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. Continue reading “Is it a “fact of history” that Jesus existed? Or is it only “public knowledge”?”