If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists

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by Neil Godfrey

How do classicists determine if a figure appearing in ancient records actually existed? Do they use the same methods as biblical scholars who tell us certain persons in the Bible are historical and others not?

In this post and another I will look at questions classicists ask about two ancient philosophers, Demonax and Apollonius of Tyana, and the methods they use to answer those questions, at the same time comparing those questions and solutions with those applied by biblical scholars to Jesus and the Gospels. I suggest the very different ways of answering the similar questions highlight the fundamentally ideological character (i.e. religious bias*) of historical Jesus studies.

demonaxWas there a historical Demonax?

How can there be any doubt? After all, we have a first hand account of the witty philosopher Demonax (said to have lived 70 CE to 170 CE) by his student, Lucian (125 to 180 CE). Lucian begins his biography of Demonax thus:

It was in the book of Fate that even this age of ours should not be destitute entirely of noteworthy and memorable men, but produce a body of extraordinary power, and a mind of surpassing wisdom. My allusions are to . . . the philosopher Demonax. I saw and marvelled at [him], and with [him] I long consorted. . . .

I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view: first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies; and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers. (my bolding in all quotations)

If an author says he knew Demonax personally and over an extended time how is it possible for anyone to reasonably doubt his historical existence! Further support for the argument for historicity is that Lucian tells readers Demonax met an array other notable historical persons.

Yet there are indeed doubts among classical scholars about the existence of Demonax. Are classicists, then, a hyper-sceptical lot compared with historical Jesus scholars?

The historicity of Lucian’s account has often been questioned, although most scholars today would agree with K. Funk’s arguments for historicity in his study of the Vita published in 1907. Yet, there still exists some understandable scepticism in this regard. Diskin Clay, for example, makes the following non-committal statement in a fairly recent article:
My purpose in this treatment of Lucian’s Demonax is not to mount an argument against the historicity of the great Athenian philosopher. In the course of this discussion it will become apparent that I would not add the name of Demonax to the history of philosophy in the second century AD, nor would I remove it from the histories already written. (Searby, D.M. 2008. “Non Lucian Sources for Demonax”, Symbolae Osloenses 83, p. 120)

Do classicists set such a high bar for historicity that if applied across the board then most ancient persons we know of would have to be erased from the history books? Surely that would seem unlikely.

Why would Lucian make up person supposedly known to his own generation? Would not such an attempt meet with protest from his peers who knew better?

Those are the sorts of questions biblical scholars sometimes raise when asked about the historical existence of Jesus. So how could classicists have any doubt about Demonax when confronted by an account of his life by his very own student?

Why doubt?

Nonetheless for classicist Diskin Clay questions linger: Why is the biography so short on detail if Lucian spent such a long time with him and admired him so much? “This requires explanation,” another scholar, Mark Beck whom I discuss further below, adds.

And why does the outline of Demonax’s life appear to be so similar to what we know of Lucian’s own life? Is that not suspicious?

Clay points out that Lucian explains that his purpose is to write a biography that will inspire his readers to noble behaviour, not set the historical record straight for posterity. So it is not unlikely that Lucian has written a fictional biography and we are accordingly none the wiser as to whether Demonax was historical or fabricated. Ancient writers would indeed write fictional biographies of persons known to be historical from other sources. Xenophon’s “biography” of the Persian Cyrus is a notable example: Cyrus was historical but Xenophon’s biography is a fictional creation designed as a moral guide to teach readers certain ideals for living. (See Clay, D. 2009 “Lucian of Samosata: Four Philosophical Lives”, in ANRW 2.36.5)

Mark Beck, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of South Carolina, discusses Lucian’s Life of Demonax in Writing Biography in Greece and Rome (2016). One of the first questions Beck asks is:

Do we have any evidence that Demonax is even a real person and not a fictional creation of Lucian’s? (p. 80)

There are indeed serious problems, Beck writes,

At first glance there is much that would appear to cast doubt on Demonax’s historical existence and support the fiction thesis. In an important article, Funk, for example, notes the absence of any reference to Demonax in contemporary sources and in Philostratus’s Lives of the Sophists. (p. 82)

Philostratus was born around 170 CE and also wrote the life of Apollonius of Tyana. (The late fourth century Eunapius refers to Demonax and Lucian’s account as historical, but given his distance of two hundred years from the supposed time we cannot know what led him to that conclusion.)

Note that it appears to be quite respectable to question the historicity of a philosopher who was said by his own student to have made an impact on his contemporaries. On what grounds? On the grounds that he is neither mentioned by contemporary sources nor by a prominent writer of the next generation who sought out and wrote about philosophers — mentions that we would expect to find if there is a core historical substance to Lucian’s narrative.

This scepticism is respectable even despite our knowledge of the philosopher coming from a known writer who claimed to have a long association with him and even studied under him.

Fiction alone does not overturn historicity

It should also be noted that both Clay and Beck believe Lucian’s biography of Demonax is a fictionalized life but that fact does not decide the question of Demonax’s historicity. They know that it is quite possible for ancients to write fictional narratives of real people. What counts more than the fiction is the clear purpose of the biography: it is to instruct, to teach, not to pass on a historical record. Compare the gospels. All critical scholars agree that they are largely fictional or contain many fictional elements but that particular point does not mean Jesus did not exist. Doubts arise on other grounds.

The main factor that raises questions about historicity is the absence of contemporary and near-contemporary independent evidence for the historical existence of Demonax. Other details do raise suspicions — such as the similarity between Lucian’s biography and personality and that of Demonax, the fictional aspects of his biography and Lucian’s motive to teach ethics rather than record history for history’s sake — but it is the lack of independent corroboration that finally decided the matter for a number of classical scholars.

Demonax resurrected from myth to real life

Two examples of sayings of Demonax by Lucian:

A pretty girlish young man called Python, son of some Macedonian grandee, once by way of quizzing him asked a riddling question and invited him to show his acumen over it. ‘I only see one thing, dear child,’ he said, ‘and that is, that you are a fair logician.’ The other lost his temper at this equivoque, and threatened him: ‘You shall see in a minute what a man can do.’ ‘Oh, you keep a man, do you?’ was Demonax’s smiling retort.

He once, for daring to laugh at an athlete who displayed himself in gay clothes because he had won an Olympic victory, received a blow on the head with a stone, which drew blood. The bystanders were all as angry as if they had themselves been the victims, and set up a shout–‘The Proconsul! the Proconsul!’ ‘Thank you, gentlemen,’ said Demonax, ‘but I should prefer the doctor.’

Two sayings from the independent sources: 

Leave behind as memorials images of your virtuous character rather than of your body.

If you have learnt someone’s secret when you are friends, do not reveal it later if you become his enemy, for you wrong not your enemy: you wrong friendship.

But wait. Recall that “important article by Funk” that Mark Beck mentioned. Funk did indeed find independent evidence for Demonax. And more recently Denis M. Searby has uncovered more. Searby, building and improving upon Funk’s work, in a 2008 article identified in a range of manuscripts sayings attributed to Demonax that are bear little resemblance to the types of sayings cited by Lucian. He writes:

I would argue that they at least have a bearing on the question of the historicity of Demonax. There are two immediately striking things about these sayings: 

  • first of all, that they exist at all,
  • and second, that they are completely independent of the sayings attributed to Demonax by Lucian.

With regard to the first point, I would argue that their very existence tends to corroborate Lucian’s story. The name ‘‘Demonax’’ is not common in Greek literature. Apart from the Demonax in Lucian, there are only a few occurrences of the name in other writers from Theognis and Herodotus down to Plutarch and the Greek Anthology. However, we know of no other philosopher or sophist by this name apart from Lucian’s Demonax and the Demonax in non-Lucian collections of sayings, and I see no cogent reason against identifying the two.

With regard to the second point, the total lack of correspondence between the Lucian and the non-Lucian sayings may seem problematic to some. On the other hand, there are examples of such a lack of correspondence between sayings and anecdotes attributed to certifiably historical individuals in normal literary sources and those found strictly in gnomological sources, such as, for example, the sayings of Aristotle. Moreover, one must take into account the different nature of each source. The kind of witicisms recorded by Lucian, often with references to specific persons and circumstances, are generally of a different kind than those found in the more sober and moralizing gnomological sources of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. There are, for example, no sexual innuendos in the latter sources as are found in Demonax’s sayings in Lucian. Whatever Lucian’s purpose was in composing his Demonax, it was probably not the same as that of the compilers of collections of useful maxims and sayings. The very fact that these sayings derive from a source or sources wholly independent of Lucian, argues for independent knowledge of Demonax’ historical existence. (p. 121 — my formatting)

It is the uncovering of independent evidence that seems to have persuaded many (but apparently not all) classicists that Lucian’s Demonax really did exist in history. Some appear to prefer to remain noncommittal and agnostic.

Is not the question of Jesus similar? Don’t we have only one undisputed source for Jesus, a tradition within which all documents are related in some way and written to inculcate faith? And the “biographies” of Jesus are not even written by known authors. The gospels contain much fiction but that alone does not count against the historicity of Jesus. Some scholars cling firmly to a disputed passage or two in Josephus and the reason is evident. They know the importance of independent evidence.

A few biblical scholars have expressed agnosticism with respect to the historicity of Jesus. But other scholars appear to be intent on insulting those who dare entertain doubts and surely contribute to a climate of intimidation that mutes sceptical voices.

Outside the biblical studies academy, however, we see at least in the one instance I have described here a healthy scepticism and an embracing of normative standards of evidence found in other historical studies.


*  I am aware that the biblical scholars often point to atheist and agnostic peers in an effort to deflect the charge that their discipline is compromised by religious bias, but the charge of religious bias and the way it sets limits upon the sorts of questions and answers that can be raised comes from within their own ranks (e.g. Goulder, Crossley…).


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “If Biblical Scholars Were Classicists”

  1. Neil Wrote “Don’t we have only one undisputed source for Jesus, a tradition within which all documents are related in some way and written to inculcate faith?”

    I disagree with William Lane Craig’s idea that we can be sure of multiple attestation on the issues of the crucifixion, empty tomb, and post death appearances of Jesus. Paul said “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor 15:3-8).” If Mark read Paul, and John read at least one of the synoptics, then there may only be one source (the author of the Corinthian creed) for all of this – one who cites only scripture and spiritual appearances as evidence.

  2. Nice post!

    Searby wrote: “The kind of witicisms recorded by Lucian, often with references to specific persons and circumstances, are generally of a different kind than those found in the more sober and moralizing gnomological sources of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.”

    It’s the same with the gospels. At least each author presented his Jesus.

  3. Situation is reversed with HJ we have over 20,000 words from a apostle who was supposedly a contemporary of Jesus but unlike the Lucian Paul never said that he ever met a living breathing Jesus nor does he relate other apostles to ever accompanying Jesus in his so called earthy ministry.

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