08 January 2006

Even if he wasn't God, he was certainly a man...

This week's Catholic Herald has a peculiar story from Italy on the front page. It seems that three years back an Italian priest, Father Enrico Righi, used his parish newsletter to denounce Luigi Cascioli, a onetime seminarian and author of The Fable of Christ, for having questioned the existence of Jesus. Cascioli began legal proceedings soon afterwards, demanding that the priest provide historical proof of the existence of Jesus, and though Judge Gaetano Mautone refused to hear the case, Cascioli has since been backed by Italy's Court of Appeal, which agreed that Righi was 'abusing popular credibility'. Mautone has since ordered that Righi appear in court to prove that Jesus existed.

It all seems very peculiar, and I can't help wondering if there's rather more to this than meets the eye. This isn't about whether Jesus was God, or whether he rose from the dead, or whether he walked on water, or was born of a virgin, or was tempted in the wilderness, or healed people or anything so specific. It's simply about whether or not he existed.

And really, as facts go that's about as solid as anything in our knowledge of ancient history.

The trouble with ancient history...
Gore Vidal opens his introduction to his historical novel Creation with the following wonderful anecdote:
'In the stacks of the library of the American Academy on Rome's Janiculum hill, I came face to face with M.I. Finley, whose The World of Odysseus had a great influence on me, not to mention on two generations of classical scholars. He was an American academic who had been driven out of his native land in the 50s when the spirit of Titus Oates was in the land. He settled in England; he became a leading authority on the Greek world of the Fifth Century BC. We praised one another politely. He had liked my Julian while I told him that, for Creation, I was mercilessly borrowing from him. I asked him about one of his colleagues who had written on Zoroaster. Was he reliable? "The best in the field." Finley's great dentures shifted slightly in his mouth. "Of course, he makes most of it up, like the rest of us."'
It's obvious that Finley was being both modest and facetious when he said that, but he nonetheless was making an important point. We don't know nearly as much about Antiquity as we'd like to, and we have to rely to a certain degree on conjecture and educated guesswork in assembling the jigsaw puzzle we have, combining written sources of all sorts with archaeological, numismatic, iconographic, epigraphic, paelographic and other evidence in order to get a picture. It's much easier to do this for public and official figures than it is for people who weren't office-holders. Even then, though, there are serious problems, as you'll see.

I'm Spartacus! No, I'm Spartacus!
If you ask anybody nowadays to name a few major figures from ancient history, there are a handful of names you'd expect to hear, most of them because they've been in films. Typically they're kings and generals and so forth, and among that depressingly short list one name that's likely to pop up is Spartacus. The subject of what's still surely by some distance the best sword-and-sandal film, Spartacus is unique among Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Nero, Marcus Aurelius, and all those other lads in not having been a formal office-holder. He was a gladiator who escaped, who led a rebellion that threatened the Roman state, and who was eventually killed in the suppression of the rebellion.

This all happened between 73 and 71 BC. Would you like to know our main sources for these cataclysmic events? I have to warn you: they're on the scanty side.

There are literally no more than a couple of fleeting references to Spartacus in the few fragments we have of Sallust's Histories, written just a few decades after the Spartacist revolt, but other than that we basically have to rely on Plutarch's Life of Crassus, written about 100 AD, and Appian's Civil Wars, written about 150 AD. Yes, almost everything we know about Spartacus is based on the writings of two people writing a couple of decades either side of the two hundredth anniversary of Spartacus' death. And as far as I can tell we have no physical evidence whatsoever for Spartacus himself, the Third Servile War, or Crassus' mass crucifixion of six thousand rebellious slaves along the Appian Way.

Despite this paucity of evidence, which is such that his historical existence has to be recognised as a damn sight less well attested than that of Christ, I've yet to hear even one ancient historian ever claim that Spartacus didn't exist.

What of 'official' figures, though? The kind of people who you'd expect to be well-attested? Kings and consuls and commanders and so forth?

Take Julius Caesar, for instance, the other JC...
Caesar's probably the most famous figure of Antiquity, with the exception of Christ, and is someone whose existence is attested through a large amount of written evidence. Most of it, however, with a couple of key exceptions, was written a century or more after Caesar's death, and it's survived to this day in the form a handful of manuscripts dating from many centuries after the events they describe.

His nose is more impressive in Asterix comics
Caesar was assassinated in the middle of the first century BC, but Lucan's Pharsalia was written in the middle of the first century AD, the short biographies of Caesar by Plutarch and Suetonius were written just as the first century AD ended and the second began, and Appian wrote a few decades later, almost two hundred years after Caesar's death. There are bits and pieces of evidence before them, of course, but in the main, aside from these late narratives, the real meat of our written evidence of Caesar's life comes down to two things -- Caesar's own memoirs, and Cicero's speeches and letters. These, one would think, are absolutely contemporary, and thus wholly reliable. Except for when the documents' respective authors are lying, of course, or are unconsciously biased, or are just plain wrong.

Except there's a problem, which is that we don't have the original manuscripts of these documents. Indeed, the manuscripts we have are rather late. I'm not sure when the oldest extant collections of Cicero's letters date from, but if you look at the Loeb collection of his letters to his closest friend, you'll see they seem to be drawn from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts, themselves transcribes from older and long-lost collections. The earliest extant manuscript of Caesar's own writings dates from the ninth century, if I remember rightly.

Given how such manuscripts date from many centuries after Caesar's death, it wouldn't be hard for people to make a case that these manuscripts could be forgeries, and that had never been such a person as Julius Caesar. Of course, they'd need to explain the many contemporary coin portraits of him, and statues, and inscriptions, and so forth, but still, if you had a bloody-minded determination to defy reality you could make the case that Julius Caesar had been a fictional -- or heavily fictionalised -- figure.

What I'd do for a contemporary life of Hannibal...
I've spent a lot of time studying Hannibal over the years. I've read dozens upon dozens of books and hundreds of articles about him, and I've read all that Polybius, Livy, Appian, Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, and other ancient writers have said about him, and I've read a depressing amount about those writers. I've visited the Italian fields where he won his greatest battles, and aside from having flown over two of them, I've wandered along the Ofanto, trudged from Barletta to the hill of Cannae and back, and have walked the northern and eastern shores of Lake Trasimene, as well as visiting the probable sites of the battles of the Ticinus and the Trebbia.

And for all that, I'm painfully aware of how little we know about Carthage's greatest son.

What evidence do we have for the Hannibalic War? We depend, in the main, on Polybius' fragmentary history, which he spent more than twenty years on and started writing almost forty years after Hannibal was defeated at Zama, and on Livy's Augustan account of the war, written about two hundred years after Zama. Nepos wrote just before Livy, and did so in a brief and colourful way of little historical value. Appian wrote a century or so later again, and is far from reliable on the period, notoriously describing a duel between Hannibal and Scipio! Plutarch's Life of Fabius Maximus and Life of Marcellus are roughly contemporary with Appian, written about three hundred years after those Roman heroes fought against Hannibal. We have, basically, nothing contemporary to go on.

Polybius is our best source by far, and only five of his forty books are intact -- these surviving in an eleventh-century manuscript -- and what he says is not infrequently contradicted by Livy.

Sure, there were contemporaries of Hannibal who wrote accounts of his invasion, but barring an occasional snippet, these are all lost: just one fragment of Silenus of Caleacte exists, and while we have a sizeable chunk of a description of a naval battle by Sosylos of Sparta, that battle was fought in Spain, far from Hannibal, and never mentions him. Fabius Pictor exists as mere fragments too, as do Cato the Elder and Lucius Cincius Alimentus. All our contemporary evidence is lost. As an example of how desperate the situation is, a tiny reference to dust in the fragmentary eighth book of Ennius' lost Annales has been tentatively linked by some scholars with Hannibal's greatest victory, which was notorious for the dust that was blown into the Roman eyes. This isn't so much a case of clutching at straws as it is one of clutching at specks of dust...

Almost Certainly Not Hannibal
What's more, not merely is Hannibal's invasion not attested in contemporary written sources, neither have we discovered any physical evidence to support the fact of it having happened. We've yet to come across a tranche of Carthaginian coins in Italy, of the sort that might have been used to pay Hannibal's mercenaries. Indeed, what numismatic evidence there is provides no support for his existence at all: we have coins, minted in Spain, bearing the image of his father and of his brother-in-law, but as yet nobody has ever found a coin portrait that can be confidently identified as Hannibal. The famous sculpture of him found in Capua, currently in the Quirinal Palace in Rome, is generally regarded as having been made centuries after his death.

Perhaps most remarkably, despite Hannibal having marauded his way around the Roman countryside for fifteen years, with Roman armies shadowing him and occasionally fighting against him as he went, we have no archaeological evidence of even one Roman or Carthaginian camp from the period, no archaeological evidence of any battles having been fought, and no archaeological evidence of towns having been ransacked. There was a time when my life would have been made a lot easier if somebody had found a big pile of spearheads with 'made in Carthage' stamped on them, or even a mass grave containing the remains of a few thousand late third-century corpses. Preferably with a skeletal elephant or thirty-seven among them.

And yet, despite this paucity of physical evidence we all believe Hannibal existed, and we believe this for a host of good reasons, all of which come down to common sense and -- for historians -- a sensible, careful, balanced, and sophisticated examination of the evidence that exists.

It's important to remember that just because the Hannibalic War seems like ancient history now, it wasn't ancient history for Polybius: the gap between Zama and Polybius first putting, er, stylus to tablet is about the same as the gap between Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon and my typing this.

Whereas Hannibal was a major figure with a dearth of evidence...
Jesus was a relatively minor figure, someone who held no office, who wrote nothing down, and who lived and died in a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire. He was, as John P. Meier says, 'a marginal Jew', and yet we have a remarkable amount of written evidence for his existence, much of it dating even in its extant form right back to Antiquity.

An itinerant Jewish peasant-preacher who was executed as a common criminal is hardly the sort of person for whom you'd expect to have physical corroborative evidence for, and I don't really think there is any, though some would make the case for a couple of relics.

We do, however, have a lot of written evidence of his existence, despite him not having been the sort of person whose existence you'd expect to find attested by any surviving writers, especially ones who were high-ranking imperial officials who viewed Christianity with contempt.

When we look at Jesus, an obvious starting point is the fact that we have the four gospels. Sure, they contradict each other in loads of details, but that's par for the course in dealing with historical sources in the ancient world, even in connection with important official figures; it's more striking, in fact, that the so-called 'synoptic gospels' agree to an astounding degree, despite obviously having been composed in different places for different audiences. There's really nothing comparable in ancient historiography. What's more, all four accounts are remarkably early, which must lend them a certain degree of credibility. Biblical scholarship has, over the years, tended to date the gospels between the years 65 and 90, with Mark being earliest and John being latest. Although there's still no consensus, more recent academic work  increasingly favours earlier dates for all four gospels, with Matthew, for example, arguably having been composed before 60 AD.

By the standards of ancient history, this is extraordinary -- even unique. We have four accounts of Jesus' life -- or at any rate of the last year or so of it -- all composed within the lifetimes of his contemporaries, eye-witnesses to many of the events described in the accounts. That just doesn't happen.

What's more, these accounts are substantially or wholly preserved in ancient manuscripts, with the oldest of such dating from less than two hundred years after the events described. Indeed, there are fragments of much older manuscripts scattered here and there, including an early second-century piece of the Gospel according to John in Manchester; the Rylands Papyrus looks to postdate the text itself by just a few decades. This isn't in itself an argument for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents but it is an important argument for their textual reliability, and is the sort of argument that really cannot be made for any of the documents that tell us about the likes of Hannibal, Spartacus, or Caesar.

It's useful to remember that the ancients had brains every bit as good as our own, and that many of them -- particularly among the Jews -- had well-trained memories, practised in memorising long poems and passages from scripture. Christians and opponents of the new religion would have been well able to contradict stories about Jesus that had been clearly invented, but we have no evidence of the central public facts of Jesus' life, as laid out in the four canonical gospels, ever having been challenged on historical grounds.

The central public facts -- the structure facts of the story, if you like -- are that Jesus travelled around the parochial backwater that was first-century Palestine during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, preaching to large crowds, and that in Jerusalem he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region. These central points do not appear ever to have been contested in Antiquity, even by those with a serious interest in challenging them and with an obvious ability to do so.

So who exactly was Paul writing to?
There's a really annoying Irish joke that people in England tell about a man visiting Ireland who asks directions to somewhere in Ireland, and is greeted with a response that begins, 'Well, I wouldn't start from here...'

I don't really think it makes sense to start any discussion of Jesus' historicity with reference to the gospels, since the gospels almost certainly aren't the earliest extant Christian sources. Rather, there are earlier documents, all of which presuppose a high degree of preexisting knowledge.

The earliest of Paul's letters, First Thessalonians, can be confidently dated to 51 AD if not a couple of years earlier, with his other letters being written over the next decade or so. Paul's letters were written to established Christian communities, at least one of which had been founded under his guidance; his letters thus say little about the 'historical' Jesus, instead concentrating on the 'theological' Jesus; they presuppose that the Christian communities were already clued in on who Jesus was. For all that, though, they reveal a small number of key points about Jesus. They refer to Jesus as a real man, a Jew of the House of David, whose followers included a man known as Cephas and a kinsman called James; they say Jesus instituted the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, that he was tortured and crucified, and that his followers were persecuted by Paul himself, before his conversion.

Luke's Acts of the Apostles is well worth looking at alongside Paul's letters; it's a sequel to his gospel, after all, and details the establishment of the early Church. But if Jesus didn't exist, as Cascioli argues, then what on earth were the apostles doing running around founding churches in the 30s, 40s, and 50s? Whose word were they spreading? Why were they risking persecution and even execution at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem and elsewhere? Or was Luke simply writing fiction? Didn't this happen?

Because if it didn't happen, I'd be curious to know where the churches came from to whom Paul preached and wrote his letters. I'd be curious how there came to be so many Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius as to lead to constant disturbances and the eventual exile of all Jews -- Christians being considered as such -- from the city around 52 AD.

This is, after all, a crucial point: the Bible does not predate Christianity. Even the earliest books of the New Testament do not predate Christianity. It's the other way round: Christianity -- and the Church, even if we want to call it 'the Jesus Movement' as many modern scholars tend to do -- predates the Bible. In light of how the Church came first, the core question those who argue against the basic historicity of Jesus need to address is this:
'Given the evidence for a Christian movement in the late 30s and 40s, what explanation would you venture for how it came to be other than one depending on the historicity of Jesus himself, and what evidence would you put forward in support of your explanation?'

Would you die for something you knew to be a lie?
I'd be especially curious to find out why there were so many Christians in Rome at the time of the great fire of 64 AD, and why they were willing to die for somebody who hadn't even existed in the first place. Tacitus, a pagan author, writing around the turn of the second century, recorded that:
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Look at how casually Tacitus alludes to the origins of Christianity: he considers it an absurd superstition, but doesn't for a moment doubt the fact of Jesus having lived and died in Roman Palestine. Indeed, given that Tacitus was a Roman senator, who would surely have access to any records there might have been of Pilate's actions in Judaea, it's telling that he doesn't dispute the historical fact of Jesus having lived and been executed under Pilate.

It's striking too that Suetonius, who likewise testifies to the existence of a large Christian community in Rome in the middle of the first century, was an official -- indeed an archivist -- at the imperial court and yet never takes the opportunity to dismiss or contest Jesus' historical reality. More telling still is that Tacitus and Suetonius' approximate contemporary Pliny the Younger, a man who as governor of Bithynia persecuted Christians, likewise seems not to have challenged the fact of Jesus having existed. In a letter to the emperor, Pliny refers to the Christians singing a hymn to Christ as to a god, in such a way as to imply that he has no doubt that the Christ in question had been a man. Trajan, in his reply, doesn't give any indication that Jesus had not existed.

Indeed there's no evidence at all of the Romans ever having tried to make the case that Jesus had never existed. Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, and Trajan, then, none of them friends of Christianity, do not seem to have doubted for a moment that Jesus had lived and died in Judaea during the reign of Tiberius.

Tampered with, but with a historical kernel for all that...
Neither, for that matter, did Flavius Josephus, a Jewish author who wrote in the last third of the first century. One passage in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities dwells on Jesus at some length, and does so in a manner that's suspiciously favourable to him:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Many scholars think that the passage may have been interpolated, or at least altered, over time, as an Arabic version of Josephus, dating from the tenth century, has a different version of this passage, one which looks rather more plausible:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
What's striking about this is that even in the shorter version, Josephus doesn't for a moment doubt the fact of Jesus' existence. This is reinforced by his cursory account elsewhere in his writings of the condemnation in 61 AD of James, who he describes as 'the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ'; like Tacitus, he casually acknowledges that Jesus lived, even if he doubted that after dying he lived again.

Leave the Miracles out of it, for now...
There are, I think, three levels of discussion in debating the historicity of Jesus. The first is his historicity as a man, his basic existence. If we can accept that, then it's possible to consider the historicity of the miracles. If we can accept them, then we can get into the question of Jesus' divinity. The basic level, however, is the simple question of whether Jesus lived and died, and given the evidence we have, I think this is beyond reasonable doubt.
There was no other possible way to look at it. There are things that are facts, in a statistical sense, on paper, on a tape recorder, in evidence. And there are things that are facts because they have to be facts, because nothing makes any sense otherwise.
So wrote the great Raymond Chandler, in the last Marlowe novel he completed, the relatively weak Playback. It's a useful principle, especially when dealing with ancient history, where our evidence is often scanty, to say the least. You can't prove that Jesus lived, not in an absolute, mathematical sense*. If that's what Signor Cascioli wants Judge Mautone to demand of Father Righi, then Righi's guaranteed to lose this case. But I think you can prove it beyond reasonable doubt. After all, there's far better evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for Hannibal and Spartacus, after all, and nobody in their right mind doubts their existence.

*Though having read about Non-Euclidian Geometry I have no idea if there's such a thing as mathematical proof either...


berenike said...

You might want to pass on a post by an "arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard" on the subject of whether any Jesus actually existed. He's writing a review of a book, but it deals with the same area. And it's not by any kind of Christian. I find people often ignore what I'm saying in answer to their questions or provocations and say "you would say that, you're a Christian(Catholic)", so it's always handy to have an atheist to point out the obvious as well.

berenike said...

I forgot the link, sorry:
here it is.