This kind of argument has been tried again and again and again. I’ve discussed every one. (See Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?) It’s always of this form:
P1. We should not doubt [x] existed.
P2. The evidence for Jesus is better than for [x].
P3. The same standards of evidence should apply to both.
C. Therefore, we should not doubt Jesus existed.
The argument is valid. Which is why it’s so attractive. But unfortunately it’s unsound. One or more of the premises is always false. Indeed, literally, always one of these premises must be false. Because as soon as you get P2 to be true, P1 is false; and every time you get P1 to be true, P2 is false. Sometimes P1 is indeed false (e.g. Homer, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, might indeed all be doubtable; see my concluding remarks). But usually, people pick a good [x] precisely because it seems so obviously to establish P1 is true. The problem is, any [x] you pick that clearly makes P1 true, often renders both P2 and P3 false, and always renders P2 false. Which reveals something about what we actually need as historians to be sure of someone’s past existence.
Let’s see why…
Hannibal Wasn’t a Mythical Savior Deity…
Once again, just like all those other historical figures people have tried this argument with (from Alexander the Great to Spartacus), when it comes to determining the probability of historicity, Hannibal differs from Jesus in two respects: (1) he wasn’t a worshiped savior deity right out the gate, nor was he highly and rapidly mythologized to the exclusion of all other accounts of him, nor was he constructed in the form of many a similar non-historical hero before him; and (2) we have way better evidence for Hannibal than for Jesus.
That first point bears repeating. Read my fuller explanation in my treatment of Spartacus, which concludes with the point:
Ordinary people are not usually mythical. There is little reason to have made them up or to have Euhemerized them… Ordinary people are not worshiped celestial gods with astonishing supernatural powers and suspiciously convenient names… , rapidly surrounded by wildly egregious myths, to serve as reified authorities for promoting certain cultural and religious norms. One must heed that distinction.
All mainstream scholars agree Jesus as demigod is a mythical savior deity. They all agree the Gospels are myths about him. They simply conclude that those myths contain some kernels of fact, and that Jesus was originally not a flying, magic-wielding supergod. But they agree the super-Jesus, the only Jesus about whom we have any accounts at all, didn’t exist. They think some mundane Jesus did, who was dressed up with those legends and beliefs later. But that still admits he belongs to a reference class that the Hannibals of the world do not: that of mythically-attested savior gods who speak to their followers in dreams and visions. So we actually need more evidence for Jesus than we have for Hannibal, to be sure Jesus isn’t just like all other mythical savior gods, who also had amazing stories about them set on earth history, and who also appeared to people in dreams and visions—yet never plausibly existed.
In OHJ I start only with the first fact, his scale of mythification; I add in the evidence of his revelatory status later. But that can be done on its own to update his prior. And it will not update it to a higher probability. Comparing any two sets, “mythified superheroes who aren’t commonly met in visions” and “mythified superheroes who are only recorded as having been met in visions in the earliest literature about them,” obviously fewer members of the latter set will turn out to be historical; not more. And already, in the general set of just “mythified superheroes” (which includes both of those sets), most members don’t turn out to be historical, by any credible determination. But Hannibal isn’t in such a set.
So already, before we even look at the evidence, Hannibal just isn’t a doubtful personage in the way Jesus is.
So the second point matters all the more…
Hannibal Is Far Better Attested Than Jesus…
The vast depth, quality, and range of evidence for Hannibal is so wildly unlike what we have for Jesus I’m astonished anyone would even attempt this one. But you can just compare works on the historical Jesus with works on the historical Hannibal to get a feel for the stark difference, e.g. Dexter Hoyos, Hannibal’s Dynasty (2005); John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps (2001); Serge Lancel, Hannibal (1999); and J.F. Lazenby, Hannibal’s War (1998). Hannibal fought his famous war with Rome down to 201 B.C. (called the Second Punic War) and eventually died around 182 BC. Here is the evidence we have of his historicity…
Archaeology corroborates the existence of Hannibal in a number of indirect ways (the flow of precious metals, excavated camps and materiel), but we’d like to get right to the man himself. Because anyone could have led the Carthaginian armies into Spain and Italy. Archaeology confirms his existence in two direct ways: (1) we have coins he himself struck, with his face on them (in the guise of Hercules-Melqart) and on the other side symbols befitting him, such as the war elephants he famously employed, and depictions of his conquest of the Alps (see: M. McMenamin, “Depiction of the Alps on Punic Coins from Campania, Italy,” Numismatics International Bulletin 41.1-2 : 30–33); and (2) we have a marble bust of him, probably carved from life.
These two evidences are not as strong an evidence, though, as their counterparts for Alexander or the Caesars, as neither has his name on them. But they match each other, and their historical date and geographical locations match Hannibal’s campaigns. So they attest to some singular man in that role. That’s corroboratory evidence. Still unlike anything we have for Jesus. But even better is a Roman inscription, the epitaph of Quintus Fabius Maximus, who fought Hannibal. Carved in stone at his death in 205 B.C., it boasts of his victories against Hannibal, by name (e.g. “he besieged and recaptured Tarentum and the strong-hold of Hannibal,” L’Année Epigraphique 1954, no. 216). We also have the epitaph of Felsnas Larth, inhabitant of Capua, Italy, who was one of the soldiers of Hannibal, and who mentions his service under him, by name, in the Etruscan language (see: A.J. Pfiffig, “Eine Nennung Hannibals in einer Inschrift des 2. Jahrhunderts v. Ch. aus Tarquinia,” Studi Etruschi 35 : 659-63). We definitely don’t have marble inscriptions carved by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, naming him and attesting to his activity. Not even one. Much less two.
And then we get to textual evidence. And that’s pretty good, too.
First, we have the writings of Polybius, who was a contemporary of Hannibal (in his late teens or early twenties by the time Hannibal died), and the personal friend of the family of Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who fought and defeated Hannibal. He had access to multiple eyewitness sources to interview for his accounts. Not just the sons and grandsons of Africanus, but other officers and politicians of the era who prosecuted and documented the war (including Carthaginians, as Polybius operated as an embassador to Carthage just a few decades after Hannibal’s death). For example, Polybius mentions interviewing King Massinissa, a Roman ally who fought Hannibal, and Gaius Laelius, personal friend and companion of Africanus during the war, and thus himself an eyewitness to the historicity of Hannibal. Likewise, Polybius cites and uses eyewitness textual sources, like Scipio Africanus’s letter to King Philip V of Macedon about his interactions with Hannibal, and Polybius’s citation and use of a bronze inscription erected by Hannibal himself in the course of the war (Histories 3.33.5-18). We don’t have anything like this for Jesus: a contemporary historian researching a critical account of him, within forty years of his death, with direct access to named eyewitnesses and explicitly-cited eyewitness documentary and textual sources.
Moreover, Polybius explicitly tells us his preferred method: of only trusting eyewitness sources he interviewed himself or whose own documents or memoirs he read, and using them critically rather than gullibly (see Kenneth Sacks, Polybius on the Writing of History). We have no source on Jesus telling us what sources they had or how they used them. (The one anonymous exception in the Gospel of John is a fake: OHJ, Ch. 10.7.)
This is true even of the next historian whose account of the war mostly survives, Livy. Though yet another hundred years after Polybius, Livy nevertheless consulted and quoted state documents on the Hannibalic war, including the treaty signed with the Carthaginians that ended the war, which mentions Hannibal several times (including a specific clause requiring his surrender: Livy, From the Founding of the City 37-38, cf. Polybius, Histories 21.42). We have nothing like this for Jesus.
Livy and other authors also had and used eyewitness literary sources on Hannibal, and accordingly we have descriptions of these authors and what they wrote and often direct quotations and citations of their lost works. This includes the Roman politician and orator Cato the Elder. And the Roman historian Fabius Pictor. Both lived during and wrote about Hannibal’s war. Sosylus of Lacedaemon, a traveling companion of Hannibal, also wrote an extensive account of his wars. Likewise Silenus of Caleacte. And Lucius Cincius Alimentus was a Roman war prisoner who dined with Hannibal for years in captivity, and then wrote of his experiences after the war in his Annals. And possibly the historian Gaius Acilius, who certainly wrote a researched account of the Hannibalic war within forty years of his death, and may even have lived during it. We have nothing like this for Jesus: multiple quotations and citations of writings about him by eyewitnesses. We have in fact not even one. Nor even any reference to an oral eyewitness source. (Again, the one in John is a fake: OHJ, Ch. 10.7.)
Then, we have the writings of numerous historians within a century or so of Hannibal’s death, writing detailed histories using critical and rational methods, and (like those eyewitness writers above) not composing mythical hagiographies. These include not just Livy, but Cornelius Nepos, Diodorus, Coelius Antipater, Silenus Calatinus, Valerius Antias, Claudius Quadrigarius, and many others, from whom we have fragments, quotations, or partial texts. We have nothing like this explosion of quotable histories of Jesus within 120 years of his death. In fact, we have exactly zero histories of Jesus. Only a line or two in a few historians nearly a century after the fact or more, who have no identifiable sources outside the Gospels, which in turn are mythical hagiographies anonymously composed by literary propagandists after the lifetime of any known eyewitnesses. Exactly unlike Hannibal.
Notice this is why we are so certain Hannibal existed. The evidence is amazing. If we had any of that evidence for Jesus, we’d be sure he existed, too. But we don’t. We have none of it. And whenever you go looking for someone else like that, who isn’t as securely attested as Hannibal, you end up only finding someone historians would accept reasonable doubts of, and whose historicity they only maintain because they don’t belong to any reference class of persons that usually turns out to be wholly mythical. Whereas Jesus does.
Trying to Get a P1 That Works
That last point is kind of funny. Because people who want to make this argument, concentrate so hard on getting P1 to be true, that they always pick people who were ridiculously or considerably famous (like Hannibal); yet, honest thinkers should admit Jesus never was. He had to have been a nobody, unnoticed by anyone of letters. Because that’s the only way he could be attested by literally no one in his lifetime, and by no one else, ever, other than a fringe cult of hallucinating fanatics who worshiped him as a superhuman space creature. I’m not kidding. I outline everything there is in Chs. 7 & 8 of On the Historicity of Jesus (and yes, we’ve documented they were hallucinating fanatics…or pretending to be: OHJ, Element 15, Ch. 4). Everything we have on Jesus? It’s all either written by those fanatics, who never met him or anyone we can independently establish actually knew him; or by later authors merely believing what those fanatics wrote, having no other independent sources to check them by.
So it’s really odd that no one ever tries to pick, for establishing P1, someone who was, like Jesus, not at all famous. For example, some minor functionary or officer mentioned in passing in some history or other, and never otherwise attested. In truth, there are two reasons people fond of this argument avoid going there, even though that’s where they need to go if they even want to have a shot at this argument working. First, they are lazy. It’s hard work to try and find someone who fits the bill. Whereas people who aren’t lazy, don’t use arguments like this. And second, anyone they thus found, will never be as certain of existing as they want. And the last thing they want to do is come up with an example that actually proves my point.
For example, the “Josephan Christs” I discuss in OHJ (Ch. 2.5, pp. 245-46; with Element 4, Ch. 4, pp. 69-70). Theudas being the only one actually named. We have only one source for these guys: Josephus. Unless we count Acts, but Acts is almost certainly using Josephus (and incorrectly at that, mistakenly dating Theudas over fifty years too early; and Acts mentions only one other of the four, the “Egyptian”). Josephus is at least a contemporary—the “impostors” he documents as aping a Messianic return of Joshua, and thus literally as Jesus Christs, thrived a decade or two after the date of his birth in 37 A.D. But he’s still writing half a century after the fact. And he doesn’t name his sources for them. And we have no other evidence of them.
But…how sure are we that they existed? Not wholly. We just give it the balance of odds. And we only do so because (1) Josephus has little reason to make them up, nor did any source he is likely to have used, and (2) they aren’t portrayed as anything but ordinary, mundane historical actors. They made grandiose claims about themselves, of course, but that’s not how Josephus or his sources are relating them. They are not mythologized. They are not worshiped savior deities experienced in visions. Our earliest account of them is not a fanatical hallucinator of them. It’s from a historian whom we know used eyewitness, contemporary, and documentary sources for his tales. And there would be such, easy to hand—as all of them were involved in very public military actions. Usually, persons like that, turn out to have existed. So that’s how we operate.
Nevertheless, these fellows might have been urban legends, that Josephus picked up and assumed were true, or even contrived himself. I discuss how they could have been invented in OHJ (n. 25, pp. 70-71). But in such a mundane case, we’d need evidence of that to conclude it. Otherwise, the odds favor their existing. But that’s why they aren’t analogous to Jesus. They belong to precisely that reference class whose members usually existed. Jesus belongs to reference classes whose members usually didn’t. So we can get P1 to be sort of weakly true here (and even a P2). But only by admitting P3 is no longer true: we can only conclude they probably existed, by admitting they are different from Jesus.
Because Jesus is a hallucinated and extraordinary superbeing right out of the gate. So we need more evidence for someone like Jesus—as we would for Moses, Hercules, Dionysus, Osiris, or Romulus. Otherwise, we are left with Jesus looking like Moses, Hercules, Dionysus, Osiris, or Romulus. Not like the mundane pretenders Josephus describes. And I hope I don’t have to remind you, but conjecturing Jesus once looked like them, is not evidence. It’s a possibiliter fallacy to say, “Jesus might have started out like them; therefore Jesus did start out like them” (see Proving History, pp. 26-29). That confuses hypothesis with evidence (or in this case, background knowledge).
Nevertheless, these Jesus Christs weren’t attested by their contemporaries (except Josephus, who was more or less a teenager at the time), or in fact by anyone else whose writings we know of. Which means, to have existed, Jesus must have been considerably less famous than them. And that means if we give their existence the balance of odds—and I do, because they are only ever described as mundane public persons—then we have to admit that if Jesus existed, we shouldn’t expect any evidence of him, outside his cult of fanatical worshipers. So the absence of that evidence, is not evidence against (an ordinary and plausible) Jesus. Which is exactly how I score that evidence in OHJ (see Ch. 8). Which is not very satisfying to historicists. Because it still leaves us not knowing. And then the fact that Jesus is never described even within a century of his life as a mundane public person—but at the earliest as a celestial superbeing met in visions, and then a highly mythical magical man—leaves us doubting.
But Hannibal? P1 is certainly true for him, even far more so than for the Josephan Christs. But only because P2 is for him very false. Of course, so is P3, since he also isn’t in a myth-heavy reference class like Jesus (he isn’t a heavily-mythified and frequently hallucinated celestial savior god). But since the evidence is far better for Hannibal (not worse), P3 is moot. At most P3 being false for him, by itself only makes the existence Hannibal more likely than not, and thus still somewhat uncertain. It’s therefore P2 being false that makes the concerted difference. Because it establishes Hannibal’s existence to a near certainty. Would that we had such evidence for Jesus.
If we had evidence for Jesus at all comparable to what we have for Hannibal, the historicity of Jesus would be beyond doubt, even despite belonging—unlike Hannibal—to so many obvious categories of what are usually mythical people. Evidence like we have for Hannibal, would easily overrun and eclipse that fact, and establish historicity in spite of it. And yet Jesus has both that high prior probability of being as mythical as everyone like him (and unlike Hannibal) and far poorer evidence for his existence. So the Argument from Hannibal can’t rescue Jesus. Yes, we have good, solid grounds for being certain there was a Hannibal. We do not have those grounds for Jesus.
Continuing to pick famous people misses the point of the historicist’s own argument that we “wouldn’t have evidence” of some nobody like Jesus (and we wouldn’t). There are persons for whom we have no good evidence, yet also no good reason to doubt they existed (or at least to doubt it all that strongly). But this is because those persons are not of the type to be invented, e.g. minor generals and functionaries may have existed; they could easily be conflations of other persons, or their names inaccurately recorded, but they are unlikely to be simply invented. But worshiped savior deities rapidly mythologized into famous sorcerers or celestial superheroes encountered by all earliest accounts in dreams and visions, tend not to have existed. Their being historical is actually unusual in antiquity.
And of course, some people we may have equal reason to believe as to doubt, or for whom we really can’t say affirmatively that they certainly existed; their having existed remains just a hypothesis. Homer, for example. He probably didn’t exist. Certainly no one man wrote the works attributed to him (unless he was a vampire, as his works’ contents span the Bronze and Iron Ages). Maybe Homer was the name of some final compiler or editor or famous bard. But that’s just speculation. The bottom line is, we just don’t know. And no honest historian would assert we do. Likewise Apollonius of Tyana might be fictional. We have really only one good piece of evidence for him—a mention in Lucian that someone Lucian knew personally had trained under a disciple of Apollonius; but that’s pretty weak tea as evidence goes. Pythagoras is a little better off; he probably existed. The evidence for him is at least better than for Apollonius, there being several contemporary and near-contemporary attestations. Yet many historians are still willing to entertain the possibility that Pythagoras wasn’t historical. We’re better off with even Paul: even if we wholly rejected Acts and 1 Clement as sources, we at least have a credible body of texts he wrote, that place him in history roughly where tradition imagines. For other apostles, though, unless Paul mentions having met them (e.g., Apollos, Cephas/Peter, James, and John), ample doubt abides.
The same could be said of Buddha, Lao Tzu, even Confucius. Indeed, these names are all fake. Buddha just means “Enlightened.” Lao Tzu just means “Old Master.” And Confucius is the Latinization of Kong Fu Tzu, which just means “Grand Master Kong,” Kong being only a family name held by countless persons, and itself possibly originally made-up. These names might be titles held by some person at some point. But have several such persons holding that title been conflated into one person? Someone wrote the Tao Te Ching, and likely all at once. But were they ever called Lao Tzu? We can’t really say for sure. Does it matter? Likewise the Analects may have had many contributors; and indeed maybe all of them held the title Master, and maybe they were all of the Kong family, or only the last one was, or the first. All we can say for sure is that someone wrote it, and approximately in what century or so. Likewise the other Classics attributed to Confucius. True, the first Buddha is alleged to have been Gautama; whether we can really be so confident of that, I don’t know. Most people don’t care. Certainly Buddhists don’t. His historicity is irrelevant to their faith.
I can’t really examine these personages further as I don’t know the languages and sources required; just as I noted with respect to the question of Mohammed. But I wouldn’t be shocked to find any of them didn’t really exist. Nor would I be shocked if the data is simply insufficient to know they didn’t. Nor would I be shocked if we could confidently say they did. It hardly matters. As what we know of them, is still very likely all false anyway. With Jesus we’re lucky: unlike for all these other fellows, we actually have source documents from a generation just after him. It’s just, those documents…are the problem. They don’t make it look likely Jesus was a real historical person. But that’s something you’ll have to explore further.