JP Holding’s anti-blog entry yesterday discussed a $100 prize being offered by an atheist group called – I am not kidding – the “Rational Responders”:
We are offering a $100 reward and an appearance on our radio show where we will admit we we're wrong to the person who can set a precedent that other important historical figures exist without contemporary evidence. Provide us with the names of five important historical figures that were not written about until at least 25 years after they died (like Jesus).
Were Any of Jesus' Teachings or Activities Recorded During His Time?
It is erroneous to simply assume that there was nothing written down about Jesus until 25 years after his death. Apparently, the atheists here simply assume that nothing was written about Jesus until the Gospel of Mark. This ignores the early letters of Paul, which clearly refer to Jesus and contain traditions about him and which were written beginning about 16-19 years after Jesus’ death. More to the point, the group’s assumption is a naïve, and convenient given their bias, one that has little to commend it. It is likely, given Christian traditions preserved in Paul and the Gospels, and given the nature of Jewish society, that many of Jesus’ teachings and activities were written down while he was alive. (See my, “The Oral and Written Jesus Tradition Prior to the Gospel of Mark,” October 23, 2005). The prologue to the Gospel of Luke, which speaks of “many” preceding accounts of Jesus’ life, adds further weight to this conclusion. At the very least, the assumption that there were no sources about Jesus, such as Q, L, or M, that were incorporated into the canonical Gospels is untenable.
If accounts were written during Jesus' ministry, why do they not exist today? First, it is hardly surprising that they do not. Many ancient documents failed to survive to this day. In this case, there is even less reason to think they would have survived. Earlier accounts were likely supplanted by the more comprehensive Gospels that came later. However, the determinative factor was likely that any contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life would have been written in Aramaic, whereas Christianity prospered predominantly among Greek speaking peoples. Documents were passed on by being continually copied by dedicated scribes. They were preserved and copied because they were useful. Aramaic sources about Jesus would have had little utility and their preservation by repeated copying would have been close to a practical impossibility by Greek-speaking scribes. Consider that we know that the earliest Christians in the Jerusalem Church spoke Aramaic but no Aramaic Christian sources have survived to this day (whether affirming a historical Jesus or not). So, there likely were some writings about Jesus’ teachings and activities recorded during his life. At the very least, it is a likelihood that cannot be dismissed simply because such writings have not survived to the present day.
Is this Really What Historians Require?
No, it is not. The demand for a contemporary written account is not one required by professional historians. People serious about the study of history, rather than those eager to sacrifice such inquiry to promote their own ideological agenda, study the sources we have to see whether they contain authentic traditions traceable to the object of study. A source that has information dating back to the object of study is reliable to that extent whether it was written 5, 15, or 50 years after the object of study. Paul’s letters and the Gospels contain such reliable traditions. This is one reason that real historians have again and again rejected the Jesus Myth for decades now. Even the very liberal Jesus Seminar traces back a substantial number of sayings from the Gospels back to the historical Jesus.
A Plethora of Examples
Now for the heart of the "challenge." It is actually quite easy to list five “important historical figures” who existed but for whom there are no surviving contemporary references. JP Holding over at Tektonics.org lists these:
• Gamaliel -- especially if you date Acts late, as they would
• Honi the Circle-Drawer
• Hanina ben dosa
All fine choices, but I think we can add to the list.
We can start with John the Baptist. John the Baptist was an important religious figure contemporary to Jesus who operated in the same cultural and geographical environment. As such, his is a good example of whether we should insist that there be surviving "contemporary" writings about Jesus' life. And it is undisputed that there are no such writings about John the Baptist. The earliest references to John the Baptist are, in fact, the Gospels themselves. He ranks no mention in Paul’s letters or any Roman source of the period. Josephus also mentions John the Baptist, but six decades later. Nevertheless, his existence is not disputed by historians and is firmly established. So, here is an important historical figure contemporary to Jesus -- who shared Jesus' geographical and cultural environment as well as his profession -- but for whom there is even less and later evidence than for Jesus.
Next, we will take up four at once: Mattathias, Judas, Jonathan and Simon (aka, the Maccabees). Mattathias was a Priest and father to Judas, Jonathan and Simon. Matthathias sparked the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids and his sons carried it forward to success. They are the quintessential Jewish heroes and the dominant figures of their day.
Relevant for our purposes is that Mattathias died around 166 BC, Judah died in battle around 160 BC, Jonathan died around 143 BC, and Simon died around 135 BC.
The earliest references of which I am aware are First and Second Maccabees. (I admit that OT Apocrypha is not my specialty, so I welcome any correction and reference to earlier citations to the Maccabees). Both of those documents were written around 104 BC or later. Thus, they were written 60-30 years after the time of the Maccabees.
Another candidate is Apollonius of Tyana, who died near the end of the first century. The main source for his life – and his existence is not disputed – is Philostratus’ The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Philostratus’ book, however, was written over a hundred years after his life. There are scattered references before The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, but none that I have found which are within 40 years of his death. As John P. Meier notes, “the problem of sources comes down to the fact that we have almost total silence about Apollonius (apart from a few scraps, such as a passing negative reference in the 2d-century satirist Lucian of Samosata) until we come to Philostratus’ work.” Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. II, page 577.
I also think Chrestus would qualify according to the “Rational Responders” criteria. The Roman writer Suetonius refers to rioting in Rome, instigated by “Chrestus,” which lead to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Many think that “Chrestus” is a reference to Jesus. Most skeptics and atheists reject this. If this was indeed another person, then he instigated riots in Rome around the middle of the first century. Suetonius did not write about him until around 115 AD.
Yet another candidate is Clement of Rome, who was a leader in the Roman church in the latter part of the first century. Although 1 Clement is attributed to him, the letter does not identify him as its author and appears to have been written on behalf of all the leaders in the Roman Church, rather than by any one person. The first reference to Clement of Rome that I have found is in the Shepard of Hermas, written around the middle of the second century; thus separating the reference from the man by about 40 years.
Other candidates I would suggest are Judas the Galilean, Rabbi Akiva, Theudas, several other Jewish rebels, the Egyptian, and Simon Magus. I have no doubt that there are many more (and more have already been suggested by others), but frankly the idea is so separated from reality that I feel little need to pursue it further. See, my emphasis is in New Testament history. That emphasis quickly made some examples clear to me. Other commentators who specialize in other time periods, other cultures, and other geographical locations will likely be able to easily offer a number of examples off the tops of their heads.
My Interaction with the "Rational Responders"
I actually posted some of these suggestions on the “Rational Responders” discussion board. I was promptly informed that “biblical figures” did not count because the Bible is not trustworthy. (Nevermind that this is the usual skeptic play of treating the Bible as one monolithic source when it is in fact a collection of often independent sources of different genres and time periods). When I pointed out that figures such as John the Baptist and Judas the Galilean were well established by non-biblical sources, I was told that it did not matter because they wanted to “whittle” the number of possibilities down. Biblical figures, even those whose existence is not disputed and is established by non-biblical sources, would not be considered for the contest. This made no sense.
But then the conversation got even stranger. The “Rational Responders” moderator admitted that they had already lost the contest because they had received more than five figures whose existence was accepted but for whom there was not what they call “contemporary evidence.” Even more submissions were coming in and it is apparent that they were operating out of gross ignorance of the realities of historical studies. The fact is that often our best sources of information about ancient figures and events are ones that were written down after the life of the person described or the events noted therein.
The moderator tried to defend the ignorance of the "Rational Responders" contest by saying they had argued on some discussion boards and no one ever gave them an example before. I think that admission is very revealing. Too many skeptics are so full of themselves or their skepticism that they think that if no one has brought it to their attention then it must not exist. As if the world owes them an obligation to spoon feed them every little factoid that stands in the way of their comfortable skepticism. But participation in select discussion boards is no substitute for actual research and historical knowledge. Anyone with the most basic of knowledge about historical Jesus studies, for example, knows that there are no “contemporary” writings about John the Baptist, but that his existence is undisputed among historians. Yet such examples never occurred to them.
To top it off, the “Rational Responders” apparently thought better of admitting that the entire premise of their challenge to the existence of Jesus had been proven erroneous within hours of announcing their contest. When I checked back later this evening they had deleted our entire discussion. Which, in my book, adds cowardice to ignorance in their vice column.
Update: It appears that the -- no kidding -- "Rational Responders" have simply dropped this part of their competition altogether. But even having done so, they apparently have not yet grasped how ridiculous a standard of proof it is to demand a "contemporary" writing about the historical person in question.
Update2: I have been told that the "Rational Responders" did not delete the entire discussion, but moved it to another thread. However, it does not appear that they left any notice that they were splitting the threads, thus leading to the confusion. All in all, this has to be among the worst internet "contests" ever conceived. But perhaps "conceived" is too generous a term for the effort they put into it.
In any event, once I was informed that the "Rational Responders" had split the thread w/o the normal announcement that follows such action, I invited them to update our readers of that by commenting on this thread. For some reason, they could not be bothered to do so.