That chart of mythical and historical persons — with explanations

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by Neil Godfrey

I have added to my table some quick off-the-top-of-my-head references to the sources I was thinking of when I constructed my original table (see previous post). Some people on Jim McGrath’s site have chosen not to register any problems with my chart here, but have opted for a giggle-and-poke session on Jimmy’s blog and Doctor James McGrath even said my entries on the chart I myself devised were “arbitrary”. But I think everyone who knows the history of this Explodingourcakemix scholar knows he knows nothing outside a few set texts in theology classes, some Mandean texts that need translating, and all the Dr Who scripts. Here in this post I add to my original chart some quick references to the sources that were on my mind at the time I designed it.

Some people have even challenged me for my entries and asked what I would assign for this or that other historical person. In doing so they have missed the point entirely. Who cares what I enter into the table? If I made some mistakes, then fine, tell me and I’ll change my choices. What matters is what most people who know anything about the historical sources for any supposed historical person choose to enter. It’s not a subjective exercise. Choices of Yes or No etc are open to discussion and correction.

Gosh, some people seem to think that “mythicists” are just like “historicists” — that they have some ideological or professional interest to defend and are prepared to construct bogus charts with “arbitrary” entries somehow thinking that everyone will be fooled. 🙁

Here is the chart again, along with my introductory explanation, and some names added to indicate the sources that guided my initial decisions.

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 (e.g. Arrian — compare coins and epigraphic evidence) Yes (e.g. Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Curtius, Plutarch, Pompey Trogus/Jerome) Yes (see Comparing Sources for Alexander and Jesus) Yes
Julius Caesar Yes (e.g. Caesar — coins, fort . . .)

Yes (e.g. Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Suetonius)

Yes (see Appian, Suetonius . . . ) Yes
Pilate Yes (e.g. Josephus — inscription) Yes — Tacitus, Philo) Yes (see Josephus et al) Yes
Publius Vinicius the Stammerer Yes (e.g. Seneca — Nero and coins) Yes — (Tacitus, Cassius Dio) Yes (Seneca — see Evidence) Yes
Honi the Circle Drawer Yes (Josephus — archaeological artefacts) Yes
Bernice (daughter of Herod Agrippa I) Yes (Josephus — archaeological artefacts) Yes — (Tacitus, Cassius Dio . . .) Yes (Josephus) Yes
Tiro (Cicero’s slave) Yes (e.g. Cicero — archaeological artefacts) Yes — (Plutarch . . . ) Yes (Cicero) Yes
Socrates Yes (e.g. Aristophane — archaeological artefacts) Yes — (Plato, Xenophon ) Yes (Xenophon. . .) ?
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.

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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “That chart of mythical and historical persons — with explanations”

  1. I think you can add Aristotle to the list of sources for Socrates. He refers to Socrates as if Socrates were a real person, and, although
    Aristotle never knew Socrates, he did know Plato and the other members of the Academy. He knew Democritus. All of these people would have been able to say “Aristophanes invented Socrates, and Plato took over the character for his dialogues.” They had plenty of time while Aristotle was at the Academy. But it seems no-one said that to Aristotle.

  2. The four Chart items identifying Jesus as presently understood by certain of our top New Testament historical scholars.

    Historical name: Jesus

    Name appears in f literature confirmed by primary sources:
    In f writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, confirmed by our primary nf source the Sermon on the Mount.

    Name appears in nf literature confirmed by independent literary sources: Jesus’ name does not appear in the nf source the Sermon on the Mount, but as “I say” which indisputably is taken as “Jesus said”, confirmed by the independent literary adversarial source Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

    Verifiable and credible author/province of nf literature: The author is not f Matthew as per a widely held consensus, but a pre-Matthean redactor within the early Jewish “Christian” community, “a product of the mid-first century, when the community was still part of Judaism”. (Betz).

    (Remainder of the comment has been deleted because it is repetitive — it has been posted here many times before — and irrelevant to the topic of this post. — Neil)

    1. Point one, name appearing in literature confirmed by primary sources: No. The Gospels are not such literature, and nor are any other writings of the NT. At best all they do is reference background setting information such as the names of places and persons at the time — just as one finds in fictional literature of the day. See my previous post on this topic to understand what I mean by literature being “confirmed by primary sources”.

      Point two, name appearing in independent literary sources: As you yourself say, the name does not appear in the Sermon on the Mount, but more importantly, the Sermon on the Mount (I think you mean Q) is obviously used by Matthew and Luke so Matthew and Q are by no means independent of each other.

      Provenance: There has been no “widely held consensus” that Matthew is the author of the Gospel since probably the eighteenth century. Your information is very out of date. The very fact that we have no idea who the author of the Gospel was, and can only speculate as to when it was written, by whom and for whom, makes it virtually worthless as a “history” of Jesus. (If some of the other points were positive its value would be enhanced a little.)

      Genre: You rightly remain silent on this critical factor.

          1. So you force me to say more. I repeat what i did say as explicit as I can: The author (of the SM) is not the (the evangelist) Matthew, but a pre Matthean redactor of the early “Christian” community (properly the Jerusalem Jesus Movement), “a product of the mid-first century, when the (Jerusalem Jesus Movement) community was still a part of Judaism”. This was some 20 plus years before the Gospel of Matthew.
            As to my 6:32 am comment, I was saying: for you to infer that I had implied that the Apostle Matthew authored the Gospel Matthew was nonsensical to the extent that it “says it all” -yes your misstatement: “Remainder of the comment has been deleted because it is repetative – it has been posted many times before – and irrelevant to the topic of this post.” Now I literally have said all I may say.

            1. Yes, Ed. I know all that. I agree that the author of the SM as you/Betz put it was not “Matthew” and I accept that whenever that SM was written, however much earlier than our completed gospel of Matthew, it was not written by “Matthew”. We do not know who wrote it. That’s my point. We have no idea who wrote the Gospel of Matthew or any of the bits that are now in it, the SM included, no matter that they were written 20 or more years earlier. You know it, I know it, and that was my point.

              Just saying the SM was written by someone who was part of the Jerusalem Jesus movement 20 years before the Gospel of Matthew was written tells us nothing. Who was this person? Who commissioned him to write? Where did he get his information? Neither you nor Betz has anything but an imaginatively reconstructed scenario to fall back on to answer any of those questions.

  3. Neil, I posted this on Exploring Our Matrix as a response to your comment here:


    I did once ask a scholar of Buddhism about the evidence for S’s historicity but he only replied with hostility (I thought Buddhism taught peace.) Another was more polite and I can discuss his responses some time.

    With respect Neil, I didn’t ask you how Buddhist scholars respond to questions about the Buddha’s authenticity. I asked you whether you think the Buddha or the Battle of Catraeth (or Pythagoras, Sankara, or Hippoctrates) would qualify for any ticks in your boxes, and if so which boxes?

    But what I think or how I classify them is beside the point.

    Except that it’s not besides the point is it? You wrote in your post that:

    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.

    I don’t have a problem with trying to make a comparative assessment of evidence for different figures, it’s something I think could be useful. But I still suspect that a lot of characters and events that are usually or often (though not necessarily invariably) considered historical would flunk out on some or all of your four criteria. I recognise that you don’t think that would necessarily rule them out as historical, but you do say that

    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.

    That’s why I’d be interested to know where some of the above figures and events fit in with your scheme, and to understand your reasoning for this: I’m sure you’d agree that our justifications for giving a yes or no in a particular criterion would need to be consistent between different figures.

    If your approach only cast doubt on a narrow range of figures AND we were clear that the justifications were consistent between figures, then it might be a very useful approach, and you’d be justified in saying that “no-one has to worry about all the other historical names falling out of the ancient history books”.

    On the other hand, if your approach cast doubt on a much broader range of figures who are often or usually considered historical, then either we do have to worry about a fairly hefty rewrite of the history books [not necessarily a bad thing, of course] or we might have to conclude that your criteria are something of a blunt implement.

    1. Paul: You’ve asked this question a hundred times on various blogs. As if you thought it was important.

      So what if we just said “Yes, indeed, by this standard, many figures once thought historical by some, would also be in question.”

      SO WHAT?!?!? This is widely acknowleged by many scholars of Antiquity.

      What do you think your point is? Is this one of your usual attempts to invoke violent religious reactions against “Jesus deniers,” when you linked them to neo-Nazi holocaust denial? As you cleverly in invoked religious reaction against say, Brodie? (By publicly anticipating his firing for hereys)?

      Aren’t you really just a modern heretic hunter? Trying to make sure as many people as possible are publicly outed, and burned?

      1. Oh, I recall now — I think this is what Paul Regnier was talking about in his comment I just responded to on another thread.

        Yes, Paul. If you are reading this — I do seem to recall reading questions along this line from you on McGrath’s blog but I ignored that comment for the simple reason I have answered the point about so many names supposedly being deleted from the history books being asked many times before on McGrath’s blog. But if you would care to ask it again here or on the other thread on this blog I am sure I can reply one more time just for you.

    2. Your link takes me to a 404. What you want discussed here I suggest you post or copy and paste here.

      When I say “what I think or how I classify them is beside the point” I am saying that classification does not rely upon the subjective opinion of any one person. All anyone has to do is lay out the evidence we have for any ancient person and then allocate it accordingly — squares go into squares, circles into circles.

      Take a name yourself and list out all the evidence we have for that person’s existence or for what we know about them and then fit each bit into whatever category it goes. You decide. You do it for Buddha or Pythagoras or whatever and you tell me.

      I entered a few names for which I had a ready awareness of all the evidence off the top of my head just to give the idea of how it works. If you really find it too hard to do for someone and you have all the evidence then I’ll help you. You pick a name and give me the related evidence and then we’ll decide together which column it fits.

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