Friday, January 20, 2017

Marshall vs. Carrier II: Fact-Check

Richard Carrier and I just shared a contentious debate on the Unbelievable radio program over the historical credibility of the gospels.  Pots and pans flew!  Fur hit the fan!  This is normal with Richard's public discourse: he has a long record of calling people who disagree with him, whether Christian or skeptic, popular writer or eminent scholar, "liars," "delusional," "incompetent" and other such terms of endearment.  Indeed, in this debate, when Carrier said "I will stop short of calling him a liar on this," I laughed and respond, "Why not, Richard?  You have before!"  Indeed, in the past his fans have had to remind him that even if Marshall is wrong (as they assume I am), I might still be telling what I ignorantly perceive to be the truth.  

Which for students of the human condition, may be amusing, if you like a little drama served on the side with your search for truth.

Also amusing is Carrier's repeated criticism that not all of the 30 characteristics of the gospels which I claim support their historicity (and which he has consistently overlooked), are "used by historians in the peer-reviewed literature."  One is permitted to discover new things in history, Richard.  One is even permitted to write things you have never read before.  

But since both Richard and I called one another on errors of fact many times in this debate, let us check the claims which are in dispute, and see who is right about what.  Since I think people can be mistaken, even tendentious, without being "liars" or mad (unless you're claiming, say, to be the divine Son of God), I do not intend to employ either word when I find Carrier in error.  And when I am mistaken (it has happened!), I will submit to correction, and gladly set the record straight, as I provisionally did in one instance during the debate itself.

So let the Wizards of Spin take their marks!  

I post this initial response from memory before I have the chance to listen myself, then plan to add details and direct quotes later.  In this original version, I only managed to fact-check three points (1,4 and 5), but plan to add more within 24 hours.

Claim #1: Did Richard Carrier compare the gospels to The Life of Apollonius of Tyana

I claimed that Richard Carrier is one of many skeptical scholars who help prove the gospels by searching long and hard for parallels, then help show that there is nothing like Jesus or the gospels anywhere in the ancient world, by pointing to far-fetched parallels like (most popularly) Apollonius of Tyana.  I cited Carrier as claiming that three ancient works, Book of Tobit, Life of Romulus, and Life of Apollonius of Tyana, share "all the characteristics" of the gospels.  And then I pointed out that when analyzed according to pre-set criteria, none of these works shares even five of thirty historically-significant qualities that define the canonical gospels.  

Carrier denied he had offered any such analogy:

"I don't use Apollonius of Tyana anywhere in On The Historicity of Jesus.  I don't use that as a parallel.  So imputing that to me is also incorrect." 

Fact-check:  I didn't say Carrier had offered the Apollonius analogy in his new book.  I said he had offered it during our earlier debate.  And he did.  The transcript from our first debate reads as follows:

"Now everything he says about the gospels is true of all kinds of faith literature in all religions.  He picks on certain kinds of examples that look different from the gospels. But that's special pleading.  He's picking certain examples through selection bias to make his argument. 

"There are other examples that look more like the gospels, for example, the Book of Tobit. Or Plutarch's biography of Romulus. Or Philostratus' biography of Apollonius of Tyana. There are a lot of these examples of faith literature that look more like the gospels.  And if you wanted me to sit down and research and find the most similar example, I could.  But it's not necessary. There's plenty of examples like this that have all the characteristics of the gospels."

So imputing the analogy to Carrier is spot-on. 

For clarification, I should however note that Carrier only claimed that Tobit, Apollonius, and Romulus "shared all the characteristics of the gospels."  He also compared Golden Ass to the gospels, but did not use that particular phrase in his comparison.  

Upshot: Richard Carrier had apparently forgotten his own past claim, or wished to disavow it.  Like other anti-Christian writers from the 3rd Century to Bart Ehrman in the 21st Century, he did indeed publicly make the egregious error of comparing Life of Apollonius of Tyana to the gospels, which I dismantle, point by delightful point, in Jesus is No Myth.   (I had, indeed, already disproved it in Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, which Richard could have read before our first debate.)  According to Carrier, "everything (Marshall) says about the gospels" is true of "all kinds of faith literature in all religions," including the three texts he named.  But my argument is that there are dozens of traits which demonstrate the gospels to be historically credible.  And I show in Jesus is No Myth that practically none of those traits can be found in the books Carrier once claimed "have all the characteristics of the gospels."

Far from being guilty of "selection bias," which is a serious problem with many analyses of the gospels, when I wrote Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus in 2005, I began by analyzing the gospels directly, finding that they share 50 characteristics.  I then analyzed some ancient books of different genres which have been compared to the gospels: the so-called "Gospel of Thomas," Life of Apollonius of TyanaThe Iliad, legends of Hercules, and Epic of Gilgamesh, among others.  For Jesus is No Myth, I whittled the list of traits defining the gospels down to 25 which also bear on their historicity.  I then added five traits from the work of other scholars, defending two of them against Richard Carrier's attacks.  

It was after I had developed these lists of traits which the gospels share, that I applied them to purported analogies.  I selected the texts for comparison, not by "special pleading" or cherry-picking as Carrier claimed, but mainly by reading scholars like Carrier, Ehrman, Ferguson, and the Jesus Seminar, and taking the analogies they repeatedly propose seriously enough to examine them systematically according to pre-set criteria.  How is that methodology illegitimate?  It is a common enough method.  To be thorough, I also read all the extant Gnostic literature I could find (boring as most of it was), along with the extant Greek novels, and Herodotus, in which Carrier also finds analogies to Jesus, as well as any other analogies I could find proposed.  

Significance: Maybe Richard Carrier has come to recognize now how inapt his earlier analogies were, and how easy it is to refute claims about such popular supposed "parallels" as Apollonius of Tyana.  (When debating Timothy McGrew, Bart Ehrman also set aside Apollonius, which McGrew told me he had prepared to respond to, and brought up an obscure 17th Century Polish rabbi, instead.  I also deal with that analogy, Baal Shem Tov, in Jesus is No Myth.)  

So perhaps Richard is slowly making progress.  Maybe after time goes by, he will come to realize how hopeless his present analogies are, too.   But one is troubled by how stridently Carrier makes such claims, then how merrily he dances off to even more far-fetched analogies, without a backward glance.  Even in that earlier debate, Carrier complained when I brought up an absurd analogy he had formerly offered between jumping fish in Herodotus and the resurrection of Jesus.

Anyway, the fact remains that no one can point to any "Jesus double" in the ancient world, or any fiction that shares the historical characteristics of the gospels.  I believe Richard Carrier serves the Christian community well by helping to demonstrate that, including when he asks us to forget analogies he has previously offered.  

Claim #2: To which Aesop was Carrier Referring?

My mistake, as I admit during the debate.  Carrier said "Life of Aesop," and I heard "Aesop's Fables."

Claim #3: Did Scholars Pan Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus?

Carrier having repeatedly dissed my scholarship (see below), I returned the favor by saying that while my books get universally good reviews from scholars, I had seen his On the Historicity of Jesus "panned by scholars on-line," including Butler University's James McGrath.

Carrier said no, McGrath was the only one, and Carrier had proven him a teller of lies:

"In point of fact, my book hasn't been panned by any mainstream qualified scholar . . . There's only one mainstream qualified scholar who has any relevant qualifications whose panned it and that's James McGrath."

Furthermore, McGrath was merely writing on his blog, his criticism had not been "peer-reviewed," and worse yet he was telling lies, which Carrier has demonstrated on HIS blog. 

Carrier described my comment as "extremely disingenuous" and "fallacious." 

Fact-check:  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  But actually, at least two other highly critical reviews of Carrier's book by scholars have appeared.  (Whether or not they are "mainstream" or "qualified" may be in the eye of the beholder.  And I didn't make any claims about "peer-reviewed" reviews, so that's just irrelevant.)   One is by Christina Petterson of the University of Newcastle, in the journal Relegare: Studies in Religion and Reception.  That makes my use of the plural accurate. 

The other scholar who panned Carrier's book is myself.  Carrier may not wish to count my review, or admit me as a "mainstream" or "qualified" scholar, but that is not up to him.  I hold roughly the same qualifications in this field as does Carrier himself. 

It is odd that Carrier keeps on objecting that such critiques have not been "peer reviewed."  Critical book reviews, even if only on a blog, ARE peer review.  I have peer-reviewed articles myself.  There is nothing magical about the review process.  It is unlikely that an editor would go to the trouble of reading the book he has asked someone else to review, to check to see if his review was sound!  Farming such work out is the point.  

And of course, Bart Ehrman has also criticized many of Carrier's arguments related to the historical Jesus, though so far as I know, never reviewed either of Carrier's recent books.   

Upshot: I have yet to see a warmly enthusiastic review of Carrier's book by a scholar, but perhaps one or two are also out there.   It interesting that he didn't name any. 

Claim #4: In what capacity did Carrier cite The Sophia of Jesus Christ?

I claimed that Carrier had compared The Wisdom of Jesus Christ to the gospels.  I did not claim, as with Tobit, Romulus, and Apollonius, that Carrier said the book shared "all the characteristics" of the gospels.  But I did suggest that the analogy was a ludicrous, and an act of desperation on the part of skeptics grasping ever-more wild analogies to the gospels:

"Dr. Carrier often recommends that people go back and read the literature that he's talking about.  I would make the same recommendation.  When you actually read, for example, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, which Carrier also compares to the gospels, it is basically empty prattling, inane material that is not interesting at all.  I recommend that listeners actually read the works that Carrier compares to the gospels.  And I think you'll laugh.  Apollonius of Tyana was, I believe, the original script for Saturday Night Live." 

Carrier denied using Sophia as I allegedly portrayed:

"I don't use that text as a parallel to the gospels in general.  I use that text as an example of how Christians fabricated literature.  I use it in a very different way from how David Marshall has characterized.  I find that very disengen-- "

(Justin interrupted part-way into that final word.) 

Fact-check: This issue is a little more complex, but Carrier's citation of Sophia bears important implications for the "Search for an Alternative Jesus."  Here are Carrier's own words in On the Historicity of Jesus, with my emphasis added to problematic phrases: 

"The peculiar thing about these two texts is that they pull away the curtain and reveal a key pathway by which Jesus tradition was invented . . .

"The Wisdom of Jesus Christ then takes direct quotations from this epistle and puts them on the lips of Jesus, and expands on them, to fabricate a post-resurrection narrative scene with dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.  So here we see whole sayings of Jesus being invented by fabricating a historical conversation (a Gospel-style narrative), borrowing things said by Eugnostos and representing them as things said by Jesus in conversation with his disciples.  This could be how much of the canonical Gospels were composed: things said by other people, in other texts, being 'lifted' and adapted and placed on the lips of Jesus.  Certainly these two texts proved that this was being done.  And we have no a priori reason to believe this isn't how it was always done."  (On the Historicity of Jesus, 387)

"If historical settings could be invented to make Jesus say what Eugnostos said, certainly historical settings could be invented to make Jesus say what he was believed to have said in revelations . . .

"So the question is: Are the Gospels fictional constructs, like the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and Plutarch's Life of Romulus?  In other words, are they just myths?  Or are they some kind of historical records we can rely on to prove Jesus existed?" (Ibid, 388, my emphasis added)

There are numerous problems with Carrier's arguments here:

(a) Carrier assumes there is something one can call "Jesus tradition," which equally describes the canonical gospels and Sophia, even though the former are orthodox Christian, the latter Gnostic.  But Sophia is not "Jesus tradition," it is not tradition at all.  It is just an instance of taking the name "Jesus" and a few other names, and fixing them into a Gnostic text to make it more popular, like paying Harrison Ford to advertise a Japanese beer. 

As Carrier said, that the "author" of Sophia has done this, is clear to everyone.  I write about Sophia and its Gnostic original in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'"

(b) Carrier also assumes there is one "curtain" behind which one can find both Christians and Gnostics working in the same cottage industry of manufacturing "Jesus tradition."  That assumes that Christians cared no more about historical truth than the Gnostics.  In theory that might be true, but one can't just assume it.   The two faiths were distinct "traditions," which relate to history in ways that appear, at least, very different.

(c) Carrier describes the result, in Sophia, as a "Gospel-style narrative."  But it is no such thing, which is why Carrier ought to have paid closer attention to my 30 traits.  Sophia contains dramatically un-Gospel-style narrative.  (Actually monologues punctuated by wooden prompts - a very common style in Gnostic writings, unlike anything in the gospels.)

(d) "This was being done."  Yes, but not by Christians, and probably not in the 1st Century.  We're talking about two different communities belonging to different faiths, times, and probably places.  It is anachronistic and question-begging to assume their identity.

(e) We do have numerous reasons "to believe that this isn't how it was always done," which I and other have given -- that is the point of the whole middle third of my book. 

True, Carrier uses this analogy for limited purposes, to argue that "Some people some time in the ancient world put words in Jesus' mouth, so maybe the evangelists did, too."  But in describing the resulting account as "Gospel-style narrative," and even in assuming that the real gospels could have been invented the same way, Carrier assume enough of an analogy to make his mythopoetic engine sputter and stop.  If Sophia is utterly unlike the canonical gospels, if there is no serious analogy in style, tone, teaching, or personification, then no, even Carrier's limited analogy doesn't work.

And I show here that there is no credible analogy whatsoever, aside from the mere name "Jesus" and those of few disciples.  When compared to the canonical gospels, Sophia fares worst of all texts which I have examined to date, even worse than Epic of Gilgamesh and Golden Ass: it shares not a single one of the thirty traits that mark the gospels as both special and historically-credible.

Suppose you stroll through a dry stream bed, and find two objects: a rounded rock, and William Paley's watch.   You ask, "How did this watch get here?"  And your companion, who happens to be Richard Carrier, replies, "Probably by the same process that brought this rock here!  Are they not both subject to the Law of Gravitation, after all?  Could not both have tumbled down from the bedrock and then been rounded by the stream?"

Well no.   Because what an object consists of, is evidence for how it came into being. 

The words of Jesus in the gospels astound, and utterly transform, the world.  Just today, I find Tom Wolfe, no slouch with words himself, writing in his fascinating The Kingdom of Words:

"This, from the Sermon on the Mount, is the most radical social and political doctrine every promulgated." (166)

Wolfe quoted three culturally-transcendent aphorisms of Jesus, which reflect Jesus' care for the marginalized -- two of the thirty traits that demonstrate that no mere Christian fanatic could have invented Jesus of Nazareth.  To quote some glib, commonplace Gnostic blather about pleromas, and claim you have explained the greatest teachings in the world, or even just how they came to be, is like thinking the pebble in the stream bed explains the watch, or Salvador Dali's ingenious painting, Melting Watch.  It is to argue oneself blind to the actual nature of the gospels.   Which I am afraid Richard Carrier is.   

And so while this point may seem a less straightforward error on Carrier's side than some of the others, it carries profound implications for his (mis) understanding of the gospels, and failure to find Jesus.  So my criticism, while somewhat vague, was just.

Claim #5: Are Most of the "Fingerprints" I describe Stylistic or Literary?

Carrier claimed that aside from a few traits that really do have to do with historicity, most of the thirty I cite are quite irrelevant to whether the gospels are telling the truth, and that no historian appeals to them.  Apart from a few like the Criteria of Embarrassment, the 30 characteristics which I argue in Jesus is No Myth support the historicity of the gospels, are mostly stylistic or literary.

"The criteria that David invents . . . almost all relate to stylistic and literary qualities . . . But those are not the criteria used by any actual historian." 

Fact-check:  Only seven of the 30 characteristics in I described in Jesus is No Myth are literary or stylistic.  Those seven traits are described in Chapter Ten: "Stylistic and Literary Qualities," pages 123-138.  That is just one of ten chapters in which I describe traits in the gospels which support their historicity.  So Carrier appears to have completely overlooked nine of the ten chapters at the heart of my book, before concluding that it has nothing to offer scholarship.

And Carrier gets that chapter wrong, too.  As I said, with every one of those seven traits, I explain why and to what degree it supports the historicity of the gospels.  Two of the traits, in fact, I admit are among the weakest such characteristics -- that the gospels are stories, and that they include parables.  But several others, I argue, citing various literary parallels and authorities, prove to powerfully support the historicity of the gospels.  

Not noticing those arguments, Carrier does nothing to challenge them.  

In addition, since I am an "actual historian," Carrier is, shall we say, mistaken to claim no "actual historian" uses my other criteria.  All of them are historically-relevant, for reasons I give in Jesus is No Myth.  Carrier wishes to simply declare them invalid, without bothering to overthrow my arguments, by simply declaring me a non-historian, and claiming that other historians never use them -- as if that mattered.  Am I not allowed to think for myself, and make a case for something new?

One is allowed to be original, in history.  One is even allowed to make points that Richard Carrier has never thought of, or read before.

Anyway, historians do use some of those traits -- and in the future, I hope will use them all.  Many are implicitly recognized by readers of the gospels with some outside expertise -- great novelists like Tolstoy or Wolfe, eminent psychologists like Robert Coles or M. Scott Peck, or ingenious literary scholars like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  This is why I think eclectic reading is an advantage, when one approaches the gospels.

Upshot:  It is ironic that Richard Carrier accuses me of dishonesty and shoddy scholarship, because I forgot about one of the works that he cited, out of hundreds, in more than a thousand pages of published writing on this subject.  Yet he appears to almost entirely overlook the entire middle third of my book, the heart and soul of my book and its central arguments: the 30 criteria which I claim demonstrate the historicity of the gospels.  (Or most of them.)  Nor did he lay a glove on the remaining seven stylistic arguments for the historicity of the gospels.  Maybe he didn't have time to deal with them seriously in a short debate.  Fair enough.  But one should resist the temptation to glibly dismiss arguments one cannot even accurately summarize, and appear not to have even read, while decrying "dishonesty" and failure to seriously engage relatively minor points in one's own work, by one's opponent. 

By contrast, I believe my critique goes to the heart of Carrier's thesis, and puts it to death.  In Jesus is No Myth, I describe numerous fatal problems with his Rank Raglan argument (though that didn't come up in our second debate), his characterization of the gospels as myth, his comparison of Acts of the Apostles to Greek novels, and many of his other chief arguments.  (All without once calling him a "liar.")

Claim #6 Is is true that I failed to interact with New Testament scholars, so my work is therefore of (at best) marginal scholarly importance?

Richard Carrier repeatedly faults me for not citing "peer-reviewed literature," both in general and in particular.  For example, I think on the traits that supposedly mark the gospels as mythology, Carrier complains:

"He doesn't deal with the peer-reviewed literature hardly at all on these issues and doesn't deal with a lot of the evidence regarding what these parallels consist of."

Fact-check: There is an element of truth to Carrier's premise here.  But his conclusion does not follow from it, because his understanding of how literary scholarship should be done is defective, or more accurately, he has forgotten one of his own correct historical principles.

It is true that in Jesus is No Myth, I cite a relative handful of modern New Testament scholars. Scanning all my published works, I find I have cited about 150 scholarly and (in a few cases) pseudo-scholarly works in this field.  But that number includes many leading scholars -- Bauckham, Blomberg, Borg, Crossan, Downing, Dunn, Ehrman, Fredriksen, Funk, Hays, Luke Johnson, King, Mack, Malherbe, Meier, Pagels, Robinson, Sander, Wink, Witherington, N.T. Wright -- whose work I have read in many cases at length and with care.  And of course I have read others without explicitly citing them.  So while I do not claim New Testament studies as my primary field (Blomberg notes that the expertise I bring from other fields greatly strengthens the value of my analysis, and I think he is right), neither am I sailing blind.

But Carrier overlooks the strength of my actual methodology. 

I strongly believe (and I seem to recall Carrier suggesting this himself in the past) that primary sources are the most important texts when evaluating ancient literary works.  Second most-valuable are parallel texts which help set primary sources in context.    

Dr. Wallace Marshall (no relation) grasped the methodology I follow in Jesus is No Myth much more readily: 

"By the time Marshall finishes his tour, you find yourself wondering how it could have ever occurred to scholars that either Philostratus' work, or his subject, Apollonius, could have been identified as legitimate parallels to the historical Jesus and the Gospels, and especially the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  You wonder the same thing after the chapter on "In Praise of Baal Shem Tov," the eighteenth-century Polish rabbi who's recently been brought forward as a contestant on what Marshall amusingly calls "Celebrity Apprentice Messiah" (262). And indeed, a point Marshall returns to again and again---and it's difficult to disagree with it after reading his book---is this: 'It is stunning that such are the closest parallels skeptics can find, after so epic a canvassing of ancient records' (214). He thinks skeptics have actually paid a tremendous compliment to Christianity by unwittingly underscoring this point.

"But the "compliment" only emerges clearly when one turns from the modern presentations of these ancient sources/figures, to the sources themselves.  Marshall shows how scholars like Matthew Ferguson and even Bart Ehrman (who comes in for a particularly sharp rebuke on p. 204) have been guilty of gross misrepresentation.  But it's impossible to do justice to this book in a review. The strength of "Jesus is No Myth" (which establishes far more than that bare historical fact) emerges from its wealth of comparative details and the insightful analysis Marshall applies to them.  I went away from this book freshly reminded of the importance of the maxim, 'Ad Fontes.'" (emphasis added)

Ad Fontes means "to the fountains" or "back to the sources."  That is indeed the thrust not only of Jesus is No Myth, but of most of my work.  I love to read old sources, and have consistently found that they speak for themselves far more clearly than many of their modern interpreters.  (Though I have also gained much from other interpreters -- even Richard Carrier's work contains some valuable insights.)  I argue that scholars like Carrier, even Bart Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar, often lose sight of the gospels themselves, in the face of their own theories.  C. S. Lewis said the same about an earlier generation of skeptical scholars in his wonderful essay, "Fernseed and Elephants:" 

"They claim to see fernseed, yet can't spot an elephant ten paces away in broad daylight."  

In increasingly Rube Goldbergian attempts to manipulate the historical data by means of fanciful tools dredged out of the dungeons of their ivory towers, and an ever-expanding repertoire of bogus "parallels" that few readers will ever check, they attempt to marginalize or debunk the earliest Christian texts.  But in the process, such skeptics often show they fail to clearly see the gospels for what they plainly are.  (And that is not "myth.") 

Reading is my gig.  I read incessantly, in several languages, on many subjects, and have done so for decades.  And frankly, I think the eclecticism of my approach is one of the strengths of Jesus is No Myth.  Of course I may prove wrong about some important points.  Perhaps one day better scholars will demonstrate my errors, to my embarrassment, but long-term good.  But Richard Carrier has not even begun to deal with the facts I uncover in Jesus is No Myth: he has not got within sight of them.

Meanwhile, I make no apologies for concentrating on original sources.  I believe that is the proper procedure -- though keeping modern scholarship in view as well, for correction and insight.  (Thus, two chapters draw out interesting and oft-overlooked traits within the gospels, as described by Tim and Lydia McGrew, and by N. T. Wright.)  

Thus the central part of Jesus is No Myth , which Carrier seems to have overlooked (see above, Claim #5) consists of a direct analysis of characteristics that the gospels share, which I argue demonstrate that they are telling the truth about Jesus' life.  The final part of this book analyzes the texts Carrier and others have cited as "parallel gospels" in detail.  It thus shows that when we set criteria reasonably in advance, and eschew ad hoc cherry-picking of criteria that catch our eye, no ancient novel is anything at all like the gospels.  Nor is any myth.  Nor any hagiography.  In short, C. S. Lewis ("the best-read man of his generation") was right when he wrote: 

"Nothing else in all literature was just like this.  Myths were like it in one way.  Histories were like it in another.  But nothing was simply like it.  And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato's Socrates or Boswell's Johnson . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world."   

The unique and luminous character of the gospels is obvious to many who read the gospels for the first time, as well.  Yet it is often overlooked by people who have blinded themselves with the various obfuscations I describe.  (And in earlier books on the Jesus Seminar and Gnostics -- again, concentrating on the original texts, which speak so eloquently for themselves.)  

Summary: Despite his snide remarks about my honesty and / or competence, then, it turns out that on five of six points on which we differ, and that I have been able to check so far, my claim was mostly correct.   Carrier is right about Aesop, as I admitted in the debate.  

I still have about twenty minutes of the debate to fact-check, and will try to do that tomorrow.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Good Riddance, Barack Obama (Reply to The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Times thinks Barack Obama made America better, and is sorry to see him go:


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"Thought we wouldn't recognize you in a beard, huh?"
"President Obama leaves office this week with a remarkable legacy already intact.  He exits with grace, eloquence and optimism, his administration unblemished by scandal.  The economy is humming for much of America.  The US standing in the world is vastly improved.  He bent the arc of history toward justice. . . . Obama had an unsurpassed capacity to encourage the better angels of our nature.  The contrast this week between his farewell and his successor's first news conference was bitter and stark. 

"The Seattle Times editorial board in 2008 was the first major newspaper to endorse Obama for the general election.   Despite being young, he had the intelligence, steady temperament and thoughtful policy ideas to lead.  He proved that, and more.  

"He will be sorely missed."

Not by me, he won't.  Nor by much of the rest of the world -- aside from the more astute of our enemies.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Epic Rap Battle: Jesus vs. Alexander the Great (And Matthew Ferguson)

Yesterday morning I received the following request from (I believe) a college student on the US East Coast named Nick:
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Hi David. You seem to have had a lot of interaction with Matthew Ferguson. I seem to find him more substantial than most internet atheists (at least better than some Patheos writers like Mehta and GiD), but it looks like you've identified some patterns that expose his lack of understanding. I was wondering if you wouldn't mind helping me, in an example like the one I've attached, what are some problems that you find? Thanks.
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True enough, Ferguson and I have had "a lot of interaction," unfortunately not always amicable!  But Nick is also right in describing Matthew's posts as generally "substantial."  Last I heard, Matthew was a doctoral candidate in the Classics, and he has read widely (if not always well, I have argued), in primary and in secondary literature.

I devote a chapter of my new book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, to one of Ferguson's on-line arguments, an analogy he draws between an ancient work called the Contest of Hesiod and Homer, and the canonical gospels.  Despite the sparks that have flowed between us, I find the epic search for parallel gospels on which he journeys in that article, interesting and useful.  If you find your neighbor digging up your pumpkin patch looking for his car keys, at the very least that shows the keys have gone missing, or he wouldn't go to such trouble!  And the fact that skeptical scholars keep looking for Jesus doubles in books like Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the "Gospel" of Thomas, and Contest of Hesiod and Homer, also helps demonstrate that genuine analogies to the historical Jesus are rare as double-horned unicorns, or they wouldn't keep looking for "Jesus" in all such bizarre places.

But Ferguson's on-line articles do show reading and some originality, and critics can be useful for their helpful challenges as well as salutary errors.

So let's analyze the essay Nick cites, which compares the evidence for Alexander the Great to that for Jesus of Nazareth.  While the title makes it sound like a neutral exercise in historiography, in itself is worth considering, in fact Ferguson's goal here is (as usual) to debunk arguments for the Christian faith.

This is a long article, so I shall quote and summarize when helpful, offering critical response along the way (twenty points altogether), and inserting ". . . " where I have cut.

"When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History,"

by Matthew Ferguson

One of the most misunderstood methodological issues that surrounds debates over the historical Jesus is the relevance of contemporary or early written sources to reconstructing a reliable biography of Jesus’ life. Very often comparisons are made to other historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, who (allegedly) do not have any contemporary sources for their lives, despite the reliability of our historical information about them.  Apologists thus argue that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus, (1) and the fact that all ancient writings that mention Jesus date to a gap of decades or centuries after his death, do not make the historical Jesus more obscure or less knowable than other famous figures from antiquity.
1.  The word "contemporary" here may be misleading.  When a young man dies, and his friends or their immediate disciples write biographies afterwards, are they "contemporaries?"  I would say yes.  That is the only relevant meaning of the word -- I was my father's "contemporary" in the sense that we shared more than 50 years on Earth, and therefore remember him well.  Richard Bauckham seems to have persuaded many top-notch scholars that the gospels may indeed have been written by Jesus' "contemporaries" in that sense, which is the only relevant sense.  I offer what I believe is copious evidence which confirms that his theory is right, in Jesus is No Myth. 
In which case, the premises of this article are shaky from the get-go.  
As I exposed in apologist Lee Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in The Case for Christ, this mistake is usually made by apologists confusing the earliest extant sources (those that have survived medieval textual transmission) with the earliest sources that were written (and available to subsequent historians) in antiquity. Strobel and Blomberg, for example, thought that Plutarch and Arrian (writing 400 years after Alexander) were the earliest biographers of his life [2], when actually the biographer Callisthenes of Olynthus was an eyewitness contemporary to Alexander, who traveled with him during his campaigns. Callisthenes’ biography is still partially preserved in fragments, which are read, studied, and used for information today by modern historians in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians. There were also several other contemporary and eyewitness historians who recorded Alexander’s deeds, such as Anaximenes of LampsacusAristobulus of CassandreiaEumenes, and Nearchus, among others. 
2. That Arrian used sources, is well-known and obvious -- he makes a point of it himself.  I am sure Craig Blomberg, who is an eminent New Testament scholar whom it is presumptuous to describe merely as an "apologist," is well aware of that fact.  In the linked article, Ferguson quotes him merely as saying:

“The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy . . .”
No doubt what Blomberg meant, was not the earliest biographies written, but the earliest now available.  That would make sense for Blomberg's point: Luke is far earlier than Arrian, which helps, but like Arrian, he too said he had many earlier sources.  So being written in, say, 80 AD, would not really be a problem - less so for Luke than for Arrian, since Luke could have tracked down eyewitnesses, and almost certainly did.  Advantage, Luke not Arrian.  More on Luke's strong epistemological advantage below.

I am not going to ask Dr. Blomberg if that is indeed what he meant, though he has usually been kind enough to answer my inquiries, because frankly that interpretation of his words is so obvious that I would be embarrassed to bring up the question.   A little more charity in reading would help, here.  
On the other hand, skeptics can often be overly skeptical in arguing that an absence of contemporary sources implies the non-existence of the person or event in question. For example, I do not consider it a good argument that Jesus did not exist, simply because nobody wrote about him until several decades after his death.(3)  The fact is that there were many poor and illiterate people in the ancient world that nobody wrote a single text about, but who still historically existed. Nevertheless, the absence of contemporary sources for Jesus does make the details of his life considerably more obscure, legendary, and irretrievable to historians.(4)  As such, the lack of contemporary or early written sources is not irrelevant to the debate of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus.
(3) I agree that the alleged lack of earlier sources for the gospels would be a very bad argument, not just because the logic is poor, but because the premise is unwarrented.  It is possible that the disciples took notes even as Jesus preached, say, the Sermon on the Mount.  Maybe that's the truth behind the the Q hypothesis.

More importantly, we're talking about human beings, not may flies.  Almost every human being over 50 readily recalls key events in their lives from "several decades" earlier.  As with every mobile revolutionary movement, Jesus' followers would have been mostly younger than him, and many would have been merely in their late 50s or 60s when the first gospels were written.  So not only would "the gospels were written decades after Jesus' death, so he never lived" be an awful historical argument, so would "so cannot have been intimate first-hand accounts."

I actually conducted the sort of biographical exercise that I conceive the evangelists as carrying out, after my father passed away several years ago.  Some of the events I researched had occurred not just 40 years earlier, as perhaps the case with Mark, but up to 70 years earlier.  I still found rich resources to draw upon.  I'll discuss that experience below.  
(4) Anyway, the alleged "absence of contemporary sources" is a highly questionable, and questioned, assumption, not a fact as Ferguson presents it.  I would call it an error.  
So, when do contemporary or early sources matter in ancient history? As discussed above, this is a complex methodological issue, so spelling out some of the main criteria, and explaining how they are relevant to the problems of later myth-making, is now in order.
The first distinction that should always be made in discussing the contemporary sources that exist for a particular person or event is between: 1) those sources that are still fully extant, and 2) those sources that no longer survive, but are still partially preserved in titles, quotations, and fragments:

1) The fact is that most of the literature that was produced in antiquity has been lost over time.  Ancient Greek and Latin literature was originally written on papyrus scrolls, which had a shelf life of about 300 years or so (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34).  As such, when copies were not made of a particular manuscript, it would gradually deteriorate over time until eventually being lost.  Classicists now estimate that approximately 95-99% of all literature produced in antiquity was lost in this way.

There was, however, a major exception to this trend: Christian texts, and particularly those of the New Testament.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, church monks took over the process of transmitting and preserving ancient texts.  Not surprisingly, these monks had a greater interest in preserving Christian texts over Pagan ones.  Accordingly Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars, pg. 34) explain: “There can be be little doubt that one of the major reasons for the loss of classical texts is that most Christians were not interested in reading them, and hence not enough new copies of the texts were made to ensure their survival in an age of war and destruction.”

Often apologists like to emphasize the fact that vastly more manuscripts of the New Testament have come down from antiquity than other ancient texts. I have already explained in my article “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” the methodological reasons why the larger quantity of manuscripts for the NT has absolutely nothing to do with the historical reliability of the NT.(5)  But furthermore, these apologists often ignore the historical context behind why more of these texts exist. The primary reason why is because more effort was put into copying and preserving Christian texts during the medieval period. 

(5) I tend to agree that the sheer number of (especially late) manuscripts is not as important as some people make it out to be.   What is far more impressive, is the number of very early sources for Jesus, and the sheer volume of early citations of the New Testament documents in the works of the church fathers.  We're talking about texts written centuries before anything that can be called the "medieval period."  

2) Despite the sample bias that exists in the surviving corpus of ancient texts that have come down from the medieval period, there was a much greater body of Pagan literature that existed in antiquity.  In the case of Alexander the Great, there was the Great Library of Alexandria, among other libraries, which preserved numerous biographies of Alexander’s life written by contemporary eyewitnesses.  These biographies could be accessed by later writers in antiquity, so that later historians (even when writing 400 years after Alexander’s death) did not have to rely on a process of telephone. (6)

(6)  True.  And neither, I show, did Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  In fact they couldn't have employed a method of transmission analogous to Telephone or Chinese Whispers, at least not on Bart Erhman's model, or Palestinian Jewish names would not have been preserved so accurately in the gospels as they are. (See Jesus is No Myth, 52-55)

As such, when it comes to the reliability of later biographers, such as Plutarch and Arrian, it is important to remember that they had access to these earlier works.  Moreover, unlike the authors of the Gospels, Plutarch and Arrian extensively quote and interact with their earlier materials, as I explain in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.”  For example, the biographer Plutarch, as historian J. Powell explains in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229), quotes no fewer than 24 earlier sources by name in his Life of Alexander.  In contrast, the Gospel of Luke does not provide the name of a single written source that the author consulted.  This is a vastly important issue to consider when assessing the reliability of these texts and their relation to contemporary evidence. (7)

(7)  No, it is not.  It is a trivial issue.  Both men had sources.  Luke was centuries closer to the facts, so some of his sources were probably disciples or relatives of Jesus.  Luke chose not to disclose his sources.  Neither did the authors of the Analects of Confucius, or much of Chinese history.  This has not ruined Chinese history, or rendered the Analects incredible. 

Perhaps, as Bauckham suggests, this is because the evangelists would have endangered sources to reveal their names.  And yet in Acts of the Apostles, hundreds of facts Luke mentions, have been confirmed in other ancient sources.  So his accuracy has been independently confirmed.  

Nor can we rely on a text simply because it claims sources.  That is, in fact, a favorite trope of ancient fiction.  Philostratus reveals his main source for Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a fellow-traveler of Apollonius' named Damis.  But Damis is probably a fictional character, from a city that no longer existed, inserted into the story to ask stock questions.  (As do "disciples" in the so-called "Gnostic gospels.")  Many ancient novels begin with the author meeting some random person on an island while gazing at a painting, or some such gambit, and then hearing the story that follows from that "source."  Ancient novelists thus frequently "revealed their (pretend) sources."  So naming sources does not make a work truthful, nor does not naming sources make a work incredible.  It is good practice, in modern scholarship, to name one's sources.  But even good early 20th Century scholarship was often much more lax about this than some bad 21st Century scholarship.  

A record of accuracy is just one of dozens of reasons I offer that Luke and his fellows should be trusted as credible biographers.   

Ferguson is making a mountain out of a molehill, and confusing a cloud for a lofty summit.  
So long as extensive fragments and information exist for lost works, such as the lost biographers of Alexander the Great, they can still be considered contemporary sources. There are, of course, Christian texts that also perished in antiquity (e.g. Papias of Hierapolis’ Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord), but none are as relevant to the historical Jesus as Alexander’s biographers are to the historical Alexander the Great. The reason why is that there are no known eyewitness, contemporary sources of the same caliber as Callisthenes of Olynthus that ever existed for Jesus — lost, fragmentary, or otherwise. (8) 
(8) Ferguson ought to at least admit here that some very eminent scholars disagree, believing that Mark and John, at least, are themselves eyewitness or next to eyewitness sources.  Again, I refer him to Bauckham's book, and to warm endorsements on the back cover from N. T. Wright, James Dunn, Graham Stanton, and Martin Hengel -- all highly accomplished scholars.  And Luke and perhaps Matthew had every opportunity to interact with such sources -- as the gospels reveal in numerous subtle ways, as I show they almost certainly did.  
(Cut, Ferguson's attack on Q, for which I carry no water.) 

3) The lost biographies of Alexander would have been much larger and substantive works than anything that existed for Jesus.  Alexander’s biographies were extensive historical works that covered in detail his different campaigns and actions. These works were edited and made available in libraries, where later historians could have access to them.  It is not like there was some great library that existed in Galilee or Jerusalem for Jesus (as there was a great library for Alexander at Alexandria), where the later Gospel authors could go to interact with extensive contemporary histories written during Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus and his companions were probably all mostly illiterate (discussed further here) . . . (9) 

9.  I am not sure what "all mostly illiterate" means.  Does he mean all of the disciples could read just a little?  

But the literacy of Jesus' first followers is a contentious issue, much-debated by scholars.  And even if (say) only 5% of Jewish males at the time could read and write, and some scholars think many more could, those who gravitated to cities, like Jesus' disciples, would have more likely to learn to read.  Then surely the leaders of the early church, entrusted to defend a faith vouchsafed through the Greek Septuagint, would have made learning to read Greek a priority -- the alphabet only takes an hour or two -- so they could read the Scriptures for themselves.  After all, they weren't earning their living from fishing, anymore.  

Not that it matters, since, again, the gospels were written within the plausible life-span of Jesus' first followers.  Most would have been younger than him, as in every mobile revolutionary movement, and many would have survived into the 70s, even 80s.  The evangelists need not have depended on written sources -- though Luke says many were already available, and there is no reason on Earth to disbelieve him.  (Most scholars find that claim very credible.)  

Furthermore, what the disciples lacked (presumably) in libraries, they would have more than made up for in first-hand sources.  

"The Gospel According to
John Marshall"
When I wrote my mini-biography of my father, I did check a few internet sources, such as on the missile base where my uncle once worked, and the barracks in Eritrea where I think Dad served while in the military.  But far more important were family connections.  I talked with his surviving brother and two sisters, church friends, and of course Mom, among other sources.  And some of the stories they told me went back 70 years or more.  (Including details about dogs, gardens, alleged hauntings, and encounters with angry women!)  Dad's older brother Stan (who is still spry) maintained a lucid memory of events back to the world war era and even before, which could often be confirmed from other oral sources.  

Hardly a scrap of "oral tradition" was involved -- this was almost all first-hand testimony.  And some of it corresponded, in time, to recording memories of Jesus' ministry as late as 100 or even 105 AD.

The early Christian church was a tight-knit and still fairly small community.   I don't even think Luke's job of finding sources would have been that difficult!

Such living, first-hand eyewitnesses, whom you can ask questions, are better than any book. 
So, not only do contemporary written sources exist for Alexander the Great (even ignoring archeological evidence, which is also vastly more abundant for Alexander than Jesus), but they are also better in every conceivable way than the written sources that exist for Jesus — both extant or lost.  The apologist will now respond that we should not expect there to be better evidence for Jesus.  (10)  After all, Alexander the Great was a wealthy politician surrounded by literate people, who even had a library dedicated to him in Alexandria. J esus, in contrast, was a poor itinerant prophet, who was surrounded by mostly illiterate people, and who did not receive the same public honors after his death. True.  But this consideration does not eliminate the relevance of contemporary sources . . . 
(10) This "apologist" would add, "That's why it is so remarkable and fortunate that so many early sources of unexcelled quality do, in fact, exist for Jesus of Nazareth."

Arrian is good.  Plutarch a little more doubtful, at times.  The basic outline of Alexander's life, career, and death is fairly well-known.  Arrian himself claims that there were more biographies of Alexander than "of any other man."  But these accounts lack many of the history-confirming qualities I describe within the gospels, and which Ferguson overlooks. 
(Cut, Ferguson's introduction to Arguments from Silence)
In the case of the historical Jesus, arguments from silence based on a lack of contemporary or corroborating evidence are sometimes valid and sometimes not.  When it comes to the Jesus of the Gospels, who allegedly had the entire Earth go dark at his crucifixion,(11)  tore the curtain in the Jewish Temple in twain, and then flew into space in broad daylight (12), these arguments are valid.  It is very obvious that such tall tales were later embellishments and exaggerations of Jesus, and it is not surprising that not a single contemporary knows anything of these events (as I explain here).  When it comes to a more minimal, obscure historical Jesus, however, these arguments are not valid.  If Jesus was nothing more than an obscure peasant, then we should not necessarily expect that anything contemporary would have been written about him.  This is why such arguments from silence do not incline me to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus . . . 
(11) Frequently Matthew uses the word "ge" to mean, not "the world" but "this land." (2:6, 2: 20-21, 4: 15, 9:26, 9:31, etc)  So why does Ferguson assume, without argument, that in this verse he could only have meant "the entire Earth?"  Did Matthew even claim to know what people in India or Spain had seen?  Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.  
(12) "Flying into space in broad daylight," if that is what occurred, would not of course have been noted by anyone who didn't happen to be around Jesus at the time.  I could fly into space right now, and history would completely miss that thrilling ride.  Similarly, if Jesus left Earth in some surprising manner during a hiking trip with his disciples (has Matthew ever gone hiking?  Mountains are usually solitary places!), there would be no reason to expect an account of that to come down to us, except in the manner that it has in fact come down. 
So it is curious that Ferguson picks three examples of happenings in the gospels that ought to have been broadly known if they really occurred, and gets two of them obviously wrong.  Which illustrates the hazards of "arguments from silence."  
Would Josephus have recorded the renting of the curtain?  Would he have heard of it, or if he had, ascribed it to a gust of wind or shoddy knitting?  The Jesuits in China recorded how an earthquake in the capital saved one of their number from possible execution.  It would be interesting to see how Chinese historians record that incident.  

Still, I am inclined to agree with Ferguson that at the end of his gospel, Matthew (who I believe was most distant from Jesus of all the evangelists) may indeed have included a rumor or two that he had not verified.  Ancient historians and biographers often did mention rumors, even while recognizing the distinction between such stories and the main events they recorded.  (Herodotus could be almost schizophrenic in his duel-brain approach to historiography.)  
None of this implies that Jesus did not exist.  It implies that we are very limited in what we can know with any certainty about the historical Jesus.  We will always have more historical information for famous generals and emperors who changed the world and made a large footprint on contemporary records.  We will also always know less about obscure people who never had such an impact. Because of this, modern historians are able to reconstruct far more reliable biographies for people like Alexander the Great and Tiberius Caesar.  The details of these two men’s lives are far less obscure to history.  Jesus just happened to be someone of less public prominence, so that we have considerably less reliable information about him.

As such, appeals to a lack of contemporary or early sources are valid when arguing that such a lack impairs our ability to know about the person or event in question.  We may never expect to have such evidence, since it may have never been produced.  But it still affects what we can know about the past, and it is primarily this second form of argument that is relevant to why there is little reliable historical evidence for Jesus.(13)

(13) All this, of course, assumes that the gospels do not contain a great deal of accurate information about Jesus, which is precisely what I believe I demonstrate in the new book -- not that others haven't done so already.  

It should also be noted, however, that the evidence for Jesus is not only less than that for famous politicians.  There are other less powerful and wealthy figures from antiquity that are still considerably better attested than Jesus.  For example, the historical Socrates, who lived in 5th century BCE Athens (a time and region far more literate than Galilee in the 1st century CE), is a figure who, like Jesus, wrote none of his own works and is only known through the writings of others.  However, we possess a number of contemporary, eyewitness sources for Socrates’ life, such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon (among other fragmentary sources).  The evidence for the historical Socrates is thus far greater than that of the historical Jesus. (14)  So, Jesus is not just more obscure than politicians, but also other figures from antiquity. This does not at all imply that Jesus did not exist, but it should be taken into consideration when apologists exaggerate the amount of historical evidence that exists for Jesus. 

(14) On the contrary, I think we may learn more about Jesus from the gospels, than we can about Plato from Aristophanes and Plato, at least.  (I have read less of Xenophon.)  

Aristophanes' The Clouds is a sophomoric lampooning of the great teacher.  It is highly unrealistic and not I think terribly clever, with silly fart jokes and a caricature of Socrates that I find almost unrecognizable compared to Plato and Xenophon.   The play came in third in the City Dionysia festival.  His The Frogs also contains slap-stick, but is better-done, in my opinion, and also in the opinion of his fellow-citizens, who awarded it first prize.  

Plato no doubt comes much closer to describing the "real" Socrates.  Indeed C. S. Lewis compares his portrait of Socrates to the gospels, finding them both highly credible.  But then Plato often seems to insert his own philosophy into Socrates' mouth, which I don't believe the evangelists often do.  (For reasons I give throughout the middle section of Jesus is No Myth.
The reason why historians look for contemporary or early sources is because the details of the past can be obscured over time and replaced by later speculation and myth-making. Early sources closer to the event are thus less likely to be contaminated by a later process of telephone. In the case of both Alexander the Great and Jesus, legendary accounts of their lives began to circulate only a few decades after their deaths.  However, as Kris Komarnitsky explains in “Myth Growth Rates in the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” the pace of legendary development took place at a considerably more rapid pace for Jesus, because of a lack of public interest and records for Jesus’ life. Whereas for Alexander the Great, the historical core of his biography was far better preserved through all of the various records that were produced during his kingship . .  (15)
(15) I don't find Komarnitsky's argument very convincing.  But it would be too much to take that article on here, as well.  Enough to say, the gospels do not look like any "legend" or "myth" that skeptics have yet produced.  C. S. Lewis, who ate up myth and legend like my dog eats popcorn, said "not one" of them is like the Gospel of John.  Again, I think my analysis in Jesus is No Myth and earlier books helps to more objectively demonstrate that truth.  
As such, when dealing with the historical Jesus of Galilee versus the historical Alexander the Great, we not only have less substantial sources for Jesus (anonymous hagiographies) than Alexander (eyewitness historians) (16)
(16)  In Jesus is No Myth, again, I dedicate two chapters to the claim that the gospels should be described as "hagiography," including one concrete parallel Ferguson offers, The Contest of Hesiod and Homer.

To put it mildly, the analogy does not pass muster.  The gospels are like no hagiography ever written, and the more skeptics offer such tom-fool and easily-refuted analogies, the more deeply the utter uniqueness of the gospels will be driven home.  
but also a considerably bigger problem of legendary development contaminating the sources for Jesus that we even possess.  This makes reconstructing the details of the historical Jesus’ life a considerably greater problem than reconstructing the historical Alexander.  This is why there has been a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in Biblical Studies, but no such problem for Classicists reconstructing the life of Alexander. (17)  The two historical situations are simply not the same . . . 
(17)  True, the "epic rap battle" between Jesus and Alexander as historical figures is indeed unequal.  But I disagree about who wins that battle.  Our sources for Jesus, despite his relative obscurity, seem closer to the facts than are our surviving sources for Alexander, for one thing.  Luke would have had opportunities to examine witnesses that either Arrian or Plutarch could only have dreamed of having.  And few of the dozens of telling internal evidences I cite, can I think be applied to Alexander.  Though I believe Arrian got most of his story right -- he was a judicious historian, like Luke, and I don't want to take anything away from him!  (Arrian's account of the noble Stoic philosopher Epictetus is also fascinating, while I am blurbing his books!)    
But there is another, far more important, difference between Jesus and Alexander that I believe better explains why biographies of the former are disputed so much more than those of the latter: relevance.   
If the gospels are false, I may as well lose my religion, and even my purpose in life.  
If the gospels are true, Matthew Ferguson may need to repent, change his focus for living, and apologize for misleading his blog readers!  
In Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, I described a dozen egregious errors that the intelligent, well-read scholars who participated in that conclave of modern Jesus scholars regularly committed.

In The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,' I argued that eminent scholars like Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Erhman, systematically overlooked or covered up the most flagrantly obvious facts about the gnostic works they touted.  
In Jesus is No Myth, I demonstrate that the many parallels skeptical scholars have proposed for the gospels, are simply laughable, both at a first glance (for readers with sense, including a sense of humor!), and also when carefully examined according to dozens of more objective, preset criteria.

So I know for a fact that there is something wrong with the vision of modern secularist Jesus scholars. "They lack literary judgement," as C. S. Lewis said of similar scholars in his day: "They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight," 
What else could cause so eminent a scholar as Bart Ehrman, who has been reading the gospels all his adult life, to make such absurd mistakes as those I demonstrate here?  (And in that little article, I'm just getting warmed up!)  
Why does an equally-clever, if less-informed, Reza Aslan try so hard to make Jesus out to be a violent revolutionary like Mohammed, in the face of masses of contrary evidence?
A bit of the same unease, perhaps, that caused Jesus' contemporaries to worry: 
"If he goes on like this, the Romans will come and take away our kingdom." 

Three more points.  
Critical historians who have assessed the reliability of the sources for Jesus have identified 6 primary sources that are most relevant to reconstructing the life of Jesus . . . 

5-6) The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, which are the least reliable. (18) Despite the fact that they offer a considerably different portrait of Jesus than the Synoptic Gospels, scholars find little reliable information in these sources that is not already found in the sources above.  These sources date from the late 1st century CE to the early 2nd century CE, about sixty to a hundred years after the life of Jesus . . . 
(18) Comparing John and Thomas is another one of those silly errors that ought to discredit any scholar who makes it.  (Yes, I do mean Elaine Pagels!)  I refuted this in both Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels."  
The two works could hardly be more different.  Thomas isn't even a gospel, because it is not a story, and therefore cannot be euangelion, "good news."  It is a pile of loose sand, 114 sayings, some of which are borrowed from the real gospels, while others derive from Gnosticism.  None of those sayings are convincing, sound much like Jesus, or are particular impressive.  Even the Jesus Seminar could only convince itself two "new" sayings in Thomas were actually from Jesus, and they needed to vote three times (and apparently get harranged a bit) to do that!  
By contrast, I concur with Bauckham's view that John does derive from one of Jesus' first followers.  John may have reformulated some of Jesus' teaching, but he also transmits a great deal of first-hand reminiscence that is best explained as being from the Master himself.  
The details of Jesus’ life that are agreed upon by a consensus of modern scholars (19) include:
  • Jesus was a historical Jew who probably lived in the early 1st century CE.
  • Jesus was probably a native of Galilee.
  • Jesus probably had a brother named James (referenced in Gal. 1:19), a father named Joseph, and a mother named Mary.
  • Jesus was likely baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus, like John, was probably an apocalyptic prophet who taught about a coming Kingdom of God (this theory was first developed by Albert Schweitzer, and has been expanded by modern scholars, such as Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman).
  • Jesus’ ministry got him into trouble with either the Roman or Jewish authorities (or both) at Jerusalem.
  • Jesus was executed by crucifixion, probably when Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea (26-36 CE).
  • Within a couple years after Jesus’ death, some people believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead (as is evidence by the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7, which most scholars date to 2-5 years after the death of Jesus. I discuss this creed and its relevance further here) . . . 
(19) I have no great problem with this list as a description of the "consensus" among New Testament scholars.  It appears, at first glance, similar to one EP Sanders proposed.  But as implied above, a "consensus" among scholars needs to include atheists, agnostics, and Jews, as well perhaps as Hindus and Buddhists.  By definition, such a "scholarly consensus" could not include any essential Christian beliefs about Jesus, such as the reality of his miracles.  Non-Christians would exercise veto power on any specifically Christian affirmation about Jesus, or there would be no consensus.  And if you get rid of Jesus' miracles, you also have to get rid of most of Jesus' sayings, which would be harder to remember than, say, seeing Jesus raise a dead girl.  (Though the Jesus Seminar couldn't help recognize that Jesus' sayings are, in fact, highly memorable and cohere with who he is and how he acted, and thus affirm that many of them are probably historical - despite a dozen hostile and wrong presuppositions which they affirm.)   

This theory is developed more by Kris Komarnitsky in “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins,” who draws parallels with other messianic movements after the death of their messiah figure, most notably those of the failed Jewish messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Likewise, NT scholar Bart Ehrman has developed a theory in How Jesus Became God that goes all the way from the historical Jesus’ teachings, to his death, to the belief in his resurrection, and to Jesus’ eventual deification, which can explain all of these developments in purely natural terms. Even mainstream Christian scholars, such as Dale Allison in Resurrecting Jesus, acknowledge that there are at least plausible theories for how Christianity could have emerged due to purely natural causes.  As such, the belief in Jesus’ resurrection hardly required an actual miracle to emerge.  It should also be noted that one can accept all of the minimal historical details of Jesus outlined above, and still walk away reasonably unconvinced of the resurrection of Jesus and the core claims of Christianity.  Many NT scholars and former Christians — such as Bart Ehrman, Hector Avalos, and Robert Price — have done so.  The evidence for Jesus is not extraordinary, despite apologetic exaggerations to the contrary. Nevertheless, there is a limited degree of evidence for the historical Jesus, and such evidence points towards the obscure, itinerant apocalyptic prophet described above. This figure, of course, was exaggerated and embellished by legendary accounts since not long after the time of his death. Such exaggerations inspired the legendary figure that is now worshiped in modern Christianity today. That Jesus, however, who is prayed to and worshiped in church, has not been proven by historical evidence. The Jesus of faith is a matter of faith, and the Jesus of history is only an obscure figure of the past, most of whose life details have been lost today. (20) 

(20) Of course I disagree with almost everything in this paragraph -- including the notion that Hector Avalos is a credible New Testament scholar.  (I no longer have much use for Erhman's work, either, for reasons I have given in detail in both cases elsewhere on this site.  And while I personally like the eccentric Price, he's hardly mainstream.)  

I would respectfully disagree with Allison in supposing there are plausible materialistic theories for how Christianity could have emerged without miracles.   And of course I beg to differ whenever Ferguson, or anyone else, dismisses the gospels as good historical sources.  

I think historical evidence strongly supports the gospel accounts.  But curiously, one has to wonder from this article whether Ferguson has even considered that evidence.  One finds no references to the work of N. T. Wright, or (fairly) Craig Blomberg, or Richard Bauckham, among others.  

In addition, as fun as these "just so" stories may be, these allegedly "plausible theories for how Christianity could have emerged due to purely natural causes," what is missing is any serious parallel to Jesus.  I have shown, in my three books now on the subject, that there are no credible parallels to Jesus in the ancient Greco-Roman world.  I have found none in China, either, though I describe a few similarities between the gospels and the Analects of Confucius.  Nor does anyone seem to have found a remotely valid "parallel Jesus" in India.  
If natural causes created one Jesus, why has it never created anyone remotely like him? 

Alexander also remains a striking figure, and comes across as a distinct character in Arrian and Plutarch alike: his strategic boldness and genius, love of good books, drunken rages, superstition and intellectual curiosity, his ambivalent relation with his mother, with Aristotle, with the city of Athens.   He yet pales in comparison to Jesus, and I think the world knows that.