Is Neil Godfrey Right About How Classical Historians Treat Documents Like the Gospels?

I ran across a comment by Vridar/Neilgodfrey over at’s discussion board in yet another thread about the lost cause of Jesus Mythicism.

We do not know who wrote the gospels, when or where or for whom. Yet "biblical historians" treat their narratives as sources of historical data. I know of no other historical studies that would ever contemplate using such "unsourced" documents as evidence in this way.

Neil suggests that only “biblical historians” use ancient documents like the Gospels, whose provenance is purportedly unknown. In fact 1) the provenance of the Gospels and Acts is better than Neil acknowledges, 2) leading historians who are not “biblical historians” in fact rely on the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data, and 3) classical historians use as sources of historical data ancient documents with less provenance support than the Gospels and Acts.

1. Disputed Does Not Mean “Unsourced”

Many scholars dispute Neil’s assessment about the lack of provenance for the Gospels and Acts. As do I. In fact, there is ample evidence of the authorship of the Gospels, especially for Luke-Acts, Mark, and John. I admit that the authorship of Matthew is a more disputed affair even among traditional circles. I understand Neil disagrees with this assessment, as do many scholars, but historians rely on disputed source regularly in historical studies.

I also do not think the dates are all that unknown, even if we accept broad ranges of between 60-100 or even 120 AD. They are, in essence, mid-to-late first century documents. Even fringe scholarship does not put the Gospels very far into the second century. They obviously arise out of a Mediterranean milieu, written by Christians for Christians, and were substantially influenced by the Judaism of that time period. The writings themselves tell us more about each author, including literary ability, theological perspectives, and other factors. There are also traditions about where the gospels were written and internal evidence, such as the Latinisms in Mark, that are examined to determine provenance. Finally, the Gospels relatively quickly reached a broader audience and were widely circulated within the Christian community.

Even if the traditions are ultimately determined to be inaccurate, it is not as if the Gospels and Acts appeared out of nowhere with no possible indication of the cultural context, genre, reliability, purpose, or nature of sources used and/or available. There is a long history of how the Gospels were used and interpreted in the early Christian community and definitive dates of earliest and latest possible authorship.

2. Classical Historians Use the Gospels and Acts as Historical Sources

Nevertheless, is Neil correct that “real” historians would not even consider using documents such as the gospels as sources of historical data? No. Not only do historians use ancient documents of equal or lesser provenance -- as discussed below -- they use the Gospels and Acts as important historical sources. Michael Grant, a leading classical historian in his day, took the Gospels seriously as historical sources. Although he rejected traditional authorship, Grant viewed the Gospels as historical sources, concluding that from them “the main lines of [Jesus’] career and thinking and teaching can to some considerable extent be reconstructed.” Grant, The History of Rome, page 337. Grant also discusses Acts, stating that while it is not as reliable as Paul’s letters, “facts can also be derived from the Acts of the Apostles” and “the rest of the book contains a good deal of by no means unreliable historical material.” Ibid., page 344.

Grant also wrote a book entitled Jesus, An Historian's Review of the Gospels. It is an interesting insight into how a respected classical historian treated the Gospels. While Grant finds reason to doubt some details in the Gospel narratives, he accepts them as useful historical sources about the historical Jesus. Ibid., page 199-200. He had scorn for the Jesus Myth idea, writing, "if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned."

Moreover, some of Grant's conclusions are supportive of Christianity's most important claim. For example, Grant accepts the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb: "If we apply the same criteria that we would apply to other ancient literary sources, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty." Ibid., page 176. Finally, Grant found that much of contemporary Jesus studies was too skeptical of the gospel sources, saying that such scholarship “is too extreme a viewpoint and would not be applied in other fields.” Ibid., page 201.

Two other leading classicists also viewed the Gospels and Acts as useful historical sources: Robin L. Fox and A.N. Sherwin White. Fox, perhaps most famous for his book Pagans & Christians, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and University Reader in Ancient History. An avowed atheist, Fox wrote a book about the Bible called The Unauthorized Version. Although critical of what he perceives as fundamentalist views of the Bible, Fox reaches some quite conservative conclusions, such as that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness and that Luke-Acts was written by a companion of Paul. Indeed, Fox accepts much of Acts as historical, and states, “I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey.... He had no written sources, but in Acts he himself was a primary source for a part of the story. He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides....” Ibid., page 210. So not only does Fox disagree with his fellow atheist Neil’s conclusions about provenance but values the Gospels and Acts as historical sources.

Sherwin-White was an eminent Roman historian at Oxford and member of the British Academy. One of his books, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, focuses on the earliest Christian documents’ relationship with the broader Roman context. Again and again he finds the New Testament documents to be worthy of a high level of trust. When it comes to Acts, for example, Sherwin-White states, "For Acts the confirmation of history is overwhelming" and that "any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted." Ibid., page 189.

As to the gospels, Sherwin-White determined that it is unlikely that the Gospels were predominantly legendary, though he does think they must be read as written with agendas and for polemical purposes:

The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time.... Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.

Ibid., pages 189-190.

As with Grant, Sherwin-White found contemporary biblical studies to be unduly skeptical:

So, it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism... that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.

Ibid., page 187.

Sherwin-White’s statements about most classicists having faith in the New Testament documents receives further support from the reviews of his own book and by the works of other classicists. John Crook reviewed Roman Society and Roman Laws for Classical Review and agreed that Acts is “an historical source talking about exactly the same world as Tacitus and Suetonius.” He thought that Sherwin-White’s work “support the authenticity in detail of Acts.” Classical Review 14 (1964): 198-200; another reviewer, J. J. Nicholls, agreed with Sherwin-White that the Gospels and Acts “are to be treated as equally serious and valuable evidence” as other ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. Journal of Religious History (1964): 92-95.

Other classical historians have used the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data. A.H.M. Jones (1904-1970) was a prominent 20th century historian of classical antiquity and one-time chair of Ancient History at University College, London. In his Studies in Roman Government and Law, he uses Acts as a source when discussing a Roman citizen’s right of appeal to Caesar; Fergus Millar, Camden Chair of Ancient History at the Univ. of Oxford (recently retired), “likewise integrated (though again never uncritically) Acts and other Graeco-Roman evidence in a variety of contexts.” "What Do Ancient Historians Make of the New Testament," by Alanna Nobbs, TB, 57.2, page 288 (2006). The most notable such use was in The Emperor in Roman World (31 BC-AD 337); and Stephen Mitchell, whose book examining the geography and history of Anatolia draws on Acts as basic historical sources. Ibid.

Revised to Add: Another example: Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford who specializes in Jewish and Roman history, relies on Acts in his conclusion that "a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor, as did Paul in c. 60 before the Roman governor of Judaea, Festus, when the latter wanted to send him to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jewish authorities." His only cite for the statement is Acts 25:10-12. Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, page 73.

Goodman also states that Paul "came from Cilicia." Ibid., page 101. The source for this is Acts 21:39/22:3/23:34. Additionally, Goodman uses Acts' description of Paul being a Roman citizen as an example that someone could be both Jewish and Roman. He cites Acts 22:23-26 as an example, noting that "The relationship between Rome and Jerusalem was complicated by the fact that a Roman could be Jewish and Roman...." Ibid., page 155. He observes that "a few skeptics have doubted the story" but concludes that their doubts are "without justification." Ibid.

3. Other “Unsourced” Documents Relied on by Classicists

Not only do classical historians as well as “biblical historians” rely on the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data, they rely on other ancient documents of disputed provenance. Two obvious examples that immediately occurred to me are First and Second Maccabees. Unlike the Gospels and Acts -- for which we have preserved traditions regarding authorship within 40-50 years of authorship -- we have no idea who wrote First and Second Maccabees, other than that the authors were Jewish and had certain perspectives. Moreover, we do not even have texts of 1 Maccabees in its original language. Although Greek versions of the document have survived, it was likely written in Hebrew and no Hebrew version has survived. Possible dates of authorship are broader than for the Gospels and Acts and the textual tradition is much less than what we have for the Gospels and Acts, as measured by quantity, quality, and date. For example, the earliest manuscript for 2 Maccabees dates from at least 500 years after the date of authorship.

Despite all these shortcoming, 1 and 2 Maccabees are considered vital historical sources. “The two first Books of the Maccabees, which could be dated at the turn of the second and the first centuries, claim a special place in this literature as notable historical sources.... The two reports, which differ in many respects, contain one of the most important sections of the history of the Jewish sacerdotal state.” Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, page 800. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia describes Second Maccabees as “an important historical source containing authentic documents and describing the events leading up to the Hasmonean rising.” Page 615.

Next, we have the Epistles of Plato. There are thirteen received letters in the Platonic corpus and scholarly consensus over their authenticity has ebbed and flowed, back and forth, over time. Some of the letters have no defenders, all of the letters have those who reject authenticity. Despite the depth of doubt about these letters, some classical historians consider some of them useful, even important, sources of historical data.

The other important autobiographical text of the fourth century is the remarkable Seventh Letter of Plato. (This letter is regarded sometimes as genuine, sometimes as a fabrication by Plato’s school soon after his death. I follow Misch and Momigliano in regarding it as genuine.) It is the greatest autobiographical letter of antiquity.

Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians, Chapter 7. Despite the fact that many of the top classicists reject the authenticity of the letter, other leading classicists use it as a historical source; note that Mellor refers to it as the “greatest autobiographical letter of antiquity.” Another leading classicist, Albin Lesky, thinks the letter is likely genuine, but notes that even if its a forgery, it is still historically valuable. “Even if this letter should not be genuine, it would still have great value as a source, since it was certainly written with a precise knowledge of the conditions.” Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, page 507.

Finally, there is the Augustan History. This is an ancient document with a terrible reputation, much worse than any of the Gospels or Acts. It is a collection of more than two dozen Roman biographies that purports to be by six different authors and cite hundreds of sources, but is likely is the result of one author. As to the supposed cited sources, Mellor notes that the documents referenced “range from the suspicious to the outrageously false.” Chapter 6. Despite the big question marks about authorship and date and reliability, Mellor treats the document seriously, noting that “the earlier lives, [] contain more reliable material against other sources.” Ibid. He is not naive, but understands that even sources of highly dubious provenance cannot simply be dismissed as “off limits” and may provide historical data. As Mellor puts it, “historians cannot afford to cast aside any substantial source, [so] it is necessary to analyze the lives carefully to see what may come from reliable earlier sources.” Ibid.

Classical, non-"biblical," historians not only use sources of disputed or unknown provenance -- including some of more disputed or unknown origins than the Gospels and Acts -- as important sources of historical data, but use the Gospels and Acts themselves as important sources of historical data.


Jason Pratt said…
{{Even if the traditions are ultimately determined to be inaccurate, it is not as if the Gospels and Acts appeared out of nowhere with no possible indication of the cultural context, genre, reliability, purpose, or nature of sources used and/or available.}}

And if they had, wouldn't that be, like, miraculous?


Jason Pratt said…
Aside from my joke, I meant to add: good article, Chris.
Good article Layman. There's a huge difference in saying the secular historians don't regard Biblical text as revealed truth and saying they don't regard it has a historical source.

Everything is a source for it's day. My Ph.D. program was a secular program the historians who ran it didn't treat the New Testament like atheist do, ignoring, pretending it doesn't exist, saying that it has no bearing on anything. At very least they treat the NT as an artifact, they assume we can learn something form the people who wrote it.
Anonymous said…
Excellent post. You beat Godfrey at his own game, since he falls upon the authority of 'other historical studies' to validate his skepticism, but these other studies treat the Gospels with less skepticism than some NT scholars.

I like your distinction between 'disputed' and 'unsourced'. As a matter of fact, the very existence of disputes over authorship means that there are several at least prima facie plausible candidates. An unsourced document would be much more mysterious and hence there would be much less to argue about.

But I suspect Godfrey is also being disingenuous here (big surprise): even if there was a consensus among NT scholars and historians about the provenance of the Gospels, he and others of his ilk would merely dismiss it as traditional inertia, the product of cowardly mainstream scholars who refuse to face up to the implications of more radical views.
Nehemias said…

There is another example, the brief biography of the Emperor Constantine I, known as "Origo Constantini Imperatoris" ("The Lineage of the Emperor Constantine").

The name of its author is not known. The date of its composition is uncertain. There is no information about provenance. The author did not mention his sources.

Jerome and the Origo Constantini Imperatoris, by Prof. T.D. Barnes

"The Origo Constantini Imperatoris, as the manuscript styles the work, is an important historical source for an often badly documented period, and is especially valuable for the complicated political e military manoeuvres of the years 306-311 and for the conflict between Constantine and Licinius (...). The Origo is not inerrant: for example, it alleges that Severus, who became Caeser in 305 and Augustus in 306, took over all the territories previosly ruled by Maximian, whereas it is clear that in fact Spain was transferred to the control of the new Augustus Constantinus in 305 and passed from him to his son Constantine in 306. Moreover, the Origo elsewhere, with a different inaccuracy, defines Severus' domain as italy, Africa, and the Pannonias. Eutropius, in contrast, correctly states that Galerius ruled the whole of Illyricum (Brev. 10.1.1).
Despite such errors, however, the Origo contains so much precise and valuable information about the early fourth century(...).

Layman said…

Thanks. I'm glad to have someone add to the list. I'm sure there are many other examples we could come up with with more "field familiarity" or research.
Nehemias said…


As you rightly said, these assertions that only "biblical scholars" use the Gospels as historical sources are absurd, as demonstrated in the work of classicists like Sherwin White, Michael Grant, David Flusser, Louis Feldman and Robin Lane Fox. These scholars not only accept the existence of Jesus, but also reached more conservative conclusions than, for example, the members of the Jesus Seminar.

For example, Jona Lendering is a Dutch historian, who taught theory of history and ancient history at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was a founder of the school history Livius Onderwijs. Lendering maintains a large website devoted to ancient history, called livius.

He makes a historical analysis of Jesus as a messianic claimant, and writes:
"Scholars usually solve the second question by invoking 'criteria of authenticity', such as embarrassment (some things are too embarrassing for Christians to be invented) and multiple attestation (when independent sources tell the same, it is likely to be authentic). ( ...)"
The following stories from the gospels, however, can stand the test of literary criticism, and prove that Jesus was seen as the Messiah. (...)
"Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross the king of the Jews (multiple attestation; embarrassment). (...)"
"Jesus wanted to purify the Temple (multiple attestation; embarrassment), which the Messiah was expected to do. The two most important stories are Jesus' triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Mark 11.4-11; John 12.12-16) and his attempt to cleanse the sanctuary (Mark 11.15-18 and John 2.13-22)"

In another article, Lendering evaluates historical sources to Apollonius of Tyana, and uses a methodology very similar to that of New Testament scholars # Evaluation

"Having discussed what little we know about the pre-Philostratean traditions, we can try to add things up, using four criteria of authenticity.
Independent confirmation: when an author who is not primarily interested in Apollonius confirms something in the source on Apollonius, we may assume that we are approaching the historical truth.
Multiple attestation: when independent, pre-Philostratean traditions about Apollonius are in agreement, we may be reasonably certain that they contain some historical truth. The problem with this method is, of course, that it is not always easy to establish independence.
Embarrassment: embarrassing information about the man from Tyana also has a claim to historical reliability.
Consistency: sometimes the truth of statement can be confirmed after other facts have been established.
Using these criteria, we can say that the following elements are almost certain "

Best Regards,
Jason Pratt said…
In fairness, it should probably be pointed out that David Flusser, while far from being a trinitarian Christian, is still a Christian evangelist and writes as such sometimes. He might count as a "biblical scholar" in Neil's estimation, since the NT texts aren't peripheral to his claimed focus of expertise (Judaism in and around the 1st century).

How Neil would categorize someone like Craig Keener, who started off as an atheistic ancient Mediterranean historian with only the most peripheral interest in NT docs (much less OT), and became a conservative trinitarian Christian later, who knows?

(I'm going to guess Keener wouldn't count as a professional scholar anymore to Neil, but only a "biblical scholar" now. ;) But CK is well aware that the texts were and are treated very seriously by classicists and other scholars outside the field of "biblical scholarship", within which category he himself would include not only "believing" scholars like himself but also hypersceptical scholars like the Jesus Seminar and, I suppose, Neil Godfrey. {wry g})

Jason Pratt said…
Btw, fine comments Nehm! {g}
Anonymous said…
In fairness, it should probably be pointed out that David Flusser, while far from being a trinitarian Christian, is still a Christian evangelist and writes as such sometimes. He might count as a "biblical scholar" in Neil's estimation, since the NT texts aren't peripheral to his claimed focus of expertise (Judaism in and around the 1st century).

How Neil would categorize someone like Craig Keener, who started off as an atheistic ancient Mediterranean historian with only the most peripheral interest in NT docs (much less OT), and became a conservative trinitarian Christian later, who knows?

That's a simple question, those would all be considered fundamentalists.
Neil said…
You guys are allowed to ask Neil Godfrey what he really thinks instead of just talking amongst yourselves what you are sure he must be thinking :-)

I will be writing something soon about Layman's straw man argument. He has missed the central point entirely. At no time have I ever said that there is no place for unsourced documents. The difference is that classicists will use strict rationales by which to justify using them for historical information -- no such rationales exist with the gospels.

And the history we get from ancient documents of all types -- including the gospels and Acts -- is real. But it is not necessarily about the historicity of the narratives themselves. That difference is also overlooked.

And finally finally finally (once again) -- the central difference with the gospels and the documents cited by Layman is the difference of external controls. They exist for Layman's documents, and that is why we have some reason for thinking they really relate to real history. They do NOT exist for the Gospels. Even Albert Schweitzer had the honesty to admit as much. And that is the one central difference that is at the core of every post I have made on this topic. And the one point Layman and most commenters here have missed.

Much energy could have been spared had you addressed this to me directly instead of huddling off in private away from my earshot.
Layman said…
This is hardly a private forum away from earshot. And if I recall correctly last time we spoke you said you'd ignore anything I had to say.

You said nothing about "external controls" in your post at And given the examples of leading classicists using the Gospels and Acts as valid historical sources, do they disagree with you about the existence of these "external controls" or is it possible you are just being post hoc about all this?
Neil said…
So you took one of my many posts (and one that was a summary of an argument at that) and have looked no further and now suggest I am being post hoc. Ah yes, now I recall why I decided not to bother much with you personally.

Anyone here can show what a total fraud I am by doing a word or other search on FRDB and James McGrath's blog and my own blog and seeing if indeed I have ever discussed external controls as the basis of historical methodology -- (only about 20 times in the last 2 months, I think).

Out of earshot? Well public, certainly, but without links to the sites or arguments you discuss, this makes it all very much an inbred discussion without limited ability for readers to check the original posts for themselves.

And my experience with this CC blog is that if I do post a link to my own posts in various sites to demonstrate where I have discussed external controls someone here will delete my post for supposedly using it to promote those sites.
Jason Pratt said…
{{You guys are allowed to ask Neil Godfrey what he really thinks instead of just talking amongst yourselves what you are sure he must be thinking :-)}}

Well, then, my humorous guess aside: how do you categorize Craig Keener? As a "biblical historian" in your pejorative sense? As a "historical studies" scholar? Some third option?

{{The difference is that classicists will use strict rationales by which to justify using them for historical information -- no such rationales exist with the gospels.}}

So, when (as amply demonstrated) classicists do use the Gospels for historical information, you think they are doing so without strict rationales? (Because you were aware that classicists have long been using Acts and the Gospels in mundane fashions as classical source texts testifying to useful historical data including in regard to their narrative content, right? Unlike, say, GosThom; or for that matter RevJohn?--to pull a non-canonical and canonical text of very different genre out of the hat.)

Incidentally, I agree about the propriety of linking to the discussion if Chris was going to quote you--which as of this point hasn't been done.

Layman said…

I do not claim that you have never discussed "external controls" as a part of historical methodology. But the post I singled out did not and focused very much on the Gospels being unsourced. If you are going to provide examples of ancient historians discussing their methodological use of source such as 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Augustuan History, or Plato's Letters only with sufficient "external controls," I look forward to the discussion.

Note that I am interested in what classical historians or non-"biblical historians" have to say about external sources in the use of these documents, more than I am what Neil thinks such historians should be doing. And perhaps you could explain what external controls Michael Grant, A.N. Sherwin-White, and Robin L. Fox found for the Gospels and Acts given their reliance on those documents to derive historical facts therefrom?

As for linking, I've linked a number of times to Neil's blog. I have little interest in linking to yet another Jesus Myth thread over at

During our last exchange, Neil promised to ignore anything I had to say, so I'm not sure why he's complaining that I did not notify him of this post. And if memory serves correctly, Neil took shots at my online Acts article without alerting me to that fact.

Finally, if all Neil does is list links to posts discussing his theories about external controls, then he does risk being deleted. The CADRE blog is not a link depository for disaffected skeptics with fringe views. I'm not saying that is his MO because I don't remember whether he did that before or whether or how many of his comments may have been deleted. In any event, if Neil engages the discussion and posts responsively, then all things being equal his comments won't be deleted.

Finally, finally, I have not called Neil a fraud nor engaged in such hyperbolic language.

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