A few days ago I was thumbing through the The Empty Tomb, by Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder which is a book which (according to the inside cover) "scrutinizes the claims of leading Christian apologists . . . and critiques their efforts to provide the best historical explanation for the resurrection."
In a rather rambling prologue, Robert M. Price tries to point out what he sees as an irony of Christian apologetics: that Christians believe in a God who really was resurrected and that Christians seek certainty of that resurrection. He does so visiting a wide array of subjects making claims that are, in my view, silly. But he finally gets to the point:
And thus apologists love to make the claim (a claim that will be exploded many times in the course of this book) that the resurrection is the best attested event of history. The irony here is that the claim is always made amid a plethora of probabilistic arguments the very existence of which demonstrates that the resurrection is anything but an open-and-shut case. If apologists themselves did not realize the difficulty of their case they would waste no more time with skeptical objections to the resurrection than they do refuting, say, beliefs that Jesus was a space alien.
Now, I personally find this entire excerpt to be absurd. I intend to deal with his claim that the position taken by apologists is ironic in a future post. However, I first wanted to deal with his statement that "apologists love to make the claim . . . that the resurrection is the best attested event of history." What may come as a surprise to some people who have read this blog, I agree with Price that an apologist should not make such a claim because the resurrection is not the best attested event in history.
However, merely because I agree with Price on that single point is hardly cause for anyone to conclude that I think the resurrection is either not well-attested or that it is a myth.
Assuming that Price is correct that Christians are asserting that the resurrection is the best attested event of history, then I agree that they are mistaken. I am positive without checking that there is more evidence of the actions taken by Bill Clinton during his presidency than there is for the events that occurred in the life of Jesus Christ. But, of course, no one is asserting to the contrary.
Christians who make claims similar to the one asserted by Price are referring to "ancient history" -- roughly speaking, events that would have taken place more than 1000 years ago. While I am not an historian, it seems obvious that events that occurred in the last 100 years are generally better attested than the events that occurred more than 100 years ago. Likewise, events that occurred within the past 200 years are generally better attested than events that occurred more than 200 years ago. In measuring the attestation about Jesus' resurrection, the claim is necessarily made in the context of other events that happened in that same time period. So, let's start by amending the claim to read that the resurrection is the best attested event in ancient history.
But even that modified claim is, in my view, an overstatement.
Julius Caesar's life, for example, is the subject of a great deal of attestation. We find in the historical record documents that appear to have originally been written by Julius Caesar (such as the Commentarii de Bello Gallico). A contemporary historian, Sallust, also wrote favorably about Julius Caesar (of course, applying the same rules as many skeptics seem to apply to the books of the New Testament, the fact that he favored Caesar means that his writings should be thrown out as utterly worthless). Julius Caesar also has mentions made of him in the writings of Cicero and Catulus, both contemporaries. In addition, I am betting that you can find references to Caesar in other writings of the period from outside Rome because Julius Caesar, being the most powerful man in the world's only dominant superpower of the time, should certainly be mentioned since what he did impacted countries that Rome didn't even control. (Of course, if Julius Caesar isn't mentioned in other countries' writings, should we use that as evidence that Caesar didn't exist? Since skeptics argue -- at least on Internet message boards -- that the failure of people outside of the New Testament to mention Jesus is evidence that He didn't exist, I think that would be a fair conclusion to reach.)
Does the attestation for Jesus reach that level? My subjective viewpoint (even as a Christian) is that it doesn't. But that doesn't mean that the skeptics have won the battle.
When Christians make claims to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested event of ancient history, that claim is based on the fact that there are multiple sources to the event (the four Gospel accounts plus the stripped down account from Josephus) two of which were allegedly written by eyewitnesses to the event, one of which was written by a man who claims to have personally investigated the facts, and the final of which was the writings of the recollection of another eyewitness. Three of the four major accounts (perhaps all four) were written within 40 years after the event and were able to be checked against the oral histories (common at the time) that were shared among the communities by others who also were eyewitnesses to the events or who had learned the accounts from eyewitnesses. The people who wrote these accounts and followed them were willing to die in support of these accounts when faced with persecution, and to contend (as skeptics must do) that they were willing to die for something which they would have known to be a lie is not very convincing. Moreover, we have many copies and portions of copies of manuscripts (numbering in the thousands) of these books that can be traced back to older copies in different areas that gives assurance that the copies of these books that we have today or extremely close to what was written into the original. The fact that the books make reference to people and places that actually existed (despite doubts raised from time to time by various scholars) that are remarkably accurate confirms that the writers knew the people and places involved and took care to be accurate in their descriptions. The fact that many of the places where the events described in these accounts are said to have occurred have been venerated from ancient times also adds credence to the events themselves.
Certainly, there are other events that may have more substantial evidence for attestation. For example, the fact that the Colosseum was built is attested to by the fact that the Colosseum is still standing. But Jesus' acts were not acts that would necessarily or even probably leave an archaeological artifact. Jesus didn't build buildings. Jesus didn't move vast armies. Among other things, Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, walked on water and self-volitionally resurrected from the dead. These types of things don't leave archaeological remains. Does anyone really expect to find remants of the breadcrumbs from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000? Do we expect to find footprints left behind from when Jesus walked on water? Of course not.
Moreover, Jesus' position in life did not lend itself to great biographies being written about Him. The fact that Julius Caesar served as Caesar is attested to by many individual writings, but that would be expected for the most powerful man in charge of the most powerful empire on Earth. Jesus, being born a poor non-Roman Jew in a backwater part of the Roman Empire who was neither a military figure nor a political figure, would not be expected to attract the attention of the Roman biographers. There was no CNN-Jerusalem in 31 A.D. to report on the curious events happening there -- and even if there were, the press would certainly only have reported on events that would be expected to effect the Empire. Jesus, being who He was, appeared to pose no threat to Rome -- even Pilate thought that. Yet, the information we have on Jesus under those circumstances is really quite astounding.
So, overall, I think that the claim that the attestation to the life of Jesus is "the best attested event of history" is definitely wrong, and the claim that it is "the best attested event of ancient history" is also an overstatement -- but not by much. Certainly, given the circumstances of the time, the amount of information available about Jesus from the contemporaneous biographies is (to my knowledge) unprecedented.