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
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.