scripture?
In that context, I was talking about what Paul talked about with those who were in the movement before him, but I would be even more sanguine about what Paul says he received from revelation and Scripture!
‘In that context, I was talking about what Paul talked about with those who were in the movement before him….’
Paul says he received the gospel from no man.
Paul also says early Christian converts recieved ‘milk’ until they were ready for ‘meat’.
So presumably they were given all the oral tradition about the teachings and deeds of their Lord and Saviour – which would have been the milk given to Christians not yet ready for meat?
What was held back from early Christian converts, as the standard historicist model has a pattern of uncensored oral tradition where people kept on freely talking about all that Jesus of Nazareth had done? This is a model which cannot be reconciled with Paul saying early converts got ‘milk’.
What is the Pauline witness about Q, Judas, Barabbas, Lazarus, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Bartimaeus, Nicodemus, Jairus and the other cast of Gospel characters?
What is the Pauline witness about how crucified victims of the authorities brought judgement on themselves because the authorities were agents of god who did not bear the sword for nothing?
What is the Pauline witness about how the early cult accessed the body of its founder? Was it through seeing him or in a ritual meal?
I don’t understand what methodology or rationale underlies the framing of the discussion in terms of “general perspectives”. “legitimate concerns” and “excessive demands”.
I don’t know of any “mythicist” argument, for example, that looks at a text and opines: “Well, this looks like it could be interpreted in favour of a historical Jesus, but I can also see a possibility of interpreting it differently; furthermore, I will insist that the text is not evidence of a historical Jesus by virtue of what I consider its potential ambiguity.”
That sort of reasoning, if I understand what you are saying, is what you seem to be implying is the issue when you speak of “excessive demands” and “general perspectives”.
Are the grounds for “mythicism” really so subjective?
Is there not a clear divide between HJ studies and other ancient history studies over what they treat as evidence? Ancient historians deal with evidence for facts of a matter, and their questions are limited by the nature of the data. Criteria are used to interpret established and generally recognized facts. HJ historians, on the other hand, are using criteria to try to establish or find facts. Criteriology has become a de facto arbiter of what is a fact. Surely by normal standards of historiography HJ studies represent an attempt to ask or presume much more of the evidence than normal (nonbiblical) standards of historical inquiry would allow.
The whole premise of HJ studies is an uncorroborated assumption that there is an HJ to study in the first place. In no other figure of ancient history that I know of do we begin with such an assumption. Is it really “hypersceptism” or an “excessive demand” to ask that our starting base be the same as for any other ancient historical figure?
I am not suggesting that we start with the assumption that there is no historical Jesus and seek to find arguments to support that premise. What I mean is that we start without reference to any such figure and attempt to study the literature independently of any such presumption.
Do not terms like “hyperscepticism” and “excessive demands” indicate a bias in favour of the historicity core of the Gospel narrative rather than a strict neutrality?
Thanks for the comments, Neil. I wouldn’t be inclined to make too much of a statement of approach and perspective. I mentioned my perspective on the texts, and that it is one of (what I call) “healthy scepticism” rather than “hyper-scepticism”. These are not methods or criteria or types of criticism; they are summary statements of one particular scholar’s *perspective on* the evidence. I tend to see (what I call) hyper-scepticism in the work of some mythicists, i.e. I see a kind of labouring hard to discount any evidence that might appear to contradict their case. Nut I fully accept that others may not see that as “hyper scepticism”. Rather, they would see it as a kind of balanced, sober and rational scepticism. And that is why, in the end, it is argument and evidence that matters. But I think it is acceptable for me to explain, in broad brush, summary terms, what my general perspective on the evidence is.
I think this is getting (close) to the core of the “conflict” between mythicists and historicists (forgive the terms, but we know what we mean). It does seem to me to be a “conflict” between the two, because I have seen very few instances of the two sides in dialogue on the specific arguments. (I don’t mean adversarial debate.)
And how can there be real discussion if historicists think the mythicists are “hyper sceptical” and the mythicists see the historicists as defaulting to a presumption of historicity under the label “healthy scepticism”? (Do you see that as a fair summary?)
A good part of the problem is that historicist arguments are grounded on the assumption of the historicity of Jesus and some form of gospel narrative in the first place. I have yet to see an argument by a historicist (in responding to genuine mythicist argument) that is not begging the question.
Healthy scepticism is good. But where does healthy scepticism end and circular argument begin?
Hyper-scepticism is a meaningless term to me in this context. You will have to explain it more clearly for me to know what you are referring to, — unless I am correct in understanding you to mean a hostile or flippant reading of the evidence to make the evidence prove what we want it to prove.
If that’s what you mean, then hyper scepticism is bad, and can be rebutted by pointing out the evidence that is overlooked or undervalued.
I would say that many mythicist arguments are healthy scepticism without the circular reasoning, without the question begging assumptions.
Can you point to a specific argument for the historicity of Jesus that does not involve circularity?
Can you point to a specific mythicist argument of Price, Wells, Doherty, Thompson even, that can be countered by pointing out some overlooked or undervalued evidence that does not at the same time rely on question begging for its interpretation?
And that is why, in the end, it is argument and evidence that matters.
But no matter how many times historical Jesus scholars are asked for evidence that Judas, Lazarus, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Bartimaeus existed, you get no evidence.
They are in the Gospels.The Gospels are in the New Testament Therefore, the characters in them existed.
Other Gospels are not in the New Testament, so they can be treated with ‘hyperskepticism’.
Just read Bauckham’s ‘Eyewitnesses’ book to see how scholars approach books that are not in the New Testament. These books are seen through and discounted immediately without even an apology for being ‘hyperskeptical’.
Where are the controls?
Where is any independent attestation that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist?
Where are the facts?
Historians should proceed from facts, not from anonymous plagiarised unprovenanced works which mention a huge cast of characters that never exist when Christians are talking to each other in the first century.
What matters is the evidence.
But there is no evidence that the first Gospel was meant to be history, rather than the sort of myth that religions produce in their thousands.
The comparison of the evidence for historicity of JC with JC is instructive in illustrating the DIFFERENCE between the two. In their desire to proof-text an HJ conclusion McGrath el-all fail to distinguish between Source and Criteria. Source is the key, the potential direct evidence for HJ. Criteria is secondary, it evaluates the quality of the source. You do not establish historicity based on criteria such as the embarrassing criterion of embarrassment. Criteria is a secondary consideration. You can only establish historicity based on sources which need to be weighed based on ALL criteria. I fear that Jesus might actually return before McGrath el-all understand this.
I Am currently demonstrating that in the examples of Greco-Roman Biographies that Burridge uses to compare to the Gospels, as opposed to “Mark” (the only important Gospel here as the original) they IDENTIFY sources. By an act of Providence I am currently looking at Suetonius’ “The Life of Julius Caesar”.
Early on Suetonius writes:
“9 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] For all that he presently made a more daring attempt at Rome; for a few days before he entered upon his aedileship he was suspected of having made a conspiracy with Marcus Crassus, an ex-consul, and likewise with Publius Sulla and Lucius Autronius, who, after their election to the consulship, had been found guilty of corrupt practices. The design was to set upon the senate at the opening of the year and put to the sword as many as they thought good; then Crassus was to usurp the dictatorship, naming Caesar as his master of horse, and when they had organized the state according to their pleasure, the consulship was to be restored to Sulla and Autronius. 2 This plot is mentioned by Tanusius Geminus in his p13History, by Marcus Bibulus in his edicts, and by Gaius Curio the elder in his speeches. Cicero too seems to hint at it in a letter to Axius, where he says that Caesar in his consulship established the despotism which he had had in mind when he was aedile. Tanusius adds that Crassus, either conscience-stricken or moved by fear, did not appear on the day appointed for the massacre, and that therefore Caesar did not give the signal which it had been arranged that he should give; and Curio says that the arrangement was that Caesar should let his toga fall from his shoulder. 3 Not only Curio, but Marcus Actorius Naso as well declare that Caesar made another plot with Gnaeus Piso, a young man to whom the province of Spain had been assigned unasked and out of the regular order, because he was suspected of political intrigues at Rome; that they agreed to rise in revolt at the same time, Piso abroad and Caesar at Rome, aided by the Ambrani and the peoples beyond the Po; but that Piso’s death brought both their designs to naught.”
Compare to the Source evidence for “Mark’s” Jesus’ last supper:
1) We have Provenance for the source here Suetonius.
2) Suetonius identifies First-hand witnesses, so we have identified Second-hand witness in Suetonius.
The criteria for Suetonius are good. He is credible, in position to witness, has multiple support and scope.
Compare to the evidence for “Mark’s” last supper. No identity or provenance for “Mark”. No Identification of sources. Criteria can not Save Source if there is no source. The criteria here do not help anyway. No credibility, position or support. In McGrath’s related God-awful post:
(“In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul addresses issues related to the communal means the Christians in Corinth were practicing”. “communal means”? Jesus, talk about a subliminal slip). McGrath as usual has it all Bauckwards. In determining possible historicity you start by determining what is Impossible, than what is Improbable. What is left may be historical. On the other side, the Source problem with Paul prevents any of it from being probable history. We have provenance for Paul but he confesses that his source here is explicitly Revelation and in general he denies historical sources. Criteria wise he lacks credibility, support and scope here (he does have position).
What McGrath fails to identify is:
1) Paul gives a SUPERNATURAL context. His Jesus’ has supernatural knowledge of the future. We can be certain that this is fiction. Therefore, the context of the story is fiction. In God’s Name can someone please explain to me why it’s okay for McGrath to make fun of MJ, which is possible, but it’s not okay to make fun of McGrath’s belief in Jesus which is not possible?
2) It’s IMPROBABLE that a historical person with a following would plan his Passion. It’s also improbable that if he did, he would be unable to communicate his plan to his followers.
3) Paul’s THEME is that the Death of Jesus is the only significant part of his life. Paul’s last supper sketch is his only description of the supposed life of Jesus that is more than a few words and is clearly a set-up for Jesus death. The combination of the uniqueness of the story and importance to Paul’s theme creates a lot of doubt as to historical value.
4) “Mark” has a primary general THEME of discrediting historical witness so it’s likely that Paul’s Revelation is his source (there is no other known source). Speaking of which, why is it okay for McGrath to deny the known source here as source and use unknown sources as source?
5) “Mark” has a specific son of mantra here that Jesus came to SERVE and not be served. His Jesus serves the wine and manwitches and refuses the two drink minimum at the Big Show.
The source problem is going to prevent any conclusion here as to likely history or fiction, but the combination of the Impossible, the Improbable and the Themes make Fiction more likely here than History.
The most significant observation to be drawn from the way that Suetonius introduces and identifies his sources is what it suggests about his “intention” as the author. Someone addressing me in such a way gives me the impression he is wanting me to understand that what follows is checked for authority and therefore can be relied upon. His intention is to pass on “true” information.
Contrast this with someone giving a presentation such as one reads in Mark’s gospel. The impression one gains is that the author/presenter is wanting me to listen to the story and respond to its cues as they arise within.
That’s where the key difference lies when comparing identification of sources or nonidentification. It has significane for how one should interpret or assess the “historicity” of each narrative.
If iesus the Meshia existed or was so big in stature and deeds, wouldnt it be fair to say that
amongst everything said and done in the past.
Where is his statue or even to the point, why havent his relatives come up to the plate and say here we are we have proof of at least some historical evidence. As we well know there is nothing not one person not one shred of evidence. Not even in Josephus flavius has any precice evidence or knowledge of such one person that can be even identified. Peace and luv to all.