The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

Finally, historians look to other kinds of evidence not from the person but about the person — that is, reference to, quotations of, or discussions about the person by others. These are of course our most abundant kinds of historical sources. (p. 40)

Once again he is merely begging the question. We also have lots of writings referring to God, even quotations of what God said, and discussions about what God and angels have done in history and to certain saints. Some people have collected the same sorts of materials about their alien or UFO abductors. The Greeks regularly quoted the words of Achilles cited his deeds from Homer’s epics. Joseph Smith has given us given us the same information about the angel Moroni.

James McGrath is fond of saying that we know someone existed through the evidence of what they said and did. That is to say, I think, that if we have accounts of Napoleon or Jesus or Socrates or Caesar or Zeus or Hercules or Churchill or Pinocchio saying and doing something then we know they existed.

Larry Hurtado echoes another common refrain, that in order to speak “with authority” on the existence of Jesus one needs

to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more. And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge. That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority.

Alvar Ellegård aptly responded [link is to PDF download] to this sort of argument in 2008 in the history journal Scandia:

[A]ll these comments about the possible failings of the outsider really belong under the heading of argumentum ad hominem, as long as we are not told just how the alleged omissions, or the bias, or this or that piece of back ground knowledge, has vitiated the theory presented. What specific argument is refuted by the omitted works? What specific argument has relied on a work whose views have been proved untenable? Where has the use of a faulty translation led the author astray?

Hurtado turns to a 1938 publication by H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, that he infers has said everything that needs to be said. In the Preface of that book Wood writes:

We have not to advance reasons to prove that Jesus Christ is a historical character. They have to show that he never existed . . . . (p. 8)

Is this really satisfactory?

Stevan Davies dismisses critical responses to naïve interpretations of the sources as “silly”, “conspiracy theory” and “preposterous”.

Throwing their hands up in despair when pushed on this question, even Mark Goodacre falls back on that rhetorically vacuous retort that in effect says, “If we applied the standards mythicists want to use to deny the existence of Jesus to every historical person then we’d have to conclude no-one existed in the ancient world.”

Stopping to think it through

I suspect part of the reason for such befuddled confusion among NT scholars is that they have tended to see themselves riding on the coattails of other historians who have never had to even think about the question of whether or not their subjects existed. Historians are guided in their choice of topics by the sources available to them, and most sources are by default testimony to the existence of the person they choose to study. So it’s good to stop and think through why that is the case.

As pointed out in my previous post, facts come from sources. So it’s the sources we need to evaluate for their ability to yield “facts”.

Historians seek out the most reliable of sources, and that, as a general rule, means sources from the persons and time in question. That means official documents and archives, diaries, letters, contemporary reports. In the case of ancient figures we often have contemporary coins and monuments testifying to the historical figures.

All such sources are clear evidence of the reality of the person being studied. (In previous posts I’ve referred to these physically contemporaneous artefacts as “primary sources”.)

We have no such sources for Jesus. But it does not follow that Jesus did not therefore exist.

We know of lots of other ancient persons who have left no material remains. (Example, Tiro, Cicero’s slave.) We know them from the written material that has been copied and recopied through the centuries. How do we know any of this is reliable testimony to real people and to real events? (I am referring to our sources for ancient history, of course.)

Is “historical plausibility” sufficient? Well, it doesn’t take much thought to realize “plausibility” is not, in itself, sufficient. If it were, then forgeries, lies, misunderstandings and any other kind of fictional fabrication would rarely, if ever, be detectable. We could never distinguish deception or illusion from fact. How could we discern the difference between an ancient historian’s assertions and a competent historical novel? Plausibility sustained the Swiss nationalist myth in William Tell until recent times. Ned Ludd and Juan Diego were most plausible figures.

Nor is the plausibility question a simple true-or-false issue. Historians necessarily analyse the biases and agendas in the documents they study and assess the extent to which events have been distorted or misinterpreted.

Does genre decide the question? If we read the names and activities of persons in ancient history books, is that enough to establish their historicity? Again, clearly not. The “Father of History”, Herodotus, writes a “history” of the Persian Wars that contain a rich mix of mythological and genuinely historical persons: Europa, Medea, Heracles, Darius, Miltiades, Xerxes. (We likewise find the same mix of fictional and historical persons and motifs in ancient novels.) Should we believe in the historicity of Romulus on the strength of the Roman historian Livy’s portrayal of him?

What of a personal eye-witness account? Surely that must be a decisive factor. Surely it would be strong evidence IF we could be assured of its genuineness. Howell and Prevenier state the obvious when they refer to the historian’s responsibility to test the authenticity of the sources. The Hitler Diaries fooled one of the most renowned historians of the twentieth century, Hugh Trevor-Roper. The supposed eye-witness account of the Trojan War by Dictys Cretensis was regarded as authentic by historians of the Byzantine era. We are assured that there were eyewitnesses to Thomas Aquinas himself levitating around the interior of a cathedral as a sign that God approved his written works.

Does multiple attestation mean anything? It certainly would mean a lot if the sources could be shown to be independent of one another. But independence is a tricky thing. We used to hear many “independent” reports of seeing Elvis alive after his death; we have probably countless “independent” reports of alien abductions.

Can we be assured of the reliability of an account if it cites sources? If we had evidence or good reasons to trust an author’s claims to have gathered information from specific authorities or other accounts, or if we had evidence of the existence and contents of these cited sources, then yes, the historian’s confidence in the information can be strengthened. However, historians once placed more confidence in the Histories of Herodotus than was probably warranted, primarily because he seemed so often to explain where he learned about his stories. But more recently Detlev Fehling in Herodotus and His “Sources” has argued that many of these cited sources are little more than literary artifices and not genuine sources at all. Katherine Stott in Why Did They Write This Way? makes a similar case for many of the supposed sources cited in the biblical literature.

A Reason to believe in Whatshisname

This is a topic I have covered so often before that I feel obligated to express it differently. Hence the table below. In brief, what the table draws to our attention is that we have strong confidence in the historicity of ancient persons whose names appear in a literary source

  • that consists of a narrative that in key aspects is confirmed by external material/primary evidence (e.g. Josephus, Livy)
  • whose contents can with confidence be traced to the times of events and persons narrated
  • whose general reliability is confirmed by independently derived information in other literary works (e.g. we have five ancient historical works about Alexander the Great — Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius, Plutarch, Arrian and Justin, with Justin summarizing the works of another, Pompey Trogus — See post, Comparing the Sources for Alexander and Jesus.)
  • that can with confidence be reliably attributed to a credible author or other provenance (the more precise the better)
  • that is a genre that supports historicity (e.g. history, letter, edict).

No doubt there are many shades of grey, but I suspect that most of those people thought to be clearly historical and are known from ancient literature are derived from sources that meet most if not all of the above criteria. Nor am I saying that if a name does not meet all or even any of these criteria then we must conclude that that person did not exist. No, not at all.

If a figure cannot meet any of these criteria than the best we can say is that we have no secure evidence that they really did exist. We cannot be sure if they are a literary cipher or a real person.

And I suggest that if that is the case it really doesn’t matter as far as any significant historical explanations are concerned. So what if Socrates or Hillel turns out to be more literary than historical? It would make no substantial difference whatever to the history of Greek philosophy or Jewish thought. (I am not saying Socrates and Hillel are not historical. I’m quite prepared to accept that they very likely are. But I’m not going to bet my house, my right arm and my partner on it.)

It’s simple.

If I read a document, the first version of which without doubt originated from the pen of Seneca, and if I have independent, verifiable reasons for knowing who Seneca was, and if the document is a personal letter complaining about the pompous attitude of a rival philosopher named Publius, then I can be reasonably confident that Publius really did exist and was another philosopher in Seneca’s time. (I’ve discussed this particular example in more depth at Stronger Evidence for Publius Vinicius the Stammerer than for Jesus.

Here’s a checklist. I am sure I have overlooked some details. Corrections welcome. The persons with green background are supported by primary (contemporary archaeological) evidence so their historical existence is not in doubt. Their appearance in the literature can be used as a control when comparing the literary evidence for the “minor actors” — those persons whose existence lacks any external material support. “N-f” is short for non-fiction, though I know that such a term is anachronistic and some ancient historiography is riddled with fiction.

Of course the check-list can be cheated. A forgery, an interpolated name, can give a full deck of false positives. I suggest that if a name does not meet all the criteria, however, that you will more than likely find some nook or cranny in the scholarly world where the historical existence of that person is thought to be open to question. But does it matter?

One quickly sees the importance of genre. A mythical figure may appear in an otherwise piece of historiography, but one must also understand that not everything in ancient historiography was treated as historical in the same way contemporary events were. Herodotus speaks of Europa and Heracles, but his references do not support their historicity.

When I speak of “literature confirmed by primary evidence” I mean that key aspects of the larger narrative of the source are confirmed by external controls (material evidence), thus giving us reason to have some confidence in its narrative. (I do not mean merely that there are references to real places and persons, however. Even ancient romances included real names and places in their popular novellas — see Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth.) Similarly, “confirmed by independent literary sources” means that the general contents or core details are confirmed by independent sources, thus enhancing the credibility of any one of the sources.


Historical name

(Green – primary evidence exists so historicity certain)

Name appears in n-f literature confirmed by primary evidence Name appears in n-f literature confirmed by independent literary sources Verifiable and credible author / provenance of n-f literature.

Thus can be reasonably confident the author’s sources are likely traced to time of the person/events.

Genre supports historicity
Alexander the Great Yes Yes Yes Yes
Julius Caesar Yes Yes Yes Yes
Pilate Yes Yes Yes Yes
Publius Vinicius the Stammerer Yes Yes Yes Yes
Honi the Circle Drawer Yes Yes Yes Yes
Bernice (daughter of Herod Agrippa I) Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tiro (Cicero’s slave) Yes Yes Yes Yes
Socrates Yes Yes Yes ?
Hillel ? ? ? ?
Hercules Yes Yes No No
Romulus Yes Yes No No
Jesus ? ? No No

What this table indicates is that no-one has to worry about all the other historical names falling out of the ancient history books if it was thought there was insufficient evidence to classify Jesus Christ as historical.

This post is really an interim in the series on the historical Jesus and the decline of historiographical standards. I have yet to address the way historians and theologians have mangled historical methods up until now in their efforts to describe an historical Jesus. I will focus in particular on the historian Michael Grant’s life of Jesus — just to show I’m not only picking on the theologians! 😉 I then need to address the recent trends towards postmodernism.



Even the account of Jesus’ death has met with scholarly arguments that it

  • derives from earlier narratives in which the central hero does not die but is delivered from death at the last minute;
  • was of no special significance at all for his earliest followers in Galilee.

No scholar argues that the Pilgrims did not settle in New England, that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon, that Socrates was not a teacher or philosopher.

Historians generally work within the framework of secure and indisputable facts — even if all their sources are propaganda; historical Jesus scholars cannot do this.


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus and the Demise of History, 2: The Overlooked Reasons We Know Certain Ancient Persons Existed”

      1. You’ve misremembered. The story goes that Aquinas levitated around Notre Dame because god liked his treatise. Several monks were said to have seen this. It doesn’t sound like the claim came from Aquinas himself.

  1. It always seemed to me that a clue to the genre of the gospels is in what documents do they quote above all others. It appears they are *very* interested in ‘old testament’ stories. We would be well advised to consider whether the Jesus is a figure like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, or any of the others in the literature.

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