In a recent discussion in the comments section of one of my blog posts, a person who doubts the historicity of Jesus suggested that an appropriate comparison of ancient figures would be that with Socrates, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. These three have solid contemporary witnesses, whereas there is none for Jesus.
While I disagree that there is no good contemporary witness for Jesus, that is not where I want go. I will give that there is very solid historical information for Julius Caesar. The advantage there is that we have what people wrote about Caesar as well as some of his own writings. It would be hard to argue with, although I suppose if someone was determined enough, all they would have to do is insist that it is all forged.
I want to focus on the other two though. First of all, I have no doubt that Socrates and Alexander were historical figures. But what do we know of them and how reliable are our accounts? Socrates is known to us primarily from Plato, although he is mention by Xenophon and Aristophanes (no one would use Aristophanes as history). Yet, Platonic scholars will readily admit that very often Plato is using the figure of Socrates as a character in his books to express Plato’s own thoughts rather than recounting Socrates own teachings or experiences. We have no idea where Socrates ends and where Plato begins.
What about Alexander the Great? We have a number of surviving biographies. The fact that we have a number would seem to put us on firmer historical ground. The problem is that all of these were written long after the events. The five main surviving accounts are by Arrian, Curtius, Plutarch, Diodorus, and Justin. Of these, all but Diodorus lived after the time of Christ. Even Diodorus was from the second half of the first century BC. I find it it interesting that people will take these accounts seriously as history and then dismiss Paul because he wrote twenty to thirty years after the events and the Gospels because they were written forty to fifty years after the events. Would it really be preferable to have accounts three hundred years after the events?
Does this “prove” Jesus existed? But it should make us be cautious in what standards we use to decide who is historical and who is mythical.