By DOUG SHAVER
May 15, 2005
Revised Jan. 30, 2009
It is sometimes suggested that the evidence for a historical Jesus is at least as good as the evidence for other figures whose existence is never questioned by anybody. Typical examples are Socrates, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Abraham Lincoln. This essay will limit its attention to Socrates. Of the four, he is the one whose existence is most easily questioned. So far as I am aware, he is the only one who nonexistence is actually considered a possiblity by some scholars. Those scholars are rare, but they do exist. They suggest that Socrates could have been just a fictional character created by Plato for rhetorical purposes. According to this scenario, people of later generations who read Plato's dialogues simply assumed, mistakenly, that the central character was a real philsopher who had really lived in Athens and really been executed by the city's rulers.
I have no intention here of arguing about the plausibility of that hypothesis, except to note that there are reasonable people who think it is plausible. Skepticism about Socrates' historicity can hardly be attributed to antireligious prejudices, political correctness, or any of the other philosophical bogeymen of modern times. Socrates' historical existence is no threat to anyone's ideology, and his nonexistence does nobody's ideologty any good. If the evidence for his existence loves room for any reasonable doubt at all, then, it follows that if the evidence for Jesus is not at least as good, then there is at least as much room for reasonable doubt about his existence as well.
Let us note at this point that if the evidence is just about equal, then consistency would demand that we believe either that Jesus and Socrates were both real or that neither was real. To question Jesus' historicity while insisting that Socrates was real, or vice versa, would perhaps be hypocritical. I say "perhaps" because to some extent the assessment of any body of evidence is irreducibly subjective. What seems like conclusive proof to one person might be only suggestive to someone else. That is one reason why juries are generally allowed to take all the time they want to reach a verdict.
Christians sometimes object that most of the presumptive facts of history do not get questioned as vigorously or intensely as Christianity's claims about its origins get questioned. But there is a good reason for that. To my knowledge, nobody claims that anyone who doubts Socrates' existence is just looking for an excuse to live an immoral life. Nobody is saying that Socrates died for anyone's sins and that anyone who thinks differently is going to burn in hell forever. A person who thinks Socrates never lived might be considered odd, but nobody will accuse him of being a moral reprobate. For no other historical figure than Jesus is belief in his or her existence considered a test of character. It might sometimes be considered a test of wisdom. Someone skeptical about Socrates might be called a fool in need of knowledge. He will not, however, be called a sinner in need of salvation.
Most of us are content to accept whatever we were told by our history teachers about who was real and who was not in times past, and about what the real one did or did not actually say or do. Some of us also discover in due course that our teachers were wrong about a few things. Schoolteachers are not infallible, and neither are the professional experts whose knowledge the teachers are passing on to their students. Just because historians all agree about something does not mean they cannot be wrong.
The equivalent-evidence argument is supposed to prove that skeptics are using a double standard. It is claimed that a standard of evidence that works for Socrates and everyone else mentioned in the history books doesn't work for Jesus. In the following discussion, I hope to demonstrate otherwise. I believe there is better evidence for Socrates than for Jesus. But in the meantime we can ask about the consistency of the Christian apologists' own standards of evidence. Let us suppose that historians were to convene a Socrates Seminar to take a fresh look at all the evidence about Plato's mentor. Let us suppose that after several months of study they were to call a press conference to make an announcement like the following.
Ladies and gentlemen, this has been a humbling experience for the historical community. Our research has compelled us to conclude that we have been working under several unjustified assumptions. With those assumptions cast aside, a careful and imprtial review of the evidence forces us to conclude that Socrates was nothing but a figment of Plato's imagination.
If this were to happen, and supposing for a moment that the evidence for Jesus really is just equivalent to the evidence for Socrates—no better and no worse—would Christians ever make a similar announcement about Jesus? Shall we say, Probably not?
Let us begin with some observations on what is meant by evidence.
Evidence for some proposition P is a fact (or set of facts) that we justifiably believe would probably not be true if P were false. If a murder defendant's fingerprints are on the murder weapon, we consider the fingerprints evidence of his guilt if we justifiably believe that, were the defendant innocent, his fingerprints would not have been on the murder weapon.
If our belief is to be justified, we must rule out as too improbable any alternative explanation for how the defendant's fingerprints got on the weapon. We can usually never be certain that no other explanation is even possible. The issue ultimately becomes one of likelihood. We are looking for the most plausible explanation for the prints being on the weapon. The prosecutor will argue that the most credible explanation is that the defendant used the weapon to kill the victim.
A fact is said to be conclusive evidence for a proposition if it is logically impossible for the fact to be true while the proposition is false. For any piece of historical evidence, alternative explanations are always possible. Most alternatives might not have much credibility, but as long as they are not impossible, the evidence is not conclusive.
What we can reasonably hope for is strong evidence. A fact is strong evidence for a proposition if it is extremely difficult to explain the fact's existence except by supposing the proposition to be true. The strength of historical evidence usually lies in volume. A large number of facts constitute stronger evidence than any single fact, provided the individual facts are independent. For example, several documents attesting to some event comprise stronger evidence than one document, unless they were written by the same author or there is reason to believe that the later authors based their writings on the earlier documents.
The strongest documentary evidence is from primary sources, meaning actual witnesses to the events being reported. Sometimes we might give high credence to a secondary source—a person who reports that he heard about an event from someone who witnessed the event—but such evidence can never be as strong as the witness's own report. And a document by a writer who does not identify his sources at all is weak evidence. It might justify a belief that the reported event happened, but not a strongly held belief. Even absent contrary evidence, unidentified sources can never provide strong evidence for anything.
In historical research, an examination of documentary evidence is basically asking: How did these documents come into existence? Of course the obvious first answer is: Somebody wrote them. But we try to go a couple of steps beyond that. We want to know whether we should believe what they wrote. To answer that question, it is usually very helpful to know who the writers were. Identification of the authors is contingent on knowing when the documents—or their originals, which we usually don't have—were produced. If we don't have the originals, we have to answer more questions about the reliability of extant copies. To do that, we need to know a few things, if possible, about who did the copying.
Another observation: Any judgment about "most likely explanation" will unavoidably depend on some preconceptions about what is likely. We don't all have the same preconceptions about what things are likely to happen, what people are likely to do in certain situations, or what people are likely to believe in the absence of whatever we consider good evidence.
A key desideratum of any scientific inquiry is parsimony, which among other things means keeping one's presuppositions to a bare minimum. Of course that then begs the question of what constitutes a bare minimum. What I have tried to do in the following is to limit the presuppositions on which I base any argument to those that I and the average Christian can both accept. I have not presupposed that no miracle has ever happened, and neither have I presupposed that some miracles must have happened. I have not presupposed that the church fathers were either liars or fools, and neither have I presupposed that they were incapable of making mistakes.
And now, who is this Socrates about whom we ask, Was he a real person?
The real Socrates, if there was one, was born in Athens around 470 BCE, lived in that city almost his entire life, acquired a reputation as a philosopher, and was executed by the city government when he was about 70 years old. Many other details about his life are probably true if that much is true, but the question of his historicity will be settled if we have strong evidence for a man by that name having lived at that time, acquired such a reputation, and died in that manner.
Socrates is mentioned in documents written by three people who were alive during his purported lifetime. Whether the three writers worked independently of one another cannot be known with certainty. On the face of things, it is not obvious that any of them influenced the others, but it is hardly inconceivable that they could have. Socrates appears as a character in at least two of Aristophanes' plays. He appears as an interlocutor in a substantial portion of Plato's writings, and he plays a similar role in some of Xenophon's work. Xenophon's material is similar to some of Plato's but not entirely consistent with it.
Aristophanes' work is clearly satirical, not biographical. From the play itself, we cannot know whether he was making fun of a real philosopher known to his audience or ridiculing certain ideas that were much discussed at the time and using a fictional character to embody them. The former does seem prima facie more likely, but the latter cannot yet be ruled out.
Aristophanes produced his plays while Socrates (if he existed) was still alive. Plato and Xenophon did their work after his purported death, both of them including Socrates' defense against the charges that led to his execution. Both writers give the impression that they had known Socrates and studied under his tutelage.
These writers are our best evidence for Socrates' historicity. If they do not suffice to overcome reasonable doubt, then no other documents in which he is mentioned can make up for their lack.
We are not concerned here with the accuracy of any particular detail in any of the documents. Plato's dialogues are certainly not transcriptions of actual conversations between Socrates and other people. The occasional autobiographical comment attributed to Socrates might or might not be factual. The modern historical consensus is that, especially in the later dialogues, the Socrates character is speaking Plato's mind more than Socrates' own. But we're asking whether the man was real, never minding for the moment how accurately Plato and the others portrayed him.
A writer who falsely portrays a certain individual existing in a certain place at a certain time may have one of three mind sets. He might think his portrayal is truthful and want his readers to believe it. In that case his writing is simply erroneous. He might know his portrayal is not truthful but want his readers to believe it anyway. In that case his writing is fraudulent. He might know his portrayal is not truthful but not expect his readers to think otherwise. In that case his writing is fictional.
We're probably safe in dismissing as absurd the possibility that all three of these writers made a mistake. They were not passing on legends or oral traditions. They were writing of a man who achieved fame and was executed in their lifetime. They could have misquoted him. They could been mistaken about a lot of things. It is unlikely they could all have made a mistake about his existence.
There is no apparent motive for fraud and no way it could have succeeded. The documents were produced in Athens for Athenian readers. Those readers would have known whether Aristophanes's Socrates was parodying any real philosopher. They would have known whether Plato and Xenophon were writing about any execution that had really occurred within living memory. Barely a generation after Plato wrote the Apology, though, Athenians were talking as if they took Socrates' historicity for granted. Aristotle, a pupil of Plato, made straightforward references to him. There is also a reference to Socrates' execution and the reasons for it in a speech attributed to an orator called Aechines less than half a century after the event.
For about the same reason, it is improbable that Socrates was simply a fiction. People can believe and have believed in the historicity of fictional characters even when the characters' creators did not intend such. The setting has to be somewhat removed from the readers' own lives, though. Athenian trials were very public, and their juries had 500 members. If Socrates was not real and Plato expected his readers to know he was not real, he had good reason. Athenians would indeed have known that their city had not actually executed any famous philosophers within recent memory. (The same reasoning could be used against the error hypothesis if it were not already so implausible.)
The most parsimonious accounting of the evidence, then, says that Plato and the others were writing about a real man who really was executed, and that his name was Socrates.
That is, unless some fact not yet mentioned is inconsistent with this accounting. Socrates is supposed to have been executed in the year 399 BCE. There was presumably an official record of the proceedings. It has not been found, but neither have any other of the city's records from that period. If we did have those records and had reason to believe they were complete, but they did not mention Socrates, then his historicity would be more questionable. Another example of negative evidence would be a contemporary document in which the author criticized people for thinking Socrates was real. It would not prove his nonexistence, but we would have explain why, if Socrates was real, anybody living at that time might have thought otherwise.
We can still ask how we know that the documents attributed to Plato and the others were actually written by those people. If they are not authentic, then the case for Socrates' historicity will be greatly weakened.
I have not had an opportunity yet to research the evidence for the authenticity of Plato's dialogues or the works attributed to other famous Greeks of his era. For the time being, I note only the apparently unanimous consensus of professional historians and assume that there is a good reason for such a consensus.
Generally speaking, I do not believe in conspiracies. There is potentially big money to be made in challenging academic orthodoxies. Heretics don't even need strong evidence or good arguments. All they need is a hint of evidence and some arguments that sound good to people who enjoy believing that the experts don't really know anything.
There are a handful of scholars who have challenged Socrates' historicity, advocating the fiction hypothesis, but nobody to my knowledge doubts that Plato's dialogues were written by a philosopher named Plato who lived in Athens during and after the time that Socrates would have lived there if he had been real. Nor does anyone seem to doubt that the works attributed to Aristotle were written by a philosopher named Aristotle who was a student of Plato.
That nobody questions these things does not mean they must be true. The question is whether we laymen are justified in believing them on the grounds that no expert doubts them. Absent compelling evidence that the experts have made a mistake, the answer is that we are justified in a tentative assumption that they know what they're talking about. The emphasis must be on tentative, though. We are never justified in supposing that the experts are infallible. If we have evidence against the authorities, we are justified in doubting the authorities. But we do need that evidence.
To summarize: We have apparently primary sources for Socrates. We have documents whose existence is not easily explained except on the supposition that Socrates was a real person. It is strong evidence for a historical Socrates.
The real Jesus of Nazareth, if there was one, lived in Galilee almost his entire life, acquired a reputation as a religious sage and miracle-worker, and was executed in Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate early in the fourth decade of the Common Era. A few other details about his life are probably true if that much is true, but the question of his historicity will be settled if we have strong evidence for a man by that name having lived at that time, having acquired such a reputation, and having died in that manner.
There is no primary evidence for Jesus. No document is known to have been written by anyone who knew him. Eyewitness authorship has been attributed by church tradition to some documents, but the scholarly consensus is against those attributions.
The earliest known references to Jesus are in letters attributed to a missionary called Paul. By scholarly consensus they were written sometime around 50 CE, give or take a few years. Their author could have known Jesus but gives no indication that he did. He instead claims to have learned nothing about him except by divine revelation. He does not identify any other source for anything he said about Jesus, and in one letter, to the Galatians, he explicitly denies having any other source.
Paul states that Jesus was crucified. He does not tell us who did it or where it happened. He does not tell us anything about Jesus before his execution—nothing about where he lived, when he lived, or what he did, and nothing about public opinion of the man. Paul mentions no sermons, no healings, no teachings, no exorcisms, no parables, no debates with Pharisees or Sadducees. There is an apparent reference to a meal that Jesus shared with some disciples shortly before his death, but aside from that, Paul seems to know nothing about Jesus' life before his death. Which is to say that as far as we can tell from reading Paul, Jesus had no life—not in Nazareth, not in Galilee, not in Jerusalem, not anywhere in this world.
Paul wrote, as noted, around the middle of the first century. Possibly beginning around 20 years later, four men wrote four books now known as gospels. They contain accounts of Jesus' public ministry, trial, and execution. Their authors are unknown. Traditions first attested in the late second century attribute them to disciples or acquaintances of disciples, but no evidence supports those traditions. As the authors are unknown, so are their sources. The scholarly consensus is that the authors recorded oral traditions about Jesus that were circulating in the Christian community during the late first century, but the authors themselves do not say this. They say nothing explicit about where they got their information..
Other Christian documents that could have been written contemporaneously with the gospels are even weaker as evidence. Their authors and sources are unknown, and they say no more about Jesus' life than Paul does except for a single reference to Pilate's role in Jesus' death.
The earliest references to Jesus outside the Christian community do not appear in the historical record until the second century. None of them is of uncontested authenticity, but giving all of them the full benefit of doubt, they are not evidence about Jesus himself. If authentic, they are evidence about what Christians in the second century believed about Jesus, because there is no indication in any of them that the authors relied on any sources except Christians themselves.
Two ostensible first-century references appear in Josephus's Antiquities, which he wrote in the 90s. Concerning one of those references, the Testimonium Flavianum, there is almost universal agreement that at least part of it was forged by Christian copyists. (The oldest surviving manuscript is from around the 10th century.) If it is accepted that Josephus was tampered with at all, then at least the possibility exists that the remainder of the Testimonium as well as the other reference were tampered with as well. The best that can be said about them is that they cannot be proven inauthentic, but strong evidence has to be better than just "not provably false." The Josephan references prove nothing about Jesus' historicity.
If there is a strong case to be made for Jesus' existence, then, it must come from Paul or the gospel authors.
As already mentioned, Paul cites no source besides divine revelation for anything he says about Jesus. Now, we could assume that we should take Paul's word for it if says God told him everything he knew. To make that assumption, though, is to presuppose the entire truth of Christianity, and if we presuppose that, then there is nothing further to discuss. The whole point of this exercise is to examine the evidence without having made up our minds about what it is supposed to prove.
For the time being, then, we have to set Paul aside, and that leaves us with the gospels.
A majority of scholars explain the gospels' origin in terms of a historical Jesus. Some think the gospels are 100 percent factual. Most think that they include some nonfactual material but are nonetheless based to a greater or lesser extent on the actual life and teachings of a real Jesus of Nazareth.
If there was no historical Jesus, then as with Socrates we're back to error, fraud, or fiction, but there are some important differences. With regard to Socrates, we have a very strong consensus among historians as to who wrote the source documents, when and where they were written, and for what readership they were intended. The consensus about the gospels' provenance is much weaker. There are church traditions. A minority of scholars accept the traditions, the majority do not.
We can peremptorily dismiss the fraud hypothesis on grounds of parsimony. Notwithstanding the gospels' contradictions, a conspiracy of some kind would have to have been operating, and conspiracy theories can almost never withstand Occam's razor.
What about error? This would imply only that the authors heard some stories, believed them without good reason, and wrote them down. It is not exactly a far-fetched scenario. It does not address how the stories originated, but untrue stories of all kinds get told all the time in all cultures.
The fiction hypothesis is not very different. We need not suppose, and probably should not suppose, that the authors invented the stories themselves. Like parables, they could have originated anyplace where somebody with a gift for narrative had a point to make about righteous living. In this scenario, the gospel authors thought they were good stories and passed them on with a few embellishments to make some points of their own about righteous living as they understood it, never expecting anyone to suppose that their central character had been a real person.
The plausibility of either error or fiction depends greatly on what the Christianity community as a whole believed about Jesus during the first and second centuries, and we have little or no direct evidence for that. We have the works of a few writers who recorded their personal beliefs, but we cannot confirm that those beliefs were widely shared among Christians in general. They could have been, but the documents themselves do not prove it.
My point here is not to argue for either hypothesis or to weigh its credibility against the scholarly consensus. It is to argue rather that neither one is as incredible as its counterpart with regard to Socrates. The evidence for Jesus, in other words, is not as strong as the evidence for Socrates.
Someone recently (mid-January 2009) sent me an e-mail reminding me that Josephus and the canonical gospels are not the only "possible sources of information about Jesus." But the issue is not what we can learn about Jesus from extant documents. The question is whether, in order to explain those documents' existence, we are compelled to assume that Jesus actually existed or if some other account of Christianity's origins might be at least as believable. The authorship of every noncanonical gospel is at least as uncertain as that of the canonical gospels, and in no case is there any clear reason to suppose that they were written in reliance on the testimony of any witnesses to Jesus' ministry.
That is not to say that the evidence is insufficient to justify believing that Jesus was a real person. There are some skeptics who say there is no evidence for Jesus, but I think they are very wrong. There is evidence for his existence. Reasonable people may disagree about how good the evidence is, but it does exist, and even weak evidence can justify belief if there is no contrary evidence. I am personally persuaded that there is some contrary evidence, but lots of reasonable people think I'm wrong about that, and that's OK.
To summarize: It is not the case that the evidence for Jesus' existence is just as good as the evidence for Socrates' existence. Therefore, we who doubt that Jesus lived but believe that Socrates lived are not working from a double standard. It does not follow that those who believe both men lived are being unreasonable. It could also be reasonable to believe that neither man lived. Reasonable people can disagree about such things. The evidence allows it. It is not likely that a good argument could be made both for Jesus' existence and for Socrates' nonexistence, but until somebody makes such an argument, we don't have to try to critique it.
(This page last updated on June 15, 2015.)