In the previous post in this series I concluded by pointing out the fundamental difference between the sources used by historians concerning nonbiblical historical figures such as Napoleon, Alexander or even Socrates, and those used by New Testament scholars for Jesus. In the former, the sources leave no doubt at all that certain individuals lived and certain events really happened — that is, that there are certain facts that historians can work with. Not even the most extreme postmodernists deny that Governor Philip established a settlement in Australia in 1788. However much they may be subject to interpretation, historical sources confirm as fact that certain people did certain things in the past.
This is not the case with the sources we have for Jesus. The sources we have for Jesus provide not a single datum of which it can be said, “This is a universally recognized, bedrock, indisputable fact about Jesus.” (See the box at the end of this post for comments on even the death of Jesus in this context.)
Now I am not saying that this situation forces anyone to conclude that there was no historical Jesus. Of course not. But it is a situation that should be recognized, understood and explained.
How do we know anyone existed?
I am sure that no historian undertaking a study of ancient Rome seriously pauses to ask, “How do I know if Julius Caesar really did exist?” The sources have been studied, analysed and dissected intensively for generations and certain information from them has long been taken for granted.
But because history is filled with such “facts” (such as that Julius Caesar conquered and was assassinated in the BCE era) that are part of our cultural heritage, it is worth taking time out to think through exactly how we can know that something really happened or that a particular person really did exist in ancient times.
You’d think that a scholar writing about the past could tell you how we know famous ancient persons existed without even having to think about it. Bizarrely, however, we find New Testament scholars really struggling when attempting to grapple with the question of how we know anyone in any period of history ever existed. It’s clear some have never before thought about it until challenged by mythicism.
Look, for example, at Bart Erhman’s unfortunate confusion in Did Jesus Exist? when he begins by saying photographs are evidence for the historical existence of Abraham Lincoln. That’s nonsense. All photographs can do is identify someone whom we already know exists or existed. Someone has to put a name to a photograph and someone has to link that name with an identity known from other testimony or experience.
Historians can appeal to many different kinds of evidence to establish the past existence of a person. First, there is a real preference for hard, physical evidence, for example, photographs. It is rather hard to deny that Abraham Lincoln lived since we have all seen photos. . . . [F]or most of us, a stack of good photographs from different sources will usually be convincing enough. (pp. 39-40)
I submit that a photograph of Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless unless we already knew who Lincoln was, that is, that he existed and what he did. (The ancient counterparts of photographs would be portraits and statues.)
Ehrman’s final point is just as confused: Continue reading “The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed”