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.