2011-07-16

Was Socrates man or myth? Applying historical Jesus criteria to Socrates

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Strepsiades and Pheidippides are discussing, S...
A scene including Socrates in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. Image via Wikipedia

It might be interesting to see how the criteria used for the quest for the historical Jesus might work with another figure of comparable stature in the ancient world. A comparison like this might help us assess their real value as determinants of historicity.

Multiple Attestation

We have the writings of the philosopher Plato. These dramatize the teaching career, trial and death of Socrates in dialogue form. But was Plato writing about a real person or was Socrates only a literary character he chose through whom to express his own philosophical teachings?

We have the writings of Xenophon. Xenophon was known as a historian but his writings about Socrates are not histories. They portray a very different sort of teacher from the one we read about in Plato.

Both Plato and Xenophon are clearly writing as devoted followers of Socrates, and classicists have often remarked that the teachings they attribute to Socrates are really their own and not those of a real Socrates at all. So we are still have one source type represented by both of these authors, and historicity cannot be settled by appealing to their “multiple attestation” alone.

This reminds us of Schweitzer’s complaint about the nature of the evidence for Jesus:

[A]ll the reports about [Jesus] go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability. (Schweitzer, Quest, p.402)

But we do have another source that appears to be quite independent of the above pair of Socrates’ disciples. Continue reading “Was Socrates man or myth? Applying historical Jesus criteria to Socrates”


2011-06-14

Jesus and Socrates

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history: Continue reading “Jesus and Socrates”

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