The Existence of Socrates vs Jesus

There are a large number of atheists that try to make the argument that we have no evidence that Jesus existed and go to great lengths to try and prove it. I argue that if one is to deny the existence of Jesus their burden of proof is so high that we should argue that Socrates did not exist. Of course this really irks people, except that this was a legitimate question in the scholarly arena.

Here is a brief bit on Wikipedia about the Socratic Problem (it actually has a name)

Even with this problem, very few, if any credible scholars will actually try to make the argument that Socrates did not exist. (Save this part for future quote mining.) Before we look at what the scholars actually say, there is something else I wanted to address.

When reading these anti-Jesus articles I notice three common themes. The first is simply quote mining and taking the words of scholars out of context, second is addressing issues that are mostly irrelevant. The third, and most important issue, is the complete lack of understanding of what historians do and how they work. I wanted to start by addressing this.

The first problem is that the anti-Jesus (AJ) people completely disregard any Christian source because of bias. This is completely the wrong approach. Christian sources should be considered but should not be placed above other sources. All texts and artifacts should we held on level ground and to exclude Christian sources would be the sign one does not understand how to do history.

Whenever we have a historical document we compare them with other historical documents to determine their validity. For example, many Christians claim the Bible is like a history book. We have actually tested this against other material, non Biblical material. Some of it fairs better than other parts.

We take the story of the Exodus for example. Some people believe it is a myth, others believe it is actually true. When looking at Egyptian records there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim. There is no record of an exodus or a large group of people leaving. Besides the fact that losing their entire work force would cripple the economy, there is not a single record to support the Exodus. Egyptians wrote down EVERYTHING. They recorded every single person that crossed their borders. If anyone wrote anything down, it would have been the Egyptians, but there is nothing. Based on the facts we cannot conclude that the Exodus was a historical event.

Other parts are more accurate with outside sources. We know from Egyptian sources that there were people called Israelites and we can date that to right around 1,200 BCE. Archaeological evidence also shows this was around the time when Canaanite communities started displaying characteristics we attribute to the Israelites. 1,200 BCE is also right around the time the Bible puts David and Solomon, and the Dividic Kingdom is mentioned outside of Israelite sources. Because of this we can be fairly confident, at least make a good argument, that David and Solomon existed.

Other examples are much easier to verify. The Babylonian exile is just one example. The Bible can also be used to verify non-Jewish, non-Biblical historical accounts because the Bible is just another historical document. The Bible is a book of myths but this does not mean it does not hold historical value or that everything in it is a myth. It shares clear historical facts, such as the Edict of Cyrus from Cyrus the Great of Persia. It all comes down to evaluating a specific claim with outside evidence. The wrong thing to do is throw out all of the texts and evidence on one side because that side is bias.

Using this type of analysis, how do Socrates and Jesus match up?

Let’s try the AJ approach first…Let’s eliminate the bias sources. That would be the Greek sources for Socrates and the Christian ones for Jesus.

Non-Greek sources for Socrates…none. If we exclude the Greek sources, no one in the world ever spoke of Socrates. Without any outside validation the stories of Socrates have as much validation as the Exodus.

If we allow the Greek sources in, which historians do, a number of important people spoke about Socrates, such as Plato, Aristophanes, Aristotle and Xenophon.

As it points out in the link at the beginning of this bit, we know that Plato voiced his own opinion under the name of Socrates in some cases. There is also the problem that the accounts are contradictory of each other. Because of these problems we cannot claim to know much about Socrates the person, how he was and his views.

Even with the problems of no outside evidence and contradictory statements about him, virtually every credible scholar agree that he existed based on the amount of evidence by his contemporaries.

For the bit on Jesus I will simply defer to Bart Ehrman…

Bart D. Ehrman (born 5 October 1955) is an American New Testamentscholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a leading scholar in his field, having written and edited over 25 books, including three college textbooks, and has also achieved acclaim at the popular level, authoring five New York Times bestsellers. Ehrman’s work focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

For people who care Ehrman’s religion is none: atheist, humanist, agnostic.
Here is the link to a larger bit, but I will provide the relevant details…

“It is obviously important for a historian to look at all the evidence. To most modern people, it is surprising to learn just how little evidence there is for Jesus outside the Christian sources. He is not mentioned in any Roman (or Greek, or Syriac, or… whatever – any pagan [i.e., non-Jewish, non-Christian]) source of the entire first century. Never. That strikes people as surprising. He is mentioned a couple of times within about 80 years of his life by two Roman sources (Pliny and Tacitus; I’m not sure Suetonius can be used). And he is almost certainly referred to twice in the Jewish historian Josephus, once in an entire paragraph. But that’s it for the non-Christian sources for the first hundred years after his death. It’s not much. But it’s something, and since these are not sources that based their views on the Gospels (since these authors hadn’t read the Gospels), it shows that Jesus was indeed known to exist in pagan and Jewish circles within a century of his life.

Ehrman on non-Christian sources for Jesus within a hundred years of his crucifixion in his book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings…

“three pagan authors mention Jesus within one hundred years of his death. The first reference to Jesus in pagan literature is in a letter written by the governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 112 c.e. Pliny discusses the practices of the Christians in his province and, thus, gives us no information about the historical Jesus. The second (possible) reference to Jesus is by the historian Suetonius. Suetonius mentions a riot among Jews that was initiated by a man named “Chrestus.” Some scholars believe this is a misspelling of “Christ.” If, in fact, Suetonius is referring to Jesus, his narrative gives us information about later followers, not about Jesus himself. The only helpful information from pagan literature about Jesus’ life that dates within one hundred years of Jesus’ death is from another historian, Tacitus. Tacitus says that Pontius Pilate executed Jesus during the reign of Tiberius. Although not all of Tacitus’s information is correct (he says that Pilate was a procurator), he does corroborate information found in Christian sources. Looking beyond these three pagan sources, Jesus is mentioned twice in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, a first-century Jewish text. One reference indicates that Jesus’ brother James was killed by the high priest Ananus. In the other reference, Josephus gives more information: he says that Jesus was a teacher and a “doer of startling deeds” who had Jewish and Gentile followers. Josephus continues, reporting that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus and Pilate condemned him to the cross. In this passage, Josephus also states that Jesus was the messiah. Because Josephus never converted to Christianity, and because his works were copied and transmitted by Christians, we can be relatively sure that this “confession” was a later Christian insertion.”

Right there we already have Socrates beat. We have non Christian sources which match up with Christian sources. That is as good as it comes when we are talking about ancient history. Ehrman goes on…

“The really compelling evidence, though, comes in the Christian sources. Mythicists write these sources off because they are Christian and therefore biased, but that is not a historically solid way to proceed. Christian sources do indeed have to be treated gingerly, but they are sources every bit as much as pagan and Jewish sources are. What I show in Did Jesus Exist? is that there are so many Christian sources that can be used by historians that there is really no doubt at all that Jesus at least existed. Just to give an example (so as not to repeat my entire book here): by any credible dating, the apostle Paul must have converted to believe in Jesus within two or three years of the traditional date of Jesus’ death. And Paul knew some facts about Jesus’ life; he knew some of his teachings; he knew his closest disciple Peter; and he knew his brother James. Personally! If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think that his brother would know about it. The historian cannot simply ignore what Paul has to say since he was a Christian. Taking his biases into account, we can use his letters for information about Jesus. And among other things, they show beyond a doubt that Jesus existed as a Jewish teacher in Palestine in the 20s CE. Otherwise we cannot explain Paul or his letters. That’s just one important piece of evidence for the existence of Jesus. I’ll discuss more in some of my later answers.”

Besides that, we have this…

While discussing the “striking” fact that “we don’t have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus,” Ehrman dismisses claims that this means Jesus never existed, saying, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence.” B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285

While discussing the “striking” fact that “we don’t have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus,” Ehrman dismisses claims that this means Jesus never existed, saying, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence.” B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285

Michael Grant (a classicist) states that “In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant 2004ISBN 1898799881 page 200

Richard A. Burridge states: “There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.” in Jesus Now and Then by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould (Apr 1, 2004) ISBN 0802809774 page 34

Crossan, John Dominic (1995). Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. p. 145. ISBN 0-06-061662-8. “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus … agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact.”

Whenever I point this out people cherry-pick and quote mine. I have talked about that here…

Here is my new favorite link for why Jesus did not exist (it’s a fairly long read) …

I wanted to address some points in this bit. First, look at the website. I thought atheists were in the business of using non biased sources. Second, and most important, who the hell is Jim Walker? Jim Walker is apparently the author of this article but nowhere does it say anything about Jim Walker. Who is he? What does he have a degree in? Does he even have a degree? Not only am I apparently more qualified to talk about this topic than he is (you can read my about me where I explain exactly what I studied at a university,) but I have directly quoted Ph.D.s that say this guy is wrong. They go one step further and say the no credible scholar denies that Jesus existed. To believe anything this guy says requiring blind faith that he is trust worthy and/or knowledgeable.
But he provides quotes!

Yes, he cherry picked a lot of unrelated quotes. Here is the thing with his quotes and sources…I am familiar with a hand full of them. He quotes from books I have read or that were required for classes. Elaine Pagels, Michael Coogan, and David Noel Freedman, just to name a few. I have two of the Pagels books sitting on my bookshelf and he relies very heavily on her.

Oddly enough, even with the heavy reliance on Pagels, at the bottom of the article called “quotes from a few scholars,” he never quotes Pagels saying that Jesus did not exist. In fact the only quote that says Jesus did not exist is this one…

“Jesus is a mythical figure in the tradition of pagan mythology and almost nothing in all of ancient literature would lead one to believe otherwise. Anyone wanting to believe Jesus lived and walked as a real live human being must do so despite the evidence, not because of it.”

C. Dennis McKinsey, Bible critic (The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy)
Dennis McKinsey is an atheist and Bible critic with a BA in philosophy and a MA in social sciences. This is what we would call a bias non-expert. All the people he quoted and this is the only one. Earl Doherty gets close, but I will get to him in a bit.

One of the major flaws in this article is that it completely avoids the point. There are arguments about how the Gospels contradict each other and how they were written after Jesus died and that the people that wrote them did not actually know Jesus. A lot of scholars are pointed to for points like this and scholars agree. No one in the scholarly field is going against this point, in fact, they are the ones making it. This is exactly the same as our Socrates example in that we do not really know what he said or what he was like as a person. It is also true that those that spoke of Socrates contradicted each other.

People constantly make this argument as if it somehow makes Jesus not a real person. All it says is that we do not know anything about his teachings or historical Jesus, and that they are very possibly entirely made-up.

That leads to another point where Jim Walker is either trying to be deceptive or is simply ignorant. The term is “historical Jesus.” Historical Jesus can be used in a few different ways which makes it confusing right off the bat. Historical Jesus generally refers to the details of Jesus’ life, not that a man name Jesus existed. When someone says they do not believe in historical Jesus they are generally saying they do not believe in the stuff one might see on the History Channel where they do a documentary on his life. Virtually every scholar admits we know virtually nothing about the life of Jesus or if his teachings are attributed to him.

My favorite part is when he is criticizing the non-Christian sources. He completely dismisses every one of them without a single citation. This means we are take Walkers opinion on blind faith and it makes it worse that we know nothing about him. One would think he would use his big long list of scholars to provide a single quote validating a single thing he said. He then goes on to say this…

“Christian apologists mostly use the above sources for their “evidence” of Jesus because they believe they represent the best outside sources.”

“As you can see, apologist Christians embarrass themselves when they unwittingly or deceptively violate the rules of historiography by using after-the-event writings as evidence for the event itself. Not one of these writers gives a source or backs up his claims with evidential material about Jesus.”

By Christian apologists he must mean atheist scholars because Ehrman (and every other scholar) finds this as valid evidence. For someone with no degree in history and goes against virtually every scholar in the world, it is a pretty strong statement to mention the rules of historiography. It is also rather impressive that he calls out someone not using sources when he failed to provide a single one.

People make the argument that the evidence for Socrates is better because people actually talked about him during his life. That point is brought up in this article extensively and asks why no one in his day wrote about him. This again shows complete ignorance of history and the context of the situation.

I will provide a little historical context to the world at that time. For the last 500 years the Jews have been waiting for their Messiah. There have been hundreds of people thought or claimed to be the Messiah. This claim, if he actually claimed it, was nothing out of the ordinary. Also, if one is half way familiar with the Old Testament they will notice it is very different than the New Testament. That is because the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament are completely different than the Jewish religion. He was a heretic creating a radically different sect or religion. He is not talked about much in Jewish tradition for the same reason Prophet Muhammad or Joseph Smith are not talked about by Christian sources even though they came out of Christianity. They were crazy heretics that were going against the normal religion. There was a reason he was not talked about.

Besides the fact that most people during that day were illiterate, and Jesus followers would have been, what is the one moment in Christianity that is the most important? The Resurrection. The alleged resurrection would have taken place AFTER he had already died. Why did people not talk about him during his life? Because he was just another insignificant crazy person. Socrates was apparently an intellectual, or very influential, which is why he was important while he was living. His death is not what made him popular. This was also the case with Muhammad and Joseph Smith. Muhammad was waging wars and Joseph Smith was gathering a following. Both were more important during their lives, Jesus was standing around babbling parables.

If one simply understood the context of the situation they would not be overly surprised that there is not a ton of stuff from his life, they would more expect it.
One final point before I wrap it up. Walker cites this guy…

“In the book The Jesus Puzzle, the biblical scholar, Earl Doherty…”
He also quotes him…

“Before the Gospels were adopted as history, no record exists that he was ever in the city of Jerusalem at all– or anywhere else on earth.”

-Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” p.141

“Doherty has stated he has a bachelor’s degree in Ancient History and Classical Languages,[2] but no completed advanced degrees.”

Walker called this guy a Biblical Scholar? Is he ignorant or being deceptive? A BA in history does not someone a Biblical Scholar unless you are really stretching. I majored in History (Ancient Near East/Middle East) and Religious Studies (The Abrahamic religions) with a minor in Jewish Studies and I do not consider myself a Biblical Scholar. One should have a Ph.D. in the area, or at least a masters…But let’s see what a Ph.D. in the area has to say about Doherty…

“Bart Ehrman, an expert on textual criticism of the NT and Early Christianity, has dismissed Jesus, Neither God nor Man as “filled with so many unguarded and undocumented statements and claims, and so many misstatements of fact, that it would take a 2,400-page book to deal with all the problems… Not a single early Christian source supports Doherty’s claim that Paul and those before him thought of Jesus as a spiritual, not a human being, who was executed in the spiritual, not the earthly realm.” “

“In a book criticizing the Christ myth theory, New Testament scholar Maurice Casey describes Doherty as “perhaps the most influential of all the mythicists”,[21] but one who is unable to understand the ancient texts he uses in his arguments”.[22]

My final words about this article will be pointing out this bit of it…

Because the religious mind relies on belief and faith, the religious person can inherit a dependence on any information that supports a belief and that includes fraudulent stories, rumors, unreliable data, and fictions, without the need to check sources, or to investigate the reliability of the information.”

That ladies and gentlemen perfectly describes this article…

So back to the beginning. Virtually no one in the scholarly world doubts either the existence of Socrates or Jesus as actual people. The same criticisms can be made for both. The one thing that people hang on to is that no one that lived at the time of Jesus spoke of him…except Paul did. But this is not good enough because it is a Christian source. So I can argue that Socrates did not exist because the people that spoke of him were Greek. For all we know he is just some mythical character the Greeks created. After all, he is not mentioned outside of Greek sources, where as Jesus is mentioned outside of Christian sources. The whole point is that the burden of proof being held to Jesus is unrealistic when compared to other figures we claim we know existed.


One thought on “The Existence of Socrates vs Jesus

  1. Wow! Your writing is just getting better and better, and your supporting points (books, authors, passages, etc) are simply superb. You are getting closer and closer to that book, my friend! Your absolute insistence on fairness and respect for factual back-up I think makes you far more likely to cause people to stop and think — which is really what I believe we all want people to do more of. Excellent job!

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