The historiagrophy of Jesus vs. the historiagrophy of Alexander the Great

My atheist friend, Tom, likes to start religious debates on Facebook. For the life of me, I don’t know why because he’s not very good at it. Nevertheless, he persists. One specific argument I’ve never bothered with while arguing with him is the one that, if you based your belief on whether a historical figure existed on the amount of extant contemporary sources, you’d have far more reason to believe Jesus existed than Alexander the Great. I’ve heard this alluded to before but never really looked into it and didn’t feel it was necessary to mention in any of the arguments I’ve had with him. We have a mutual friend, Jerry, whose debating skills really aren’t any better than those of Tom’s and I’ve stepped in on several occasions to bail him out when he gets in over his head. They’re at it again and Jerry decided to make the claim that you can’t say Jesus didn’t exist based on the lack of contemporary resources without also saying that a whole slew of other ancient, historical figures didn’t exist. Tom rebutted with some pretty standard attacks on the historicity of the Gospels while ignoring any extrabibilical references (I’m guessing mainly because Jerry doesn’t know enough to even mention them).

Tom’s a nut for certain historical figures, Alexander the Great being one of them, so I decided to look at the old argument to see how valid it is. As it turns out, it actually has some value. In terms of extant contemporary references to Alexander, there really aren’t any worth mentioning. The earliest surviving works date to a 200-300 years after he died, while the rest are much later. Jesus has him beat pretty much all around. That being said, how would you recommend presenting the argument in a way that doesn’t make it sound as though you’re saying you don’t believe Alexander existed? I don’t want to leave Jerry hanging but I’m not sure I’m in the mood to devote the time to the sort of Socratic debate I usually like to string Tom through (mainly because it’s such a chore to lead him to simple conclusions, let alone more complex ones).

Take Tom’s assertions about the Gospels and repeat them back to him, asking him if these are the reasons he doubts the historicity of Jesus.

When he says ‘yes’, show him that these apply, too, to Alexander the Great.

Ask him how he can believe in the historicity of Alexander and not in the historicity of Jesus, if his assertions apply to both equally.

(Then hit him with the extra-Biblical references, once he’s finished chewing on that question.) :wink:

This doesn’t directly pertain to Alexander the Great, but atheist blogger and historian Tim O’Neill makes a great case rebutting Jesus Mythers, those who deny there even being a historical Galilean rabbi from Nazareth, so it seems relevant. He even makes a case for Jesus having a historical reputation as a wonder worker and for him being crucified as being the best and most parsimonious explanation for what followed, all while still himself being an atheist. He basically thinks it’s a simpler, less complicated, and less reaching explanation than what Jesus deniers can come up with. Here’s a link:

quora.com/Do-credible-historians-agree-that-the-man-named-Jesus-who-the-Christian-Bible-speaks-of-walked-the-earth-and-was-put-to-death-on-a-cross-by-Pilate-Roman-governor-of-Judea

Actually, one of the earlier sources for Alexander the Great’s existence is 1 Maccabees, which dates from about a hundred years after his death.

1 Maccabees 1:1-10:

Now this came to pass after Alexander the son of Philip the Macedonian, who first reigned in Greece, coming out of the land of Cethim, had overthrown Darius king of the Persians and Medes.

He fought many battles, and took the strongholds of all, and slew the kings of the earth. And he went through even to the ends of the earth, and took the spoils of many nations; and the earth was quiet before him. And he gathered a power, and a very strong army; and his heart was exalted and lifted up. And he subdued countries of nations, and princes; and they became tributaries to him.

And after these things, he fell down upon his bed, and knew that he should die. And he called his servants, the nobles that were brought up with him from his youth; and he divided his kingdom among them, while he was yet alive. And Alexander reigned twelve years, and he died.

And his servants made themselves kings, every one, in his place. And they all put crowns upon themselves after his death, and their sons after them many years, and evils were multiplied in the earth.

You might find this article interesting.

That was essentially the approach I ended up taking. He took the bait, I brought up Alexander and he decided he didn’t want to play and deleted the whole thread, which he tends to do about 50% of the time when I join his debates. I tried to keep it going via private messages but he wasn’t willing to discuss it.

Not particularly. The standard argument from Jesus deniers is that there’s not enough extant, contemporary sources to make a claim Jesus existed. The author of that article curiously chooses to be misleading while accusing Lee Strobel of being misleading. To say that there were no eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life intentionally ignores the fact that Matthew was an eyewitness while Luke relied on eyewitness testimony. He’s also a bit misleading while referencing what has survived of the contemporary sources about Alexander, which is virtually nothing (we have almost as many fragments of the Q document as we do of the contemporary sources on Alexander).

Yep, that sounds about right. He couldn’t proceed in the face of logic, so he folded up his tent and went home.

Sometimes, that’s the best you can hope for. :shrug:

That does rather assume that one accepts the NT as scripture/reportage. :wink:

I don’t think he was being misleading so much as he was disagreeing with church tradition that Matthew (or John) were eyewitnesses. In that regard, it would seem he’s solidly in the mainstream of biblical scholarship. From the NAB introduction to the Gospel of Matthew:

The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.

The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.

He’s also a bit misleading while referencing what has survived of the contemporary sources about Alexander, which is virtually nothing (we have almost as many fragments of the Q document as we do of the contemporary sources on Alexander).

As I understand it, the existence of Q in any form is pure speculation so I’m very curious about the documentary fragments you’re referencing here.

In any case, in that Q is thought to have been a collection of sayings, even if it did exist it wouldn’t tell us any more than some of what Jesus is supposed to have said.

Assuming otherwise discounts the fact that there were still plenty of first generation, “eyewitness” Christians around when the Synoptic Gospels were written who would have objected to any inaccuracies. With the Alexander sources (and countless other similar figures), the earliest surviving documents were written centuries after any eyewitnesses had died. While historians all accept those earlier sources as reliable, there’s virtually nothing left of those originals and what’s cited in the surviving documents is hardly enough to fully recreate the originals. The NT was cited and quoted so thoroughly in the first couple centuries AD that even if no copies of them survived, we could recreate them almost entirely. They were so fully dispersed, taught and discussed that had they varied from the historical account, the early Church would have been up in arms. There’s no accounts of any early (first and second generation) Christians disputing what was in the Gospels.

That’s pretty much my point. The fragments we have of the earliest sources about Alexander are so few and incomplete that there are scarcely more of them than there are of the hypothetical Q document. Yet most people would be up in arms if one refuted their authenticity. Meanwhile, there are more extant early copies of the NT than any other similar work. It had a cosmopolitan distribution in multiple languages and was regularly read, discussed and studied while eyewitnesses to Christ’s life were still alive. Even if you discount the miraculous passages, you’re still left with absolutely no refutations of their authenticity by the earliest Christians.

There’s no accounts of any early (first and second generation) Christians disputing what was in the Gospels.

I’m sorry but saying that there’s no first generation Christian documentary evidence evidence against the NT is not ‘proof’ of the NT, it’s pure speculation.

Would that be worse than the speculation about the lost writings about Alexander that are pretty much universally accepted as reliable despite not existing? The first and second generation presbyters (the ones who knew Jesus or were disciples to the people who knew Jesus) relied on the Gospels in their ministry. Would they have done so if they were inaccurate?

I’ve tended to the view that arguments about whether Jesus existed or not are something of a waste of time, I’m fully prepared to accept there was a peripatetic rabbi called ‘Jesus’ who had a number of followers - what we can be certain of about Alexander is that there is primary evidence for his existence (material stuff like coins etc).

Not only that, of course, but I’m not expected to accept/believe anything supernatural about Alexander or that there are supernatural consequences to accepting or not accepting the idea that there was a great Macedonian warrior king who was a military genius. Meanwhile the Gospels are about a supernatural person, a God in human form who did supernatural things and accepting or not accepting that has supernatural consequences. On what basis?

The first and second generation presbyters (the ones who knew Jesus or were disciples to the people who knew Jesus) relied on the Gospels in their ministry. Would they have done so if they were inaccurate?

What evidence, outside the NT, is there about what they did or didn’t do or what they did or didn’t believe at that time? I’m supposed to believe in all sorts of supernatural stuff on the basis of some assumption about the behaviour of some people that can’t be substantiated?

As I stated above, the argument at hand is about whether Jesus was a historical figure. The argument presented against it was the dearth of surviving firsthand accounts of his life. Any arguments about faith, God, etc. are separate, although they do hinge on the historical existence of Jesus. As far as material stuff being proof of Alexander’s existence, I have a collector’s set of Star Wars coins sitting on my desk. Was Luke Skywalker a real person?

What evidence, outside the NT, is there about what they did or didn’t do or what they did or didn’t believe at that time? I’m supposed to believe in all sorts of supernatural stuff on the basis of some assumption about the behaviour of some people that can’t be substantiated?

Um, how about a two thousand year, unbroken chain of tradition and documents (including ancient non-Biblical, secular sources) attesting to the beliefs and practices contained in the NT and other early Church documents? There’s ample documentation outside of the NT detailing what the Church has believed from the start. Saying that there’s not is like saying you don’t believe Shakespeare was much of a playwright because nobody’s ever written about him.

Except, of course, that Alexander artefacts are found across a number of civilisations in the Ancient World which was a somewhat different period from a mass marketing point of view.

Um, how about a two thousand year, unbroken chain of tradition and documents (including ancient non-Biblical, secular sources) attesting to the beliefs and practices contained in the NT and other early Church documents? There’s ample documentation outside of the NT detailing what the Church has believed from the start. Saying that there’s not is like saying you don’t believe Shakespeare was much of a playwright because nobody’s ever written about him.

I’ve always thought that these sorts of arguments work much better at bolstering up the faith of believers rather than in convincing unbelievers - rather like the famous ‘would they have died for a lie?’ argument where it turns out that there’s very little evidence about how they died at all - there’s tradition (arising from the writings of one Church Father or another - usually at some distance from the events) but not a chain of evidence.

The problem, though, is that there’s scant evidence for just about anything in the ancient world! You’ve got coins? Great. Romans minted coins with gods and goddesses on them all the time – so, I can reasonably assert that your “Alexander is historical because he’s on a coin” claim is just a misinterpretation of a warrior-god myth. :shrug:

So, typically, what we do have to go on is the variety of accounts that exist. The closer they are to the source time and/or place, the more we’re willing to ascribe credulity to them.

The problem of your approach, it seems, is that it uses reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ for ancient historical figures, while demanding contemporary standards for Jesus. That’s just dirty pool… :wink:

If you look, I wasn’t saying an awful lot about Alexander - there appears that there is some evidence that there was a successful Macedonian king around whom tales are told which may or may not be some variation of ‘true’. Whatever the level of ‘true’ about Alexander, however, the consequences are negligible.

The problem of your approach, it seems, is that it uses reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ for ancient historical figures, while demanding contemporary standards for Jesus. That’s just dirty pool… :wink:

The problem with your approach, it seems, is that it demands that people accept overarching conclusions about their life and beliefs based on a supernatural story, about a supernatural being on the basis of self-referential texts that may, or may not, have some relationship/level of ‘truth’ about the life and teachings of an itinerant rabbi.

Reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ of the itinerant rabbi? I think so, reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ for a human God, is another matter altogether.

Truth is truth, no matter what the consequences. We can’t judge truth by its implications, can we? If so, then you’re not judging ‘truth’ at all…

The problem with your approach, it seems, is that it demands that people accept overarching conclusions about their life and beliefs based on a supernatural story

Again, ‘supernatural’ or not, the only thing being asked is whether the stories are true. The conclusions will fall where they may – the question of ‘truth’ is a question, in the final analysis, only about veracity, not effect.

, about a supernatural being on the basis of self-referential texts that may, or may not, have some relationship/level of ‘truth’ about the life and teachings of an itinerant rabbi.

Reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ of the itinerant rabbi? I think so, reasonable standards for ‘evidence’ for a human God, is another matter altogether.

By that standard, I’m assuming you throw out the Torah, too? :hmmm:

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