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:
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… :-)
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.