Friday, February 10, 2006

Historicity of Julius Caesar

In a recent exchange of emails on the biblical-studies mailing list (webpage here) Philip Davies says:

But is there primary evidence for Caesar. A bust or two (but I'm not
sure if they are contemporary). I read a book of the Gallic Wars when
at school. But they could be pseudonymous; someone else might have
conquered Gaul, I suppose. Anyway, I have yet to read anything that
Jesus wrote.

He was responding to another posting that attempted to equate the doubtful historicity of Jesus Christ with a supposed doubtful historicity of Julius Caesar. To compare the two is indeed an interesting exercise in discerning apples from oranges.
I cannot devote as much time to this as I'd like, (perhaps in another post). But the quick point I want to make right now is: A world of difference exists between the evidence for a historical Julius Caesar and that for "Jesus Christ".

The evidence (primary? we can't speak of much "primary evidence" for anything in the range of 2 thousand years old. Even the manuscripts are not the manuscripts but copies...), of a historical Julius Caesar consists of several extensive mentions by the historian Sallust, (86-34BC); a biography by another historian, Suetonius (c75-120AD) as well as one by Plutarch (46-127AD). Chapter after chapter by the historian Appian (c95-165AD) relate complex chains of events in which Julius Caesar was intimately involved. There are the many other critically important mentions too, for example in the works of Cicero, Dio Cassius, Livy, Lucan, Valerius Maximus, Vitruvius, Catullus...
What is the epic story of Pompey the Great without Julius Caesar? What gaping holes would there be in the stories of Cleopatra or Mark Antony without Julius Caesar? Or for that matter of Octavian, Cicero and Cato? So much of Roman history depends upon this one man he is like the centerpiece of its history...
In addition, we can find numerous inscriptions and monuments, statues and coins. There is not enough material to satisfy my appetite, (I am still hoping for textual material to be rescued from Herculaneum) but there is, undeniably, quite a bit of historical evidence that a man named Julius Caesar did indeed exist.

On the other hand, with the case of this Jesus fellow, we have a few obviously mythicized accounts that are, frankly, an astonishing mess. These gospels, if taken as a body of work to be used as a 'historical source', are full of factual errors and embarrassing contradictions, with some awed descriptions of petty street charlatan tricks thrown in, worshipful remembrances of "miracles" that smack of already extant and ancient mythical accounts of other gods, and so many intricate and twisted allusions to Jewish legend and prophecy that one begins to think that it is a bit overdone.

However, are there any accounts by men who might be considered historians? None are contemporary except one: Josephus. All except Josephus do not talk directly of Jesus but of "Chrestians" or followers of Chrestos, or just Christians, and the descriptions of these people are vague and undistinguished.
We are left with only Josephus, the turncoat Jewish general. There are two mentions in his works that read more as if they were written by medieval Christian monks than by a Jew living in the Roman empire of the first century. I am not impressed in the least by the Testimonium Flavianum. I cannot help but strongly suspect it is a wonderful example of an interpolation, and if it is the best historical evidence for this "Jesus Christ" that can be found, then there simply isn't any at all.
Sure: we've got tons of accumulated and venerated flotsam and jetsam piled neck-deep for us to wade through, but nearly all of it dates to centuries after the fact.

So I find it disappointing that any serious historical scholar or educated person interested in history would think for a moment that the historical existence of Julius Caesar is as questionable as is the historical existence of Jesus Christ. There really is no comparison in these two cases. On the one hand we have a living apple tree. On the other hand we have a thousand old, faded, grainy photographs of paintings and drawings (never the actual paintings or drawings, mind you) of a sliced orange.


savedbyHisblood said...

the thing that strikes me most about your post is the abundance of double standards. with all due respect, you have you several passages that are simply inexcusable.

first, you criticize the belief in Christ because of "lack of contemporary" biographers, then use several biographers to justify Ceasar that lived 100+ years after his death. in fact, throughout your list for Ceasar there is only a sole contemporary source; the very thing you criticised Christ for. also, the textual proof of Josephus has completely contridicted the belief of later additions to the Testimonium Flavium. first, the earliest known texts of Josephus (c.300 ad) all contain the flavium. secondly, if it were the ancient christians who altered the text why isn't it found in any of the hundreds of apologies written by the early church? also, according to your own standards "eyewitness source" for caesar is highly dubious considering the earliest known copy of Gallic Wars is dated to c.900 ad, 950 years after the fact.

if you are to disregard the existance of Jesus on account of the supposed "bias" of his early biographers than you would also have to discredit any belief in the idea of Socrates, considering everything we know about him was written by his close friends and disciples. to do so, however, would be foolish because intimacy with a person rarely necessitates deception. consider this, when writing biographies of Lincoln the authors always went to his family, staff members, and personal bodyguards for information. why? because they were in the know about the details of his life. it would be downright stupid to disregard these people who were so close to him. yet this is what occurs when people disregard the gospels as "historically unreliable due to bias"

finally, the assertion that the gospels are riddled with factual errors is downright false. the gospels accurate describe the names and dates of the rulers of thier times and also accurately describe the various geography and cultural inclinations of the time. also, there are major events that are verified by secular roman historians. for example, the historian Thallus verifies the eclipse and earthquake in and around the areas of Jerusalem at the time of the crucifiction

the short and sweet of this is to state the extreme bias and blithe double standards used in the historical stances against Jesus. there is no justification to disregard existance and deeds of Jesus. even the most staunch anti-christian historian admits to proven existance of Christ.

Ed said...

"in fact, throughout your list for Ceasar there is only a sole contemporary source"

That is a strange statement.
I wonder which "sole contemporary source" you might be referring to.
Cicero? Sallust? Vitruvius? Catullus? These were all contemporaries of Caesar.
Maybe you are not aware that an ancient source need not be written by someone who is labeled a "historian" in order to be a source.
There is, honestly, not a double standard. Julius Caesar was unquestionably an important and crucial figure who cannot be erased from the historical record without having our understanding of the entire era fall apart.

Your statements concerning the Testimonium Flavium are incoherent to me, so I will not respond to them. Sorry.

Are you seriously saying that the Gallic Wars was not written by Caesar? It is indeed discussed by some scholars that some of the last parts may have been written by another: one of his generals, IIRC. But was none of it written by Julius Caesar, and therefor written by someone else? I think to propose that is quite a stretch.

Whether or not I "disregard the existance of Jesus" depends on many things, not merely the bias of his early biographers. And it would have absolutely no influence on whether or not I would discredit the case of another unrelated historical figure, such as Socrates.

"finally, the assertion that the gospels are riddled with factual errors is downright false. ..."


Pete said...

I'd comment and show you the bad science, but what is the point. You clearly already know everything.


Pete said...

Ok. I relent. I'll give you the evidence.

Documents within 50 years of their life for...

Matthew, Mark, Luke/acts, John, Letters of Paul, Peter, John
Ie. Whole NT

Julius Caesar;

Of course Julius Caesar existed. Of course he was important. But lets not play fast and loose with documentary evidence.

Ed said...

Why do you hide your account name? So easy to take half-baked potshots from behind complete anonymity.
And, this is your version of "science": that Sallust is the only historical source for the existance of Julius Caesar? That's your science: only one that you know of? How about all the numismatic evidence that Julius Caesar existed? Or all the ancient monument inscriptions to him all across the Mediterranean world?

Fuller said...

Here my non-academic, common sense response:

First of all, both Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ existed. But, I ask, why would anyone in the middle of Roman culture, educated, in the seats of political or military power - why would they care about a Jewish Rabbi in a troubled part of the Empire that gave numerous emperors a political headache? I don't think they would. Obviously, the top of the Empire (I think it was only the Republic before Augustus... I don't claim to be an academician or expert on Roman history) would be documented in the culture, writings, statues, coins, buildings, and monuments of that world. Jesus never lived or traveled more than 30 miles from his hometown (aside from his childhood trip to Egypt) He was basically a nobody outside of the trouble he caused... and there were other Jewish trouble makers as far as Rome was concerned. (Masada comes to mind).

The 1st and 2nd centuries is the incubation for the Christian faith. The question is - is what we have in the New Testament even close to what was originally written?

Finally, the manuscript evidence question is not to discredit Caesar's existence but to affirm that the religious documents that are the basis for the Christian faith are accurately preserved from their autographa. The next question (to which Ed, I am confident you would say "B"), (A) do I believe the claims of these documents or (B) is it all myth?

Aaron said...

Why people may lie...
•Fear of harm
•Fear of conflict
•Fear of punishment
•Fear of rejection
•Fear of loss
•Altruistic Reasons
•Its works

Now Why Mark, Luke, Mathew and John would lie about Jesus Christ and become enemies of Jews or What Jesus Christ would gain because of their lies? As for me its good die for this lie than live though dead!!!

UberGenius said...

The whole point is that if you are going to take a skeptical view to the historical evidence in the NT, then you create a historical method or standard that then needs to be applied to other historical figures.

Bart Ehrman is one such skeptic who abandons his method immediately when dealing with the rest of history.

Also when you insert the word "Obviously" into a sentence how are we to take this statement? Prima facia? On its face it is myth? While doing my graduate work in systems engineering I ran into an English grad student finishing his PhD in mythology who made similar claims. I challenged him to apply his classification methods for mythology to the gospels or epistles. After a month or so he and I met at a bar for drinks and he said "I'm not sure if the claims of the NT are true or not, but I am sure they are not myth and would flunk any student that made that claim after examining the NT!" Now that anecdotal evidence just goes to suggest that experts, once having examined the NT don't make counter claims to your (I.e. "Obviously Not Myth")

Further, most atheist professors of religion accept Jesus as a historical figure since throwing off the German anti-Semitic framework for NT hermeneutics that dominated late 19th, and early to mid-20th century historical research.

For the last 50 years the only way to publish a research paper denying the historicity of Jesus was to abandon the peer-review process altogether! Dominic Crossen and Marcus Borg founded The Jesus Seminar and violated the standard of progress in research recognized worldwide as legitimizing a particular body of knowledge.

Erhman, like Spong, and The Jesus Seminar make incredibly modest claims when submitting peer review research. Erhman has admired publically that he believes that no major doctrines of Christianity are impacted by his skepticism of the reliability of the NT.

So a little research will reverse your "obvious" conclusions about the NT being myh.

Now that doesn't mean that the claims of Chistianity are valid, or rational, or should inform your worldview. It just means that Jesus was a historical figure in the way Julius Ceasar was a historical figure.

Ed said...

"It just means that Jesus was a historical figure in the way Julius Ceasar was a historical figure."

Nothing that you wrote would lead to that conclusion.

Thanks for trying though!

PS: I apologize, but frankly, for me now, arguing about religious beliefs simply bores the fuck out of me. (I refuse to bite!) You want to defend fairy tales? I no longer take people who do that seriously and waste as little time on such matters as I possibly can. There's a reality out there that is much more urgent and ultimately far more important. Anyone who finds it necessary to believe in horseshit fantasy stories in order to be a good and decent person is an idiot at best. IMHO, the "religious impulse" sources from the desire to become a better person and to know the universe in a truly deeper way, not to prove oneself capable of self hypnosis and to live a life clouded and restricted by denial and delusion.

Best of luck to you, ubergenius.

May we all receive what we desire and what we deserve, and may those coincide in a beautiful and meaningful way.

Youngidealist said...

Hi Ed. I'm coming from the perspective of an exChristian current Atheist Agnostic who is engaging in the new concept offered by philosophy professor Peter Boghossian known as Street Epistemology. While finding this argument of comparing Julius to Jesus an interesting challenge to contest, I came across your post.

Street Epistemology focuses on allowing people to present examples of evidence that they would accept as evidence against their belief. Being told to go and read up a whole new education to do this is a bit of a high expectation that some interlocutors offer as advice in such conversations. When the claim is this specific and testable I would have expected this step to be a lot easier than it has been so far for me. The respectful criticism that I must offer for your post is that it's suggesting evidence that can be found, yet it's missing the details that we can find about it and where we can go to see the evidence for ourselves.

If I understand you correctly, there are contemporaries of Julius who wrote about him and the way we know this is that we have those writings, correct? But in the case of Josephus that they often use, the trouble is that we have the oldest copy which we know was changed from the original well over a hundred years later.

So far, I'm also finding that the oldest found copies of writings about Julius are also not copied during his lifetime or soon after. Are there any? Would you consider amending your article to include contemporary copies of writings about Caesar and where they are presently held? Assuming if there are any. If there aren't, maybe I misunderstand something but it would seem more authentic to me to mention that clearly to the reader since the apologist argument is so heavily weighted by believing what was written in print. Knowing how confident you are about the evidence for Julius Caesar existing is not really something that I can use to directly see for myself.

Ed said...

Hi there youngidealist! :)
So, you think that there is a doubtful amount of evidence that Julius Caesar existed? Have you considered the huge amount of numismatic evidence? Or the inscriptions mentioning him (contemporaneously), found throughout the Mediterranean Basin? Sorry, I might be misinterpreting you, but if you think for one second that there is the same amount of historical evidence for the existence of both Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ, then you are just another fucking imbecile which the world seems rather full of these days. (If I have misread you, I apologize, and look forward to your response. lol)

Youngidealist said...

lol, Hi Ed. total misunderstanding. I'm doing street epistemology and my interlocutor made this equivalence. What I believe would sway him at this point, sincerely, is if I could find a museum which holds a significant original contemporary text mentioning Julius. That sort of hard evidence seems at the very least inconveniently missing from counter apologist sources, whom I actually agree with. The search for something fitting this description is a lot harder than I originally expected.

Ed said...

Ahhh yes. So your "interlocutor" is the fucking imbecile! lol
He needs such a thing in order to... "believe in" Julius Caesar? I would ask if he needs to see the equal that mentions Jesus Christ in order to believe in that...?

I would hope that your interlocutor and yourself both understand that we are talking about manuscripts that were far more than a thousand years old before the printing press was invented. Way longer than that. 14 hundred years? Think of that. Pieces of paper. Now older than _two_ thousand years. We are talking about a long, looong time. A very long time. They would have fallen to shreds several times over, being copied copied and recopied over the centuries lovingly by hand. Very little original survives that was written on paper, papyrus, etc. I'll get back to you on this after I've found the Holy Grail, D.B. Cooper's cash, Miley Cyrus' innocence, and Moses' burning bush.
There was a library unearthed in Herculaneum, that might have contained such a beast (an "original" manuscript from such times), but much of it is black and crispy from the hot ashfall, etc from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. And then the rest of the library was destroyed (how convenient) by unexplained water inflows during excavations.
Honestly, if this person with whom you have discussions insists on such a thing, he is truly a bonefied fucking imbecile.

Youngidealist said...

Perhaps. Actually it was me who found the manuscript evidence of Jesus to be weak sauce because it was based on copies made well over a hundred years after he supposedly died. Admitting that I didn't know any better when he said we would not trust the existance of Caesar without similar methods, I challenged him to be willing to lower his confidence in Jesus if I could find such a thing. This sort of mutual challenge seems to help people remember what it means to let the evidence change your mind.

It goes both ways too, as so far, my inability to find such a thing leads me to be both less confident that Julius existed, at least his general story, and more possible that a specific Jesus could have existed. I still believe that Julius existed and that the evidence is far more clear, given that some busts and coins with his image are dated as contemporary, but I thought a real Jesus less possible than this when I started.

Richard Carrier suggested to me today that Cicero's originals are still intact, but I still can't yet find the museum that has one mentioning Julius. He said the sources are in his book On The Historicity of Jesus, but I can't afford it at the moment and local libraries don't carry it. Pending that, I think, as you have pointed out, there is less evidence supporting history of those times than I originally thought.

I'm also a bit disappointed that so many history books fail to detail the evidence their conclusions are based on. A story is nice, but if all I have is an author's word and confidence, this poor authoritarian behavior of apologists would seem inevitable as a consequence.

Ed said...

It would be a beautiful thing to see "an original" of Cicero. Perhaps this Richard Carrier can help you with more information on that.

Not sure what I can do to help you with your deep-seated doubts about the credibility of evidence for Julius Caesar. I don't (or try not to) waste time indulging in too much doubt. Doubts about a guy who walked on water and talked to the Devil and came back to life and disappeared in a puff of smoke? Okay yeah: reasonable. Doubts about the founder of a fucking empire with countless ruins across thousands of miles, with countless inscriptions mentioning him by name while he was alive? No. Not reasonable.
That's not history. That's philosophy. Bullshit, waste-my-time, get-thee-behind-me-Satan philosophy.

Fuck that.

Youngidealist said...

I don't honestly disbelieve that Julius existed, nor do I believe that Jesus existed, it's just surprising to me after learning the hard sciences of physics and chemistry to find that history books left out something so important as the limitations of our evidence. I thought we had more than copies of paper remade through generations, so it's only logical to think that the details we get from ancient writings deserve an extra grain or salt than the skepticism I first had.

It's also perplexing to stop and realize that my history books always told stories, failing to detail the evidence for those stories. How the fuck is that science? I think it's an educational let down. Why shouldn't students be picking their own uneducated and far off beliefs about real history when all you taught them was a story? I think that needs to change, along with adding some coursework on critical thinking itself.

Ed said...

Actually, you are on the path that many thoughtful people have tread. For starters I would recommend this, by RG Collingwood. I'm not at home to offer you further titles to assist you on your quest for truth...
As I slowly make my way towards my last day on Earth, I have learned to apply a very vibrant skepticism to almost everything, including and especially what I hear on the evening news, and all other forms of mass media.

You will find at least the same amount, if not more, of pure bullshit and shenanigans in those people trusted to tell us about the current events in the world, as we find in the writings of scholars reporting on events of two thousand years ago.
Use your brain, and trust no one automatically. There are so many false prophets that we cannot discern them from the decent folks anymore.

The goggles, they do nothing. Take my axe.