Category Archives: historiography

Authorship of the Gospels

This is a great post by Matthew Ferguson, the author of the blog Κέλσος and PhD student in Classics. One part I really liked:

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work notes (pg. 345) that, while not all of our surviving manuscripts are complete with titles, the titles that we do have on some of the best manuscripts traditions have Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

Here we already have a problem with the authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscript traditions for the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as traditions, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified. In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles says that the Histories or Annals were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, while only vague and ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.

I can’t remember where (probably on FRDB), but someone was asking about the weird headings of the Gospels (Κατά Μάρκον::kata Markon, etc.) and asking if this was normal practice in the ancient world. Nope! The titles of the Gospels are in accusative case, not genitive, which he probably meant to say but might have forgotten. Though I did read one argument (again, forgot where) that the first line of Mark’s gospel was probably the title: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, υἱοῦ θεοῦ. Which is indeed in genitive case, but doesn’t actually say that Jesus is the author.

Ferguson has a lot more awesome information about how we know the Gospels were not authored by their traditional namesakes; go read the whole thing! It really expands on one of the sections in my post Why I’m not a Christian.

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in early Christianity, historiography


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


The Differences Between the Gospel Writers and Greco-Roman Historians



I wrote a post a few years ago detailing my observation about the difference between the Gospels and actual Greco-Roman biographies. Two other bloggers who are much more well read than myself have made similar (and better) observations than I did.

Tom Verenna writes, critiquing both an atheist and a Christian:

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus. Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus. Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.


The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example). These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography. As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods… Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels. When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious. This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.


It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus. There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions). Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se. Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).

Neil Godfrey writes, in his critique of Craig S. Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

But then Keener steps outside of New Testament studies and makes a very odd analogy. He points out that classicists recognize the weaknesses of their sources — and in a footnote he draws special attention to Livy and Josephus — without being overly sceptical. So Livy is known to be uncritical but classicists don’t throw his work in the bin because of that. Keener believes historical Jesus scholars “are at their best when they follow the same approach.”

He wants readers to approach the Gospels with the same balance between faith and scepticism that they would bring to a reading of Livy and Josephus.

Something interesting happens, however, if we ask Livy or Josephus what they might think of the admonition that the Gospels should be read in the same way as their own historical works.

Livy indeed tells us what he does think of such an idea on the opening page of his history:

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states.

So works like the Gospels that mingle human and divine actions (miracles, spirits, prophecies) should be read like poetry, not history. Not even Livy would read such works as if narrating true events or false, but as something quite different from history.

It may be objected that Livy is confining his view to the stories inherited from long ago. But Livy, and likewise Josephus, rarely if ever writes of a supposed miracle or divine intervention without either expressing some reservation or appealing to reported eyewitnesses to justify his account. So after relating the miraculous accounts of the death of Romulus, and in particular of the report of his “post-resurrection appearance” to a follower, Livy remarks:

It is [marvelous] what credit was given to this man’s story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.

The Gospels speak of miracles with a matter-of-factness characteristic of ancient novels and myths (e.g. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” — Luke 24:36), a frequent difference being that the Gospel miracles can be explained as theological metaphors so they are not offered the benefit of narrative realism even by ancient standards

So if I were to summarize the differences between the Gospels and ancient Greco-Roman historians:

  1. Greco-Roman historians talked about and critiqued their — many times multiple — sources
  2. Greco-Roman historians named themselves and their motivations for writing who/what they’re writing about
  3. Gospels are written/presented to the reader as one narrative whole
  4. Gospels uncritically include supernatural elements; Greco-Roman historians also included supernatural elements, but many times were skeptical of them
  5. Even if the Gospels were of the genre of Greco-Roman history, there was no law in antiquity that mandated the genre of Greco-Roman history to be of only non-fictional persons
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Posted by on March 16, 2013 in greco-roman biography, 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


Japanese Jesus

(Sign explaining legend of grave of Jesus Christ, in Japanese.)

“Leo Quix” has an interesting post today, Parahistory and the Historical Jesus:

In 1935, while researching his family’s library in the prefecture of Ibaraki (about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo), a man named Kyomaro Takeuchi claimed to have unearthed some very ancient documents which turn out to be the source of this peculiar, lesser-known variant of the Jesus legend. [me: does this sound familiar?] These documents included the Legend of Daitenku Taro Jurai (the Japanese name that Jesus would reportedly take on for himself). The legend revealed that Jesus first came to Japan during the reign of the eleventh emperor Suinin, landing at the port of Hashidate (on the western coast of Honshu), and that he eventually settled in the Etchu province, where he studied Japanese language, literature, and philosophy under a Shinto priest.

After this formative period of immersion into pre-classical Japanese culture, it is reported that Jesus returned to Judea. The New Testament tells us what happened next. The part where Jesus less-than-triumphantly marches into Jerusalem one Passover weekend to usher in the new Davidic age, botches it up and then proceeds to get crucified in the process for all his trouble, is ingrained into our collective cultural frontal lobe. There’s no need to revisit the details of the familiar story. But the Takeuchi documents have a different, happier ending than the New Testament does. They inform us that Jesus was in fact spared the undignified death outlined in the gospels. Cancel the passion. Cancel the resurrection. Cancel Pentecost. The ancient texts tell us that Isukiri, Jesus’ baby brother, voluntarily took his place and died instead.[1]  Having thus escaped death by the hand of Rome Jesus hurried eastward, carrying with him his martyred brother’s ear and a lock of hair from their mother. After much hardship along the long way from Judea to Japan (via Siberia and Alaska—!!—, we are told) Jesus eventually made it home to Japan. The legend then holds that during this second visit, Jesus eventually settled down in Herai, married a woman named Miyuko, worked as a simple rice farmer, raised a couple of daughters, and later died there at an extremely advanced age. The Takeuchi documents further reveal the Sawaguchi family to be the direct descendants of Jesus of Nazareth

The tale of Jesus being swapped by a doppelganger is at least as old as the late 1st / early 2nd century. The first person to have promulgated this variant of the myth is a Gnostic named Basilides, who was said to be a disciple of Peter. In Basilides’ version, Jesus switches places with Simon of Cyrene and looks on while Simon is crucified. I’m not sure whether Basilides was a true docetist or not, but docetism might be at play there.

Of course, you may think that the tale ends there, but the same motif seems to have been involved in the foundation of Islam. In Islamic lore, Jesus is switch by Allah himself with a sort of ghost or phantom (i.e. docetism!) on the cross. The phantom is “crucified” while Allah whisks the real Jesus up to heaven. Literally, the Koran says that it only “seemed” that Jesus was crucified but actually wasn’t; and that’s exactly where the word “docetism” comes from: Dokeo (δοκέω), “to seem”.

He also has this footnote at [1] about the strange name of the brother who is crucified in Jesus’ stead:

The phonetic quality of written Japanese katakana highlights a curious relation between the names of the two brothers. The name of Jesus, イエスキリスト (= Iesukirisuto) contains the name of his brother  イスキリ (=Isukiri). It’s really a condensation of the first five characters of the former name to four (just omit the ‘e’=エ). Compositionally, this link between the names sets up a potential doppelganger motif to the tale. Note that the name Isukiri is a far cry from Jacob, Judas, Simon, or Joses, the names of Jesus’ brothers as listed in the Gospel of Mark.

This is interesting because one of Jesus’ disciples is named Judas “Twin Twin”. That is, Judas Didymus Thomas. Didymus (δίδυμος) is Greek for “twin” and Thomas is Aramaic for “twin”.

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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in historiography, post-nicaea Christianity


The "Illiterate Goat-Herders" Insult

This is one of those insults that gets repeated over and over when atheists discuss the beliefs of theists. It’s been repeated so many times that atheists accept it without thinking critically about it.

The thing is, a book (collection of books) like the Bible — any book produced in antiquity really — was created and maintained by the intellectual elite. All of the books in the Bible were created by the “1%” so to say, since reading and writing were something that the vast majority of normal people in antiquity did not know how to do. They didn’t know how to do it because they couldn’t afford the education.

In ancient Israel and Judah, it was the intellectual elite who wrote down, redacted, and promulgated the narratives from Genesis to 2 Kings because the illiterate goat-herders were, well, illiterate. The common people at this time, before the Exile, were polytheists. The intellectual elite, however, were the heno/monotheists. So the condemnation of the illiterate goat-herders, their beliefs really, is rampant throughout the elitist first few books of the Bible. And even in the Prophets and Writings, these books were also produced by the elite.

The same thing happened with the New Testament. The gospel of Mark was not written by an illiterate goat-herder. It was written by someone who was probably among the most educated 10 – 15% of the entire Roman Empire. Matthew and Luke were written by people who were probably more educated than Mark, and John was probably written by that elitist intellectually snobby 1%.

So then, as history goes, religion will always be controlled by the 1%. The beliefs of the intellectual elite will always trickle down to the unwashed masses. It happened in ancient Israel & Judah with the intellectual elites’ views (monotheism) winning out over the plebes (polytheists), it happened with Rabbinic Judaism, it happened with Christianity, and it will happen with atheism. So no, the religions of the book were not created by illiterate goat herders. They were created by intellectuals; at least, the intellectuals of yesteryear.


Posted by on March 8, 2012 in historiography, 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

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