A recent comment offered a serious response to my argument about the need for independent corroboration in order to have some degree of probability given in favour of the Gospel narratives reflecting some genuine historical events.
The point of mine being addressed was this: Whether the central character itself originated as a fabrication can only be determined through an assessment of evidence external to the narrative itself. In the absence of that “control” we have no way of knowing if there is a historical basis or not.
The critical response was this:
One problem with this field of inquiry is that by and large the evidence external to the narrative is asserted nevertheless to be part of the narrative. We have evidence outside the narrative (i.e.Mark) from John’s Gospel and from Paul. But if the “narrative” is defined as the myth of a particular movement, then anything that purports to be external to the narrative will be brought back into the narrative and thereby dismissed. Josephus, for example, insofar as anything he wrote about Jesus is original to him, presumably got his information from Christians and so he is not really an independent source. He is just repeating what some people got from the narrative. So, just as it is almost impossible for me to imagine any story whatsoever about Jesus that cannot be dismissed as mythical on the grounds that it would have some sort of application to the Christian cult and its beliefs, I also suspect that anything outside of Mark that used to validate Mark will be assumed to be a fabrication as well.
And I do think it is incumbent upon those who will say that all the supposed evidence is really the ancient constructing of mythic narratives about Jesus to say why this is happening. Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived? To say “we can imagine ways to show that every bit of the supposed evidence for Jesus is just made-up” seems to me to require an explanation of why they are making it up.
My response: Continue reading “Maybe I’m wrong but maybe I’m right”
Poor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.
Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)
So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first-century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources. Continue reading “Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus”
Zerowing21 has posted on the evidence for Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon compared with the evidence for Jesus. Specifically . . . .
Christian apologist Douglas Geivett’s claim that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection meets “the highest standards of historical inquiry,” and is as certain as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E.
N. T. Wright might agree with that. But read the blog post for an excellent run down of the sorts of evidence historians work with as opposed to theologians who think they are historians.
The blog post begins with a few links to other sites that will interest some who read this:
I know, some will instinctively respond with some quip that Jesus wasn’t a great political figure so we can’t expect the same evidence for him as for the other JC. Exactly, but what some such instinctive respondents want to do is change the rules to allow us to use different material as “evidence” so we can write just as much about Jesus with the same assurance. They want to change the rules, that is. But real historians do not change the rules. What they do is change the scope of their inquiries. That is why you will find most books on ancient history covering broad sweeps of civilization or political and social developments. There are fewer exhaustive biographies than can be, and are, written for persons who dot later historical periods.