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Historians Reject the Bible Story

You never find the details of the Jesus story in a history book, like you would for Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Why is that? Why is the Bible not cataloged in the library in the History section?

Christians correctly point out that the historical grounding for the Jesus story has some compelling points. For example, there are not one but four gospel accounts. The time gap from original manuscripts to our oldest complete copies is relatively small. And the number of Bible manuscripts is far greater than those referring to anyone else of that time.

The enormous difficulty, however, is that historians reject miracles—not just in the Bible but consistently in any book that claims to be history.

Remember the story of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon? The historian Suetonius reported that Julius saw a divine messenger who urged him to cross. This is the same Suetonius that Christians often point to when citing extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of the Jesus story.

It’s a fact of history that Suetonius wrote about the messenger, but this miraculous appearance isn’t actually part of history.

Remember Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who reportedly ordered the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1)? Augustus was himself divinely conceived, and he ascended into heaven when he died.

These reports are part of history, but the events are not.

Everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but legends about his life grew up in his own time. Did you hear the one about how the sea bowed in submission during his conquest of the Persian Empire? Or about how ravens miraculously guided his army across the desert?

Ditto—miraculous reports don’t make it into history.

The Alexander story is a plausible natural story with excellent supporting evidence (coins with his likeness, cities with his name, stele with his laws, the spread of Hellenism and the creation of the successor empires, records of his conquests from outsiders, and so on) and a few miracles. The natural part is the noteworthy part; the miracles don’t add much.

Compare this to the Jesus story, an implausible story of a god documented by religious texts and without any supporting evidence. Jesus didn’t leave any writings himself, there is nothing from contemporary historians, and later historians record only the existence of the religion. With this story, only the miraculous part is noteworthy.

Strip away the miracle claims from Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great and you’re left with precisely the story of those leaders that we have in history. But strip away the miracle claims from the Jesus story, and you have just the story of an ordinary man—a charismatic rabbi, perhaps, but hardly divine.

Christians argue that we should treat the Gospel story like any other biography of the time, and I agree—but I doubt they will like where that takes them.

I am the punishment of God …
If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you
— Genghis Khan

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 9/6/11.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob the broken atheist,

    Of course, science is not going to admit miracles: it uses methodological NATURALISM. Were there actual miracles in the lives of great people? We just don’t know. In the case of Jesus, it is not clear that the miracles he is reported to have done are meant to be taken literally. It may be a literary construct aiming to make a theological point.

    The only “miracle” that Christians cannot let go of is the resurrection, but then we don’t need to believe that things happened exactly as reported in the Gospels. The apostles had, soon after Jesus’ death, some religious experiences that convinced them that Jesus was somehow alive. We will never know what happened exactly.

    What we can say is that it was a powerful experience, because the apostles, who were understandably disappointed after the death of their leader, quickly got over and became dynamic preachers, ready to face martyrdom.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Does the evidence point to miracles? When it does, I’m there.

      In the case of Jesus, it is not clear that the miracles he is reported to have done are meant to be taken literally. It may be a literary construct aiming to make a theological point.

      Interesting thought. Fundamentalist Christians today don’t think so, though.

      The only “miracle” that Christians cannot let go of is the resurrection

      And that’s a biggie.

      The apostles had, soon after Jesus’ death, some religious experiences that convinced them that Jesus was somehow alive.

      Did they?? How do you know? Because you read it in an old book?

      Not very compelling evidence, IMO. The gospel story as a legend (including the apostles’ journey) explains it best for me.

      What we can say is that it was a powerful experience, because the apostles, who were understandably disappointed after the death of their leader, quickly got over and became dynamic preachers, ready to face martyrdom.

      Have you read my post about this? The “who would die for a lie” argument is very, very flimsy.

    • JD

      We don’t have any original copies of writings by Alexander, or Julius Caesar, nor do we have any original copies of any contemporay accounts.

      And some amazing claims were made…Alexander conquered the know world and was under thirty? WT?
      Julius Caesar conquered all of Gaul with the technology he had?
      Extraordinary claims indeed.

      And how come Socrated never wrote anything?

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Amazing claims, indeed. But all natural.

  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob S,

    A report should be held to be trustworthy until you get some reason to doubt its accuracy. You cannot just start with the assumption that the Bible is not trustworthy. You need to give it a chance.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Of course. I don’t discount it off the bat. I do reject it, but I do so after careful consideration.

      And, just to be clear, you’d have the same advice for any book that claims to be supernatural, right?

    • Vorjack

      A report should be held to be trustworthy until you get some reason to doubt its accuracy

      You know you’re being way too simplistic, don’t you? An author might be well meaning but wrong, or heavily biased and unaware of it, or accurate on some things but prone to accepting hearsay on other things. It’s not just a binary choice between trust and suspicion.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        I presume he means that you should take every claim at face value and not simply dismiss it without consideration because it falls into a particular category.

        I don’t dismiss claims, but I certainly burden them with any appropriate baggage due claims from that particular category. Doesn’t everyone?

    • JP Hugo

      How many chances do you still need?

  • joeclark77

    Wait, where are Caesar’s tax collectors and Alexander’s armies today? Jesus founded a church starting with 12 men which grew by physical laying on of hands and now has 1.1+ billion members (plus another quarter billion Eastern Orthodox, who are also part of the direct apostolic succession). Strip away the miracles from the Jesus story and you still have basically the entire history (and virtually every institution) of western civilization, from kings and empires to hospitals to courts of law to universities to cold beer. Strip away the miracles from musty old books about Alexander (for example) and all you have is the rest of the hard-to-corroborate stuff in musty old books about Alexander.

    You have it exactly backwards. Of all four men you mention (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Alexander, and Jesus) the only one we would still know about or feel the impact of, if we threw away the musty old books, is Jesus Christ. Two reasons he’s not in the history section: (1) he’s cool enough to get his own section, and (2) his story isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Hi, Joe. Thanks for the comment.

      Jesus founded a church starting with 12 men which grew by physical laying on of hands and now has 1.1+ billion members

      No–a church began that now has 1.1+ billion members. We don’t know what in the gospel story is historically true (but we can certainly guess based on other stuff from history that looks similar–the Gilgamesh epic, for example).

      Heck–we don’t even know if the guy existed or not.

      Strip away the miracles from the Jesus story and you still have basically the entire history (and virtually every institution) of western civilization

      Perhaps we’re thinking of different Jesus stories.

      Strip away the miracles from the Jesus story and you have the tale of a charismatic rabbi who lived 2000 years ago, got annoying to the Romans, and was killed. That’s it.

      Out of the 100 billion humans (rough number) who have ever lived, his story is probably more interesting than average (given the crucifixion), but that’s not saying much.

      You have it exactly backwards.

      And you’ve missed the point of the post. Yes, I see what you’re saying—history doesn’t affect us in our daily lives, but this big religion does. And what I’m saying is that history says quite a bit of substantial stuff about the leaders, but Jesus was just an ordinary man.

      History rejects miracles. Kinda damning, don’t you think?

      he’s cool enough to get his own section

      You mean “Mythology”?

      his story isn’t finished yet

      An interesting theological claim. I need evidence.

      • joeclark77

        “No–a church began that now has 1.1+ billion members. We don’t know what in the gospel story is historically true (but we can certainly guess based on other stuff from history that looks similar–the Gilgamesh epic, for example). ”

        You could say the same for Alexander or Caesar. “Armies were sent forth” but who knows if the character Alexander was fact or legend? “Roads were built” but how can you prove Augustus Caesar wasn’t really named Billy Bob Numbnuts? It goes without saying that the personalities could be embellishments. The point is that today, without relying on the claims of ancient writers and medieval copyists, you wouldn’t have any reason to believe that even the armies or the road-builders ever existed. They could be just-so stories made up in the intervening years to explain this or that oddly-placed political boundary or ancient-looking ruin. That’s why they’re in the history section — because they are only known through historical documents.

        But you know the catholic Church existed, because it still exists. Its bishops and priests are still ordained by hand and trained by their mentors. Unlike some protestant sects, it isn’t a “re-enactment” of what they think happened once long ago. It’s continuous with its early movers. So even if we grant your point that the historical details of the individual person can’t be known with certainty, you also have to admit that’s also true of basically everyone in the history books. So let’s call Jesus “Jesus” with the understanding that he might have really been named something else, or might have been Paul, or whatever. You still cannot reasonably doubt that “Jesus” existed. It would be MUCH more reasonable for a historian to doubt that “Caesar” existed.

        On your other point, that history books do not mention miracles: did you not already concede that Suetonious records a miracle around Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon? How would you know about historical miracles if historians had not recorded them? If you’re saying that our modern secular culture has produced modern, secular historians who do not mention miracles, then… duh? So what? Is that surprising?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Joe:

          You could say the same for Alexander or Caesar. “Armies were sent forth” but who knows if the character Alexander was fact or legend? “Roads were built” but how can you prove Augustus Caesar wasn’t really named Billy Bob Numbnuts?

          (1) We have strong evidence that the enormous claims (battles, conquests, construction projects, etc.) actually happened.

          (2) If the leader behind the works of Augustus was actually named Billy Bob–OK. Then we have conquests and construction projects undertaken by Billy Bob, not Augustus. What the guy was actually called is unimportant.

          The point is that today, without relying on the claims of ancient writers and medieval copyists, you wouldn’t have any reason to believe that even the armies or the road-builders ever existed.

          No, as I made clear in the post.

          Do we have simply writings that tell us about Augustus? Writings by untrustworthy sycophants? No, we have statues and temples across the empire, roads and aqueducts, coins with his name and likeness, and so on.

          even if we grant your point that the historical details of the individual person can’t be known with certainty

          That’s not my point. My point is that historians reject miracle stories.

          The same criteria that they use to say that, no, Paul Bunyan was a legend, and Zeus was a myth, reject the Jesus miracle-worker story as well.

          You still cannot reasonably doubt that “Jesus” existed.

          I do, but the actual existence of Jesus isn’t an interesting point. My main point is that the Jesus story is a legend.

          It would be MUCH more reasonable for a historian to doubt that “Caesar” existed.

          Again, no. There’s much more historical fact to explain away if you dismiss Augustus than Jesus.

          did you not already concede that Suetonious records a miracle around Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon?

          OK, this really isn’t hard. History books record that Suetonius wrote about miracles. No history book states as its best reconstruction of the events that Julius actually saw a spirit.

        • joeclark77

          So who was Suetonius? Chopped liver? Not a historian? I actually am not familiar with the name so I don’t know if he was a historian, poet, or whatever. Regardless, it is certain that many many history books record miracles. Otherwise, how would you know about historical miracles? I am sure I remember Thucydides (historian #1) explaining a rise in the frequency of earthquakes as being a response to some decision of the Spartans or other.

          What you’re really saying is that modern historians reject miracles, which says lots about modernity (or postmodernity as the case may be) but tells us nothing about miracles.

          By the way, you’re wrong about the relative volume of evidence. There are certainly more statues and inscriptions of Jesus than there are of Augustus. And what’s more astonishing is that Augustus’s armies have vanished while Jesus’s army is still in the field. Can you imagine the impact on the study of history if we discovered a band of imperial Roman legionaries still dwelling on some tiny island off the British Isles? But no such discovery has been made. Meanwhile, today, you can go into any Catholic or Orthodox church in the world and meet a soldier whose orders come from Jesus by direct laying on of hands across twenty centuries. That may not prove the gospel is true, but it is breathtaking evidence. The only thing comparable as living evidence of history is the survival of Israel to the present day.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Joe:

          Suetonius was a historian.

          it is certain that many many history books record miracles.

          I thought I made this distinction clear. History books record the claim of miracles. They don’t say that those miracles actually happened.

          I am sure I remember Thucydides (historian #1) explaining a rise in the frequency of earthquakes as being a response to some decision of the Spartans or other.

          And do historians think that there was actually a supernatural cause of earthquakes at this time?

          What you’re really saying is that modern historians reject miracles, which says lots about modernity (or postmodernity as the case may be) but tells us nothing about miracles.

          “Historians reject all miracle stories” is just irrelevant to you? Doesn’t inform you of anything?

          There are certainly more statues and inscriptions of Jesus than there are of Augustus.

          The statues of Augustus were made during his life and immediately after. Nobody made Jesus statues during or just after his life.

          And what’s more astonishing is that Augustus’s armies have vanished while Jesus’s army is still in the field.

          One religion is the biggest. Not surprising. There have been zillions of religions through history. Also not surprising.

          I don’t see the astonishing bit.

        • joeclark77

          ‘“Historians reject all miracle stories” is just irrelevant to you? Doesn’t inform you of anything?’
          Thucydides was a historian, indeed the proto-historian who created the pattern that all Western historians follow. So your statement is untrue unless amended to “MODERN historians reject all miracle stories”. (Even then I doubt it’s true unless qualified by the word “some” or “most” in a couple places.) The amended statement is not irrelevant, no, but it certainly does say more about “modern historians” than it says about miracles. It makes us think about what assumption or blind spot or institutional pressure might be the cause of this bias.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, modern historian reject miracle stories. I thought that was clear.

          And I’m talking about the consensus view.

          it certainly does say more about “modern historians” than it says about miracles.

          I’m not sure why.

          I trust modern historians; modern historians reject miracles; therefore, proponents of miracle stories have an uphill battle to show that they actually exist.

          Or does that make me a dupe of the vast Historian Conspiracy?

        • joeclark77

          Ah, I see you have a case of what I call the Vizzini fallacy. Remember Vizzini, from the Princess Bride? “Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? … Morons!” This is the philosophical assumption generally accepted by the under-25 crowd that boils down to “people in history were dumber than me”. This is why your comment to me on another thread dismisses the possibility of learning anything from any historical Christian by saying effectively “oh, they just didn’t know any better”. From my point of view, looking at the insipidity and shallowness of modernism/postmodernism in pretty much every field from the arts to literature to philosophy, I would give the benefit of the doubt to the great thinkers of the past.

          Also, “consensus view”? You sound like a global warmist. I thought you weren’t religious?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Joe:

          This is the philosophical assumption generally accepted by the under-25 crowd that boils down to “people in history were dumber than me”.

          I’m sure we agree that the issue isn’t stupidity. Our brains are no better than theirs. Indeed, the philosophers Vizzini lists are seen as relevant philosophers today.

          The conclusions of the scientists from that time, however, are irrelevant today. They did their best with what little they had, but their contribution is relevant only to the History of Science.

          Yes, I always accept the scientific consensus. Tell me where that’s inappropriate.

    • MountainTiger

      Archaeology disproves your claims about Caesar, Augustus, and Alexander.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Tell me more. What claims are false? And how do we know?

        • MountainTiger

          Coins and contemporary inscriptions attest all three figures; we would have evidence for their lives, names, and certain deeds even “if we threw away the musty old books.” This record is obviously less detailed than the literary sources for narrative historians, but it is a valuable way of supplementing and checking the literary record against evidence that has not passed through generations of copyists.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Sounds like we agree … ?

        • MountainTiger

          I believe so. This is why I responded to Joe, though I now note that you made stronger reference to archaeology in your response to him than I noted at first glance, making my comment rather redundant.

  • Arkenaten

    The Bible will eventually find its rightful place amongst the fiction shelves of all good libraries everywhere.
    Good post. Enjoyed it.
    BTW. Have you ever read Professor Ze’ev Herzog’s paper, De constructing the Walls of Jericho?
    Well worth it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the tip. I found it online here. I’ll take a look.


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