Glorious Smackdown of the 10/42 Apologetic

Have you heard the argument that Jesus must have existed because “42 ancient sources record Jesus 150 years within his lifetime, whereas only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius,” and since we consider that enough to believe Tiberius existed, we should conclude Jesus existed? I know, you are already detecting umteen things wrong with that argument. But sometimes someone comes along who so gloriously destroys an argument like this you just have to sit back in awe and smile.

Today, Matthew Ferguson is that someone. I’ll get back to my originally planned news posts on historicity after this, but this one just popped up so I had to blog it. Ferguson is a doctoral student in ancient history who has started a blog taking on Christian apologetics from his perspective as a scholar and professional (thank goodness; I was starting to feel like I was the only one). His blog is titled Kelsos in Greek (after the earliest pagan critic of Christianity). Ferguson’s latest post is “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan,” a response to an argument that is starting to make the rounds (spawned by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona), the one I just quoted him summarizing.

Now, Ferguson takes down the obvious logical flaws in the argument, sure. But most beautiful of all is his takedown of the premises themselves. Of course he ends up showing that in fact the number of references to a historical Jesus in that 150-year window that aren’t just in Christian propaganda is actually 3 or 4, and those all obviously derive their information from Christian propaganda and thus the number of independent references in this category is, well, zero. But more impressive is his demonstration that the number of literary references to Tiberius in that same window is not 10, but a whopping 43 (and thus Habermas and Licona missed a whole 33 literary references to Tiberius–if only we had that for Jesus from non-Christian sources!), and then of course, um, there’s all the other evidence: inscriptions, coins, busts, architecture, papyri. Which is kind of a big reason we are so sure there was a Tiberius.

The evidence for Tiberius, in other words, is vastly better, in every conceivable way, than the evidence for Jesus. So the 10/42 apologetic gets a decisive smackdown here. I’m sure we’ll never hear of it again.

Certainly, neither I nor Ferguson argue that this fact entails Jesus didn’t exist. Ferguson thinks Jesus was just an ordinarily obscure itinerant Jewish radical, and not the Son of God or anything like the famous figure the Gospels depict. And I agree that’s the best hypothesis there is to be had for defending historicity; while a case for ahistoricity needs a lot more than the mere fact that Jesus was demonstrably unknown outside his own fanatical circle. It’s just nice to see apologetical disinformation campaigns in defense of historicity get conclusively dismantled. Saves me the trouble.

In my next book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ I similarly destroy the arguments used (even by what should be considered more serious scholars) that we have as much evidence for Jesus as we have for Socrates, Caesar, or Alexander the Great (which is bollocks; we have much better evidence for all three than we have for Jesus, but I’ll explain why in my book, due out next year). In the meantime, for the Tiberius argument, bookmark Ferguson. And then cite that every time you hear this.


  1. wholething October 15, 2012, 3:48 pm

    The inscription on the Pilate Stone mentions Tiberius. If they accept one, they would have to accept the other.

    1. True, and I had thought of that, but it’s a quibble, since it doesn’t actually mention Tiberius per se, but a Tiberieum, a structure dedicated to Tiberius. That could put it in the same category as Pliny who mentions a deity named Christ but not a historical Jesus as such, or Suetonius who mentions Christians but not Christ. So it’s safe to leave it out of the count, to give you an argument a fortiori.

  2. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper October 15, 2012, 6:33 pm

    A good article for my first read of your blog. Thanks for the link.

    Let’s not forget James Tiberius Kirk, as evidence for the existence of Tiberius. There are TV show, movies, and he’s in the future …. /silly

  3. daved October 15, 2012, 6:44 pm

    Your link to the article is broken — date portion of the URL should be 10/14, not 10/3. But thanks for the reference. Interesting stuff.

  4. I still find it interesting that people will try hard to point to some sort of “proof” of Jesus immediately after lecturing me about how one needs to trust God and to believe the Bible without outside proof because faith is the goal.

    But since there are people looking for evidence, and bending the rules of what evidence means, it’s nice to know there are people on the lookout and giving them their smackdowns.

  5. Maybe the most telling, and most laughable, is their missing the references to Tiberius in the quotes they themselves counted, dubiously, in the count for Jesus:

    “Gary and Mike even fail to connect the dots that when they count Phlegon and Thallus as sources for Jesus, because they mention an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius, that these references include Tiberius Caesar! So they aren’t even checking their own sources!”

    The fail is strong in apologetics, how long before we get apologetics apologetics?

  6. This is more theological than historical, but…

    Why in the world should we measure the likelihood of a god’s appearance in human form against that of a human from the same period? Shouldn’t the god’s existence (in human form) be 100% confirmable? Undeniable by even the most-hardened skeptic?

    For example, and just to make this brief, why didn’t Jesus show his wounds (post-resurrection) to Pilate? And Herod? And the entire Sanhedrin? Why go skulking about? After all, they can’t kill you — they tried that already.

    But no. He only (allegedly) appeared to the illiterate, semi-literate, and powerless.

    It’s absolutely crazy that this level of “evidence” is to be respected by anyone.

    We should expect more from a god.

  7. Whoever October 17, 2012, 6:41 am

    I too am very glad Ferguson decided to write this. As you write, you can see this sort of failed argument repeated even by non-Christians wishing to defend historicity (and for any readers eager to misrepresent the stamentt: no, defending historicity is fine. I’m just referring to this specific argument), scholars and laymen alike and it gets a bit frustrating trying to debunk it anew every time (though usually it seems to be made with Alex III instead).

  8. Reginald Selkirk October 17, 2012, 9:26 am

    So the 10/42 apologetic gets a decisive smackdown here. I’m sure we’ll never hear of it again.

    What an optimist! There is a large number of people out there eager for Christian apologetics, who do not care about truth. Perhaps you could say something like, “I’m sure we’ll never hear of it again from reputable sources.”

  9. Reginald Selkirk October 17, 2012, 9:37 am

    For more information about how there is no outside corroboration of the darkness at Jesus’ execution, despite being an even that would have been documented worldwide, here is a valuable article from ancient historian Richard Carrier:

    You’re not that old.

  10. saguhh00 October 19, 2012, 9:26 am

    Is the 42/10 argument intelectually dishonest because it is used by apologists or is it used by apologists because it is intelectually dishonest?

  11. shaftesbury October 26, 2012, 6:10 pm

    I have only read a few lines of the Kelsos post and already I laughed out loud at a great line: “Clearly more people knew about a Galilean rabbi in antiquity than their own emperor Tiberius!”

  12. As of today, Michael Licona has acknowledged errors in the 10/42 apologetic via facebook:

    I have personally thanked Licona for acknowledging the error and updated my original blog with a note that the original authors have conceded the point.

    There was some talk on Licona’s facebook page about a future podcast about this subject and a possible reprinting of the book. I’ll keep things updated here if anything important happens.


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