Staks has recently posted up a blog arguing against the historicity of the figure of Jesus; to address this blog post, I am including it as part of my ongoing ‘Defining Mythicism’ segment. Staks starts his post with a subject I’ve addressed time and time again:
It is pretty common for Christians to assert that there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for some other historical figure like Alexander the Great or George Washington. This is simply not true. The fact is that there are no contemporary accounts for the existence of Jesus.
Staks’ error here, though, is that he is not addressing the question accurately, but actually connects two separate questions (that the evidence for Jesus is not comparable to Alexander the Great and that there is no contemporary evidence for Jesus), 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 in his thesis:
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. Further, many of the citations Arrian uses are known from other contemporary and later sources. In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts, artwork (busts of him; we have copies of originals done from his life), coins, and inscriptions (many contemporaneous). 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).
What was that? Yes, that’s correct, you read that right. The best evidence for Alexander the Great comes from sources hundreds of years later (Arrian). So Stak’s comments here are quite incorrect (emphasis mine):
While it is still possible that Jesus might have existed even if there are no contemporary accounts for his existence, without contemporary sources or any other actual evidence, there is no valid reason to believe Jesus actually did exist.
While we do indeed have contemporary evidence for Alexander the Great (quite a bit, actually), our best data on him comes from sources much later. So there is no grounds whatsoever for Staks claim above. In fact for many ancient historical figures, we have little or no contemporary evidence. So simply because we lack historical contemporary evidence is not a valid reason for dismissing historicity. It’s called an argument from silence, but its a weak argument from silence (Richard Carrier dismantles this sort of use here); by itself, an argument from silence is not enough to establish a case against historicity. Richard Carrier explains (and I agree):
Even so, there is nothing inherently dubious in the claim that Jesus existed. So there is no need for much evidence to ground a reasonable belief that he did, so long as that evidence can be trusted more than it can be doubted.
If Staks wants to demonstrate that Jesus never existed, his best bet is to examine the reliability of the evidence. But this is something that will require extensive time and research that I doubt Staks will want to commit. First, just because the Gospel contains irrational claims (like miracles and such), that doesn’t mean that invalidates the historicity of Jesus alone. This is something Bultmann addressed quite aptly over five decades ago. Quite plainly, most narratives we have about the past, especially in historiography, contain crazy tales about the powers of the Gods, miraculous salvation or embarrassing curses, ghost stories, demonic possessions, and so forth. One must demonstrate that the Gospels are separate from these sorts of histories, wherein the events probably actually occurred, just not in the manner that the author portrays them.
And even if one demonstrated that they were of a different genre (which I have done here), that doesn’t mean that Jesus never existed. After all, fictional stories could certainly be written about historical figures (1 and 2 Maccabees are period pieces which adequately prove that). A case against historicity must be argued from a firm grasp of the data, the languages, the periods in question, etc…. something Staks simply doesn’t have, as is easy to see by the following claim, which is also problematic:
But what I find more interesting is that none of those writers were contemporaries to Jesus who was alleged to have been crucified in the year 33 CE:
Simply because someone wrote about something years later doesn’t mean that what they wrote is unreliable. They could very well be reliable as long as they had contemporary evidence to draw from when they were writing. And Staks has not done a very good job of showing his readers that they did not utilize contemporary evidence. Even with Alexander the Great, if all our contemporary evidence disappeared, Arrian still provides an excellent source of historical, reliable information based on contemporary accounts which we no longer have, but know existed because of his excellent methods. Staks simply has not made a case.
And by claiming that other contemporary authors would have written about Jesus, had he existed, is simply untrue. Josephus, for example, only mentions half of the contemporary towns and settlements in his works that were known to have existed around the time of his life, many of which he would have visited or been through during the course of his time in the region, before he became an apologist and an adopted member of the Imperial family. Staks would have to demonstrate that the authors would have known of Jesus (Philo, for example, was from Alexandria and was quite busy with Jewish/Roman relationship issues at the time) and that mentioning Jesus would have been relevant to their own writings. We know of 33 Jewish sects which existed around the time of the first century CE, but there were probably dozens, if not hundreds, more which never got a mention. And of those 33 sects, we learn about them through multiple texts–they aren’t all found in one place, so clearly not all of them were relevant to the authors of the time, who were writing for their own purposes and agendas.
Overall, I am disappointed in Staks article. It is misleading, doesn’t argue effectively for any of the claims he makes, and he fails to support his claims appropriately with the sorts of evidence he needs. It is probably because Staks is not a historian, not even an amateur historian, and doesn’t have the background in the area to be making any sort of argument for or against the historicity of any event in the ancient past. Leave history to those who have the knowledge to argue these positions in a manner they deserve, which will not mislead. This isn’t to say a case could not have been argued against the historicity of the figure of Jesus; what I am saying, quite directly, is that Staks has not done so.