"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

A few months back I wrote a post about errors in the gospels.  I’ve been meaning to write more on the topic but I never got around to it, which is hardly surprising given how much other fun stuff I’ve had to write about.  However, the topic was brought back to my attention last week in an internet discussion.  I had  once again encountered a vociferous online atheist who claimed to have rock-solid evidence that the gospels were false.  His evidence was this: that if they were true, then secular historians would have written about Jesus as well.  So how shall we respond to this?

Firstly, there were no secular historians in the first century A.D.  There was no secularism at that time; the concept of a viewpoint independent from religion had not been invented yet.  (I’ll write more on that topic later.)  This may be a minor point but it’s important to note why ancient historians wrote what they did.  Consider Josephus, whose books Antiquities and Jewish War give us the best historical records of Palestine in the first century.  Josephus was Jewish.  He wrote with the intention of defending and promoting Jewish interests.

And what about historians other than Josephus?  There weren’t any.

This seems to surprise some people, particularly among the atheists.  They seem to have the idea that a large swarm of historians was carefully recording stuff that was happening in Palestine from 30 to 33 A.D.  (Christ’s ministry probably took place in those years.)  They are incorrect.  We have exactly two written sources from the first century for things taking place in Palestine around that time.  Those two sources are the New Testament and the works of Josephus.  There are no others.  It is possible that other historians existed, but their works have not survived.  So if the gospels are true, Josephus is the only non-biblical source that we’d expect to say anything about the life of Jesus.

And Josephus does that, of course.  Antiquities, his sweeping history of the Jews through the first century, contains a paragraph detailing the life of Jesus, as well as a short mention of Jesus’ brother James.  In the past some claimed that these passages were forgeries inserted by later Christian authors.  However, in recent years scholarly opinion has turned decidedly against this thesis.  The forgery claim has withered.  I won’t bother giving all the evidence in this debate, but will instead provide the following link for those who want to see it: Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?

So that settles the issue, right?  Well, actually not.  My atheist naysayers has further complaints.  After all, if the things the gospels said were actually true, Josephus would surely have written more than a paragraph about them.  For some reason, this fellow had a fixation on the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod as described in Matthew 2:16-18.  If this event had occurred, the argument goes, ” it would have been the most spectacular event in Herod’s reign”.  That Josephus wouldn’t mention it is “impossible”, “unbelievable”, and “inconceivable”.  (You keep using that word, but I don’t think…)

Actually Jospehus not covering the Slaughter of the Innocents is quite possible, believable, and conceivable.  Josephus, like other ancient historians, wrote about powerful people and major events.  He did not write about things that affected only a town of peasants.  In his mind, that was not history and wasn’t worth recording.  Moreover, slaughters were frequent in those days.  The Roman Empire ruled by violence.  They killed people, in numbers small or large, in war or in peacetime, without any hesitation.  They did not need a reason to do it; they just did it.   So there was nothing irregular about the Slaughter of the Innocents that would demand that Josephus take note of it.

To wrap up, for comic relief, I offer Chesterton’s take on the Slaughter of the Innocents:

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Comments on: "Reliability of the Gospels: Secular historians (with bonus Chesterton!)" (2)

  1. I just discovered your blog, and quite like it.

    For the record, the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is also recounted by the “Protevangelium of James”, which probably represents and independent source drawing on authentic tradition (the ‘Protevangelium” account of the event is a little different than Matthew and adds more detail). Also, I’d disagree that James was the literal ‘brother’ of Jesus, he was more likely a cousin (some alternatively hold that he was a step brother from Joseph’s previous marriage).

    Re: We have exactly two written sources from the first century for things taking place in Palestine around that time

    Well, we also have the early patristic writings like 1 Clement and Barnabas, and maybe a couple of the Apocrypha (and I’ve heard it said that the book called 2 Esdras, which you can find in ecumenical bibles, was probably written around 100 AD), but of course none of them was intended as an exhaustive historical account, even to the extent that the Gospels are.

    • Hi Hector. Thank you for alerting me to those other sources. I know very little about non-canonical works from the early church, but it’s on my list of topics to study.

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