Friday, June 13, 2014

Jesus and Thales, a historical comparison

As many readers (all two of them) familiar with my blog know, I find Jesus-mythicism—the position that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—to be quite laughable. It is mostly promulgated by dogmatically “skeptic” individuals who aren’t properly knowledgeable regarding historical epistemology. They tend to believe that their skepticism geared towards Jesus of Nazareth gives sufficient warrant for doubting his existence, all the while being completely oblivious to the fact that if their extreme skepticism was likewise employed towards other figures of antiquity, we would have to deny the historicity of a majority of well-known individuals.
It is one of these well-known figures of antiquity that I would like to take as my focal point. And in doing this I intend to show that the reasons for believing he actually existed are similar to reasons for believing in Jesus’ existence. Conversely, and more importantly I think, I intend to show that the (ridiculous) reasons given for doubting Jesus’ existence can also be predicated of this man. Yet, no historical scholar of academia, that I’m aware of, doubts this man’s existence. This man is Thales of Miletus.

Thales of Miletus (ca. 624-546 BC) is regarded as one of the first substantial Greek philosophers, and he is well-known for his novel and idiosyncratic ontology that the structure of nature boiled down to one specific substance, namely that of water. He was also one of the first individuals to make significant mathematical discoveries and calculations—e.g., he is credited with discovering five Euclidean theorems. Thales is recorded as being the first person to predict an eclipse of the sun. He was also regarded as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece.

So, based on many of these accomplishments predicated of Thales, it would probably be assumed that he has a wealth of reliable and contemporary sources that attest to his existence. Well, that assumption would be incorrect. First, the sources of Thales’ life come way, way after he lived. The earliest sources that attest to Thales are Herodotus, Plato and Aristophanes. Now, all of these men lived in the fifth century, that is, about two centuries after Thales lived! And some of the sources with the most information about Thales—e.g., Aristotle and Diogenes Laetius--wrote three-hundred to nine-hundred years after he lived. So, while Thales had a multitude of sources attesting to his existence, these sources are not what you would call contemporary by any means.

Now, what’s notable is not only the chronology of the sources, but the tradition whereby the sources received their material. You see, historians know that the sources that attest to the Thales tradition received said tradition orally—that is, through hundreds of years of oral tradition. Herodotus and Diogenes were not able to consult any eyewitnesses of Thales, or anyone who knew him personally. They could only consult the tradition handed down throughout Greece. (Note:  It should also be mentioned that Thales was quite revered in Greece, and was even regarded as a sage.)

But, what about the actual material of the sources? Well, due to the variety of sources and their varied chronology, we have different and sometimes contradictory pictures of Thales, as can be expected. Moreover, we have trouble deducing specifics of his life. We cannot even pinpoint his birth and death to an exact year; nor do we know if he was single or married; nor do we know if he even penned any writings.

Now, let us compare this evidence with the evidence we have for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had multiple sources which date within a few decades of his life--much, much better than the timeline we have for Thales. And though the Jesus tradition was received orally, it went through far less people in a far less amount of time than the Thales tradition. Similar to Thales, we lack specifics on Jesus’ life—e.g., when he was born and when he died. Also, like Thales, those who carried on the Jesus tradition held a high bit of reverence for him, which might have given way to some legend. Yet, just like Thales we can say very, very much about Jesus with a good amount of historical plausibility. And no scholar in academia waves the flag of skepticism and denies the historicity of Thales of Miletus.

So, should we, as the flawed reasoning of Jesus-mythicism necessitates, regard one of the most influential and catalytic individuals from antiquity as non-existent; merely the imagination or fabrication of Greek philosophers and mathematicians? Or should we abide by historical common sense and parsimony?

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