Category Archives: historicity

Comparing Jesus To Alexander The Great


Hector Avalos has a great post over at Debunking Christianity where he takes down the fallacious comparison of the historicity of Jesus and events in his life with the historicity of Alexander and events in his life:

Despite these problems with the sources, the existence of Alexander is a reasonable belief because he has wide and independent attestation from all types of sources, and not just those of his own followers.

Some of these sources date from his own time, and are attested archaeologically, not just from later accounts. So, we don’t just have to depend on later historians such as Plutarch and Arrian.
For example, reliefs at the Shrine of the Bark at Luxor in Egypt mention Alexander by name, and depict him artistically during his lifetime (ca. 330-325 BCE). That would confirm his presence in Egypt mentioned by all major ancient sources.

We also have a Mesopotamian tablet, now at the British Museum and designated as BM 36761, which mentions Alexander by name, and refers to his entry into Babylon (See Mesopotamian evidence):

-Akkadian (BM 36761, Reverse, line 11): A-lek-sa-an-dar-ri-is LUGAL ŠÚ ana E.KI K[U4

-English: “Alexander, the king of the world, entered Babylon

Of course, Alexander is also mentioned or referenced in the Bible itself (1 Maccabees 1:1-7; Daniel 8:4-8, 21) [link to my blog post on the subject].

The claim found in Plutarch and Arrian that Alexander conquered Babylon is paralleled by this Mesopotamian source, which is not a Greek source or dependent on a Greek source or cannot be said to have been written by a Greek follower of Alexander.

When Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, which are not otherwise dependent on each other, say the equivalent of “Alexander was here” during his lifetime, then it is reasonable to believe that there existed a man named Alexander who was present at those places.

That is why it is unfair to compare Jesus to Alexander in terms of historical evidence for their existence. There is nothing outside of later Christian sources saying Jesus was anywhere in his lifetime. Nothing in the New Testament is fully contemporary with Jesus.

There also are no Roman or Greek sources saying that there was even a group who believed that Jesus lived or did anything the Gospels allege about him. There is no archaeological evidence of his activities or of the activities of his group from Jesus’ supposed lifetime.

That absence of evidence is curious because, when speaking of Christianity, Acts 28:22 (RSV) says “everywhere it is spoken against.” More traces should remain in the first century of a group that everyone was speaking against.

In the case of Alexander, his fame was present in wide range of sources as is expected of someone who was said to have conquered the known world. Alexander was closer to someone “everywhere spoken about” and there is independent corroborating evidence to confirm that.

It’s a long post, but it’s well worth reading. The point being is that not everyone in antiquity has the same amount of evidence for their actions/existence, and being skeptical of one doesn’t necessitate throwing out the entirety of historiography.

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in historical jesus, historicity, historiography


Criterology Was Born From Form Criticism; Form Criticism Was Never About Historicity

Therefore, criteriology was never about historicity.

Neil Godfrey reviews the recent bookJesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

So the form critic’s task is to separate the various strata in the Gospels. Some details belong to “the original historical tradition” and other strata belong to the author. How to separate these is the aim of form-criticism.

But why should their be a difference between the “original historical tradition” and the overlay from the author?

The form critic answers this by pointing to another assumption: that the gospels were composed by “Hellenistic Christians” who were removed from the original Palestinian Christians who were responsible for creating the earliest traditions about Jesus. The Palestinian Christians initially created oral traditions, not literary ones. It is these oral traditions that were taken by the later literary Christians and reshaped into written narratives expressing a particular theological point of view.

The form critic’s job was to break apart the units of early Jesus tradition from the theologically influenced narrative of the Gospels.

Once this was done the form critic would use these “free-standing units” to reconstruct the earlier oral tradition of the Palestinian church. […]

Form criticism was meant to discover the pre-literary oral tradition.

From the 1950s on scholars sought to discover something else: they sought to find the authentic Jesus traditions — the historical Jesus with the tools that had been designed to find the pre-Gospel tradition.

So for instance, the Criterion of Embarrassment was never meant to find out what the historical Jesus did. It was meant to separate what served the interests of “the Church”  from oral traditions that (might) have gone before it. Current historical Jesus scholars have taken an extra step: assuming that “oral tradition” meant “historical Jesus”.

Over time, the “oral tradition” part is completely ignored and criteriology is assumed to uncover information about the historical Jesus full stop.

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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in historical jesus, historicity, historiography


The Biblical Definition of Marriage

So the Chick-Fil-A fiasco. Yes, yes, we all know about the usual Bible verses that point out the various arrangements of marriage. But, some people might think that that only applied in the “Old Testament” and was no longer valid for the NT. They would be wrong.

Here is Josephus (contemporary of the Gospel authors) describing events going on during the time period of Jesus:

2. …[Herod the Great] also allotted one of Aristobulus’s daughters to Antipater’s son, and Aristobulus’s other daughter to Herod, a son of his own, who was born to him by the high priest’s daughter; for it is the ancient practice among us to have many wives at the same time….

3. Now Herod the king had at this time nine wives; one of them Antipater’s mother, and another the high priest’s daughter, by whom he had a son of his own name. He had also one who was his brother’s daughter, and another his sister’s daughter; which two had no children. One of his wives also was of the Samaritan nation, whose sons were Antipas and Archelaus, and whose daughter was Olympias; which daughter was afterward married to Joseph, the king’s brother’s son; but Archelaus and Antipas were brought up with a certain private man at Rome. Herod had also to wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and by her he had his sons Herod and Philip; which last was also brought up at Rome. Pallas also was one of his wives, which bare him his son Phasaelus. And besides these, he had for his wives Phedra and Elpis, by whom he had his daughters Roxana and Salome. As for his elder daughters by the same mother with Alexander and Aristobulus, and whom Pheroras neglected to marry, he gave the one in marriage to Antipater, the king’s sister’s son, and the other to Phasaelus, his brother’s son. And this was the posterity of Herod.

– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.1.3


2. But although the grandees of Adiabene had failed in their first attempt, as being delivered up by God into their king’s hands, yet would they not even then be quiet, but wrote again to Vologases, who was then king of Parthia, and desired that he would kill Izates (d. 55 CE, just to put a timestamp on the context of the polygyny), and set over them some other potentate, who should be of a Parthian family; for they said that they hated their own king for abrogating the laws of their forefathers, and embracing foreign customs. When the king of Parthia heard this, he boldly made war upon Izates; and as he had no just pretense for this war, he sent to him, and demanded back those honorable privileges which had been bestowed on him by his father, and threatened, on his refusal, to make war upon him. Upon hearing of this, Izates was under no small trouble of mind, as thinking it would be a reproach upon him to appear to resign those privileges that had been bestowed upon him out of cowardice; yet because he knew, that though the king of Parthia should receive back those honors, yet would he not be quiet, he resolved to commit himself to God, his Protector, in the present danger he was in of his life; and as he esteemed him to be his principal assistant, he intrusted his children and his wives to a very strong fortress, and laid up his corn in his citadels, and set the hay and the grass on fire. And when he had thus put things in order, as well as he could, he awaited the coming of the enemy. And when the king of Parthia was come, with a great army of footmen and horsemen, which he did sooner than was expected, (for he marched in great haste,) and had cast up a bank at the river that parted Adiabene from Media, – Izates also pitched his camp not far off, having with him six thousand horsemen. But there came a messenger to Izates, sent by the king of Parthia, who told him how large his dominions were, as reaching from the river Euphrates to Bactria, and enumerated that king’s subjects; he also threatened him that he should be punished, as a person ungrateful to his lords; and said that the God whom he worshipped could not deliver him out of the king’s hands. When the messenger had delivered this his message, Izates replied that he knew the king of Parthia’s power was much greater than his own; but that he knew also that God was much more powerful than all men. And when he had returned him this answer, he betook himself to make supplication to God, and threw himself upon the ground, and put ashes upon his head, in testimony of his confusion, and fasted, together with his wives and children….

– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.4.2

So polygyny was still going on in the time period of Jesus. Yet Jesus never condemns Herod. Did Jesus not have the gall to do what John the Baptist did? Or did Jesus implicitly accept polygyny as well?

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Posted by on August 3, 2012 in early Christianity, historicity, pseudo-history


Pilate The Procurator, And Why Tacitus’ "Annals" Is Not Independent Evidence For Jesus’ Historicity

Richard Carrier posted his M.Phil thesis paper in which he argues that Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria. In doing so, he also points out that Pontius Pilate was also a procurator, which was something that Tacitus purposefully points out to both demean Christians and demean Pilate.

Here is Tacitus’ Annals 15.44 where he describes Jesus:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin** suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Some people argue that this is an interpolation because Tacitus mistakenly refers to Pilate as a procurator. But in fact, Pilate held both titles simultaneously since they weren’t necessarily separate titles.

Here is Dr. Carrier’s take on it:

Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she [the deaconesses] would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).

In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor


One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even plebs or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.

Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to make paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.

So there you have it. Though, the entire post is worth reading to get some insight into Roman politics and its class system.

**note: the -ianus suffix, as in Christianus, ported over to Greek as Χριστιανος :: Christianos, where we get the word Christian, means “belonging to Christ[us]”

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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in early Christianity, historicity, historiography, history


The Traditional Jesus

This is not my wording, but I don't think I can express it better than “spin” did.
Just on the subject of the traditional Jesus, the notion of tradition is very important to the position, hence the name, for want of better. The position revolves around the problems of traditions and how one can–if at all–derive any historical information from traditions. The stupidity of probabilities, modern common sense, or application of rules for extracting history from them brings derisive laughter from me. It's like expecting to send a meteor into the sun and be able to say where any of its parts are at any given time. Few data that enter a tradition will retain any history. One may point to a particular event, such as the census in Luke, and claim that that supplies a historical date, and, by itself, it does, but how is that date relates to the tradition is a mystery. It's a terminus a quo for the datum attached to that particular date, but how does it relate to the rest of the tradition? When did the tradition start and when did the datum enter the tradition? Pilate for example implies a date range, but when did Pilate get absorbed into the tradition? The tradition is unable to tell you, though of course it couldn't be before Pilate. At what stage was the tradition when Pilate entered it? The tradition doesn't say. We are slightly fortunate because we have a few visions of part of the tradition in the various gospels. There is the possibility of setting up some sort of relative chronology of some of the elements in the tradition.
The Jesus of this view is–at the moment–unreachable and he always may be. We have no way in and the tradition cannot help. Imagine that the tradition is an avalanche that we can see at one moment of its downhill course. From your position all you can see is the event front. What it has absorbed and is dragging with it is behind that event front. The tradition, as far as we can see, is the event front in that moment. Paul may have been the prime mover of the event, but there is no way to be sure, as things stand. The tradition itself keeps its secrets jealously.
This is part of what is behind the notion of traditional.
I think this makes me a “believer” in the traditional Jesus. It is a belief in belief in some ways: I believe that the early Christians believed in some sort of tradition(s) about Jesus. But tradition itself does not permit us to differentiate between what is “real” and what is “not”. It is probably a more nuanced position than a simply “Agnostic Jesus” position. It actually explains the agnosticism. That's why I think more scholars should be honest and preface their “facts” about Jesus with “tradition” statements.
It was a tradition that Jesus was crucified. Was Jesus actually crucified? Who knows; we only have what the tradition says. Was Jesus a wandering preacher? We have one tradition (the gospels) where this is the case. We have another tradition (Paul) where it is not. 
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Posted by on January 13, 2011 in early Christianity, historical jesus, historicity, historiography, history, jesus myth


Historicity and the Empty Tomb

From this link:

“The criterion of ‘embarrassment’… or ‘contradiction’… focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.”

The criterion of embarrassment, at least in the New Testament, does not necessitate historicity. It can also imply ahistoricity. Take the baptism by John for instance. The fact that Matthew (and possibly John) were embarrassed by this means that Mark’s account is the first time Christians heard about it. Why did it take for whenever Matthew or John were written to address this particular embarrassment? Why wait two or three generations to “correct” this?

Either Mark was written immediately after the events, or Mark (written sometime after 70) is the first time these evangelists heard about any sort of baptism by John and their gospels are where this embarrassment is addressed. If Mark was written after 70 and Christians in 33 (or 50 or 65) were embarrassed by John’s baptism, then embarrassment about John’s baptism should have been present in Mark.

Criterion of Multiple Attestation

There are two ways of formulating this criterion:

(1) “A passage [i.e., a saying or story] is more likely to go back to Jesus if it has been preserved in two or more sources which are independent of each other.”[6]

(2) Motifs or phrases that appear in more than one form of discourse (e.g., parable, chria, aphorism).[7]

(1) Sayings, Stories: E.g., ‘Children and the kingdom’ appears multiples sources: in Mark (10:13-16), special Matthaean material (18:3), the GThom 22 and in John 3:3, 5.


But a saying that appears in Mark and Matthew does not represent two independent attestations, since Matthew normally depends on Mark. An exception would be if the Matthaean (or Lukan) occurrence does not obviously depend on Mark, as is the case with Matt 18:3, which is not directly dependent on Mark 10:15 (Matt has a parallel to Mark 10:13-16 at Matt 19:13-15).

Multiple attestation only works if your sources are established as being independent. If Matt used Mark as a source, then Matt used Mark as a source. Period. Do NT historians really think that Matt was only aware of sections of Mark? Once a documentary relationship between the gospel narratives has been established, then asserting “independence” is nonsense.

A professor who is checking two or three (or ten) papers for plagiarism won’t think that, if three papers have an entire paragraph or page copied word for word that these students still worked independently of each other. If one student shows knowledge of another’s work, then it’s evidence of the copying student being possibly aware of the entirety of the other student’s work. While it’s certainly possible that one author (Matt) was only aware of certain sections of another author’s work, because they share similar wording in multiple parts, share similar stories, and — most importantly — share a similar narrative, then there’s no justification for stating that one particular part of Matt is “independent” of Mark.

The name “Barabba” is a literary invention of the author of Mark. This is the entire point of the so-called Aramaisms and his subsequent translations (into Greek) in Mark. When Jesus is praying in Gethsemane, he says “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will”. For one, if this is an authentic prayer, why would Jesus (supposedly speaking in Aramaic) say “father” twice? Two, who was around to hear this prayer? The entire point of this pericope is that the disciples are asleep and fail to keep watch.

Here, the author is telling the reader what the word “abba” means for when he introduces the character “BarAbba” a couple of paragraphs later. Markan Irony – contrast between Jesus Son of the Father who is the insurrectionist and rightly deserves execution, and Jesus [the real] Son of the Father who did nothing wrong but gets executed.

This is entertainment, not history.

Of course, subsequent gospel authors leave out the redundancy to make it more “authentic”. Since two other gospels copy word-for-word from Mark in large swaths and that all four canonical gospels utilize the Markan invented “Barabba” character means that there’s strong evidence for all three later evangelists being aware of Mark, or aware of a source that was aware of Mark. Of course, this also explains why John includes the hitherto unknown Greek word ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ (19:19) in his gospel; this word was invented by Matthew at 2:23 based on a misremembering of Judges 13:5 (Samson the ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ). A word that is unused in Mark.

Oddly the ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ in the LXX is a good example of what actual independence looks like. At least, documentary independence. Judges 13:5 has ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ in some manuscripts, ΝΑΖΕΙΡΑΙΟΣ in others, ΝΑΖΙΡ in others, and ΑΓΝΕΙΑ (Greek for “consecrated”) in others. ΝΑΖ(Ε)ΙΡΑΙΟΣ is the proper Greek nominative form of ΝΑΖΙΡ, which itself is the spelling of the Hebrew word נזיר (NZYR) with Greek letters. The Hebrew word NZYR means (you guessed it) “consecrated”. This is evidence that there were different translators that took a jab at translating Judges 13:5 independently of each other. If one author is copying from another, then they wouldn’t spell a word differently, such as the difference between ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ and ΝΑΖΕΙΡΑΙΟΣ. On the other hand, ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ is spelled consistently in the various (at least, the ones I’ve looked at!) NT manuscripts.

Multiple attestation only works if you know that your data is independent. Compare Thomas 3 with Lk 17:21-22, The phrase “the kingdom of god is within you” appears nowhere else. One of those writers knows the other’s saying.

This brings us to the main argument used for the resurrection by modern Christians. The “empty tomb” argument. Since there’s a documentary relationship between these gospels and the fact that Matthew was “embarrassed” by Mark’s illogical empty tomb scenario by adding guards, bribes, and other stuff means that Matthew read and was aware of Mark and Mark was the first time that Matthew (and later evangelists) heard about any sort of empty tomb. Which explains why all of the resurrection appearances vary wildly after the sabbath – where Mark ends.

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Posted by on June 8, 2010 in historical jesus, historicity


On Historiography

Now I’m not a historian, but I do know a bit about the scientific method. From what I’ve read about historiography, it seems to follow a basic scientific methodology:

Physical evidence seems to be the primary way that history is reconstructed (hence Biblical Minimalism) and written sources are used as secondary way that history is reconstructed. In other words, we shouldn’t go to written sources first since physical sources can tell a lot more about the stories of history.

This is how it’s done in every other field of science, and it’s logical and consistent that historians do the same.

The problem with Christianity is that we have no “primary” evidence, so we have to rely on writings. What I’ve learned from my few ethnography/sociology classes at NYU, people’s writings are terribly biased when processed through the filters of their own epistemology. This is the problem that sociologists have to contend with when they’re studying their subjects. I bring up sociology because history is a mix of both the hard science of archaeology and the soft science of sociology – basically sociology in the past.

In science, even in hard sciences, all knowledge is tentative. The Theory of Relativity basically says “this is how it’s worked so far”, and it will always be open to modifications to that theory if evidence pushes things in that direction. Soft sciences are even more tentative in their conclusions, since human behavior is even harder to predict than gravity.

Back to the problem with early Christanity and its history: in this case we only have writings. For the most part, early Christian writings are undated, and the earliest narratives about Jesus are anonymous. Another problem is that these writings are opinions about religious beliefs. They are writing what they want us to believe, not what actually happened. But this is not a problem restricted to Chritian writing, it’s a problem for all writing, both modern and ancient. And this is why writings are secondary material. They need corroborating data, or external controls. Secondary sources like writings can tell us more about the sociological context of the writers than what they’re actually writing about.

Related to these writers writing what they want us to believe, we know that in the 2nd century, Christians were editing these writings even further in the battle between “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy”. So not only were the original writers writing what they wanted us to believe, but these writings arrive to us today edited by later Christians wanting us to believe what they believed. Thus you end up not with just Mark… but Mark, Matthew, Ebionite Matthew, Luke, Marcion’s Luke, Gnostic John, Orthodox John, and myriads of other permutations. All variations of Mark… all of the data are hopelessly corrupted.

But this isn’t a “show stopper” for history, since in many other fields of history they don’t treat undated and anonymous writings as a primary source. They aren’t forced to.

Thus, for example, Virgil’s Aeneid counts as evidence of both the founding of Rome, and of the social climate of the Age of Augustus. It is very bad evidence of the former, and fairly good evidence of the latter.

So at the very least, this is why I’m agnostic about the historical Jesus.

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Posted by on March 8, 2010 in early Christianity, historicity, historiography, jesus myth

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