Comparing the sources for Caesar and Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

How do the roots of the Gospels compare to those of classical works? Is the historical evidence for Jesus Christ as good as that of Julius Caesar?

People often raise such historical questions critically, claiming the evidence for Caesar’s life is better attested than for Jesus’s. But is this really so? ~ Darrell L. Bock


Gallic-Wars-frontcover-WEBProfessor Darrell Bock‘s article (Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared) belongs on The Gospel Coalition  website and contributes nothing of scholarly value to anyone with a serious historical interest in Christian origins.

Bock opens with a typical evangelistic smokescreen of appropriating the language of an ancient historian (“Tracing ancient history is about examining sources and the manuscripts behind them . . .”) but before he finishes he will twice make it clear that his real agenda is preaching or protecting the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Can anyone stop themselves from raising an eyebrow when they read the following:

In some ways, Caesar’s autobiographical account gives us more to consider than the accounts of Jesus do. It provides direct testimony about events Caesar participated in.

“In some ways” — “in some ways” the autobiographical work of Julius Caesar gives us more historical data to consider than our late third hand theological accounts about Jesus give us about the founding figure of Christianity. “In some ways”, but otherwise it’s going to be a fairly even balance in the availability of historical data about each figure!

The Young Cicero Reading

The Young Cicero Reading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to Caesar’s own writings Bock lists other surviving records from contemporaries of Caesar, the writings of Sallust and Cicero.

Sallust and Cicero were Caesar’s contemporaries as well, so there are reliable outside sources closely tied to the time of these events.

Yes indeed. Caesar’s contemporary, Cicero, is the most fruitful source, even moreso than Caesar’s own writings on the Gallic War.

Other historians of value yet overlooked by Bock are Livy (whose sections on Caesar survive as epitomes), Asconius, Paterculus and others who completed Caesar’s own account of the Gallic Wars and certain of his activities in the Civil War. Perhaps he was in too much of a rush to get to the two late historians (a hundred years after Caesar) with useful information about Julius Caesar.

Two of the most important sources for the emperor’s life, however, Suetonius and Plutarch, write in the early second century. That’s more than 100 years after the time of Caesar.

These are the crux of Bock’s argument. If these two works written a century after Caesar are treated as valuable sources then so should we give equal credibility to the Gospel accounts about Jesus:

If we believe what the best sources say about Julius Caesar [meaning Suetonius and Plutarch only], then we should believe what the best sources say about Jesus Christ.

Yes, well. Seminarians would be wiser not to advertise their (il)logic for all to see like this.

But let’s enter into Bock’s game for a moment. Why do historians “believe” Plutarch? Here’s part of the reason, and a fairly major part, explained by the historian Richard Billows in his book Julius Caesar: Colossus of Rome:

Plutarch had access to and used an array of writings now lost to us – memoirs by Sulla, Rutilius Rufus and Lucullus; histories by the likes of Asinius Pollio, Ampius Balbus, Tanusius Geminus – who were contemporaries or near contemporaries of Caesar. In the late second and early third centuries two other Greeks wrote historical works that provide a great deal of information about our period. (p. xi)

And Suetonius?

Suetonius burrowed in archives and minutes: as a high member of the emperor’s secretariat he had access to the imperial archives, though it is unclear that he derived anything of value for this Life (as he did for Divus Augustus). But he shows knowledge of the pamphleteering exchanges of the last Republic, and can deploy the accusations launched by Tanusius Geminus, the elder Curio, Caesar’s fellow consul Bibulus, and M. Actorius Naso when paddling in the murky waters of the first Catilinarian conspiracy (Christopher Pelling, “First biographers” in A Companion to Julius Caesar, p. 253)

We know who Plutarch and Suetonius were. We can cross-check their accounts with earlier sources and with later ones. We trust them to the extent that they had access to sources contemporary with Caesar.

On the other hand, we have only hypothetical sources for the gospels (Q, oral tradition, special materials of Matthew and of Luke . . .). All of these are debatable. Many of us know of Mark Goodacre’s challenge to Q; and I have posted many times on various challenges to the arguments for oral tradition as a source. There have also been many publications (especially among mainstream scholars) establishing strong arguments for lesser or greater amounts of the gospels being adaptations of Old Testament narratives. Some have even seen gospel sources in classical Greek literature.

The point is that gospel sources are traditionally hypothetical; the sources used by the earliest biographers of Caesar are known to be contemporaneous with Caesar.

Further, we know the identities of the authors of our sources about Caesar. We know neither the authors nor the original audiences of the gospels. We don’t even really know when they were written. In other words, the provenance of the gospels is lost to us.

Not knowing who wrote something, when and for whom, is bad enough. That sort of information we have for our sources for Caesar and it helps orient our interpretative faculties. What’s worse for Bock’s comparison is that the gospels don’t even pretend to follow the same genres as Plutarch’s, Sallust’s or Cicero’s writings. The gospels betray no interest in establishing credibility among readers in the same ways Plutarch and Suetonius do: assuring readers of the reliability of their sources and writings through clear identification of those sources and their own standing. The gospels assure readers of their authenticity be appeals to prophetic fulfilment and the voice of anonymous authority (Luke’s prologue notwithstanding).

On the rare occasions a Roman historian or biographer mentions a miracle the sceptical reader is quickly assured that the author understands (and perhaps even shares) his or her scepticism. The original audience of the gospels were more interested in uncritically listening to the wonderful works of God and the miracles of his Son. The gospels were theology from the start and very often re-writes of “Old Testament” narratives, not history.

(In a future post I’ll talk more about the reliability and otherwise of various ancient sources, and not only of the gospels but also of various historians like Josephus and Herodotus. We will see that sometimes where they are the most “convincing” with the richness of their details and protestations of direct personal eyewitness experience they are, in fact, lying, or at least deceiving their readers. But I’m straying.)

Bock also has a lot to say about the comparative manuscript tradition behind our sources for Caesar and Jesus and concludes:

Classics scholars build much of our understanding of Caesar around these sources, even though their manuscript traditions contain significant gaps of time.

His whole argument is largely irrelevant, however. Scholars are very aware of the problems of not having the original manuscripts (the autographs) of our sources. They know of the possibility of corruptions creeping in as manuscripts are copied. A classic illustration of this is the journal of Columbus. That would appear to be a first-hand account but scholars have been troubled by the fact that it’s not in Columbus’s own handwriting. Our earliest copy has been penned by Bartolomé de las Casas (two generations after Columbus). That inevitably raises questions about how much we really know about Columbus’s own thoughts:

Trusting that Las Casas got Columbus right, and that Columbus got himself right, most historians have taken comfort, but the journal is riddled with inconsistencies and incongruities, suggesting a massive early rewrite by Columbus for his own purposes. It can also be shown that, as a transcriber, Las Casas wielded an attitude as well as a pen. (David Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument, pp. 44-45)

Then recall Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and wonder.

All the manuscript tradition can do is offer us (relative) assurance about the integrity (more or less) of our text. It does not change the factors involved in the interpretation of the text’s narrative contents, or whether a text was written as history or as a theological miracle story.

Bock further makes the apologetic appeal to the authenticity of the names traditionally assigned to the gospels. Of course this is another bit of legerdemain: the names might just as well be Joel, Lot, Adam and Enkidu. Names alone are meaningless. What counts is what we know about the person identified by the name. (Besides, there is no evidence for even the names by which we know the gospels ever being associated with them from their beginnings.)

Bock gives his game away in the final section of his article.

The nature of the claims tied to Jesus often gets in the way of such an assessment. Many hesitate to see Jesus in the same light as Caesar since the Gospel sources testify that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and performed unusual signs and wonders to validate his claim.

There you have it. You, Sceptic, are hung up over the gospels because in your hard-heartedness you do not want to submit to God and believe the gospel! That is Bock’s punchline. If you are persuaded by the logic and evidence in this post then your motive is ungodly. You are in need of salvation.

Then Bock tells us that one detail that is known “without dispute” is that Jesus had “such a big public reputation” — so wide was it that a “wide array” of other sources acknowledge this. And what other sources? Bock mentions Justin writing in the second century! And the Talmud in…. what was it? the sixth century? maybe the fourth? But none contemporaries. No Ciceros or Sallusts or Asinius Pollios or Ampius Balbuses or Tanusius Geminuses for Jesus. And no Plutarchs a century later to refer to these contemporary sources either.

I feel I have written this post once too often before. Let this do till another day when I hopefully can find a fresh angle to tackle it. Till then, I think you get the point.

I’m sure Darrell Bock is a nice enough gentleman but I see no common ground that would enable a critical scholar to seriously engage in an academic discussion with such an evangelist apologist.

P.S. I have not read Richard Carrier’s response to the same Bock article. I trust there will be a broad similarity in the core arguments.





  • Bee
    2015-07-01 17:49:35 UTC - 17:49 | Permalink

    Nice summary of the problems with the argument that Jesus was historical, like Caesar.

    These summaries need to be repeated periodically, to catch up newcomers. And they are useful to continually tighten up the core arguments.

  • Barsac
    2015-07-01 20:08:58 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    Caesar coined some money, called aureus.
    What about the money coined by JC ?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-07-01 20:39:06 UTC - 20:39 | Permalink

      Yes, there is much, much more I could have written but I have addressed additional points in principle (if not specifically related to Julius Caesar’s case) in many posts over the years. The arguments of “scholars” like Bock are so obviously evangelist apologetic they do not belong in the same arena as genuine scholarship.

      • Pofarmer
        2015-07-05 12:22:04 UTC - 12:22 | Permalink

        The problem is, the intended audience often doesn’t know the difference.

  • RoHa
    2015-07-03 04:43:07 UTC - 04:43 | Permalink

    I think there is a circular argument in the apologetics.

    “How do we know the Gospels are trustworthy”
    “Because they were written shortly after Jesus lived”
    “How do we know when Jesus lived?”
    “The Gospels tell us”
    “How do we know the Gospels are trustworthy?”

    As far as I can tell, we have no more-or-less reliable source outside the Gospels to tell us when Jesus lived.

  • RoHa
    2015-07-03 04:55:20 UTC - 04:55 | Permalink

    I also note that Bock simply repeats the line that P52 dates from 125AD.

    Not so fast.

    In 1935 Colin Roberts dated it to the “first half of the second century” (Roberts 1935, P16). The middle of that period is 125 CE, and so Robert’s cautious dating became transmogrified into the received wisdom that P52 dates from 125 CE. This date is repeated ad nauseum as evidence that the Gospel according to John was written in the first century. (Sometimes even earlier dates for P52 are given!)

    But this is to go too far.

    First, no palaeographic dating can be so precise. Even on Robert’s dating, 150 CE is quite possible. Some other experts prefer later or earlier dates.

    Second, the tiny amount of text gives very little evidence to work with. It is so scanty that six letters of the Greek alphabet are not represented on the manuscript. This means that any dating will be very uncertain.

    Third, Nongbri (2005) has found that some letter forms of P52 were still in use in the third century. The range of possible dates has to be extended close to 225!

    “What I have done is to show that any serious consideration of the window of possible dates for P52 must include dates in the later second and early third centuries.”
    (Nongbri, 2005, p 46)

    Fourth, P52 is a fragment of a codex, not a scroll. Scrolls were written on one side only. A codex is the format of bound pages, written on both sides, used in modern books. Codex form was still a very new invention in 125 CE, and not yet widely used. This suggests that it is more likely to be from a later date. (Though, of course, it is quite possible that it was an early codex. Some codices had to be early ones, and P52 might have come from one of the first.)

    Thus, the date of P52 is very uncertain. It may indeed be from very early in the second century, but it is impossible to establish that.

    Also, in spite of the best efforts of the scholars, it is not possible to establish that it is actually from the Gospel of John as we have it today. It may have come from some early Passion story that later was incorporated into John. (See http://www.jesusgranskad.se/p52.htm)

    So it “cannot be used as evidence to silence other debates about the existence (or non-existence) of the Gospel of John in the first half of the second century”
    (Nongbri, 2005, p46.)

    Nongbri, Brent (2005) “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel.” Harvard Theological Review 98:23-52.

    Roberts, C. H, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (Manchester: The University Press, 1935).

    • Kaelik
      2015-07-04 04:13:09 UTC - 04:13 | Permalink

      Carrier, in On the Historicity . . . speaks of two authors for John, and that one it being extremely likely, and not particularly disputed by the scholarly consensus that there are two authors, with one being clearly second, and making large modifications to the existing gospel. Now, that doesn’t tell us anything about the time periods of the first or second John writing anything, but is there enough text on P52 that we could even determine if it was the John with only one author, or if the second had involved himself already by that point?

      • RoHa
        2015-07-06 05:26:15 UTC - 05:26 | Permalink


      • Neil Godfrey
        2015-07-06 10:15:59 UTC - 10:15 | Permalink

        You can see what P52 contains here.

        • Kaelik
          2015-07-06 14:34:55 UTC - 14:34 | Permalink

          While I appreciate the showing, I just honestly didn’t know anything about this John/Two Authors thing prior to Reading Carrier’s book. So I have no idea what specifically we know/think belonged to one author or the other, and how much we just don’t know. 🙂

          So I was mostly asking someone who does know about the John thing to give me some idea.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2015-07-06 22:12:01 UTC - 22:12 | Permalink

            The disjointed character of the Gospel of John leads (probably most) critical scholars to consider it a work that has been pastiched together by a number of authors/redactors over time. There are a few dissenting voices, one of them being Thomas L. Brodie.

    • mcduff
      2015-07-04 05:15:33 UTC - 05:15 | Permalink

      In addition:
      P52 was dated in relation to P. Egerton 2
      P Koln 255 is now known to be a continuation of P. Egerton 2
      It contains a punctuation mark that was not evidenced prior to the end of the second century.
      Thus P. Egerton, used to date P 52, is now dated c. 200 plus.

      Therefore it would support a date for P52 as likely c. 3rd century.

      From here – which is a review of Bagnall’s “Early Christian Books in Egypt”


      • RoHa
        2015-07-06 05:29:33 UTC - 05:29 | Permalink

        Thanks. Useful info.

  • Bee
    2015-07-03 06:51:20 UTC - 06:51 | Permalink

    Even if it was 125, furthermore, that is four generations after Jesus died. So this Gospel of John would not have been an eyewitness account.

    This fragment appears only after there was plenty of time for unreliable rumors to have circulated. And especially after 70AD, there would have been fewer and fewer living witnesses to contradict what was said. Really no adult witnesses at all, by 125.

    The death of all witnesses to c. 30 AD would prove all too useful for Christianity, to be sure.

  • Stuart
    2015-07-03 17:47:14 UTC - 17:47 | Permalink

    You forgot one important item that helps in establishing Roman emperors and the extent of their empires and actions: physical evidence. We have cities, plaques, and of great help coins from all over Europe. Also there are mundane record of tax receipts , marriage licenses, land purchases, and so on. These establish dates, places, names, titles, etc. This is huge confirmation, and sometimes refutation of writers. We lack that with Christianity until a date far too late to establish any certainty before a rather late date.

  • Greg Pandatshang
    2015-07-04 16:23:12 UTC - 16:23 | Permalink

    If we believe what the best sources say about Julius Caesar [meaning Suetonius and Plutarch only], then we should believe what the best sources say about Jesus Christ.

    Yes, well.”

    Right. For some reason I’ve seen this argument presented with regard to Augustus more often than Julius Caesar. But the logic contains an unavoidable flaw right at its heart. If the evidence for Caesar really is equally as bad as evidence for Jesus, then logically that calls into question whether Caesar really existed! Maybe Caesar really is a myth; it depends on what the evidence shows. We can’t begin with the assumption that Caesar was a real person and then assume that everything with equally bad evidence is therefore also real.

    Logically, the claim that the evidence for Caesar really is equal to the evidence for Jesus could also mean that there is more evidence for Jesus than we had thought. In that case, though, why not just talk about the new, convincing evidence for Jesus and leave Caesar out of it?

  • Reader
    2015-07-04 18:09:50 UTC - 18:09 | Permalink

    I wonder if Professor Bock would read the above post and Dr. Carrier’s and re-evaluate and ultimately adjust his conclusions? Other persons would read all three then draw their conclusions.
    Genuine scholarship and intellectual integrity demands no less.

  • Joss
    2015-07-16 10:15:17 UTC - 10:15 | Permalink

    On Plutarch: There’s also Appian who (even more like Plutarch) relied heavily on Asinius Pollio, and where Plutarch and Appian accord, it is pure Pollio.

    On Livy: Cassius Dio used Livy a lot, like other authors did (e.g. Obsequens), which is not 100% clear for Caesar’s times, but pretty much settled for the passages on the Augustan period, so it’s safe to infer the same for Caesarian passages.

    On Gospel genre: There are apparently some (I know of two) publications positing that Mark was written in the genre of the Plutarchan Bios, one article even saying that it’s the same construct as Plutarch’s Caesar biography. I don’t agree with this assessment, one reason being that there is no (and never was a) birth or childhood narrative in Mark, which originally used to be in Plutarch’s Caesar biography (and probably also in Suetonius’)… at least that’s what many modern historians have assumed, e.g. Weinstock. If the Gospel was modeled on Plutarch’s Bios (or even his Caesar bios), then Mark would’ve also included a birth/childhood narrative. My 2¢: Mark is a theological and quasi-epic short-form variant of the annals genre. (If it is “annalistic”, you could then, of course, assume a historical core/origin, but that’s moot, if you don’t have any original sources. Back to square one, anyway.)

    Approach from the opposite angle: There’s Justus of Tiberias, a (second-half) 1st century Jewish historian from Galilee, and he sure as hell would’ve written about a historical Jesus, if there had been one, and about some of the (more important) things that happen in the Gospel, if those things had ever happened… but he didn’t. Not a peep. If a person like Caesar existed, we would expect historians to have written about him, a lot of things and mostly consistent things, and we would expect later authors like Tacitus to at least mention him in passing… which they all did, most of them anyway. Conversely, if there was no “historical Jesus” (“Yeshua ben Yosef” LOL), we would expect historians like Justus and Josephus to not mention him or anything from the Gospel. And so it is. Therefore all that fuss about the TestFlav, not because it has any historical value—it’s a Eusebian forgery—, but because believers want Jesus to be historical, so they want the TestFlav to be true, at least in some form. They must be really desperate.

    Addition: There are many contemporary or close poets, like Lucan, Ovid, Virgil, and other kinds of authors like Seneca, Pliny etc., who have a lot of relevant historical information, commentators like Servius who also used Livy and other contemporary historians et cetera. It’s not only the “true historians” of antiquity that are important in this respect.

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