Sunday, 24 April 2011

Julius Caesar and Jesus

Bellini - The Resurrection

It is Easter again, and it has become a blogging tradition (observed here and here and here) to select an Easter theme.

I recently heard someone remark that "there is more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ than there is for Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC".

This is an intriguing variation of a perennial chestnut: that, somehow, the truth of Christianity can be proved by employing the techniques of historiography. In other words, if we can demonstrate what little evidence exists for other commonly accepted events in ancient history, we must surely accept the existence of Jesus Christ on similarly scanty evidence.

Religion vs. Ancient History

The most recent source of this argument was, I think, the late E.M. Blaiklock, sometime Classics lecturer and Christian apologist, who complained that "Julius Caesar is not thus dismissed, or his rather unsuccessful reconnaissance across the English Channel relegated to legend, despite the fact that our principal informant is Julius himself (in a book designed to secure his political reputation) and that confirmatory evidence of that campaign consists merely of a shield in the river at the Chelsea crossing of the Thames, a few lines in Cicero's voluminous correspondence, and only a handful of later references".

His point was that, if we are willing to believe everything that Julius Caesar wrote, why shouldn't we give the Gospel-writers a similar degree of trust? (As if proof of the mere existence of a man named Jesus contributes anything to a Christian's faith in the existence of a loving God. But that's another question.)

Christianity and the Philosophers

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the philosopher David Hume realised that "some human testimony has the utmost force and authority in some cases ... [for example] when it relates the battles of Philippi or Pharsalia". His point was that we have no reason to dispute the descriptions of the ancient writers who recorded these events (chiefly Appian for the former, and Caesar himself for the latter). Much the same argument holds for Caesar's "rather unsuccessful reconnaissance across the English Channel", otherwise known as the first Roman invasion of Britain.

So, does the same apply to the Gospel accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

No less a thinker than Dr Samuel Johnson came at the problem from a different direction. Rather than casting doubt on random events from antiquity (whether they involved Caesar or Christ), he realised that it was perfectly possible to cast doubt upon a well-established contemporary truth. The example he selected was the well-known British taking of Canada in 1763, which he demonstrated to be so unlikely as to be doubtful: the French were far more numerous than the British aggressors, for example, and the sources of information on the event were all British. If doubt could be cast on so certain an event, what chance did the Resurrection have?

Returning to Blaiklock's comparison between Caesar and Christ, the intellectual Tom Paine had already considered this, but drew a less favourable conclusion: "The story of Jesus Christ appearing after he was dead is the story of an apparition, such as timid imaginations can always create in vision, and credulity believe," he wrote, with hard-headed pragmatism. "Stories of this kind had been told of the assassination of Julius Caesar not many years before, and they generally have their origin in violent deaths, or in execution of innocent persons".

In Good Company

But Johnson again took a different tack: "As to the Christian religion", he wrote, "besides the strong evidence which we have for it, there is a balance in its favour from the number of great men who have been convinced of its truth, after serious consideration of the question". One of those was the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who scorned the search for evidence of Christianity. "Make a man feel the want of it, and you may safely trust to its own Evidence, remembering only the express declaration of Christ himself: No man cometh to me, unless the Father leadeth him" (citing John 6:44).

We should perhaps remember the words of the philosopher John Locke, who wrote that "a beneficent Creator has placed some things beyond the reach of human comprehension, but also has endowed us with faculties capable of grasping a few essential truths with certainty and many others with sufficient probability for belief and action". Christianity is not, after all, ancient history. It's a faith.

3 comments:

  1. As far as I am aware few of your contemporaries (exepting Judeans)seriously doubted the veracity the'Biblical'story of the life of Jesus.Virgin birth was a well attested phenomenon(Herakles,Achilles,Alexander etc.) as was divine paternity. Nowhere have I heard of any 'serious' challenge to the truthfullness of'The Resurrection'(as opposed to any others mentioned)by Roman citizens of the first five centuries(A.D.). Resurrection while remarkable was not considered particularly extraordinary even amongst the'faithfull'. According to Edward Gibbon..........................................."The grave and learned Augustin,whose understanding scarcely admits the excuse of credulity,has attested the innumerable prodigies which were performed in Africa by the relics of St.Stephan;and this marvellous narrative is inserted in the elaborate work of the City of God,which the bishop of Hippo designed as a solid and immortal proof of the truth of Christianity.......... Many prodigies were omitted or forgotten;and Hippo had been less favorably treated than other cities of the province. And yet the bishop enumerates above seventy miracles,of which three were resurrections from the dead,in the space of two years and within the limits of his own diocese."........................................So whats to doubt ?

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  2. In my delirium (I am very tired) I transposed the virgin birth with the divine paternity of Herakles et al. My apologies

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  3. If a faith was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to be absolutely true and based in fact and history, then adherents of that faith would repudiate it, and take up something they cannot prove...something which requires...um...faith.

    Why else do we have people who think that world will end on the 21st of May, or think that chiropracty has any basis in truth, or that iridology and homeopathy work by any other means than blind faith?

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