The title may be a little confusing; what do any of those things have to do with each other? Well, as it turns out, this post is a bit of a critique of the ‘criterion of disputation.’ This criterion goes that if a particular person, place, or event in antiquity wasn’t contested (that is to say, their existence or their happening wasn’t called into question) by other contemporaries, that the person, place, or event must have been historical. If we broke the argument down into a syllogism, it would look like this:
P1. If (insert name here) did not exist, a first century text would mention it.
P2. No first century text mentions it.
C1. Therefore (person) existed [i.e. (individual/group) did not not exist].
But this is just not a sound argument, nor is it helpful. For starters, this criterion uses too many generalizations–it’s a special plea because it fails to prove accurate in many, if not most, of the cases one would think to use it. For example, Romulus.
At some point in early Rome (we don’t know when precisely) there grew a belief in a demi-god, a patriarch, of the city of Rome. Was it within the first 50 years? The first 100 years? Maybe later? We are pretty sure that Rome became a Republic sometime in the 6th century BCE, and that it is traditionally said to have been ruled by several kings prior to it becoming a republic and that it was founded perhaps 200 years earlier. The first mention of Romulus is in the 4th century BCE and our earliest history of Rome comes from Diocles around the same time. So there is some length of time between when the city was first established and when the patriarch was given to myth. I’ve dealt with the problem of proximity before, but clearly I need to readdress it at some point in light of some additional considerations, but more on that soon. What should be remembered here is that nobody doubted the historicity of Romulus; his existence went undisputed. Interestingly enough, not only did his existence go undisputed, some of his miraculous deeds did get disputed. For example, Plutarch disputed whether or not he had really risen from the dead–but his existence was never disputed.
Likewise, and I’ve written on this before, Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Πeρὶ ἀpίstων:
Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them. Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened. My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories. For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.
Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths. In his work, he writes that Centaurs were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)! And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!
And then, of course, there is Euhemerus himself (from whom the word ‘euhemerism’ derives). Euhemerus argued that the gods of the Greeks were mythologized historical Kings. Again, the gods were not disputed to have existed, but their mythology stripped and they were placed within the context of a historical setting.
But we should bring this back home a little bit; we should consider Ignatius as a model here. Ignatius supposedly wrote several letters defending Christianity in his lifetime and is attested to have lived from about the early-mid first century to the early second century CE. Later Christian historians write on him and tell us about his life, more about his martyrdom. No one in antiquity doubts his historicity. But I am doubtful that such a figure as Ignatius existed historically (I’d say there is about a 30-40% chance that such a figure existed–and that is being generous). In fact, I don’t believe there is any way such a figure, if he did exist, wrote anything (or, if such a figure did write something, then it might be argued but at a later date). Let me break this down for you so you can better understand what I’m arguing here.
When I say I am 30-40% sure of Ignatius’ historicity, for example, I’m not denying his existence outright. I must stress that; I’m not denying his historicity completely. I’m stating that the limitations of our evidence doesn’t ipso facto suggest Ignatius didn’t exist, but they certainly don’t help or support the case for his existence. For example, are we really to accept that Ignatius was captured by Romans in the second century for practicing a ‘false religion’, only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion? And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans (which Ignatius considers rather mean-spirited and cruel to him)? Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors, let in by the Roman guards (the same guards holding him for being a Christian), to secure these letters before he was eaten by lions? Keep in mind, he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred! I just don’t buy it. Maybe you do. I do not.
And then there is that whole pesky thing about Christians being persecuted in the early second century. Pliny didn’t even know what a Christian was and he should! He held enough high positions and judicial positions that if there were some edict against Christianity he would know about it! And yet the way Ignatius discusses his captivity, one would think that the Romans were just hunting Christians down. This calls into question not only the authenticity of the letters, but also the person. For what more do we know of him except from later Christian tradition? Of that later tradition, it is no more valid or useful than the letters themselves. So I don’t think my estimation of about 30-40% is too low or too skeptical. In fact I’m probably being more generous than I should given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.
But I could make an even stronger case that the historical validity of things were simply not questioned in antiquity. And examples are readily found in the New Testament itself. All of the pastorals are written in the names of people which may or may not have any historical significance. That is to say, was Nicodemus a historical figure? And what of Simon Magus in Acts? Certainly some must doubt the historicity of these individuals. But who contested them? Who in antiquity wrote on the ahistoricity of Nicodemus or Simon Magus? Indeed, their traditions were merely exemplified. Many of these traditions were created within a generation of the events, some contemporaries probably still lived to dispute them if they wanted to do so. Yet we have no evidence that anyone sought to dispute them.
Now, keeping in mind that we have letters attested to have been written by Ignatius, my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns. In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones. I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people. But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50. Maybe that will change when better evidence presents itself. I’m leaving room for such possibilities. But I’m not straight out denying the traditions. And that is the difference here between my skepticism and someone who is a denialist. And I would put a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp.
Now, most academics are skeptical to some degree. Skepticism is healthy and useful. But what this shows is that there is a danger in not being skeptical enough. That doesn’t mean to suggest that we need to be hyper skeptical where our doubt borders on denialism–that is not what I’m suggesting, and there is a clear difference between that sort of skepticism and what I recommend. My concern is that there are too many arguments made without consideration for the elephant in the room; too many scholars who are not following through with their own conclusions. And I believe it is a general fear of becoming too skeptical; too sensitive to the limitations of our evidence. My concern is that the limitations of our textual evidence is taken for granted–and some may say it isn’t, because they’re using evidence and argument. But if our text is our evidence, and the text is subject to fictionalization, almost completely in the sense of the Gospels, what does that say about the state of the evidence? And what does that say about the value of the criterion of disputation?
I tend to think the greater danger is in merely taking the information within our texts for granted, that is to say, simply relying upon consensus rather than doing any of the leg work to verify the validity of a consensus. For example, I trust my doctors, but I still look into the medication they prescribe me just to make sure I know what I’m taking. If I have questions, I consult my doctor or get a second opinion (or a third or fourth). And when a scientist presents a study on evolution, I look into it as well because I don’t know whether that scientist is presenting credible arguments from the evidence–even if his premise (evolution) is one with which I agree. Another example of this is when geologists try to suggest that a gust of wind is responsible for the parting of the sea during the crossing of the Israelites from Egypt or that an earthquake can accurate point to the exact day of the crucifixion. Doing one’s due diligence is not something to be ridiculed, in my humble opinion. Being a responsible scholar depends on ones familiarity with the basics–not just the knowledge that everyone agrees with them.
All I want to see is more honesty. My goal in all of this is to simply keep the conversation open. Maybe one day we’ll have evidence which will close it, but I don’t think we currently do. I think there are multiple ways to interpret the data which are all just as useful and realistic and possible. But what this criterion does is shut out the alternate realistic possibility that people in antiquity rarely disputed traditions–because traditions were more important than the fact of them. The same could be said of Tea Party candidates today who believe that the early founding fathers of this country established a Christian nation, that Jefferson was a religious fellow; tradition (even if that tradition was just created) is more important than the facts.
The criterion of disputation doesn’t allow for the facts; it presumes things about it that we can provide ample evidence against. And those who use it should always be cautious.
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