Paul Cartledge, Provoker of Mythicists? Alexander the Great and Jesus

Paul Cartledge’s book on Alexander the Great is quoted by Chuck Grantham in a recent blog post:

It has been well said that the search for the historical Alexander is something like the search for the historical Jesus. Many contemporaries had an interest in preserving a version of what he said and did, but none of the subject’s actual words have been certainly preserved verbatim; and those writers whose words have survived all had an interest in recording, or creating, a particular image of their hero- or villain- for the edification of their contemporaries or posterity. With the result that the searches for both tend to be massively controversial.

What, hasn’t this guy read all the mythicist websites? Doesn’t he know that there is a consensus among mythicists that historians don’t hold views of this sort? He’s a professor of history at Cambridge University, for crying out loud!

Presumably he has no need to worry about the opinion of mythicists, since he doesn’t have a blog… 🙂

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  • Ha. I remember reading "The Case for Christ" and hearing this argument.A friend brought it up one time, and then it finally hit me: even if they got the battle down exactly as it happened (which is doubtful), they didn't get the dialogue exactly right.So why claim you're quoting Jesus from the Gospels?

  • Indeed, the quote makes important points in two directions. On the one hand, it serves to counter the nonsensical internet mythicist claims that no serious historian of antiquity would be so naive as to find the evidence for Jesus' existence persuasive. On the other hand, it points out how difficult if not impossible it is in most instances to feel confident that the words of either of these ancient figures have been remembered, written down, and passed on to us.

  • . He has been sucked into the grip of Christians and Zionist, not that I'm suggesting a conspiracy, but can you trust a non atheist to be honest? It does make me think of an exchange between you and Verena a day or so ago. If we were willing to entertain that every source dates from when we have actually manuscripts or external attestations of the manuscripts, and every author should be considered to be lying about everything until we prove they are telling the truth, then what we think we know really shrivels up. I think most historians are aware of the weakness of the source but assume that the authors were relatively normal people unless shown other wise.

  • Mike, if you find this quotation germane to the discussion, can you please discuss a contemporary of Jesus who we know wrote about what he personally had seen about the physical, historical Jesus? I'd love to know where that is.

  • James already responded, but here is a brief discussion of the differences between the evidence for Alexander the evidence for Jesus. Note, I am not suggesting that we should not be cautious when dealing with evidence for Alexander, but these two figures should not be treated equally as Cartledge's book does (and I would make note that the way he is quoted above makes it appear as though he is suggesting that Jesus has contemporaries write about him; if this is his intention, he is flat wrong).

  • Anonymous

    James…I've been wondering if you personally think that we as Christians can know Jesus through the four canonical gospels. Though you are a historian do you hold a more conserative [or slightly more maximalist] view of the Jesus of scripture?I know you are engaging in a more scholarly type debate and can't resort to personal convictions but I'm just wondering.Brian

  • Evan, do you have one for Alexander? My Greek History text book says "all extant reports are late and second hand, even though some are based on contemporary accounts." Now how do I know everybody isn't lying about Alexander? If you want late second hand reports for Jesus I recomend Paul or G.John, both who claim to know people who know Jesus.

  • Tom, if you mean by "contemporaries" someone who wrote before Jesus died, then you are absolutely right. If you mean that no one wrote about him who lived at the same time as he was alive, then your statement is not at all obviously correct. And for what it is worth, retrospectives after the end of a person's life are not necessarily inferior to perspectives during a person's life.Brian, I am neither a maximalist nor a minimalist. I think it is possible to conclude not only that Jesus lived but that some of the things attributed to him in sources are unlikely to be inventions. Some things almost certainly are later inventions. And in most cases we will probably not have strong enough evidence to feel certain one way or the other, from the perspective of historical investigation.

  • Mike,As far as I can tell, Paul never claims to have known anyone who knew Jesus. Later writers claimed that the people Paul knew were also people who knew Jesus. I am currently reading Catrledge's book. It is very interesting.

  • Anonymous

    I meant a more maximalist view, though not necessarily maximalist in the full sense of the word. Though I was talking more about personal faith rather than as a historian.For example as a scientist, I try my best to remain neutral and keep my personal biases to myself. Although I as a Catholic, affirm that God created the world along with all that good stuff. I as a scientist would not try to argue that my findings support my claim. I can personally say they do but not as a respectable and honest scientist.Do you as a historian feel this way?

  • Anonymous

    The mythicists think they are clever by demanding proof that they know can't be met. But how is it possible to dismiss everything that was written by a follower of Jesus? Why would a disinterested person write about a small Jewish sect? It's not like the ancients blogged their every thought like people do today. What's more, we can deduce through the chrisitian writings that there were many others that did not survive. I think the mythicists have to show some positive proof to be taken seriously. Say a contemporary letter from the first century alleging that Jesus was a myth. Something that they demand from others.

  • Mike, please read my post; I have provided a list of contemporaneous resources for Alexander, many of which are quite superior. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Paul never claims to have met anyone who knew Jesus?C'mon, what a good illustration of the willful ignorance of a true believer. Paul does talk about his arguuments with the apostle Peter and meeting James, the brother of Jesus. Those are the types of details that would make no sense as fabrications. Why invent petty disputes involving people who don't exist? Dumb, dumber and dumbest. Now someone is going to get indignant and provide a grand theory — a mythic hermeneutic if you will — as to why paul might have done such a thing. Maybe because maybe anything is possible.

  • One would presume his brother knew who he was, of course you can hold a flame for this being an unusual use of the word, but arguments based on a stack of unliklyhoods normally doesn't get much traction . Before Evan has a conniption, I do think we have better evidence for Alexander the great's existence, but only marginally better sources for his words and minutia of life, always hard to get even if you talk to a close friend or parole officer. The point of this is that real historians, the kind of people Neil wishes he was, don't write papers about how we can't trust X because he might be lying for reasons we can't comprehend or in support of what ever idea about Alexander the Great they have in mind. Jesus seems to atract weirdos like Godfrey and Strobble, religion does weird things to people, and even people who do scholarly work on Indian religion get these sorts of complaints. I may have said this before, mythic theories are totally, completly, possible but it requires a lot of unlikely things to be true. Why would any one be expected to accept this as what happened?

  • Brian, I don't personally view faith as allowing me to somehow bypass historical tools and methods as the means of attempting to answer historical questions. And so for me personally, the challenge I wrestle with is what it means to be a Christians when the best tools we have available to investigate what happened in the past cannot address or confirm that are important to the Christians faith. I don't see it a entirely analogous to the doctrine of creation, not least because the latter can be and has been restated in terms of the universe's contingency, so that it doesn't depend on a particular cosmological model. But reinterpret it may be that the answer (for some, at leaat) is reinterpret what particular historic Christian axioms mean so as to render them meaningful and defensible within the framework of a contemporary worldivew.

  • Sorry for the botched last sentence – part of it had disappeared below the fold as I was editing writing and proofreading, and I thought I would get another shot at fixing issues before it posted. Oops!

  • James, did you get the e-mail i sent you? I was wanting to run an idea for a paper by you.

  • Anonymous

    Well the past is losses to us and personally it doesn't matter much at least to me as I have the church something that still lives and continues to shape my faith as a Christian. Besides can't certain doctrines like the incarnation and/or the resurrection can only be reflected on. The former of these even if we were to go back on time to when it originally happened cannot be proved…unless Jesus birth was proceeded by a celestial light of some sort.Though as a historian I don't expect you to compromise your job trouble conform to your faith I was just wondering if Jesus speaks through the text for you.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry I made several to many errors in my post…hopefully you guys can decipher what I mean…but instead of trouble I meant to say 'to' and earase the added 'can' half way through.Sorry…Brian

  • Anonymous

    Alexander changed the world still living; Jesus changed the world many years after his death.That Cartledge must admit the research about the first is controversial is very significant because for Alexander we should have many more proof than for Jesus.

  • MikeW, if this is a very recent e-mail, I didn't receive it, and I didn't spot it caught in the university spam filter either. Is there any chance you can send it again? If this is the one from more than a week ago, then I replied but it must not have gotten through to you, and so I can try to send it again. Let me know which!

  • Mike,It seems to me that Paul’s usual use of the word is to designate a spiritual relationship rather than a biological one. Given the lack of anything else to indicate that Paul thought that his contemporaries had known the human Jesus personally, I am baffled by the absolute certainty that so many historicists seem to have about Galatians 1:19. It is hard for me to imagine scholars being similarly certain about any facts concerning Alexander based on similar evidence.

  • It isn't baffling, I think you are familiar with all the arguments. It is easy to pick out when Paul means spiritual brother and physical just as it is easy when listening to people who routinely use brother as a term for fellow when they refer to someones actual brother. I know language is trick and subjective, but most humans are very good at navigating its meanings

  • C.J. O’Brien

    On the one hand, it serves to counter the nonsensical internet mythicist claims that no serious historian of antiquity would be so naive as to find the evidence for Jesus' existence persuasive.I see no discussion of that evidence here, explicit or implied, just a mention of a certain academic literary pursuit compared to another and a characterization of the results of each as controversial.On the other hand, it points out how difficult if not impossible it is in most instances to feel confident that the words of either of these ancient figures have been remembered, written down, and passed on to us.But here's the problem, and the glaring difference. In the case of Jesus, the words attributed to him, and the words written about him, are primary. Whereas in the case of Alexander we have a figure who made an incredible impact on the ancient world, and this would be an indisputable fact of the history of the world if we had no words whatsoever and no writings about him. His father would be a historical figure even if Alexander had died in his crib.So, consider two disciplines, the search for the historical Alexander, and the search for the historical Jesus. Generate a hypothesis about Alexander: what was he like as a person, what were his goals, how did his contemporaries see him? Do you begin with a meticulous sifting of the literary output concerning his life for the broad outlines, the constraints on your hypothesizing, or are those known already by other means? Philip's heir, son of Olympias, scion of the ascendant Macedonian court, crusading general, conqueror of the Persian empire. You start there, and none of that depends on anything anyone wrote later.Whereas, with Jesus, in order to even begin to formulate a hypothesis you start with form and redaction criticism of the gospels. You mine the output of literary study for your hypothesis, and when you "test" it, you have no choice but to engage in activity that, to this observer, looks an awful lot like form and redaction criticism. This is what we mean by the essential circularity at the core of HJ scholarship. Looking to your results for your hypotheses in science is usually a way of avoiding testing the null hypothesis. And what do you suppose the equivalent by analogy of the null hypothesis is in the context of historiography?

  • Mike,One of the charges that was laid against early Christians by during times of Roman persecutions was incest. The charge was predicated in part on the fact that they called one another brother and sister. It seems to me that there has always been some ambiguity about what relationship was being designated.

  • Vinny, the same outsiders accused Christians of cannibalism, but that doesn't mean that we should assume that Christians were confused about whether they were engaging in that practice.I have already highlighted the ways in which the reference to "the Lord's brother" is different from the non-literal usage in reference to Christians in general.

  • Dr. McGrath,I understand the differences. I just don't see how they justify your certainty on the question given the lack of other references in Paul's writings that would place Jesus as a contemporary of people that Paul knew. Is it such a stretch to think that Paul could have been designating a relationship other than a biological one? Don't we sometimes prefer a less obvious reading of a particular passage if it makes more sense in the context of everything else that the author wrote?

  • Vinny, I'm not talking about certainty. As for your other points, please do feel free to explain what you think, in this instance, makes the less obvious reading fit better with everything else Paul wrote.

  • Dr. McGrath,It is all stuff that has been discussed before. Paul doesn't indicate that the human Jesus was a recently deceased miracle-working Rabbi whose disciples–some of whom were known to Paul–taught a message they had learned from him. Paul writes about an exalted heavenly being who appeared to and/or revealed himself to Paul and some others that Paul knew. That this being had once walked the earth as a man seems to be a theological point for Paul rather than a historical point. In that context, reading the reference to "the Lord's brother" as a spiritual relationship rather than a biological one seems plausible to me.

  • It has indeed all been discussed before, and in order to read Paul as you do, you have to 1) ignore some things he writes, and 2) explain how Jesus gets transformed into a historical, non-heavenly figure in Mark's Gospel around the time Paul most likely died, without any indication that doing so is controversial.Do we really need to cover this same ground every time? When Paul's meaning is less explicit than it could have been, that doesn't mean that any possible interpretation of his meaning, no matter how outlandish and no matter whether there is any evidence to support it, becomes equally likely, does it?

  • Not to seem flip, but there are a huge number of works by Christians that do not indicate Jesus was miricle working rabbi with human diciples by people we know were not Christ Mythicist.

  • Is it really outlandish to suppose that Paul might have meant "brother of the Lord" is a symbolic sense? That seems like unjustified hyperbole to me. Moreover, I don't see why I have to ignore anything Paul wrote in order to entertain the possibility.If Jesus was transformed from mythical to historical, I don't see why I would have to think that it was fully accomplished by the time of Paul's likely death. Even if Mark was written that early, my understanding is that we don't find external references to the gospels' Jesus until well into the second century. What if Mark began a transformation that took many decades to become the accepted understanding?

  • Anonymous

    Vnnie: You say: "If Jesus…" and "Even if…" and "What if…"Yup, that about sums up your point of view. If horses had wings, they could fly. At least if their bone structure was less dense. And someone taught them to fly. And giant birds didn't eat them when they got off the ground. Or nobody shot them.Yup, I'm sure of it. Horses can fly. It's entirely