Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?

Ad poster for Joseph Loduca's soundtrack for the Starz TV show Spartacus, displaying the actor playing Spartacus all covered in dirt and blood and holding a sword and looking menacing.It’s always something. First it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for the contemporary emperor Tiberius.” Matthew Ferguson annihilated that one. Then it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Alexander the Great.” Which I annihilated in On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 21-24). Or it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Socrates.” Which I also annihilated in OHJ (Chapter 8.2, “The Socrates Analogy”). Or it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Pontius Pilate, the guy who allegedly killed him.” Which I’ve also annihilated. And then it was, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar.” Which I just annihilated. Now the claim going around is, “We have better evidence for Jesus than for Spartacus,” the enslaved gladiator of Thrace (now mostly Bulgaria) who led a nearly successful slave revolt against the Romans in Italy in 73-70 B.C.

Just like Julius Caesar (as I explained in my last post about this), and everyone else in these comparisons, when it comes to determining the probability of historicity, Spartacus differs from Jesus in two respects:

First:

Spartacus belongs to a different reference class. He is not a worshiped deity whose only narratives are extensively mytho-fantastical. Spartacus does not belong to any myth-heavy reference classes at all (significantly sized sets of claimed historical persons most of whose members are mythical). Jesus does. See Chapter 6 of OHJ. I use the one significantly sized set we have for Jesus (high-scoring Rank-Raglan heroes: Element 48, Chapter 5.3), but Jesus actually belongs to several myth-heavy sets (worshiped deities, mystery-cult saviors, dying-and-rising demigods, culture heroes, heavenly founders: e.g. Elements 31, 36, 46, 47, Chapter 6.1-2, etc.). Spartacus belongs to not even one.

Spartacus actually belongs to a reference class of mundane military foes fighting a literate record-keeping nation’s armies, a class in which most members by far are historical. So we don’t even need more evidence to confirm he existed. We can trust it’s just very likely he did, because in such cases (in such sets of persons), every time we can check, it turns out it usually is the case that these people existed.

This is the first problem with trying to compare Jesus with ordinary people (OHJ, Chapter 6.2 and 6.5). Ordinary people are not usually mythical. There is little reason to have made them up or to have Euhemerized them (OHJ, Element 45). Ordinary people are not worshiped celestial gods with astonishing supernatural powers and suspiciously convenient names (Jesus means “Savior”), rapidly surrounded by wildly egregious myths, to serve as reified authorities for promoting certain cultural and religious norms. One must heed that distinction.

Second:

We have way better evidence for Spartacus anyway. There is a handy collection of literary sources online. But leading scholarship on the subject is Aldo Schiavone’s Spartacus (2013) and Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History with Documents (2001).

It is typically claimed that our earliest references are Plutarch’s Life of Crassus (wr. c. 100 AD) and Appian’s Civil War (wr. c. 150 AD), which date hundreds of years after the fact (though they both used earlier sources). But that’s not at all true. Those are the earliest detailed narratives. And not the earliest written; the earliest that survive.

It is sometimes claimed that the oldest surviving historical source on Spartacus are some fragments of Livy (and his full account was in turn a major source for those later authors). Livy was born about ten years after the Spartacus war and wrote probably around the turn of the era, which makes Livy with respect to Spartacus comparable to Josephus with respect to Jesus. But there is a huge difference. We can tell even by extant summaries by his readers that Livy wrote extensively and believably about Spartacus (unlike anything in Josephus about Jesus) and had good and detailed information (unlike anything in Josephus about Jesus) and none of it shows signs of obvious forgery or meddling (unlike everything in Josephus about Jesus: OHJ, Chapter 8.9). So even just on this count, in Livy we already have better evidence for Spartacus than for Jesus. (We also have a poem of Horace, who was born around the same time as Livy, and wrote around the same time as Livy, also attesting to Spartacus, but only a brief and indeterminate line.)

But even that’s not the oldest thing we have. We also have fragments of Sallust’s Histories, which covered Spartacus (and was another major source used by later authors like Plutarch and Appian). Sallust was born about ten years before the Spartacus war, and by sharing the Senate with them would have known personally the persons who fought Spartacus (such as Crassus, but also Julius Caesar and Pompey, who were in the army at the time). And he wrote around 40 B.C., just thirty years after the Spartacus war, a better source than we have for Jesus in any form at all. This makes Sallust comparable to the letters of Paul, but unlike Sallust, Paul does not treat Jesus as a subject of narrative history or give any specific historical details about him or write anything biographical about him other than vague theological statements (OHJ, Chapter 11). So once again, in Sallust we have even better evidence for Spartacus than for Jesus.

And that’s just the earliest account we have pieces of. If we want just mentions attesting his historicity, then we are even better off than that. We have mentions of Spartacus from several of his contemporaries. We have him attested in the letters of Cicero: in Response to the Haruspices written in 57 B.C., just fourteen years after the Spartacus war (Cicero also mentions details of the Spartacus war albeit without naming Spartacus in Against Verres, written and orated to the Senate just three years after the war). Cicero was in his thirties and in the Senate and serving in Roman government during the Spartacus war. So he certainly would have known that the man and his war weren’t made up.

Spartacus is also attested in the Library of History by Diodorus Sicilus: fragment 39.22 mentions Spartacus, and reveals that Diodorus had written a whole section on the Spartacus war. Diodorus was a Greek, in his twenties during the war, and wrote his histories between 60 and 30 B.C., so a living contemporary historian writing about Spartacus earlier than anything we have for Jesus (apart from maybe the highly mythical Gospel of Mark: OHJ, Chapter 10.4). Which means Diodorus was also an available source for later authors. We also know the erudite Varro, who was in his forties during the Spartacus revolt and was thus in the Senate during the war, also attested to the existence and treatment of Spartacus. Because Varro’s books are quoted doing so by a later reader, Sosipater Charisius (a scholar of the 4th century A.D., his quotation of Varro is in Grammatical Arts 1.133). We have nothing at all like that for Jesus.

So, altogether, very much better than we have for Jesus.

But this is of course only in respect to establishing the bare fact of historicity. We don’t trust that all the surviving sources are wholly reliable in every detail. For example, Appian makes identifiable errors, and thus probably has made several unidentifiable ones as well (see the footnotes here, for example). Plutarch seems to have more reliably used Sallust and Livy and other sources. But there were also other historians of his same period who cover or mention Spartacus: Suetonius (c. 120 A.D.), Tacitus (c. 115 A.D.), Florus (c. 100 A.D.), Frontinus (c. 90 A.D.), and Paterculus (c. 20 A.D.). Possibly more. We don’t have this for Jesus: numerous objective historians researching his history from earlier sources and discussing it, all within one to two centuries after the event. (Even the one lone case, a single mention in Tacitus, cannot be traced to any source other than the Gospels, and probably was never really in Tacitus to begin with: OHJ, Chapter 8.10.)

We again use a prior probability here: historians in antiquity who used contemporary sources well, or were or knew contemporaries or witnesses, usually get major public facts correct, like the names of generals, the season and year of a campaign, etc., because there was good data for them to use on that (including public inscriptions), and they were held at least to minimal standards of reliability and fact-checking. Whereas the more gossipy or elusive stuff they often can’t be trusted on because they were prone to believing rumors or making them up, or treating inferences and conjectures as reported facts. This is true across the board. There is no historian in antiquity whose account of anything we trust entirely. There are just some historians we trust more than others, and more on some things than on others.

So there is plenty that is legendary or uncertain about Spartacus. And all scholars acknowledge this, and analyze the data in terms of probability and eyewitness or contemporary sourcing. But if all you want is to be assured of historicity, the evidence for Spartacus is way better than for Jesus.

31 comments

    1. Which would be a bad move, because the historicity of Homer is respectably in doubt. We already know the epics attributed to him cannot have been written by one person (e.g. they randomly switch between bronze age and iron age technology, demonstrating the epics were written and rewritten over centuries) and that all the biographies and legends about him are probably made up. I’m pretty sure most experts on Homer are at best historicity agnostics about Homer. See The Homeric Question. If only Jesus historians could be as sensible.

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  1. favog July 5, 2015, 6:42 pm

    But of course, nobody worships Homer as an incarnation of God, so the barrier to being sensible is lesser (if one exists at all).

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  2. Ichthyic July 5, 2015, 8:27 pm

    You didn’t need to spend time poking around old history texts and books to figure out what evidence there is for Spartacus! You could have just asked me…

    I am Spartacus.

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  3. benjamincano July 5, 2015, 9:15 pm

    I usually think back to Christopher Hitchen’s quote when I read apologetics like, “We have better reason to believe that Jesus existed than X did.”

    Hitch said something to the effect of: my world view is not dependent on there having been a Socrates. I don’t need for there to have been a Socrates to find value in the Socratic method.

    If we uncovered compelling evidence that any of these historical figures were actually later scribal inventions, whose concept of the universe would be radically altered? I think even the historians would welcome such evidence, because unraveling the mystery of how they all could have been wrong for such a long time would fuel innovation and re-examination of so many historical issues that it would be the work of a lifetime to just re-evaluate what we thought we knew all along.

    By contrast, the Christian’s worldview is sort of dependent on Jesus having lived, and not just in the bare minimum historical way, either, but the full-blown son of god type of existence. No wonder they find such arguments about Jesus vs. Tiberius vs.Julius Cesar vs. Alexander the Great vs. Socrates vs. Pilate vs. Spartacus arguments so compelling.

    Hmmm. Jesus vs. Tiberius vs.Julius Cesar vs. Alexander the Great vs. Socrates vs. Pilate vs. Spartacus. I think I hear the makings of a summer blockbuster movie.

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  4. brucegee1962 July 5, 2015, 10:01 pm

    I guess I’d need to read your book to get the full version, but in the abbreviated version above, I find your first argument based on categories to be unpersuasive. (I don’t have any problem with your second argument on actual historical sources.)

    First of all (and I’m sure you address this in your book, but I’m just looking at the abbreviated version), I’m not sure how you can prove the negative that someone did not exist in some form. You mention Euhemerization – my understanding of the term is that Euhemerus said that he assumed that Zeus, for instance, might have been some ancient king of Crete who was assigned more and more godlike attributes after his death until, after enough time had gone by, his descendants came to believe he actually was a god. After all, we’ve seen this process partially underway with plenty of figures who historically did exist, like Charlemagne and Mohammed and Joseph Smith and Frederick Barbarossa and various real emperors supposedly sleeping under various mountains. We could prove the existence of a historical King Zeus if we found his tomb, for instance, but how the dickens could you disprove that he existed at all? And if that’s true for kings, wouldn’t it be even more true for commoners like itinerant Jewish mystics, who were a dime a dozen back then?

    Jesus actually belongs to several myth-heavy sets (worshiped deities, mystery-cult saviors, dying-and-rising demigods, culture heroes, heavenly founders?

    The primary group that I think of when I think of Jesus is religion founders. Of this set (including Mohammed, Siddhartha, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard), Jesus is the only one whose historicity is seriously questioned. And if we think there’s anything to Euhemerus at all, then someone like Dionysus could just as easily have been a real person who was granted godhood over time.

    I wonder if there isn’t also some deck-stacking in your categories. When you talk about “culture heroes,” my guess is that you’re primarily thinking of the ahistorical ones like King David and King Arthur, not the historical ones like Alexander or Charlemagne or William Wallace or Ned Kelly.

    Ordinary people are not usually mythical. There is little reason to have made them up or to have Euhemerized them.

    That’s an interesting assertion, but I don’t see any particular reason why it should be true. If it is true, though, then you would seem to have established the historicity of Aesop, Homer, Till Eulenspiegel, William Tell, and Robin Hood plus all his merry men in one fell swoop. The latter two in particular seem pretty closely parallel to Spartacus, other than lacking his documentation. Aren’t the yearnings of an oppressed people for freedom enough of a reason?

    Ordinary people are not worshiped celestial gods with astonishing supernatural powers and suspiciously convenient names (Jesus means “Savior”), rapidly surrounded by wildly egregious myths, to serve as reified authorities for promoting certain cultural and religious norms.

    Except that, if I understand it correctly, that’s precisely the proposition that Euhemerus put forward as an explanation for where ALL stories of gods come from: that they are ordinary people who, once all the people who directly knew them have died off, have wild stories made up about them by their cultural offspring. So if you fundamentally reject his basic theory, why do you simultaneously cite it so much?

    Oh, and my understanding was that Jesus probably started off as Joshua before the mythmakers got hold of him. I’ve even heard that version from Christians.

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    1. It’s all about probability. Not certainty. So the matter of reference classes is about differential probability for different types of claimed persons, based on past experience with them. This is thoroughly explained in Chapter 6 of On the Historicity of Jesus. You need to read that.

      As for Euhemerus I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Euhemerus didn’t write a thesis for all deities. He just made up a biography for Zeus and Uranus, and thus started the trend of claiming they were past historical kings subsequently deified. No such fact was true of them before that. So their historicity is totally made up. Subsequent people then liked the idea so much they started doing it to other gods. We now call it Euhemerization because the trend is to do what he did, over and over again. Euhemerization = “Doing what Euhemerus did.” Which is make up a history for a nonhistorical deity.

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  5. Giuseppe July 6, 2015, 1:22 am

    Hi Richard,
    what ever do you mean by calling the author of Mcn ”a far more obvious Joseph-Smith-style fabricator” ?

    Somehow you’re saying that if Mcn was the first gospel, the resulting consequent probability, based only on the gospel, would increase even more against the historicity and in favor of myth? Against your known Jesus agnosticism (when only-Gospel-based) ?

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    1. If we are admitting that the Gospel Jesus was deliberately constructed to sell a particular replacement for the OT and that no prior Gospel Jesus existed, then yes, the evidence of that one kind of originating Gospel with that kind of established purpose starting everything else is in that case less likely on historicity and more likely on mythicism. It would essentially amount to admitting almost everything the mythicists are saying, rather than taking it as equally likely: that historical narratives about Jesus are a very late and deliberate fabrication with no interest in history.

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  6. rietpluim July 6, 2015, 1:57 am

    It’s a lot like intelligent design creationism. First the eye is too complex to be evolved. Then the flagellum is too complex to be evolved. Then this is too complex, then that is too complex, ad infinitum. Let them make a positive claim for once. If they think Jesus actually existed, let them show the evidence.

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  7. busterggi July 6, 2015, 5:58 am

    There is starting to be just a wiff of desperation in the historisist argument – they just cannot envision not having at least some real Jesus – sure he didn’t do those miracles but…and his birth and resurrection stories are clearly fiction but…and although he had hordes of loyal followers that all unanimously and simultaniously turned on him and forgot to make and written records but…it goes on.

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  8. k_machine July 6, 2015, 6:20 am

    These questions are not equal in importance anyway. If Homer was not real, nothing changes. If Jesus was not real, Christianity goes down the toilet.

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    1. Technically no. If Christianity originally had a celestial Christ with allegorical stories, modern Christianity could return to that model, and thus not need a historical Jesus in our sense. Indeed, Thomas Brodie even argues his Catholic faith can continue without a historical Jesus, on a similar model.

      But still, you are right in that this would be so radical an admission, and such a loss of ground, that most denominations could not do this. The Catholic Church certainly won’t take Brodie’s advice. So, yes, the great desperate need for Jesus to exist doesn’t attach to other figures. And that causes distortion in the way evidence is handled in the case of Jesus.

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  9. dutchdelight July 6, 2015, 6:33 am

    What really gets me about these comparisons is how ridiculously misinformed or misleading these “scholars” are. What kind of material is their bubble made out of that they think they can get away with suggesting in any way that the historical evidence and sources for Jesus and Ceasar are even remotely on the same level.

    This whole argument from comparison wouldn’t have gotten far with me even back in the 90’s when i was a teenager with very fragmented knowledge of history, all i would have needed to point out is that we had books written by Ceasar himself, that he had (close) contemporaries mention him and his (non-supernatural) deeds. Not to mention you can still find coins with his face on it in the ground where i live. And that’s just for friggin’ starters. None of those facts are particularly obscure. Argument over.

    It truly boggles the mind that they can put this kind of silliness out there and aren’t even afraid of being laughed at. What are they thinking… Do these people ever interface with the real world?

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    1. I can’t fathom it either. At least for Sparacus and Socrates, the data is obscure enough you may need to ask an actual historian to know the deal, although it really isn’t that hard to make a trip to a research library and check the latest scholarship to see yourself. But for Alexander, Julius, and Tiberius, it is flabbergasting. Google alone could set you straight. Although I wonder if the problem is again that they are just so inexperienced with ancient history that they don’t even know to check for things like inscriptions, coins, papyri, or how to look for contemporary mentions, or to check the later historians and see what sources they are citing (and the notice that the fact that they cite sources is already a step above anything we have for Jesus), and so on.

      One might think it’s thus just arrogance: assuming any rando can do ancient history, and expertise and research isn’t required, and what they just know off the cuff must be correct. After all, if they thought otherwise, they might have left the faith by now, since the requisite humility leads very rapidly to agnosticism about any church doctrine about Jesus, even apart from his historicity.

      However, the Alexander the Great comparison came from renowned Jesus historian Dale Allison. Who can’t claim to be some rando. I really can’t fathom what he was thinking.

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  10. We have better evidence for jesus than for hello kitty. But not much.

    My favorite thought experiment is to ponder why jesus is believed to be god and the amazing spider-man is not. Enough time and retconning and it’s doable, spidey-fans.

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  11. shadowspade July 6, 2015, 3:45 pm

    I just love the quote from above “We have way better evidence for Spartacus anyway.” That about sums up every one of these silly comparisons. Out of curiosity which is the most ridiculous comparison like this you’ve seen. I always thought the comparison to Julius Caesar was pretty ridiculous. Although just now when I typed in “there is more evidence for Jesus than” into Google the top result was Abraham Lincoln. Sigh.

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    1. Abraham Lincoln? Facepalm. Wow. Not even necessary to address that one!

      The most ridiculous (apart from that!) is a tie between Alexander the Great and Emperor Tiberius.

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    2. Scott Scheule July 8, 2015, 7:31 am

      I only found pages that compared belief in Lincoln to belief in God. Regardless, they’re all stupid. Bascially, you do a word search for God and replace it with Lincoln for any number of claims atheists make about God. Ignore the fact that A. there’s a shitload of evidence for Lincoln, and B. the existence of a bearded man in the White House is a far less extraordinary claim than the existence of a bearded man in the sky. Pretend you’ve made some sort of point. Some examples:

      “You are an Alincolnist toward the billions of people who have existed throughout history. We just believe in one less American president than you.”

      “Fundamentalist Lincolnists, like the fundamentalist Alincolnists with whom they match wits, have got the story all wrong. Abe Lincoln exists, but not out there somewhere; he exists in each of us. We create our own Lincoln. We are the Lincolns of our own universe. I heard that on Oprah. Some guy named Deepfried Cobra.”

      “Lincolnists claim that Lincoln was the president of the most powerful nation in the world and a good man. Yet one of the bloodiest wars in U.S. history occurred during his supposed presidency. Was Lincoln unable to prevent it? Then he could not have held a powerful office like the presidency. Was Lincoln unwilling to prevent it? Then he was not a good man. Was he both able and willing to prevent it? Then why did it occur? Checkmate, Lincolnists.”

      “If Abe Lincoln emancipated the slaves, who emancipated the emancipator?”

      “No-one is born believing in Lincoln. Only when people are taught about Lincoln, and usually at a young age, do people become Lincolnists.”

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  12. humesapprentice July 6, 2015, 6:40 pm

    I think this whole line of argument (“The evidence for X is terrible, but we believe X existed, so Jesus did too”) is just horribly mistaken. My knee jerk reaction to it is that if it was true that the only sources for any individual was something hundreds of years after the fact, doubt would be a rational position. It’s not like doubting Jesus and X results in any logical inconsistency, anyway. It feels a little odd to reject or question the historicity of a figure you have always believed in, but then again if you were assessing the evidence for the first time you might not feel that way. After all, if I came across a story about a Native American hero who lived in the 1700s, and the earliest sources for him or her came from the 1900s and we’re not clearly derived from earlier, reliable sources, I would not be dogmatic about that hero’s existence.

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    1. Indeed in some cases that’s the unexpected consequence of the argument. Homer is an example: actually, indeed, his historicity is dubious. The “we have as much evidence for Jesus as for X and we believe X existed, so…” argument backfires when actually, we aren’t so sure X existed, for exactly that reason. This exposes the fact that the rules are in fact being applied inconsistently to Jesus by the historicists, not the doubters.

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  13. Richard G July 6, 2015, 7:07 pm

    Hi Richard, well written – I know you don’t have much money, but have you been to Rome yet? Don’t wait. They were real Gods.

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  14. corwyn July 7, 2015, 10:05 am

    “The evidence for X is terrible, but we believe X existed, so Jesus did too”

    But in the instance of Sparticus, I don’t (or didn’t until I read this) believe he existed. I would need to be far more of a historian to even be impressed by this claim.

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  15. favog July 7, 2015, 7:34 pm

    Richard,every time I see one of these “We’ve got more proof of a historical Jesus than of a historical (insert name here)” routines, I really wish someone with the qualifications would do the Bayesian analysis with King Arthur what you’ve done with Jesus. They’re the two characters that, years ago, I developed an interest in the historicity of. Even before reading your work, I was of the minority opinion that Arthur had better odds of having a real person behind the legend, but I’d really like to see the question tackled by someone who knows a lot more about it than I do. You don’t happen to know of anyone you could try to talk into task, do you?

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    1. No. But the historian I cite on this in OHJ does a really good job of demonstrating no one man can be traced as Arthur. The Arthur character is a chimera stitched together from mythical and quasi-historical personages, none of whom occupy the same originating century as each other or the Arthur legend, such that no one of whom can be credibly called “the inspiration” for Arthur. He was conjured out of disparate legends. I don’t think a Bayesian analysis would do anything but verify his conclusions.

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  16. kyroot July 8, 2015, 4:54 am

    The historicity of Jesus debate is all about piling on after the runner has been tackled. Even if he was a real historical figure, the evidence is overwhelming that he was nothing more than a mortal human being. That Christianity is false is an easily proven hypothesis. I compiled 470 reasons to support this conclusion:
    http://www.kyroot.com

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  17. Boswell July 8, 2015, 7:14 am

    We know that Reason & scientific evidence about historical figures involves a lot of information, as Richard supplies above, and I do believe that a certain intellect is incapable of understanding the complexities of the historical method. So, why not shame this lot by showing that in many other spheres of their life they BELIEVE & DEPEND upon Reason, technology & Truth? Tell them that the car they used to drive to work today, or the TV or the microwave or the medicine that they willfully use & BELIEVE IN depends on the same logic & methodology that tell us that Jesus probably never existed?! Or that the Earth & universe are much older than the bible claims?! Show that they are having all their cake & eating it too & maybe social embarrassment will weed this type out of our culture. They gotta be shamed because nothing else works.

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  18. mesh July 9, 2015, 12:54 pm

    The historicity of Jesus debate is all about piling on after the runner has been tackled.

    I couldn’t disagree more. On the question of historicity of an individual the legitimacy of the whole of Christianity is neither here nor there. This reasoning not only holds inquiry hostage but exempts scholars from the standards of evidence and logic resulting in an untouchable dogma.

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  19. favog July 10, 2015, 6:57 am

    Hmm. On the Arthur question, my own admittedly incredibly amateur guess is that the Bayesian approach would give us a “we really can’t tell one way or another” — which would be the least satisfying result for a lot of work, I realize. The pro-Arthurian side has made some points that I think the other side is dismissing far too out of hand, similar to the intellectual inertia of those who claim that Jesus is historically established; the anti-Arthurians even have their own equivalent to the Testimonium Flavianum. (“Gildas never mentions him by name” — they all say it, and it obviously doesn’t matter.) On the other hand, the pro-Arthurians also commonly make two egregious procedural mistakes such that I, again incredibly amateur, spotted the problems on my own. (And later found out from reading a book called “Proving History” that those problems show up in a lot of more respected material as well.)

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  20. I’m not at all convinced by the power of these ‘reference classes’. It seems prone to error if we can try to fit someone or something into whatever tiny class we imagine the subject will fit, with millions of possible such ‘classes’ to choose from freely. Surely, the odds are that by random chance, there will be *some* slightly relevant ‘class’ that will confirm our prejudice.

    If I tried to disprove Spartacus, I would put him in the class of folk hero villains such as Ned Ludd or Robin Hood. Certainly some such heroes did exist, but many, such as Ludd, did not. But I don’t see how this would prove anything.

    But it’s not particularly important whether Spartacus existed, anyhow. We can very well live with a degree of uncertainty on that matter.

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