I maintain that one of the best reasons to read radical skeptics like Richard Carrier, or even mainstream skeptics like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels or the Jesus Seminar, is for the service they provide in trying, with increasing desperation, to locate some parallel, any parallel, to the life, teachings, and person of Jesus, as manifest in the gospels. If Jesus were "just a normal Messiah," or pure fiction, as some maintain, finding real parallels ought to be a piece of cake. So why do they wind up tossing out such ridiculous analogies as Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle Drawer, the Iliad, or even Buddha?
If even the best-educated and most relentless
skeptics, scouring the ancient world for parallels to the gospels, can't
find anything more like a genuine gospel than, say, the "Gospel of
Thomas," the "Life of Hercules," "Golden Ass," "Life of Tobit," or
Apollonius, that old standby, then skepticism is in deep trouble.
Matthew Ferguson, whom I've critiqued on this site before, contributes to this search by comparing the gospels to an obscure ancient writing called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer. While he does not claim that the parallel is exact, he does claims the gospel are very much like that piece of fiction in many ways.
Great to see a fresh challenge! The "restless fertility of bewilderment," as C. S. Lewis put it, as skeptics search for parallels to the historical gospels, bares fruit, once again! Yet once more we get to see to what desperate measures the need to fill this gaping hole in the materialistic universe, drives denizens of that universe.
Given two works, and the desire, and one can find numerous similarities and differences. Ferguson is good at finding historically--irrelevant points of comparison. Thus the gospels and The Contest all use simpler language than that of Thucydides, they were influenced by earlier writings (as what book was not?), and so on, all points that are barely relevant to the historicity of the gospels.
Ferguson does mention one trait which really does bear on historicity, and which he thinks favors The Contest of Hesiod and Homer over the gospels:
" . . . discussing contradictions among source material is a key feature of historical prose. In this way, the Certamen is actually being more historically responsible than the Gospels."
Maybe, but that's pretty weak tea. The "source material" here is already ancient, and the author makes it clear that he doesn't really believe that material -- as we shall see. One would think centuries of time and the author's own skepticism might weigh against the work's historicity a bit more strongly? But Ferguson doesn't so much as mention it. Which reminds us why good scholars should not just cherry-pick criteria like witnesses at a kangaroo court, but should describe the characteristics of a set of literature before grilling it.
So let's compare the gospels on 30 historically-relevant characteristics typical of the gospels. Most of these criteria, I set a decade before I ever read The Contest. All the other criteria, I borrow from established scholars, before reading The Contest. In many cases, why a given trait supports the historicity of a text that contains it, is obvious. In others, I explain my argument more fully in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.
(1) The gospels claim to be historical. The Contest does not.
"Some say (Homer) was earlier than Hesiod, others that he was young and akin to him . . . According to one account they flourished at the same time and even had a contest of skill at Chalcis in Euboea."
Is that what Ferguson means by "discussing contradictions among source materials?" Saying, "There's all kinds of stories out there, and here is one of them?" The author does not even seem to think the story he is telling is true! Good Lord -- and Ferguson lacks the intellectual honesty to point this out to his readers.
A story for which the author does not even claim historical accuracy, is exponentially less likely to be true, than a story for which historicity is claimed.
(2) The gospels were written within the plausible life-span of Jesus' first followers. The Contest was written perhaps 400 years later.
Again, this is no minor difference. How honest can a "scholar" be to compare the historicity of two sets of documents, and "forget" to mention that one was written within a generation of the passing of its subject, while the other was written SIX generations later?
These two facts make utter nonsense of Ferguson's comparison. But let's go on.
(3) The gospels are ethnically distinctive and realistic. This, too, is untrue of The Contest. It is written entirely from within the perspective of Greek culture. That does not undermine its claim to historicity (if it had one), but the ethnic realism of the gospels, though they are written in Greek, does support their historicity in a way that does not apply to The Contest.
(4) The gospels realistically describe the rural geography of their setting. The author of The Contest seems to know his way around, though he gives fewer details.
(5) The gospels also realistically describe urban geography. The Contest does not describe known urban locations.
II. Stylistic and Literary Characteristics
(6) Both the gospels and The Contest are stories. I argue that stories are slightly more likely to be remembered, than sayings or speeches, though this may be the weakest of all my criteria.
(7) In the gospels, the voice of the subject is distinct from other characters. Except where the two poets are being directly quoted, this does not seem true of The Contest. Hesiod asks what is best in life. "Homer" replies, "For men on earth tis better never to be born at all or being born, to pass through the gates of Hades with all speed." The playwright Aeschylus says this sort of thing all the time -- it does not sound particularly Homeric to me. So the tone of the speakers in The Contest provides little or no evidence of historicity.
(8) The gospels often offer concrete, realistic, non-essential details. The Contest does not.
(9) Reactions to Jesus are credible, given events. This is not very true of The Contest. For instance, the Argives are so thrilled that Homer praised their skill in war in a few brief lines ("Argives with linen jerkins, very goads of war"), that they give him "costly gifts" and set up a statue to him. This sort of reaction is a typical detail in ancient Greek novels. But Jesus never gets statues. Also, Hesiod's body is brought to land by dolphins, another novelistic motif.
(10) Jesus offers surprising, non-platitudinous teachings. Homer, on the other hand, says, "By scorning to get unclean gain and if the good were honored, but justice fell upon the unjust." What did he ask of the gods? "That he may be always at peace with himself continually." What is best of all? "A sound mind in a manly body, as I believe." What is happiness? "Death after a life of least pain and greatest pleasure."
Needless to say, it is hard to believe that so great a poet would be reduced to such bathic responses. More relevantly, since anyone can write such muck, anyone may have -- there is no evidence of Homer's fingerprints here.
(11) Jesus taught in distinctive parables. Neither Homer nor Hesiod do, here, at least nothing original to this work, though there are a few good lines.
(12) While Jesus is presented as noble, he is subject to harsh yet realistic criticism. Nothing like this appears in The Contest.
(13) Jesus makes use of poetic language, including hyperbole, but not formal poetry.
Homer and Hesiod don't say much, outside of their poems and a few
rather empty philosophical banalities. This makes perfect sense coming
from a second-rate novelist: Jesus does not.
III. Character Development
(14) In the gospels, you get to know a few disciples well, who act in fairly consistent manners. (The same is true of Confucius' disciples in The Analects.) This is not relevant to The Contest, since neither man is shown as having disciples.
(15) People exit from the story in the gospels without any unrealistic reappearances. There are not enough important characters, aside from the two heroes, to much apply this criteria in The Contest. Also the heroes are traveling and don't return anywhere.
(16) Historically-familiar political figures appear on stage occasionally, and act consistently with their known personalities. Two sons of Midas sponsor Homer, and two historical kings named Midas do appear to have lived --not, however, at the right times, or not with the right children. King Paneides, who is said to have judged the contest, is hard to track down, outside of this story.
(17) The gospels are about ordinary people, not royalty or superheroes.
This trait is not very relevant to The Contest, since both protagonists
have by this time been famous for centuries. But one theory offered is
that Homer is the grandson of Odysseus, and Hesiod descended from the
god Apollo. No one else is very important, aside from a few kings, and
Zeus who sinks Hesiod's boat. (More dubious details left out by
our young scholar.)
IV. Social Gospel:
(18) Jesus praises people on the margins, but never flatters them. Neither Hesiod nor Homer so much as notice much anyone besides themselves. .
(19) Jesus reads the powerful the riot act for their obduracy and injustice. Nothing like that in The Contest.
(20) Jesus' teachings were Earth-shaking then, and remain Earth-shaking now. Not so, perhaps surprisingly, the fresh teaching, or even most of the cited poetry of the two great ancient poets.
(21) The central figure of the gospels notices individuals, not just classes. Again, this trait is absent from The Contest.
(22) Jesus was blind to social boundaries of caste, class, gender, and age. Lacking much interest in others, this characteristic is not relevant to The Contest.
(23) The rabbi whom the evangelists describe treats women with great respect and compassion, but also challenges them to greater things. There is no way the evangelists all independently decided to invent such a striking and unusual man. No such quality can be found in The Context.
(24) The miracles of Jesus are realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful of the nature of things, and pious in the sense of pointing people to God. This characteristic does not at all apply to The Contest.
(25) Jesus fulfills ancient Hebrew traditions by a dialogue with that tradition that exhibits variety, subtlety, tying Jesus to that tradition by many threads of ancient truth. Nothing like this occurs in The Contest.
VI. Traditional Scholarly Criteria
(26) Multiplicity. The Contest stands on one weak, wobbly leg. Well actually the historicity of its contest does not stand at all, as (1) and (2) are quite sufficient to demonstrate. Other characteristics of the text just drive that point home with finality, while the gospels demonstrate their essential trustworthy from dozens of different ways.
(27) Coherence. Nope. The poets don't even cohere with their own brilliantly-expressed philosophies.
(28) Embarrassment. Nope. The author thinks he is telling a cute story about two famous poets, and nothing embarrasses his notion of what those poets might say or do.
(29) Undesigned Coincidences. Nope. With only one text, this criterion does not apply.
(30) Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity. Nope. No later community rises from the influence of this text or these events, so this criterion also cannot apply.
Again, I don't expect the reasoning behind each of these points to be clear in this post. That's what Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels is for. But enough should be clear, as to make complete nonsense of Ferguson's claim that The Contest of Hesiod and Homer can be seriously compared to the gospels, for its historical reliability. What the comparison proves, is how baffled and desperate such critics have become.
Ferguson does not seem to me a mature scholar. His response to my criticism has been emotional, without any sign of genuine intellectual curiosity. Partly that was no doubt my fault: I was a bit brash in my initial response to his argument. Still, Ferguson is studying ancient literature, and does
have some scholarly training. So his help in trying
to locate a genuine parallel to the gospels in ancient fiction is welcome. He proposes "novels" and "hagiography," along with the Challenge of Hesiod and Homer.
I include all the ancient Greek novels in my analysis of the historicity of the gospels in Jesus is No Myth, and also quite a bit of hagiography.
I think Christians can be properly grateful for such challenges. May they continue, and
increase in number and, if possible, in good sense. Because truth makes its nature all the clearer, when put to rational and thorough tests.