Tall tales do not mean we doubt the historicity of Davy Crockett; why should we therefore doubt Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

It is Sunday morning and I beg to be allowed a lazy post for once. Let me copy here a comment I left on PZ’s site and that I originally made in reply to a visitor to Vridar.

Someone on my blog asked a vital question. . . . The question (after addressing the legends about Davy Crockett)

Perhaps the question we should be asking about Jesus, is not if the surviving texts about him are purely mythical or if they represent the honest to god unquestionable truth, but if they are hagiography and whitewashing, and if anything historical can be extracted from them.

That’s an excellent question and one I have written about many times here, often discussing the works of classicists and ancient historians as they themselves inform us how they address that type of question. The second post in this series contains links to some of those posts: https://vridar.org/2018/09/06/how-do-historians-decide-who-was-historical-who-fictional/

Some of those articles:

— As for figures about whom we have contradictory records, such as Socrates, we have seen whether and on what grounds his status is determined in Here’s How Philosophers Know Socrates Existed.

— As for the status of mythical persons such as Gyges we have seen How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical. (In this case the myth is determined to have a historical core.)

— As for reports of miracles, we see how historians work with the evidence in Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once).

— On vague rumours, such as stories about the Celts ritually killing their kings, we have considered how historians work at Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

— When it comes to fictional accounts of something like the Exodus we have critically reviewed one work at Can we extract history from fiction?

— Or when our only written reports are by enemies, we have seen a historian at work in Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed?

We have also looked at general comments about methods by the renowned ancient historian M.I. Finley in An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

But to answer your question directly:

Many ancient historical figures are said by ancient sources to have become gods or were sons of gods, and to have performed miracles, and to have done things that were very like what the myths said gods had once done. How do we know they were real?

Example: emperors became gods at death, some were said to be gods with divine ancestry while on earth, one Roman emperor healed a blind man in a manner that strikingly resembles a healing by Jesus; Hadrian dressed and acted like Hercules, Alexander the Great followed in the footsteps of Dionysus in conquering the east, etc.

But in every single case of those historians deem to be historical we have evidence that exists about those persons independently of the myths and legends surrounding them. Further, we can trace the origins and reasons for those myths by comparing them with what we know independently of the real historical figure.

The ancient authors whom we rely upon know they are writing about historical figures and their works are indeed forms of ancient history or biography. Those authors do know the difference between normal human characteristics and those of the gods and myths, and when they tell us about the mythical tales or comparisons associated with their historical subjects they nearly always either give their sources for the information or express some sympathy with their readers who may be reluctant to believe the tales. In other words, they do not tell the stories as tall tales because they want to inspire credibility in their accounts.

On the other hand we have other stories about ancient persons (some of these tales actually include genuine historical characters as part of the plot) that are told for entertainment or to convey moral or philosophical lessons and historians always call the main characters of these stories fictional. They do so because they are told just like the novellas or short stories of the day: none of the cautions and trappings of reliability of account as for the historical persons are to be found in these narratives. They are told as if the reader is expected to suspend all critical imagination and just accept or even believe their stories of miracles and nymphs and talking with gods, etc.

If we strip away the mythical trappings of Alexander and Plato and Pythagoras and Davy Crockett, we still find a real person there.
If we strip away the mythical trappings of stories of Achilles and Adam and Jesus we are left with no body to examine at all.

You might also like to consider the following posts addressing the methods of ancient historians:

Can we extract history from fiction?

and The Bible: History or Story?

See also How a Historian Establishes “What Happened” when “we only have the words of the text”

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Tall tales do not mean we doubt the historicity of Davy Crockett; why should we therefore doubt Jesus?”

  1. The solid fact remains that there was an Ancient Egyptian ‘Jesus’ named IWSA in the hieroglyphic texts and this name was changed to IESOUS by Ancient Greeks. Furthermore the first two chapters of Luke are clearly defined in 4 scenes and also told in hieroglyphs in two Egyptian temples dating back more than 3,500 years. They also saw the Living King of Egypt as being God the Father, God the Son and the Ka or Holy Spirit – Ymn Twt Ankh appears as all three in a wall painting in his tomb. Besides we can prove that Solomon was the Pharaoh Ymn Htp III and that his gt.grandfather was the Biblical David – named DHWT in hieroglyphs.
    There is much more and I would advise you to do what I did and study Ancient Egyptian – both the hieroglyphs and learn the grammar.
    When you do that you won’t need to bother with all the Johnny cum later fabrications.

    1. ” .. there was an Ancient Egyptian ‘Jesus’ named IWSA in the hieroglyphic texts ..” Which texts?

      ” .. the first two chapters of Luke are clearly defined in 4 scenes and also told in hieroglyphs in two Egyptian temples dating back more than 3,500 years.” Which temples?

  2. Keener keeps repeating that it takes several generations for legendary or mythical tales to arise concerning historical figures

    But stories grew concerning such figures as the medieval wonder working Jewish messiah, Sabbati Sevi in his own lifetime. Price mentions additional instances of a similar nature in Beyond Born Again https://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/beyond_born_again/chap5.html

    Haile Selassie was believed in his lifetime or a mere generation later to be Messiah and God incarnate https://web.archive.org/web/20160404002344/http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2009/against-mythicism-a-case-for-the-plausibility-of-a-historical-jesus/

    The founder of the B’Hai religion claimed never to have done any miracles in his lifetime, but merely a few decades after his death people were writing stories in which he did perform miracles: https://books.google.com/books?id=B-GCnT8-3t4C&lpg=PA317&ots=sySV44Swmx&dq=%22Steve%20Allen%22%20bahai%20%22combination%20of%20Persian%20priests%22&pg=PA317#v=onepage&q&f=false

    “legends do not necessarily arise after the death of a saint, and within the inner circle of his disciples, but during his own lifetime, and perhaps even in his own mind.” To quote someone who examined tall tales told by the famed Sikh convert to Christianity in the 1920s, Sadhu Sundar Singh https://infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/experience.html#testimonies

    1. “Keener keeps repeating that it takes several generations for legendary or mythical tales to arise concerning historical figures”

      keener apparently doesn’t know that legendary tales were being told about Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill, Jesse James and quite a few other folks during their lifetimes let alone a generation or two later.

  3. In Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion‘ (Princeton University Press, Feb. 2018) Jörg Rüpke refers to increasing production of texts and desire for them. He wrote –

    Flavius Josephus took up the biographical schema, turned it into autobiography, and set it within an imperial frame. He began with a reference to his priestly and royal origins, and ended by referring to his relationship with Augusta Domitia, and to the unremitting good services she had performed for him. At the same time that Josephus in Rome expounded on the Jewish War, Plutarch and soon also Suetonius were writing their multiple biographies. By the mid second century at the latest, these texts were joined by many gospels and ‘acts of the apostles’, whose production continued without let-up through the third century … Pythagorean vitae began to circulate. To the already familiar types of narrative —stories of exemplary lives or of extraordinary phenomena, such as those of Apollonius of Tyana— were added conversion stories.

    Rüpke says ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ was a popular work, as was that [or those] of Marcion –

    Marcion’s interest in biography was not exercised solely in his gospel, but also in his selection of Paul’s letters, which allowed readers to follow the apostle from Jerusalem to Rome.

    Rüpke asserts

    Marcion “orchestrated a rupture that he relocated a century into the past, carefully keeping his narrative free of contemporary references.”


    Christianity was “invented historiographically [in the 2nd century] by means of the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles complemented by collections of letters. There was as yet no actual community.”

    ie. Rüpke proposes that the narratives started quite abruptly in the 2nd century.

  4. One of the things I hear again and again from historical Jesus enthusiasts is that we should conclude there was such a person because it’s plausible there was one. The problem is as you point out – strip away the myth and legend and we have only the hypothesis that there was a real man behind it all that we started with.

    1. At the end of the day, will PZ Myers read:

      • Neil Godfrey’s writings

      • Price, R.G. (2018). Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed. Lulu. ISBN 978-1-4834-8782-3.

      • Lataster, Raphael (2015). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1-5148-1442-0.

    1. Well, there are certainly elements which stretch credulity, to say the least: “killed him a bear when he was only three”? But yeah; a better comparand to Jesus’ lore might be Paul Bunyon’s.

  5. Indeed, mythologizing often occurs quickly for the founders of new sects/cults/religions – within their own lifetimes, and by their own invention, as we see in newer cults. Joseph Smith’s angelic visitations and fantastical divinations spring to mind, and similar stories abound for more modern “cult leaders” (as we dismissively call them, arbitrarily distinguishing them from founders of older religions.) If we strip away the mythical trappings of Smith, Hubbard, Moon, et al, we might be left with plausible (but not necessarily accurate) biographies; and if we *only* had later sectarian literature to go by, from a pre-scientific society, there’d be no way to judge what plausible details had any historical basis.

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