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.
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”