If you want to know why, read on.
A reader emailed me a brief article by Darrell Bock called “Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared,” asking me to please point out the thousand things wrong with it. I don’t really have to, because (at least de facto) it’s already been done. But I’ll summarize Bock’s article and what I’ve said before about arguments like his. Plus I’ll point out the four articles by Matthew Ferguson that meticulously demolish claims and logic like Bock’s (Ferguson is a talented doctoral student in classics; Bock is a Christian fundamentalist with a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies; yet as we’ll see, Ferguson displays far more depth of knowledge on the subject of historical methods and ancient source comparison). I’ll also describe the places where I’ve written de facto rebuttals of many of the same points (I have a Ph.D. in ancient history).
Bock wants to reject the proposition “the evidence for Caesar’s life is better attested than for Jesus’s.” As worded that looks like a con. Either Bock doesn’t realize this is not the same proposition as “the evidence for Caesar’s life is better than for Jesus’s” or he must think his readers won’t notice the difference. Because he never points that difference out, acts as if there is no difference, and after arguing the evidence (not the man) is better attested, concludes (fallaciously) “If we believe what the best sources say about Julius Caesar, then we should believe what the best sources say about Jesus Christ.”
Even if the evidence was better attested, that conclusion cannot follow. Because what we need to know is not whether the evidence is better attested, but whether it is as reliable. An urban legend can be superbly attested (we can collect thousands of primary source documents containing the legend), yet 100% bogus. Because even though the story is superbly attested, it’s still made-up. Bock does nothing to establish that the Gospels are as reliable as the sources he cites for Caesar (see below). Even if we had what the original Gospel authors said to 100% accuracy (and we don’t; I document several examples in Hitler Homer Bible Christ), that tells us nothing about their reliability as sources.
In other words, having an accurate text is of no use in comparing source quality. Bock shows no awareness of so basic a point, yet this is fundamental to any schooling as a historian.
Bock doesn’t just fail at the logic of his own argument. He also fails at the facts. His premises are thus false. And therefore his argument would be unsound even if it was logically valid.
Bock claims “in regard to Julius Caesar, the key sources are his own accounts of the Gallic Wars, the speeches of Cicero, Sallust’s account of Catiline’s War, Suetonius’s section on Caesar in Twelve Caesars, and Plutarch’s section on Caesar in Plutarchs’s Lives.” Um, no. First of all, we don’t trust all that they say, either, so by transitive logic Bock must agree the Gospels can’t be trusted any more than they are. But more importantly, we trust what those sources say mostly in respect to what we can externally corroborate in eyewitness and archaeological sources.
So take note: we have actual coins and inscriptions dating from Caesar’s time and the time of his contemporaries. None for Jesus. We also have several eyewitness accounts. Caesar’s own, as Bock mentions (although he omits the most important one, the Civil War) and Cicero’s and Sallust’s, as Bock also mentions (although he omits the most important one, Cicero’s Letters). But also Pompey (surviving collections of Cicero’s letters include letters from Pompey) and Augustus (Caesar’s adopted son and successor, who commissioned many inscriptions and coins). And Livy, a contemporary of Caesar, covers Caesar in his histories—and in their poetry, so do contemporaries Virgil, Ovid, and Catullus. The Gospels are not eyewitness sources, name no eyewitness sources, and have no verifiable eyewitness sources. There are no eyewitness sources for Jesus. There are at least nine for Caesar. Bock mentions but does not make anything of this crucial distinction. It seems to be irrelevant to him. But I’m here to tell you, it isn’t to historians.
At most Bock tries to claim the Gospels are eyewitness sources by just handwaving to the opinions of conservatives, and gullibly trusting the report of Papias, which we know is false because it contradicts all the data. Hence his attempts to assert the Gospels are eyewitness sources I refute, and document all mainstream scholars balk at, in Chapters 7.4 and 8.7 of On the Historicity of Jesus. He has no other arguments. He doesn’t interact with mainstream scholarship or the abundant refutations of this claim in the literature. He just vaguely alludes to the fact that his claims contradict the mainstream consensus, and with that fine confession, tries a Plan B by naming some books that argue the Gospels nevertheless must contain reliable oral tradition, even though other than books he wrote or co-wrote himself, the authors he names (e.g. Dunn) do not in fact come to that conclusion (they conclude, instead, that some of what’s in the Gospels might go back to eyewitness sources through considerably distorting lenses, a fact Bock seems not to know, or else suspiciously forgets to mention).
Bock quickly drops that point and instead obsesses over the manuscript evidence and the implied question of custody and thus distortions in transmission (through deliberate or erroneous miscopying). That is disingenuous because (a) no one doubts there are copying errors in these sources for Caesar but (b) none are doctrinally motivated, since there was no massive Church dedicated to altering the history of Caesar to support its dogmas. So the effects on the manuscripts of Caesar are far less than on the Gospels (for which we have documented abundant efforts at inserting passages, changing passages, harmonizing passages, and deleting passages, at a pace unseen for the sources for Caesar).
But more importantly, this has nothing to do with historicity. We do not doubt the historicity of Jesus because his biographies have transcription errors in them (even deliberate ones). So that there are transcription errors in the biographies of Caesar isn’t relevant. Transcription errors (both accidental and deliberate: see my Drunk Bible Study video for examples) only matter if you wanted to treat the biographies of Caesar as guides to life, as the inviolate and inerrant Word of God. Rather than as a problematic lens granting only distorted knowledge of their subject in varying degrees of probability. Which is how historians treat those sources.
Bock doesn’t seem to realize that that isn’t, and cannot be, the same thing. To borrow a joke from my Debate with J.P. Holding on why the text of the New Testament can’t be trusted the way Bock needs to trust it (but that historians don’t), if the manuscripts of Cicero were instructions for building a rocket, I would not get on that rocket. So certain I am that the text just isn’t that reliable. It’s reliable enough for probabilistic judgments about what might have happened in the past, but you can’t trust those as a guide to life, much less the Inerrant Word of God.
Never mind that Bock seems to think having a papyrus fragment of a single sentence or two counts as having a whole text of a Gospel. Or his curious omission of the fact that the thousands of complete manuscripts we have of the Gospels all contradict each other in their wording and content. Or else are copies of earlier manuscripts that we already have and therefore don’t even count. You can’t make ten thousand xeroxes of one manuscript of Caesar’s Civil War and claim that then establishes it as more accurately preserved than the Gospels; and if you don’t get to do that for Caesar, you don’t get to do it for the Gospels either. Yet Bock includes thousands of copies of other copies we already have. Sorry, that doesn’t work. (See the comments of Seidensticker.)
Then Bock falsely claims that in antiquity “no one was arguing that the accounts of Jesus’s actions were fabricated or mythical.” Sorry, but, uh yeah, not only did Celsus claim that, and extensively, writing in the same time as Justin Martyr, but Trypho (the fake Jew Justin invented for his dialogue) argues the same point, too (he says the Gospel stories are just “unfounded rumor” and a Christian “invention,” Dial. 8). So when Bock cites Trypho as not making that argument, we know Bock sucks at basic homework. But that’s not the only example. 2 Peter attacks even a fellow Christian sect that was claiming the Gospels were “cleverly devised myths.” Ignatius also spends several letters attacking fellow Christians who were teaching that at least parts of the Gospels were mythical. And Irenaeus devotes books to the subject of other Christians claiming substantial portions of the Gospels were mythical. Indeed, the genealogies for Jesus are claimed to be mythical even in the New Testament itself! (1 Tim. 1.4; Tit. 3.9.)
Finally, Bock concludes that “Christ’s story is just as well attested as Caesar’s. You can accept or deny claims made about Jesus in the Gospels, but you can’t pretend they were never made.” Which is a wholly vacuous conclusion. Who was saying those claims were never made? That makes no sense. Worse, how does admitting that “claims were made” get you to “if we believe what the best sources say about Julius Caesar, then we should believe what the best sources say about Jesus Christ”? Bock presents no logical step from one to the other. Not surprisingly. As there isn’t one.
For Full Details on Why Bock Is Wrong
For my part, Chapter 7 of Not the Impossible Faith explodes Bock’s assumption that all sources are equal. There I show the tremendous difference in quality and sourcing and reliability-markers between even Suetonius, considered one of the less reliable historians of the era, and the book of Acts, which performs far worse on the relevant measures (and the Gospels do even worse still, as I summarized already in Sense and Goodness without God IV.1.2.6, pp. 246-47). Chapters 9 and 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus go on to demolish the reliability of Acts and the Gospels in thorough measure (and Chapter 11 eliminates any hope of recovering any clear evidence for a real Jesus from the Epistles, and Chapter 8 does so for the remaining evidence outside the Bible).
Update: Key additional material exposing Bock’s gullibility in over-trusting ancient sources, particularly religious ones, I collect in Elements 44 through 48 in Chapter 5 of OHJ. And my treatment of the “we have the same evidence for Socrates” and “Alexander the Great” arguments (which bear the same generic flaws as Bock’s use of Caesar to make the same inept argument) is in Chapters 2.2 (Alexander) and 8.2 (Socrates) of OHJ. Those in fact should be required reading on this mode of argument altogether.
But online, Matthew Ferguson has four articles directly on point (and stay tuned, because this material might get expanded, perfected, added to, and published in what I already predict will be a must-buy book):
(1) “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?” (January 5, 2015)
This article exposes numerous faulty assumptions in arguments like Bock’s that betray Bock’s profound ignorance of how modern historians of antiquity use and understand sources. Sample quote:
[N]ot 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. … True. But this consideration does not eliminate the relevance of contemporary sources.
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…
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 [an] obscure, itinerant apocalyptic prophet… 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.
(2) “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” (October 26, 2012)
This article exposes numerous faulty assumptions in arguments like Bock’s that betray Bock’s ignorance (or concealment?) of how modern historians of antiquity actually ascertain trust in a text built from variant manuscript evidence. Sample quote:
Once more, apologists have blown up a big number, divorced it from context, and created a misleading argument that can be torn down by three simple points of clarity.
 …let’s just say, however, for the sake of argument, that remarkably a fringe, radical religion had managed to produce more copies of their texts in antiquity than other authors at the time. So what? Do we trust books today based on the number of copies that we have of them? …
 …textual transmission only means that we have a fairly good idea of what the original authors wrote. If what the original authors wrote was non-historical, then accurately preserving their words still doesn’t make them true. I often give this analogy to illustrate this concept: if you have 10,000 early copies of the National Enquirer versus 1 late copy of the Wall Street Journal, which would be more factually accurate? … A late copy of a historian like Tacitus, even if it has missing sections and a few grammatical errors, is infinitely more historically reliable than several early copies of works that were never historical or factual in the first place. …
 …Often times apologists claim that the text of the New Testament is 99% accurately preserved. First, this would be impossible to prove, since we don’t have the original autograph manuscripts. But more importantly, … Simply stating that the whole New Testament is 99% textually correct takes attention away from key passages where there is clear theological redaction and not just mere grammatical errors.
When it comes to the “mountain” of 5,800 Greek NT manuscript copies, even conservative textual critic Dan Wallace acknowledges, “it should be pointed out that most of our manuscripts come from the second millennium AD, and most of our manuscripts do not include the whole New Testament.” … If one excludes later medieval manuscripts, Wallace notes that only approximately 124 manuscripts come within the 2nd-4th centuries CE, which is a considerably smaller number. [And, BTW, most of those are but fragments of a few sentences, not whole books–RC]
P46 [i.e. the earliest complete manuscript of any of Paul’s letters] is a case in point: it is the manuscript with the largest percentage of blunders on record!
(3) “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament” (August 18, 2013)
This article exposes even more faulty assumptions in arguments like Bock’s that betray Bock’s profound ignorance of how modern historians of antiquity use and understand sources. Sample quote:
The genre of ancient historical prose has key features that are crucial to understanding which works belong to the category and why they are more trustworthy than sources that do not. It is not enough for a text to simply talk about things that took place in the past, even when the content deals with real people and locations. A historical text must investigate and probe these matters, discussing the research process involved, so that it does not merely provide a story, but a plausible interpretation of what took place. …
The main point to take away from [my] analysis of the [ten] criteria above is that the Gospels certainly do not measure up to the high historiography of antiquity. Many of my Classics professors who specialize in such texts, when they read the Gospels, comment on how much more rudimentary and story-like their narratives are compared to the researched and analytical characteristics of historical writing. Even Luke only has a few brief lines at the beginning that mimic historical prose, before jumping into pure hagiography like the other Gospels.
Ancient historical texts are some of my favorite works from antiquity for their sophisticated writing style, elaborate research, and intellectual rigor in investigating past events. I cannot say the same for the Gospels, although I do think they provide interesting symbolism and allegories as novels, and are also complex works of religious scripture. After analyzing the Gospels under the historiographical criteria that I discuss above, however, they must be placed in a different literary genre from the actual historical works of antiquity.
A final note about modern historical methodology is that the ancient authors of these historical prose [works], who demonstrate their research, have independent corroboration, discuss their methodology, and reach conclusions through critical investigation, should generally be trusted, until proven otherwise. In contrast, ancient novels and religious texts, such as the Gospels, that are packed full of legends and religious propaganda, should not be given the benefit of the doubt, until there is good reason for overcoming their overall unreliability in order to trust a specific detail. I do think that there are some precious kernels of truth in at least the Synoptic Gospels, but they are few and far between.
(4) “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan” (October 14, 2012)
Simply a classic in the genre. Though dealing with Tiberius Caesar instead of Julius Caesar, everything this article says in general about Tiberius is equally true of Julius, and again exposes the faulty assumptions in arguments like Bock’s that betray Bock’s profound ignorance of the enormous number and quality of sources we actually have for men like Julius Caesar. Resulting in their foolishly claiming we have the same evidence for Jesus. In fact, we don’t even come close.