Alexander the Great and Jesus: An Irresponsible Comment

James McGrath should know better.  I enjoy the humor and I get the joke, but most people won’t.  This comment betrays an irresponsibility in academia and it needs to be corrected.  Here is the comment on his blog:

Paul Cartledge’s book on Alexander the Great is quoted by Chuck Grantham in a recent blog post:

It has been well said that the search for the historical Alexander is something like the search for the historical Jesus. Many contemporaries had an interest in preserving a version of what he said and did, but none of the subject’s actual words have been certainly preserved verbatim; and those writers whose words have survived all had an interest in recording, or creating, a particular image of their hero- or villain- for the edification of their contemporaries or posterity. With the result that the searches for both tend to be massively controversial.

What, hasn’t this guy read all the mythicist websites? Doesn’t he know that there is a consensus among mythicists that historians don’t hold views of this sort? He’s a professor of history at Cambridge University, for crying out loud!

Presumably he has no need to worry about the opinion of mythicists, since he doesn’t have a blog… :-)

Paul Cartledge, Provoker of Mythicists? Alexander the Great and Jesus.

Oh, James.  Once again you draw false analogies.  Those who attempt to pretend there is any similarity in evidence between that for Jesus and that for Alexander the Great only show their naivety (and in some cases, like E.P. Sanders who actually argues that there is more evidence for Jesus than Alexander, their ignorance).

For the sake of argument alone, if one takes into account all the evidence for Alexander the Great, a well documented and attested figure in history, there is simply no comparison between him and the figure of Jesus. Take any one Gospel (or all four, if one would like) and examine it next to Arrian’s history of Alexander’s campaigns. Even as late as Arrian is, Arrian uses methods that surpass the methods (if any at all) used by the Gospel authors. For example, Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight. (1) Further, many of the citations Arrian uses are known from other contemporary and later sources. (2)  In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts, (3) artwork (busts of him; we have copies of originals done from his life), coins, and inscriptions (many contemporaneous). (4) There are also other lesser evidences (but hardly anywhere near the sort of dubious or questionable evidence we might have for Jesus) like letters of Alexander and Aristotle and Philip and Speusippus, and the hundreds of quotations of contemporaries and eyewitnesses that survive in later works, most of which are hard to dispute.  If we had this sort of evidence for Jesus’ life and ministry, there would be no need to question his historical significance (or, perhaps, his historicity at all).

One may make the argument that we cannot expect this sort of evidence for a historical Jesus, as he’d be relatively insignificant compared to a figure such as Alexander the Great. That’s very true, assuming a historical, itinerant, impoverished Jesus. So then the question becomes one of contradiction. Why would a scholar so desire to suggest, erroneously, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is greater than that of Alexander (or even on par with it!) when the fact is, quite clearly, that the evidence for Alexander is so superior to that of any provided for Jesus? Not only is it superior, but it is improbable—near impossible perhaps—that a historian should expect anything similar between Alexander and a insignificant historical Jesus as far as evidence goes. Yet this is the sort of statement so commonly heard by both scholars and apologists alike that often allows the wool to be pulled over the eyes of the uninformed reader. It is intellectually dishonest and, perhaps, irresponsible statements like these and others that perpetuate the conclusion among…well, almost everyone, that the historicity of Jesus is an established fact.  Jesus has become for many both inside and outside the field a “concrete entity with recognizable parameters.” (5)

I would caution James that such comments are irresponsible; the lay reader with no background in history might not recognize the humor and frankly that is something of which James needs to be made aware.  These sorts of hyperbolic statements do nothing but breed distrust in a conversation already rank with that problem.  They are nothing but trouble.  I enjoy James’ blog a great deal and he has useful things to say; alas, this is not one of them.


(1)     He also compares conflicting accounts for the reader; e.g. Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6.

(2)     While I hold Arrian’s methods high, they fall short of modern standards. Even though Arrian is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect. He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.” (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) If a “good” ancient historian like Arrian can still succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be concerned with how much bias affects those ancient historians of lesser quality.

(3)     The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

(4)     Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias. See B.F. Cook, Greek inscriptions (1987), p. 21-22.

(5)     Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q (2002), p. 9; Though Goodacre is talking about academic opinion of the hypothetical nature of the Q document, his opinion of academia also applies here.

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9 Responses

  1. You make me likely to snatch up the first copy of the Landmark Arrian I see in a bookstore. Which would please the profs who gave me a humble bachelors in history. Primary sources, students….

  2. Tom, I may be wrong but I doubt that anyone could fail to detect the note of sarcasm in my post. I have emphasized over and over again that there are important differences between figures of the sort Alexander was (a political and military leader, the guys that were among the few likely to leave behind tangible evidence and make waves sufficiently large enough as to leave little room for doubt as to their existence) and the sort Jesus was (an itinerant teacher of the sort that, if the movement he started had not evolved into something ongoing could well have escaped our notice or have at best been yet another name mentioned in passing in an ancient text, who almost no one recognizes the name of today).

    But mythicists regularly say that historians in all other fields approach matters with rigor, while in the field of New Testament things are otherwise. They make sweeping claims about what historians do that do not even come close to reflecting what real historians think and write. And so I don’t think the quote will do any harm, and it needed to be shared, because it is precisely the sort of thing that internet mythicists would have people believe that no professional historian could ever write.

  3. James,

    Thanks for stopping by. There certainly is sarcasm, but without any context. I believe you could have made the same statement while clarifying the differences, without losing any of the wit or the edge. If you don’t mind a friendly nod, I think if you lose the hyperbole, even in jest, you’ll be more readable and less confrontational. The rhetoric you use complicates your argument rather than strengthening it; it also can come off defensive which does not change minds. Your sarcastic tongue-in-cheek remark could have been just as hard-hitting if you said it another way which did not betray the possibility of being misconstrued. And if you think that your statement could not be misconstrued by a lot of people, then you’re not paying attention to those freshmen undergrads at Butler.

  4. Tom it is all good, but if you follow the post at Matrix, you will note that commenter’s there never take this sort of stuff as evidence, I mean it could have been written in later by all those dastardly people who wanted other tho believe Alexander was a real person! I know you find that a silly argument, and I think it is silly when people argue that we have no authentic Pauline letter, or that all the Jesus myth stuff was edited out, or that some one added in the accounts of John the Baptist to Josephus or Christ to Tacitus. Before we start editing the sources to fit our needs we need good arguments, not just conjecture.

    Jesus history has been too readily taken up by people trying to fight a culture war. I wish for the sake of historical study no one gave a shit about the guy, but alack he is still a great social icon and a magnet for all kinds of soft headed people. Any how strong feeling for historical people will always be a source of contention. it has always been the nature of the biz. Write an honest book about Reagan or Kennedy and see what kind of mail you get!

  5. McGrath writes:

    But mythicists regularly say that historians in all other fields approach matters with rigor, while in the field of New Testament things are otherwise. They make sweeping claims about what historians do that do not even come close to reflecting what real historians think and write.

    Would McGrath like to actually quote or cite where “mythicists regularly say” something that does not “even come close to reflecting what real historians think and write”? Or where “they” even say that NT scholars do not use “rigor” in some way?

  6. Neil, your constant request for people to quote your own writings back to you is rather ridiculous. Do you really think people who have read your site won’t come that conclusion? If so you are a terribly ineffective writer.

  7. ‘Neil, your constant request for people to quote your own writings back to you is rather ridiculous. ‘

    Neil, stop expecting McGrath to quote you. That is ‘rather ridiculous’.

    No wonder people don’t take mythicists seriously. They want actual quotes, citations and references. What are they? Scholars or something?

    But mythicists regularly say that historians in all other fields approach matters with rigor, while in the field of New Testament things are otherwise.

    Neil does say things like that, and , of course, provides quotes, such as James McGrath, who writes ‘Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.’

    James is pretty damn convinced that historians in other fields are happy to work with fabricated, inauthentic material, and who claim they can detect what is true by reading fabricated material.

  8. McGrath
    But mythicists regularly say that historians in all other fields approach matters with rigor, while in the field of New Testament things are otherwise.

    Neil does say things like that…

    I suppose you might object to all mythicist being pitched in with Godfrey and friends, who may object to being called a mythicist, but people following along should by now realize there is a spectrum of ideas and intellects under that mythicist banner, and if you haven’t been following along, there is.

    I’m not sure this format requires encyclopedia level citations since this is a discussion of people in the know. If you disagree with the statement, say so, but why expect quotations in support of statements you know are true?

    I have no idea why Neil does, I don’t know if he wants to get his post another read, waste time, distance himself from his opinions, or he can’t remember what he wrote.

  9. [...] and by doing so he does not argue effectively (his arguments don’t follow his thesis).  In my blog article addressing this issue, I make sure to compare the evidence directly to show the flaws in the claim that Staks brings up [...]

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