Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why History isn't Scientific (And Why It Can Still Tell Us About the Past)

The following is a post from Tim O'Neill who is much more knowledgeable than I on matters of history, but I'm still pretty sure I have him beat in James Bond trivia.

"History sucks."

In April last year Grundy, the usual writer of this blog, posted History Isn't My Area, commenting on the release of Bart Ehrman's critique of the Jesus Myth hypothesis, Did Jesus Exist?: A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike the majority of actual historians, many prominent atheists find Jesus Mythicism convincing and many of them are unhappy with the generally sceptical and highly renowned Ehrman for criticizing this idea. Grundy, for his part, stated frankly "I honestly have little knowledge as to whether or not Jesus existed", though added "I tend to think he did". That said, he made it clear why the overwhelming consensus of historians and other relevant scholars that the Jesus Myth idea is junk was underwhelming for him:
"History sucks. Okay, that’s unfair, but it was never my subject. My confidence of the accuracy of historical events goes down exponentially with the paper trail. The idea that history is written by the victors highlights the biases of the past. Books are burned. Records fade. Who should I trust for an accurate portrayal of events two thousand years ago?"
Since history actually is my area, I responded by making some critical comments on this attitude and some points about how history , as an academic discipline, is studied. Grundy, unlike many so-called "rationalists" I've encountered over the years, was happy to listen, and he invited me to expand on my points in this guest post.

Atheists and Historical Illiteracy

I should begin, however, by pointing out that I am an atheist. I have been an atheist for my entire adult life, am a paid up member of several atheist and sceptical organizations and have a 21 year online record of posting to discussions as an unbeliever. I note this because I've found that when I begin to criticise my fellow atheists and their grasp of history or historiography, people tend to assume I must be some kind of theist apologist (which doesn't follow at all, but this happens all the time anyway).

After 30+ years of observing and taking part in debates about history with many of my fellow atheists I can safely claim that most atheists are historically illiterate. This is not particular to atheists: they tend to be about as historically illiterate as most people, since historical illiteracy is pretty much the norm. But it does mean that when most (not all) atheists comment about history or, worse, try to use history in debates about religion, they are usually doing so with a grasp of the subject that is stunted at about high school level.

This is hardly surprising, given that most people don't study history past high school. But it means their understanding of any given historical person, subject or event is (like that of most people), based on half-remembered school lessons, perhaps a TV documentary or two and popular culture: mainly novels and movies. Which is why most atheists (like most people) have a grasp of history which is, to be brutally frank, largely crap.

Worse, this also means that most atheists (again, like most people) have a grasp of how history is studied and the techniques of historical analysis and synthesis which is also stunted at high school level - i.e. virtually non-existent. With a few laudable exceptions, high school history teachers still tend to reduce history to facts and dates organized into themes or broad topics. How we can know what happened in the past, with what degree of certitude we can know it and the techniques used to arrive at these conclusions are rarely more than touched on at this level. This means that when the average atheist (yet again, like the average person generally) grasps that our knowledge of the past is not as cut and dried and clear as Mr Wilkins the history teacher gave us to understand, they tend to reject the whole thing as highly uncertain at best or subjective waffle at worst. Or, as Grundy put it, as "crap".

This rejection can be more pronounced in atheists, because many (not all) come to their atheism via a study of science. Science seems very certain compared to history. You can make hypotheses and test them in science. You can actually prove things. Scientific propositions are, by definition, falsifiable. Compared to science, history can seem like so much hand-waving, where anyone can pretty much argue anything they like.

History and Science

In fact, history is very much a rigorous academic discipline, with its own rules and methodology much like the hard sciences. This does not mean it is a science. It is sometimes referred to as one, especially in Europe, but this is only in the broader sense of the word; as in "a systematic way of ordering and analysing knowledge". But before looking at how the historical method works, it might be useful to look at how sciences differ from it.

The hard sciences are founded on the principle of probabilistic induction. A scientist uses an inductive or "bottom up" approach to work from observing specific particulars ("mice injected with this drug put on less fat") to general propositions ("the drug is reducing their appetite"). These propositions are falsifiable via empirical testing to rule out other explanations of the particulars ("the drug is increasing their metabolism" or "those mice are more stressed by being stuck with syringes") and so can be tested.

This is all possible in the hard sciences because of some well-established laws of cause and effect that form a basis for this kind of induction. If something is affecting the mice in my examples above today, it will affect them in the same way tomorrow, all things being equal. This allows a scientist to work from induction to make an assessment of probable causation via empirical assessment and do so with a high degree of confidence. And their assessment can be confirmed by others because the empirical measures are controlled and repeatable.

Unfortunately, none of this works for the study of the past. Events, large and small, occur and then are gone. A historian can only assess information about them from traces they may, if we are lucky, leave behind. But unlike a researcher from the hard sciences, a historian can't run the fall of the Western Roman Empire through a series of controlled lab experiments. He can't even observe the events, as a zoologist might observe the behaviour of a gorilla band, and draw conclusions. And there aren't well-defined laws and principles at work (apart from in a very broad and subjective sense) that allow him to, say, simulate the effects of the rise of the printing press or decide on the exact course of the downfall of Napoleon the way a theoretical physicist can with the composition of a distant galaxy or the formation of a long dead star.

All this leads some atheists, who have fallen in to the fallacy of scientism and reject anything that can't be definitively "proven", to reject the idea of any degree of certainty about the past. This is an extreme position and it's rarely a consistent one. As I've noted to some who have claimed this level of historical scepticism, I find it hard to believe they maintain this position when they read the newspaper, even though they should be just as sceptical about being able to know about a car accident yesterday as they are about knowing about a revolution 400 years ago.

The Historical Method

Just because history is not a hard science does not mean it can't tell us about the past or can't do so with a degree of certainty. Early historians like Herodotus established the beginnings of the methods used by modern historical researchers, though historians only began to develop a systematic methodology based on agreed principles from the later eighteenth century onwards, using the techniques of Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886).

The Historical Method is based on three fundamental steps, each of which has its own techniques:

  1. Heuristic - This is the identification of relevant material to use as sources of information. These can range from the obvious, such as a historian of the time's account of events he witnessed personally, to the much less obvious, like a medieval manor's account book detailing purchases for the estate. Everything from archaeological finds to coins to heraldry can be relevant here. The key word here is "relevant", and there is a high degree of skill in working out which sources of information are pertinent to the subject in question.
  2. Criticism - This is the process of appraisal of the source material in the light of the question being answered or subject being examined. It involves such things as determining the level of "authenticity" of a source (Is it what is seems to be?), its "integrity" (Can its account be trusted? What are its biases?), its context (What genre is it? Is it responding or reacting to another source? Is it using literary tropes that need to be treated with scepticism?) Material evidence, such are archaeology, architecture, art , coins etc needs to be firmly put into context to be understood. Documentary sources also need careful contextualisation - the social conditions of their production, their polemical intent (if any), their reason for production (more important for a political speech than a birth certificate, for example) , their intended audience and the background and biases of their writer (if known) all have to be taken into account.
  3. Synthesis and Exposition - This is the formal statement of the findings from steps 1 and 2, which each finding supported by reference to the relevant evidence.

The key difference between this method and those used in the hard sciences is that the researcher lays all this material, its analysis and his conclusions out systematically, but the conclusions are a subjective assessment of likelihood rather than an objective statement of probabilistic induction. This subjectivity is what many trained in the sciences find alien about history and lead them to reject history as insubstantial.

But the key thing to understand here is that the historian is not working toward an absolute statement about what definitely happened in the past, since that is generally impossible except on trivial points (eg there is no doubt that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20 1889). A historian instead works to present what is called "the argument to the best explanation". In other words, the argument that best accounts for the largest amount of relevant evidence with the least number of suppositions. This means that the Principle of Parsimony, also known as Occam's Razor, is a key tool in historical analysis; historians always favour the most parsimonious interpretation that takes account of the most available evidence.

For example, regarding the existence of Jesus, it is far more parsimonious to conclude that Christianity's figure of "Jesus Christ" evolved out of the ideas of the followers of a historical Jewish preacher, since all of our earliest information tells us that this "Jesus Christ" was a historical Jewish preacher who had been executed circa 30 CE. People have tried to propose alternative origins for the figure of "Jesus Christ", positing an earlier Jewish sect that believed in a purely celestial figure who became "historicised" into an earthly, historical Jesus later. But there is no evidence of any such proto-Christian sect and no reason such a sect would exist and then vanish without leaving any trace in the historical record. This is why historians find these "Jesus Myth" hypotheses uncompelling - they are not the most parsimonious way of looking at the evidence and require us to imagine ad hoc, "what if" style suppositions to keep them from collapsing.

Ways Atheists (Sometimes) Get History Wrong

Managing this process of systematic historical analysis requires training, practice and a degree of skill. Without these, it's very easy to do something that looks a bit like historical analysis and arrive at flawed conclusions.

Take the initial heuristic process, for example. I've come across many atheists who don't accept that a historical Jesus existed on the grounds that "there are no contemporary references to him and all references to him are later hearsay" or even that "there are no eyewitness accounts of his career". So they rule out any evidence we do have referring to him on the basis that it is not contemporary and/or from eyewitnesses. But if we ruled out any reference to an ancient, medieval or pre-modern person or event on these grounds, we'd effectively have to abandon the study of early history: we don't have contemporary evidence for most people and events in the ancient world, so this would make almost all of our sources invalid, which is clearly absurd. Given that we have no eyewitness or contemporary sources for far more prominent figures, such as Hannibal, expecting them for a peasant preacher like Jesus is clearly ridiculous. No historian of the ancient world would regard this as a valid historical heuristic.

Atheists can often make similar elementary errors in the criticism of sources as well. There is no shortage of lurid material on the horrors of the Inquisition, with whole books detailing vile tortures and giving accounts of hundreds of thousands of wretched victims being consigned to the flames by the Catholic Church. In the past, nineteenth century writers took these sources at face value and until the early twentieth century this was essentially the story of the Inquisition to be found in textbooks, especially in the English-speaking (i.e. substantially Protestant) sphere.

But much of this was based on sources that had severe biases - mainly sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant polemical material, usually produced in England which, as a political, religious and economic enemy of Spain, was hardly going to produce unbiased accounts of the Spanish church and crown's use of the Inquisition. Uncritical use of this material gives a warped, enemy's-eye-view of the Inquisition that has been substantially overturned by more careful analysis of the source material and the Inquisition's own records. The result is that it is now known that in the 160 years of its operation in Spain, the Inquisition resulted in 3,000-5,000 executions, not the hundreds of thousands alleged by uncritical nineteenth century writers like Henry Charles Lea. Basing an argument on the earlier, uncritical accounts of the Inquisition might suit many atheists' agendas, but it would be bad history nonetheless.

Finally, historical synthesis and exposition requires at least an attempt at a high degree of objectivity. An analyst of the past may have personal beliefs with the potential to bias their analysis and incline them towards certain conclusions. Worse, these beliefs could make them begin with assumptions about the past and so make them select only the evidence that supports this a priori idea. Historians strive to avoid both and examine the evidence on its merits, though polemicists often don't bother with this objective approach. All too often many atheists can be polemicists when dealing with the past, only crediting information or analysis that fits an argument against religion they are trying to make while downplaying, dismissing or ignoring evidence or analysis that does not fit their agenda. Again, this is bad history and rarely serves any function other than preaching to the converted.

So, for example, until the early twentieth century the history of science was popularly seen as a centuries-long conflict between forward thinking scientific minds trying to advance knowledge and human progress but constantly being persecuted and suppressed by retrograde religious forces determined to retard scientific progress. Again, in the mid-twentieth century historians of science reassessed this general idea and rejected what is now referred to as the "Conflict Thesis", presenting a far more complex, nuanced and well-founded analysis of the development of science that shows that while there were occasional conflicts, which were rarely as simple as "science versus religion", religion was usually neutral on the rational analysis of the physical world and often actively supportive of it. Overt conflicts, such as the Galileo Affair, were exceptions rather than the rule and, in that case as in many others, more complicated than simply “religion” repressing “science”.

Objectivity, Bias and Historical Fables

We atheists and freethinkers regularly deride believers for their irrational thinking, lack of critical analysis and tendency to cling to ideas out of faith even when confronted by contrary evidence. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to talk about being rational, and criticise others for not being so, than it is to practice what we preach. Everyone has their biases and “confirmation bias” - the tendency to favour information that confirms our prior beliefs - is an innate psychological propensity that is hard to counter even when we are aware of it. This means that atheists can, in many cases, be as bad as believers in accepting appealing ideas without checking their facts, holding to common misconceptions in the face of contrary evidence and liking neat, simple stories over messy, complex and more detailed alternatives that happen to be more solidly supported by the evidence.

The idea that the medieval Church taught the earth was flat, that Columbus bravely defied their primitive Biblical superstition and proved they were wrong by sailing to America is a great story. Unfortunately, it’s historical nonsense – a fable with zero basis in reality. It’s bad enough that I have had the experience of intelligent and educated atheists repeating this story as an example of the Church holding back progress without bothering to check if it’s true. What’s worse is that I have also experienced atheists who have been shown extensive, clear evidence that the medieval Church taught the earth was round and that the myth of medieval Flat Earth belief was invented by the novelist Washington Irving in 1828, and they have simply refused to believe that the myth could be wrong.

Neat historical fables such as the ones about Christians burning down the Great Library of Alexandria (they didn’t) or murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science (ditto) are appealing parables. Which means some atheists fight tooth and nail to preserve them even when confronted with clear evidence that they are pseudo historical fairy tales. Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who can be dogmatic about their myths.

One of the main reasons for studying history is to get a better understanding of why things today are as they are by grasping what has gone before. But it only works with a good grasp of how we can know about the past, the methods of analysis used and the relevant material our understanding should be based on. It also only works if we strive to put aside what we may like to be true along with any preconceptions (since they are often wrong) and look at the material objectively. Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as stupid or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists. And that’s not a good look.

Tim O’Neill writes historical book reviews on the Armarium Magnum blog and is a regular contributor to online fora on ancient and medieval history, atheism and the history of religion. He is a subscribing member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and a former state president of the Australian Skeptics.


  1. This was a great article, it really was. :)

    There's not only the issue of modern people with confirmation and cultural bias, and the people long ago with their biases, but there's also the issue that we may not fully understand something, because we don't fully understand the culture and the context in which they took place long ago.

    I remember a history professor who once showed a class I was in for purposes of humor, a "what if?" scenario, showed us a lid to an old Tupperware container that he had left on an electric stove burner. You could see where the circular pattern of the burner had scorched into the plastic lid.

    He wondered what an archaeologist 1,000 years from now would think if they found this lid. Would they know what an electric stove was, or what it's burners were shaped like? Would they knew what Tupperware or even just plastic was 1,000 years from now? Would such things no longer exist in this future world?

    If they didn't, what would this archaeologist think the lid was? What would he think this circular pattern was or why it was there? Would he think it was his family crest, or the symbol of some organization?

  2. "murdering Hypatia because of their hatred of her learning and science "

    I'm a little confused about your statement.Do you mean that the reason was wrong?
    There's two accounts, one seems like a bigot, both agree that she was murdered by a mob.

    1. I agree Angela. There are historical accounts written at the time that the mob was led by Christians. To be an should not have to subscribe to the fallacy that all things about religion, written of the distant past,, such as whether Jesus ever lived or not, or whether pagan Hypatia was murdered by Christians is still viable today. I am quite sure some of those ancient scribes who wrote of current events "considered" themselves to be just as accurate as Tim O'Neill considers himself to be. We all have to decide, based on our own faith and belief system, how much of what has been written in and of the past is true and how much is fallacy.

    2. "There are historical accounts written at the time that the mob was led by Christians."

      Yes, it was. And the faction Hypatia belonged to was also led by Christians. So?

      "one should not have to subscribe to the fallacy that all things about religion, written of the distant past,, such as whether Jesus ever lived or not, or whether pagan Hypatia was murdered by Christians is still viable today."

      "Viable"? What does that mean in this sentence?

      " We all have to decide, based on our own faith and belief system, how much of what has been written in and of the past is true and how much is fallacy."

      Did you even read my article? No, we don't decide this "based on our own faith and belief system". We decide it based on careful, objective analysis of the evidence. Deciding what happened in the past based on "faith" or on a "belief system" is actually the very worst way to analyse the past. The evidence doesn't care what you believe. The past is oblivious of your faith.

    3. "We atheists and freethinkers regularly deride believers for their irrational thinking, lack of critical analysis and tendency to cling to ideas out of faith even when confronted by contrary evidence/"

      Yes you do Tim...assuming I lack critical analysis after being confronted by contrary evidence. I well imagine I became an Agnostic by the same method you became an Atheist. Confronting what is written of the past and applying logic. I willing to admit I simply don't know the truth after 75 years of however...insist you do...and that my friend is the biggest problem with human nature.

    4. " ... assuming I lack critical analysis after being confronted by contrary evidence."

      Where did I say this? I know nothing about you, so I haven't assumed any such thing.

      " I willing to admit I simply don't know the truth however...insist you do.."

      I do? Where have I "insisted" any such thing? You know virtually nothing about me, so where are you getting this from?

    5. "Atheists who attempt to use history in their arguments who don’t do these things can not only end up getting things badly wrong, but can also wind up looking as stupid or even as dogmatic as fundamentalists. And that’s not a good look."

      Tim...I know you better than you think from this conclusion. You think folks who don't think like you do are "stupid." I know a lot of intelligent "fundamentalist" who would never call anyone stupid because they don't see things the way others do. Anna the Agnostic( I'm away from home on someone else's computer and don't want to change their Google setting.)

    6. "You think folks who don't think like you do are "stupid." "

      I know many people who don't think like do who I don't consider stupid at all. Many of them are Christians and a couple are Muslims. I may disagree with their conclusions and find some of their ways of thinking alien, but I know them too well to think them stupid. I respect their intelligence while disagreeing with them and they return the compliment.

      So no, you don't "know me" at all.

      Are their any other sentences you'd like to pick out of my article and make erroneous assumptions about? And you didn't answer my questions above about your strange assumptions.

  3. @Angela Martin
    Yes, I'm saying the reason often given - "their hatred of her learning and science" - is wrong. That she was murdered by a mob is not in question. But the sources that are contemporary or close to the time make it very clear that she got caught up in the violent city politics for which Alexandria was notorious and was killed in revenge for the death of a member of the rival political faction. There is zero evidence that her learning (or her paganism or even the fact she was a woman) had anything to do with it.

    Analysis of the two accounts you refer to are actually a good illustration of the second step in the Historical Method detailed above. One is from Socrates Scholasticus. He was writing about 24 years after the event. He was a scholar in the pagan tradition (though he was a Novatianist Christian), having been taught by two famed grammarians who were themselves from Alexandria. He took a dim view of Cyril, whose faction killed Hypatia, since Cyril had also persecuted the Novatian church. So his account is close to the events, likely well-informed about them, inclined toward the scholarly tradition represented by Hypatia and unlikely to whitewash actions by Cyril's faction. All in all this makes him likely to be fairly reliable on a number of fronts.

    The second account is by John of Nikiû. He wrote sometime in the late seventh or early eighth century, so around 280 years after the fact. Unlike Socrates, his account is hostile to Hypatia, describing her devotion to "magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music" and her "Satanic wiles". The fact that he was writing so much later than Socrates makes his more lurid version immediately less likely to be historical. But if his version represents an earlier strand of tradition that saw Hypatia as a philosopher who dabbled in magic, used scientific instruments like astrolabe and had "Satanic wiles", then perhaps this could support the idea that she was killed for more than political reasons after all.

    Except close examination of John of Nikiû's source material for this part of his chronicle shows that he was using none other than Socrates Scholasticus himself as his source. So the outline of events is taken from Socrates' earlier, more neutral account and the "Satanic wiles" stuff is John of Nikiû's embroidery, reflecting a later century's distaste for long dead paganism.

    The story of a young, beautiful philosopher who was torn apart by a mob of fiendish Christian monks who hated her for her learning/paganism/femaleness is another neat little fable. Unfortunately almost none of is born out by the source material. And it seems the story of an older woman who got caught up the violent street politics of the time doesn't have the same polemical appeal.

  4. I enjoyed the insight here, Tim. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  5. Thank you. Very insightful and helpful. I am an amateur Catholic apologist. I have come across many of the same false assumptions about history that you have expressed above. I generally try to research counter claims to my positions before standing my ground for fear of stubbornly holding to my paradigm because it is my paradigm rather than because it is a fairly accurate expression of reality. Recently I rewrote a history of Julius Caesar to show how easy it can be to make an historical person seem mythological to the historically ignorant.

    My point is, for anyone searching out truth, one first needs to want to find the truth. As you described about confirmation bias, I believe the problem goes deep into the character of a person, in that it is a lack of humility and patience before evidence that will bring about confirmation bias.

    That said, the modern approach to truth is often one of scientism. It objectifies everything including subjects and takes information 'violently' from the object of its search by making reality 'perform' for them. The 'soft' sciences however, must tease out and infer much of the information through cautious reflection and interaction. The object of research will 'give up' it's answers as a lady will give her hand in marriage to the most worthy gentleman.

    Anyway, I am very impressed with your approach and greatly appreciated your description of the historical method.

  6. Great article Tim. I agree that a lot of atheists do not apply skepticism to everything they approach. Personally, whether Jesus existed or not is not an issue to me, whether he was or was not the son of God is more important, after all as you agree God is not real :)

  7. Very interesting stuff. I must say though, I was surprised that the lack of contemporary sources for Jesus isn't a problem. I have heard this idea floated so many times and never heard it seriously challenged that I assumed it was valid.

    1. You can open virtually any ancient historian and pick virtually any name mentioned at random and in 99% of cases you can guarantee that there is no contemporary mention of that person. And in about 90% of cases you can guarantee that this is the *only* reference to that person in the whole corpus of ancient source material.

      People who make the "no contemporary references = didn't exist" argument are generally ignorant of how fragmentary our source material is for pretty much everyone in the pre-modern world. The reason the argument seems valid to many people is they are used to the vast amount of documentation that exists on everyone these days, so they find the idea that someone could pass without mention in their lifetime hard to fathom. But there was not this level of documentation in the ancient world and most of what documentation that did exist has not survived. This means the argument has absolutely zero weight. Historians actually find it laughably naive and ignorant.

    2. So if I pick some random ancient historical figure, and it turns out that the first record we have of them is nearly a century after their death, what kind of level of confidence can we really have about any fact about that person? From a layman's perspective, it seems like any facts about that person would be highly suspect at best, including their very existence.

    3. “So if I pick some random ancient historical figure, and it turns out that the first record we have of them is nearly a century after their death, what kind of level of confidence can we really have about any fact about that person?”

      That would depend on a range of factors: the nature of the later source, whether there is any there is any indication the writer is working from earlier sources of information, how the information about the person is reported etc.

      If we read in a historian writing a century later “It is said that that consul L. Cornelius Lentulus was the first to give a weekly grain ration to the poor of Rome” that is rather less certain than an account a century later that says “Records show that consul L. Cornelius Lentulus was the first to give a weekly grain ration to the poor of Rome”. The second writer may be lying (or mistaken) but the first account implies an oral tradition or memory whereas the second at least indicates a source. And we don’t assume a source is lying or mistaken unless there is something that indicates they are.

      Of course neither would be as likely to be true as a source that says “My good friend Lucius Cornelius Lentulus often spoke to me of his concen at unrest amongst the poor and, when he became consul, addressed this by granting them a weekly grain ration”.

      The “Criticism” step in the three step process I detail in my post is where the historian determines the degeree of confidence about any given source. Given that we are often dealing with non-contemporaneous sources when examining ancient history, the distance from the events in question is one factor taken into account. But it’s only one and it certainly doesn’t come close to ruling out a source’s information on its own. If we did that, we’d be left with little or nothing to work with.

      “From a layman's perspective, it seems like any facts about that person would be highly suspect at best, including their very existence.”

      Why would it be “highly suspect”? I can tell you thousands of facts about people who died 100 years ago, few of which would be wrong. So why would my information be “highly suspect”? My information may have less weight for a later historian than a contemporary source, for obvious reasons, but there is a wide gap between that and “highly suspect”.

    4. "Why would it be “highly suspect”? I can tell you thousands of facts about people who died 100 years ago, few of which would be wrong."

      I don't know, I guess I think about the telephone game, how morphed does the story get over the years with different people telling the story and everything. Although I suppose now that I think about it, while a person being invented completely in this process isn't impossible, it doesn't seem very likely.

      "the first account implies an oral tradition or memory whereas the second at least indicates a source."

      This idea really jumped out at me. I guess there is a big difference between there being no contemporary sources, and there being no contemporary sources that we still have today.

      Anyway, very thought provoking stuff. Thanks for writing the original post and sticking around to answer questions.

  8. "I guess I think about the telephone game"

    So do historians. Which is why a source's distance in time from the event/person in question is definitely taken into account. But it's not the only thing taken into account and it's certainly not enough to dismiss a source altogether.

    "I suppose now that I think about it, while a person being invented completely in this process isn't impossible, it doesn't seem very likely."

    Good observation. We do have examples where this does seem to have happened - the cargo cults' "John Frum" - but on the whole we tend to find stories that embellish an original historical figure rather than ones that invent one wholesale. Jesus seems to fall into this category.

    "I guess there is a big difference between there being no contemporary sources, and there being no contemporary sources that we still have today. "

    Exactly. Most of what we know about the campaigns of Alexander the Great comes from Arrian's *Anabasis*. Arrian was writing about 600 years after Alexander died - ie the equivalent of the length of time between us and the Battle of Agincourt. This makes the mere 30-60 years between the death of Jesus, for example, and the dates of the gospels look pretty short. But we do know that Arrian was using sources that are lost to us, some of which were contemporary with Alexander. This makes Arrian's account actually highly reliable.

    "Thanks for writing the original post and sticking around to answer questions. "

    No problem.

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