As an alternative, Israel’s iconic Tower of David Museum is using virtual reality to offer a visit to the Western Wall during Passover, and the Church of the Holy

The Educational Blog (q/theeducationalblog)The Evaluation of Historical Evidence: A (Manufactured) Roundtable Discussion

As some of you will know, I recently published An Extraordinary and Edifying Donnybrook on Historical Evidence and Historical Method, or, The Benefits of Stumbling into a Minefield on TEB Discussions. That seemed the appropriate forum for it at the time. In that post, I turned a series of discrete answers to a controversial question — A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735–804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument? — into an artificial, ad hoc discussion.

The man whose controversial hypothesis that is has drawn fire for maintaining his position. Many answers, which I have not seen fit to reproduce, were baldly assertive or openly dismissive. I see no educational value in answers of either type. But a select few answers, when combined, amounted to a very interesting discussion.

I have decided to elevate this exchange of viewpoints to the main blog because, especially in light of a new answer by Steve Theodore, what we now have is something remarkably like the sort of “roundtable discussion” we often see at universities, typically for graduate students. Rather than a panel of experts delivering separate papers on a loosely related term, we have instead an initial scholarly presentation of a thesis, a series of scholarly critiques of that position, a response from the initial author to some of the criticisms, and — now — a concluding discourse that addresses not only the factual matter of the first writer’s particular claims in response to my question, but the methodological foundations on which it rests.

In short, the discussion, as I am now able to present it in light of Steve’s answer, performs three pedagogical functions:

  1. It offers a series of challenging, rigorous arguments for and against an extraordinary historical hypothesis. In this sense, it is a historical debate carried out at an extremely high level of intelligence.
  2. In the process, it also amounts to a serious inquiry into the proper methods of weighing historical evidence, particularly with respect to the ancient world, where records are notoriously fragmentary and lacunose, and in which the textual traditions on which we rely are almost always mediated by the copying of ancient manuscripts by monks in the scriptoria of medieval monasteries. In other words, this is also an extremely literate and powerful discussion of historiography and methodological approaches to the evaluation of evidence.

    To put this another way: the overarching discussion is both historical and metahistorical.

  3. The following discourse is, or should be, seen as a powerful display of critical thinking, and not merely of factual learning. Without a shred of false, modesty, incidentally, I want to point out that my own contribution to the discussion, which was a comment blown up into an answer, is by far the least significant component of it. But even my response demonstrates a particular mode of critical thought: I ask ten tough questions that challenge the main proposition by pushing on some of its ramifications or inconsistencies. Everyone else does better.

I believe, in short, that this debate has become so interesting as to deserve a place on The Education Blog itself. This is, after all, a place for learned discourse, and all parties to this one have provided that: if this stuff doesn’t edify, I’m sure I don’t know what does. And all parties here have, so to speak, “left everything on the dance floor.” This is now something of an intellectual banquet. Be warned, however, that its total word count is worthy of Matthew Nghiem himself.

I want to thank all the discussants whose work I have used to create this post, which is greater than the rather substantial sum of its parts: John Bartram, Michael Wright, Robert Todd, Jason St. Pierre, Jenny Hawkins, and Steve Theodore. Onanism has its limits, so I will refrain from thanking myself.

This new, upgraded version of the post will extend my previous one on the Discussions & Rhetoric blog, so let me offer a quick outline of what follows, including notes about any slight deviations from the chronological order in which they were written. The dialogue presented in this post is a composite; I have turned a series of challenging answers into this “roundtable discussion.”

  1. We begin with John Bartram’s answer to a the question I, who asked the question with which the remainder of this discussion is concerned, linked as the “source” for it. It is his answer to Is history true?, and in it he outlines his methodological presuppositions — a statement of what he, as an archaeologist (or “shovelbum,” to use his endearing term), maintains are the proper standards for the weighing — or “vetting,” to borrow Steve’s term — historical evidence. It is an essential prolegomenon to the discussion, and we need it here in order to understand why Steve Theodore’s answer rounds out the post so well.
  2. John then answers my question about the Latin Christian textual tradition before Alcuin, applying the methods outlined above to formulate and argue the merits of the controversial hypothesis he defends. Here his methodological and historiographical are put into practice in the justification of a claim that struck nearly all respondents as outlandish. But where most respondents to the question were dismissive or assertive — not realizing that to counter-argue, one must offer some substantive response predicated on evidence or pointing to intellectual inconsistencies or pitfalls — only a few really took the time to address the substance of John’s argument. Their evaluations are negative, but John, while unconvinced, has been kind enough to thank me for asking the question and for opening up the question to discussion. He has taken no umbrage at the ventilation of contrary opinions, even when they are a little waspish; neither, then, shall we. We must bear in mind that the hypothesis itself is the sort that gets people worked up a number of reasons, and that the respondents have explained their discomfiture. The same things occur in panel discussions at university roundtables and discussions. Let us take it all, then, in a spirit of collegiality.
  3. Now the responses begin. Every one of the respondents here addresses both the factual and methodological questions here. Robert Todd’s answer does both, but is heavy on the former, using material evidence to challenge John’s main contention in (2) above, and then pointing to some other sorts of evidence that cast further doubt on the plausibility of John’s claims.
  4. Michael Wright’s answer leans toward the methodological: he asks whether textual evidence should be evaluated by the same standards as physical evidence, and then criticizing foundationalism, concluding with a magnificent allusion to Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (the hyperlink will take the curious reader — the sort who reads The Educational Blog — to a PDF of an English translation of Borges’ great story).
  5. Jenny Hawkins, whose The Historical Jesus series was an early and challenging entry on this blog, offers a methodological critique and underscores, in effect, how heavy a burden of proof lays upon the extraordinary claimants and his extraordinary claims. This is the second-most-recently-written answer here, but it seems to fit well in this spot, prior to what comes next.
  6. Medievalist Jason St. Pierre then offers what can only be described as a magisterial, even brutal, critique of the arguments advanced in (2) and their presuppositions. This is a professional firing on all cylinders. It is a breathtaking performance.
  7. Dubious interloper Michael Masiello had, before he saw the comment (!) that constitutes Jason’s answer, written a comment on John’s answer, asking the first ten critical questions that sprang to mind. Jason, it will be noted, adduced some of the same problems and dealt with them more rigorously. But my own questions have the particular feature of being, for the most part, if x, then how y? questions. Like Jenny’s answer, but from more directions, I ask how one can square numerous circles. I really did have more to offer, but I am sure none would wish my actual response longer. It is the least of the responses here.
  8. John Bartram was kind enough to answer my ten questions, and so mounts a defense of his ideas, backed up, as always, with some particular pieces of evidence — but also admitting, as befits a serious, responsible and honest intellectual, that there are at least some queries to which he does not have ready answers. He is open, he remarks, to emendations or corrections, as long as they are based on “facts.”
  9. But what are the “facts”? What ultimately qualify as “facts”? Certainly Robert Todd’s response has a “you want facts? here are some facts” quality. But the final, and truly awesome, conclusion here is provided by Steve Theodore, who, with the great sangfroid, good humor, patience, and meticulousness that make him one of this site’s greatest writers and kindest humans, offers a measured counterargument to John’s account of how we establish “facts,” and what, past a certain point, we can mean by “facts” with respect to artefacts of great age. Then he turns to a specific historical question addressed by John and by a scholar who shares John’s skeptical methodology: did Eusebius of Caesaria actually exist? Steve presents the case for how a different methodology, one he details in the beginning of the question, works to establish, if not veridical proof, a degree of certainty about Eusebius’ historicity that is as great as we can advance for any ancient figure. (And we will be reminded, as Steve does this, of Jason’s point that we have no firsthand artefact evidence for the existence of the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal, whose existence no one seems to doubt.)

Here is that discussion, in toto, in that order. I have left all the answers unedited; I did not wish to create problems of scribal transmission.

I. John Bartram’s answer to Is history true? [1]

As a mere shovelbum – field archaeologist – using artefacts to study how the divine men of antiquity were conjured into being, I had to learn the rules of evidence of the Historical method:

Source criticism (or information evaluation) is the process of evaluating the qualities of an information source, such as its validity, reliability, and relevance to the subject under investigation.

Gilbert J Garraghan divides source criticism into six inquiries:[1]

  1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
  2. Where was it produced (localization)?
  3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?
  4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
  5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
  6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

My concern was driven by the fact that less than a handful of Latin sources exist; other than that, historians were largely using sources from Carolingian monasteries. We have only the word of usually unknown monks that they did not invent. This is unsatisfactory.

Core principles for determining reliability

The following core principles of source criticism were formulated by two Scandinavian historians, Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997):[4]

  • Human sources may be relics such as a fingerprint; or narratives such as a statement or a letter. Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
  • Any given source may be forged or corrupted. Strong indications of the originality of the source increase its reliability.
  • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
  • An eyewitness is more reliable than testimony at second hand, which is more reliable than hearsay at further remove, and so on.
  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
  • The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness or source has no direct interest in creating bias then the credibility of the message is increased.

To my horror, I found that none of the historians I approached (or studied) knew any of this. Instead, they were following the ‘Christian, textual tradition’ as a matter of faith.

This is how the history I have produced is profoundly different – novel, even – from the traditional.

When I am presented with the supposed works of a supposed figure in the period I am studying, I check the actual manuscripts to see if it existed in that period, and if the supposed author is historical. Usually, the answers are ‘No’. I am not interested in the weak excuses for this; I want the facts, as straight as possible.

One example (of many):

II. John Bartram’s Defense of his Hypothesis[2]

Thank you, Michael Masiello, for both the question and for your genuine interest. The answers I have seen are revealing – one has muted me already “as a matter of principle” and another claims “John Bartram has no idea what he’s talking about.”

I am neither surprised, nor disappointed by even the most negative responses, which are to be expected.

The question is helpful in providing this link to a recent answer by me:

It sets out how historians are supposed to use rules of evidence and my point is that these have not been followed by historians of Christian origins, or of the Christian textual tradition.

As I pointed out (then and in other answers) proving me wrong is really simple and straightforward: show a manuscript dated reliably to the early centuries of the modern era that contains either ‘Jesus Christ’ in any language, or ‘Christian’. Nobody has ever been able to do that.

It is a demonstrable fact – by looking at codex Sinaiticus – how this divine man was originally “Is Chrest”. Further, there is much, reliable archaeology for ‘Chrest’, in these centuries. The religion of the New Testament authors is explicitly Chrestian, not Christian.

This alone tells us how later, Christianity misappropriated Chrestian history: it look the solar cross, the Ptolemaic Chi-Rho (CHR), their rituals and a whole bunch of historical people, and made them Christian.

I do not know for certain when and how Christianity came about. Can anyone tell us when ‘Jesus Christ’ first appears? Nobody has ever answered that and I’ve asked publically (and here) for a long time. Without that answer, I’ve used the best evidences known to me and this is that Christianity was born out of Britain and sold to Charles I, the illiterate Frankish king who became Charlemagne.

This is a series of English who appear to be involved; Boniface, then Alcuin of York.

Alcuin became tutor to Charles I and his family, then set about setting up (Carolingian) monasteries with scriptoria, to which he brought British ‘experts’ to train monks.

If you run through the list of supposed Early-Christian authors and their works, it is vast. I’ve not added up all the claimed manuscripts, but it has to be in the many thousands. The textual tradition has monks in these scriptoria collecting and copying them.

Now here’s the thing. We know of their output because most still exist. Many are online: here is some from just one monastery, St. Gall in Switzerland:

CESG – Codices Electronici Sangallenses: “The purpose of the “Codices Electronici Sangallenses” (Digital Abbey Library of St. Gallen) is to provide access to the medieval codices in the Abbey Library of St. Gallen by creating a virtual library.”

So this is the situation: we have their output but nothing, absolutely zero – of the input, the manuscripts they clam to have copied.

  • They have all disappeared, from all the monasteries.
  • No explanation has been offered as to where they went, what happened to them.

Think about that for a minute. Alcuin had monks collect every ancient manuscript to be found, then they all disappear with no explanation, and then the scriptoria produce their vast output.

One result is that for all the claimed Christian authors – their histories, their anti-heresies, their correspondence – there is nothing to support their historicity.

One example, to make the point. The claimed output of Augustine of Hippo is large:

Augustine of Hippo bibliography


  • On the Beautiful and the Fitting (Latin: De Pulchra et Apto, 380)
  • On Christian Doctrine (Latin: De doctrina Christiana, 397–426)
  • Confessions (Confessiones, 397–398)
  • The City of God (De civitate Dei, begun c. 413–426)
  • On the Trinity (De trinitate, 400–416)
  • On Free Choice of the Will (De libero arbitrio)
  • Enchiridion (Enchiridion ad Laurentium, seu de fide, spe et caritate)
  • Retractions (Retractationes): At the end of his life (c. 426–428) Augustine revisited his previous works in chronological order. The English translation of the title has led some to assume that at the end of his career, Augustine retreated from his earlier theological positions. In fact, the Latin title literally means ‘re-treatments” (not “Retractions”) and though in this work Augustine suggested what he would have said differently, it provides little in the way of actual “retraction.” It does, however, give the reader a rare picture of the development of a writer and his final thoughts.
  • The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram)
  • On the Catechising of the Uninstructed (De catechizandis rudibus)
  • On Faith and the Creed (De fide et symbolo)
  • Concerning Faith of Things Not Seen (De fide rerum invisibilium)
  • On the Profit of Believing (De utilitate credendi)
  • On the Creed: A Sermon to Catechumens (De symbolo ad catechumenos)
  • On Continence (De continentia)
  • On the teacher (De magistro, a dialogue between Augustine and his son Adeodatus)
  • On the Good of Marriage (De bono coniugali)
  • On Holy Virginity (De sancta virginitate)
  • On the Good of Widowhood (De bono viduitatis)
  • On Lying (De mendacio)
  • To Consentius: Against Lying (Contra mendacium [ad Consentium])
  • To Quodvultdeus, On Heresies (De haeresibus ad Quodvultdeum)
  • On the Work of Monks (De opere monachorum)
  • On Patience (De patientia)
  • On Care to be Had For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda)
  • On the Morals of the Catholic Church and on the Morals of the Manichaeans (De moribus ecclesiae catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum)
  • On Two Souls, Against the Manichaeans (De duabus animabus [contra Manichaeos])
  • Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus the Manichaean ([Acta] contra Fortunatum [Manichaeum])
  • Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental (Contra epistulam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti)
  • Reply to Faustus the Manichaean (Contra Faustum [Manichaeum])
  • Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the Manichaeans (De natura boni contra Manichaeos)
  • On Baptism, Against the Donatists (De baptismo [contra Donatistas])
  • The Correction of the Donatists (De correctione Donatistarum)
  • On Merits and Remission of Sin, and Infant Baptism (De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum)
  • On the Spirit and the Letter (De spiritu et littera)
  • On Nature and Grace (De natura et gratia)
  • On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness (De perfectione iustitiae hominis)
  • On the Proceedings of Pelagius (De gestis Pelagii)
  • On the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin (De gratia Christi et de peccato originali)
  • On Marriage and Concupiscence (De nuptiis et concupiscientia)
  • On the Nature of the Soul and its Origin (De natura et origine animae)
  • Against Two Letters of the Pelagians (Contra duas epistulas Pelagianorum)
  • On Grace and Free Will (De gratia et libero arbitrio)
  • On Rebuke and Grace (De correptione et gratia)
  • On the Predestination of the Saints (De praedestinatione sanctorum)
  • On the Gift of Perseverance (De dono perseverantiae)
  • Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (De sermone Domini in monte)
  • On the Harmony of the Evangelists (De consensu evangelistarum)
  • Treatises on the Gospel of John (In Iohannis evangelium tractatus)
  • Soliloquies (Soliloquiorum libri duo)
  • Enarrations, or Expositions, on the Psalms (Enarrationes in Psalmos)
  • On the Immortality of the Soul (De immortalitate animae)
  • Answer to the Letters of Petilian, Bishop of Cirta (Contra litteras Petiliani)
  • Against the Academics (Contra Academicos)
  • On eighty-three various questions (De diversis quaestionibus octaginta tribus, 396)
  • Sermons, among which a series on selected lessons of the New Testament Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount
  • Homilies, among which a series on the First Epistle of John
  • On Music (De musica)
  • On Order (De Ordine)

But they are all works of Carolingian monasteries. Go check them if you do not believe me.

Further, go look at the fourth century, when he is supposed to have lived, and you will not find any mark of his existence.

As an archaeologist, I take the scientific approach, which starts with observation. We observe the fourth century and Augustine does not exist there – neither directly, nor indirectly (through mention of him by others).

Could he have existed, but somehow, everything was lost? No, because the monasteries say they had it all, in the eighth century and later. They must claim this, to support their other claim, to have copied it. And yet, there is nothing.

Codex Sinaiticus: “Between the 4th and 12th centuries, seven or more correctors worked on this codex, making it one of the most corrected manuscripts in existence.[60]

We now know that this process continued to at least the twelfth century. That’s four centuries in which the scriptoria were rewriting the Bible and producing the Christian textul tradition. Plenty of time to make it whatever was wanted.

Maybe others have a better understanding of the facts than do I; such would not surprise me. I would be very happy with others writing histories of this, as long as they treat the facts, rather than repeat mythologies and untruths.

My blog here contains many of my answers on this subject and some also contain examples of Chrestian archaeology.

III. You Want Evidence?: Robert Todd Responds[3]

There is a wealth of textual evidence. So much, I genuinely did not understand how this could be a serious question posed by any historian/archaeologist with a shred of erudition.

Then I read a couple of the claims and challenges posed by the individual behind this argument.

Apparently, nothing will do but to produce the full name of Jesus Christ or the word Christian in just those forms. Why, I don’t know, because that is a silly litmus test to determine the existence of a Christian tradition. No clear-thinking biblical scholar, archaeologist or historian would impose such an arbitrary limitation to the body of evidence, and refuse to consider any other artifacts.

But to show how simple it is to play even this game, here is one I had ready at my fingertips; I didn’t have to look for it:

<Early christian funarary inscription in italic writing, 525 AD. Image from Museo Epigraphico, Terme di Diocleziano, Rome, Italy>

“Here rests in peace, Maxima a servant of Christ who lived about 25 years and (was) laid (to rest) 9 days before the Kalends of July of the year when the senator Flavius Probus the younger was consul [modern: June 23, 525]. She lived with her husband (for) seven years and six months. (She was) most friendly, loyal in everything, good and prudent.” (emphasis mine)

The Latin: † Hic requiescit in pa/ce ancilla C(h)risti Maxima/ qu(a)e vixit ann(os) pl(us) m(inus) XXV d(e)p(osita) (ante diem) VIIII Kal(endas)/ Iulias Fl(avio) Probo Iuniore v(ir) c(larissimus) cons(ule)/ qu(a)e fecit cum maritum [sic] su(u)m [sic]/ ann(os) VII m(enses) VI amicabilis fidelis / in omnibus bona prudens. (emphasis mine)

That’s cristi, not chresti, as the polemicist would have it per his blog, for all ancient texts and inscriptions. So there, Christ.

And how about this one, 3rd century, from the Vatican necropolis, the famous stele of Licinia Amias:

Upper tier: D__M (dedication to the Dis Manibus) and Christian motto in Greek letters ΙΧΘΥC ΖΩΝΤΩΝ / Ikhthus zōntōn (“fish of the living”)

middle tier: depiction of fish and an anchor;

lower tier: Latin inscription “LICINIAE AMIATI BE/NEMERENTI VIXIT” (“Licinia Amias well-deserving lived …”)

So I guess ya got me! No explicit Christ or Chistian there! But wait, there’s more! Let’s go back to that ΙΧΘΥΣ before we speak to quickly.

According to Augustine in his Civitate Dei (early 5th century AD) the meaning of the acronym is as follows, per Chapter 23.—Of the Erythræan Sibyl, Who is Known to Have Sung Many Things About Christ More Plainly Than the Other Sibyls:

ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), or also ΙΧΘΥϹ with a lunate sigma. It is an acronym/acrostic for “ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr; contemporary Koine [ie̝ˈsus kʰrisˈtos tʰeˈu (h)yˈjos soˈte̝r]), which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour“.

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for “Jesus“.
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), Greek for “anointed” (of the Lord).
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for “God’s”, the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos”, Greek for “God”.
  • Upsilon (y) is the first letter of (h)yios[10] (Ὑἱός), Greek for “Son”.
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for “Saviour”.

So that 3rd century epitaph above is actually loaded with Jesus and Christ. Unless you disbelieve Augustine and a host of other, credible ancients, and assume the folks of 3rd century Rome were actually worshiping The Great Fish God of the Adriatic (is this Lovecraft’s Dagon? are there Ancient Aliens involved?) and no one ever bothered to mention this throughout the ages.

One more for the road. How also account for Tertullian (1st-2nd cent. AD) stating in his De Baptismo (On Baptism), chapter 1 … but we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other …

So, is the counter-argument that Tertullian’s works were “made up” centuries after his time, never mind the large number of scattered quotes and references to him by others during our pre-Alcuin time period? And how about the 2nd century epitaph of Abercius, in which Christ is again the fish?

Or are we to believe this Fish just happened to acquire its stupendous power as a symbol despite some lack of Christian theological tradition? Pretty odd for folks to engrave this acronym and fish symbol all over the graves of their loved ones on a lark.

I have seen a good many Internet alternate theories for the ΙΧΘΥΣ, the latest that it is a 16th century AD theft from the Amahuaca peoples of Brazil and that all earlier references have been somehow fabricated in a truly brilliant act of world-wide espionage. If you believe that, I have an old copy of Chariots of the Gods: Erich Von Daniken to sell you for top dollar.

Last, never mind all the early fragments of Gospels, letters of Clement and other Church fathers, etc., that survive from those first centuries. Jason St. Pierre has already done a good job pointing the way to those. But in short, there is no difficulty identifying these fragments from as early as the 2nd century. Every first year New Testament student knows that. But apparently, not every Quoran does.

IV. Pierre Menard, Eat Your Heart Out: Michael Wright Responds[4]

Thanks for A2A.

Having read the linked answer, I would say that the notion that the conventional history depends on evidence that might be faked can be shown to be false, first because it rests on two wrong bases:

  1. The idea that the reliability of textual evidence is to be measured by the same standard as physical evidence;
  2. Foundationalism.

The two are inter-related because of the nature of a text, which is not the same as the physical medium that carries that text. Without getting too heavy into ontology I don’t understand, it works to think of a text as being evidenced by a number of sources, but not being the same as those sources, and that some better notion of the text may be obtained by comparison and criticism of extant sources. (There are, as you well know, quirks here, but I think this is a useful working approximation.)

This means that, provided there’s more than one witness, the authenticity of a text doesn’t rest on a single foundation, or even on two foundations, but on the relationship between the two sources. If there had been an act of forgery, the forger(s) would have had to conceptualise not only the work, but also the sorts of errors that would occur in its transmission, and the relationship between those errors; as there get to be more witnesses, the complexity of the relationships (which we know by their disentanglement in textual criticism) get increasingly complicated—I don’t know how to analyse this, but I suspect it’s like the scheduling problem, which gets exponentially more difficult the more ships and berths you have to optimise. So we end up with not an edifice resting on a foundation, but a geodesic dome in which each part is held together by all the other parts. Hard to forge.

There also seem to be factual errors in the claim. Most people would accept that Augustine was a theologian, and of the West (he says he couldn’t get on with Greek—almost calls it a silly language—which, for his date, makes him almost insularly Western). I looked at a web page devoted to The City of God curated by J. J. O’Donnell, who wrote not the book but several books on Augustine: Augustine, City of God (introduction). He notes three substantial partial manuscripts (several books) dating from the 5th and 6th centuries.

So the claim rests on a mistaken procedure, and at least according to mainstream scholarship (which is, in this case, critical not gullible: palaeographers love to prove other palaeographers wrong, like scientists) is empirically wrong. But let’s consider what would need to be the case for the claim to be true.

Our notion of a Western theological tradition rests on a large body of text (Augustine alone is a lot of words). By conventional scholarship, a lot of this writing shows that it is embedded in the elite culture of fancy Latinity (I’ve never met a writer with less redundancy than Augustine, who shows the sort of precision in the use of Latin that could only come from a professor of rhetoric). Although the notion of the Dark Ages is misunderstood and overdone, it is certainly the case that there was a decline in the institutions and practices of literary cultivation that formed elite training in the Empire. In the Carolingian era there was, certainly, a recovery of some of this tradition: it’s instructive to compare the most direct evidence of the Benedictine Rule, full of 6th century misspellings, with the standard Carolingian text, which looks much more “correct.” But what the hypothesis asks us to believe is that, under the leadership of Alcuin, they not only recovered some of the learning, and invented the world’s handwriting, but also faked up a whole culture of writing about theology, complete with its intertextuality, its signs of feuding and hostility, its imperfect textual tradition. I think that is a bit far-fetched for an Umberto Eco plot.

I may have misunderstood the hypothesis, but the initial formulation I met in that link didn’t inspire me to look further. I don’t know if there can be a rigorous disproof of it, any more than there can be of UFOs. But the whole edifice of scholarship holds together in ways that are NOT like a house of cards, but as independent structures of knowledge that hold by themselves and also support other structures, so that even if one proved that particular texts were forgeries (as happened with the Donation of Constantine), it would cause a rearrangement of knowledge, not a collapse. The alternative to the standard account, always corrigible as it is, would have to hold that in isolated monasteries in North West Europe, in a countryside where missionaries could still get martyred, there were monks creating the Latin patristic tradition. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” eat your imaginary heart out.

V. Methodology, Evidence: Jenny Hawkins Responds[5]


Before answering this question, it seems necessary to refute claims concerning “how historians are supposed to use rules of evidence … my point is that these have not been followed by historians of Christian origins, or of the Christian textual tradition.”

What this fails to understand—or perhaps simply acknowledge—is that times and standards change. Applying modern standards to ancient history is a common fallacy—but a fallacy none the less. That isn’t to say that the ancients did not value accuracy and dependability, they did, but they were primarily an oral culture, and they valued what they called “a living voice”—meaning an eye witness—as the single most important requirement of a good history. They would have scoffed at our dependence on written texts. Their standards were not the same as ours—but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have any.


After looking this over I realized I had done John Bartram a disservice by giving an incomplete and somewhat shallow response to his approach to history, so I am adding this edit on historical method and source criticism. I will close this with a discussion of paleography and hopefully show why it isn’t possible for John to be right.

John references Wikipedia as his source of definition of the historical method and the page referenced is of Source criticism. It says source criticism is “the process of evaluating the validity, reliability, and relevance of an information source.” The problem here is that this is only one step of the historical method and it is only one of many possible types of criticism.

The historical method does involve evaluating sources, but what qualifies as a source of historical evidence? Historians use primary and secondary sources.[1]

Primary sources are 1) Original handwritten documents and their early copies, letters, diaries, and book manuscripts—the laundry list—everything they can find. They use printed documents, published books, personal documents, private documents, government documents, public documents; pictures, photographs and film; any and all archaeological evidence—statues, clothing, gravestones etc.; statistical data; and any oral evidence they can find. Secondary sources are basically sources that write about primary sources.

Then it all gets evaluated, and sifted and searched for pertinent evidence, and what historians know is that there is no such thing as a perfect source: all sources have errors and biases, contain polemics and misinformation and have to be assessed accordingly. Source criticism is a critical method for evaluating and identifying all of that.

The trouble for the definition John is using here is that source criticism is only one method of evaluation among many.

There has been a “flood” of various critical methods since the eighteenth century, but my personal experience is with seven major types of criticism and several more of their subsets.

It isn’t possible to include a full explanation of each of these here—and no one would want me to—but some explanation must be included so it can be seen how far off the mark this limited understanding of “historical method” actually is.

Textual criticism takes available materials and attempts to establish original texts. The method generally practised by editors of classical Greek and Latin texts involves two main processes: recension and emendation. Recension is the selection of the most trustworthy evidence while emendation is the attempt to eliminate the errors found in all manuscripts. This approach is generally practiced according to the “canons of (Lobegott Friedrich Constantin von) Tischendorf” according to Metzgers’ criteria and Aland’s Rules.[2]

Philological criticism is a study of language—the vocabulary, grammar, and style of a period. Language is constantly changing and extremely revealing sociologically. What is “bad” today was good yesterday. Chaucer’s English has more in common with German than modern English. We can trace the history of the world through those kinds of changes in language. [3]

Tradition criticism concentrates on how traditions have grown and changed over the time span during which the text was written. It attempts to use such traditions to trace what preceded the written text being studied. In Bible criticism, that would include a study of oral history, its practices and what evidences there are of it in the biblical texts. The goal of philological criticism is to make a judgment on the faithfulness of the recording of that tradition.[4]

Literary criticism is quite popular right now. It identifies the literary genres embedded in the text in order to uncover evidence of composition, date, authorship. It also attempts to determine what the original function of these different types of writing served. For example, the book of Esther is fiction filled with subtle humor—why include that in the Bible? [5]

Form criticism classifies written material according to its preliterary form. Form criticism rose largely because of the weaknesses of source criticism, since Source criticism must confine itself to the documents at hand. However, when all the limitations of form criticism are taken into account, the scope of a true form-critical approach is also extremely limited. [6]

Giving rise to Redaction criticism which studies how documents were assembled by their final authors/editors.

These are all methods of historical higher criticism, and they all have strengths and weaknesses in what they can and cannot do.

These varied critical methods use about a dozen recognized criteria, set out by R. H. Stein, which include things like multiple attestation—(the more sources the better)—and coherence, to do their evaluation. [7]

I include all this to demonstrate a critical crack in the foundation of John’s approach. Not only are these other methods overlooked, but what John describes is more properly historiography and not history. It looks as though he is using the methodology of one to reach conclusions in the other.

History and historiography are not exactly the same. They are often conflated, but generally, historiography is about “the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation; methods of historical scholarship” or in other words, how one goes about doing history which is “the study of the past.”

History has been compared to ruminating over a great meal from the past, recording the event, and what was involved, while historiography is perusing all available cookbooks in an effort to find the recipe used to make that meal.

The key is that suffix— “graphy”. It means “writing.” It is an anglicized version of the French (graphie) which was inherited from the Latin (graphia), which is transliterated direct from the Greek—and they all mean writing. It is historiography that studies the writings—the texts John refers to—the histories of history. It’s not that the formation of history can’t use texts too—they do—but not in the manner John has: imposing these modern standards—not simply on the study of the documents—but on history itself.

The key to doing good historiography is not to fall into the fallacy of presuming historical writing has been making a linear progression of improvements from the backward simplistic to the sophisticated and complex as it has marched through time. (This is sometimes referred to as a “Whiggish” view.)

Historiography assumes that historical writing is as much a product of its time as any other historical development. But that means texts must be analyzed on their own terms, in their own contexts, according to their own standards.

All ancient texts are handwritten, which means the study of handwriting in ancient texts—paleography—has become a highly specialized and extremely valuable tool for this.

Several methods are employed by historians to date the handwriting of a manuscript. Some texts are easy—they include scribal colophons (an inscription at the end a manuscript that sometimes includes the date of completion of the transcription) and these can then be used to date others. For the rest, historians can attribute common practices to certain time periods and places of origin. Paleography’s ability to distinguish time period, skill and author has proven to be a fundamental tool for dating literary compositions.[8]

Different periods of history have their own chirographic trademarks (specific handwriting). Manuscripts dated within the first and second century AD used a decorated style of handwriting known for its emphatic form. This is generally referred to as the uncial style. It employed elongated letters written separately in capitols. There followed the scriptio continua which was a connected form that did not provide spaces between words—or sentences! Shortly after the fall of Rome, a larger annular (forming a ring) form of writing began and circular letters became more oval and narrow. Alcuin, might have written in Merovingian, a form of miniscule writing developed around his day.

Early Christian texts do not evidence the “fine book-hand” of professional scribes, but they have left their mark on paleographic history by developing what has been called a type of “reformed documentary” writing. It used fewer ligatures (combined letters) and more precise letter formation than a regular documentary hand. Probably in order to facilitate public reading, they also wrote fewer lines and fewer letters to the line than was normal practice. They also used the nomina sacra— a form of contraction of a religious word using the first and last letters and the middle of the word. They liked to abbreviate. Xmas is actually how they wrote Christmas.

None of the monks of the Middle Ages would have known these particular details.

If John Bartram was aware of these other critical methods he would know that changes in language, tradition, practices, writing styles, literary forms, and not simply content, would all have to be created, then carefully coordinated and artficially progressed to appear to age and change. Think of the huge breadth and sheer amount of knowledge—much of it only discovered in the last 200 years—required to accomplish such a task! All while keeping such a huge conspiracy perfectly quiet, and leaving no evidence—even of whispers—of such a thing. Forgery is harder to pass off without detection than most people realize.

I can’t imagine actually writing the five million word ouvre of Augustine in one style of aristocratic Latin, and the entire New Testament in the rudimentary style of the early Christians, and the classical Syriac of Eastern documents, all at one time—nevertheless coming up with the often nuanced and complex thoughts of many of those early writers.

That monastery would have had to contain not only the quietest, most skilled, yet most dishonest monks of history—it would have to have contained a collection of minds like the US put together for the Manhattan project!

If Christian history is not dependable because it didn’t adhere to modern standards, then Roman history is not dependable either, nor Greek history, nor any ancient history of any kind anywhere. By John’s standards it becomes impossible to do history at all.

All history is probabilistic, and in a sense, all history is revisionist history. That’s why historians repeatedly rethink and rework and rewrite, not just about their understanding of specific historical events, but of the parameters of the discipline itself. Parameters I’m afraid John Bartram simply has wrong.

The challenge here is to “show a manuscript dated reliably to the early centuries of the modern era that contains either ‘Jesus Christ’ in any language, or ‘Christian’.”

That is simple enough. I will pick one.

The letters of Pliny the Younger record that he interrogated, using torture, those he called “Christians” about their beliefs and practices in 112 AD. It was commonly believed by those outside Christianity that Christians were cannibals and incestuous—because they ate the “body and drank the blood” of their leader and called each other brother and sister. He ‘put to death’ those that did not recant. The use of “Christian” and “Christ” are in Book 10, letter number 96. [9]



[2] Textual Criticism


[4] Quartz Hill School of Theology

[5] http://Research Guides: Literary…

[6] Oxford Biblical Studies Online

[7] Seven Theses on the So-Called Criteria of Authenticity of Historical Jesus Research

[8] Palaeography – Wikipedia

[9] Letters – translation

VI. Summa contra Bartram: Jason St. Pierre Responds[6]

[N.b.: Here I am quoting his comment on his answer, which was collapsed, perhaps for being a bit… heated. The comment, in my view, is where this professor of Medieval History wrote his “full” answer anyway.]

Bartram long since blocked me […] so I’m going to respond to his post here.

Before I do, I would like to point out that in his response to the original question, Bartram claims that he’ll be open minded and respond to criticism. However, he’s dismissed everyone who’s responded to him as simply repeating Christian “mythologies” and made no actual attempt to deal with the more substantive arguments against his thesis.

For starters, Bartram insists on having tangible, physical evidence as definitive proof and rejects later copies as unreliable. This is an unrealistic standard when it comes to ancient history and, as someone with archaeological training, he should be aware of that. Simply put, we have very few artifacts from the ancient world that can be conclusively identified with any particular person – and that’s especially true for people like Jesus who were from humble backgrounds and living in comparatively poor areas. Hell, we have literally zero artifacts that can conclusively be linked to Hannibal, yet there’s no doubt that Hannibal actually existed. If one of the most respected and feared generals of the ancient world, someone with extensive political connections in his native Carthage, can leave little to no archaeological footprint, then it stands to reason that we can’t assume Jesus didn’t exist because he left behind no known artifacts.

This extends to the manuscripts. Yes, all we have are copies, but, again, insisting on the original manuscripts is an unreasonably high standard. Vellum and papyrus are fragile and we have every reason to believe that the original texts were destroyed by fire, decomposition, or any number of possibilities over the span of hundreds or thousands of years. In fact, this is the very reason that people copied these texts in the first place – and we know that Christian monks, particularly in Italy and Ireland, were systematically trying to copy ancient texts some 200 years before the Carolingian Renaissance.

To that end, since Bartram uses Augustine as an example, let’s look at De Civitate Dei. Bartram claims that every manuscript we have of Augustine’s work can be traced back to Carolingian monks. This is simply wrong – and further proof of my claim that Bartram has no idea what he’s talking about. The oldest known manuscript of De Civitate Dei dates from the fifth century (see, for instance, Augustine’s City of God). This means it had to have been copied within 70 years of Augustine’s death and, contra Bartram, roughly three hundred years before Alcuin was even born.

Beyond that, Bratram’s entire argument rests on literally two words, one of which is abbreviated, in the Codex Sinaiticus. He’s either overlooking or ignoring the fact that there are older manuscripts that contain explicit references to Jesus Christ. Let’s use Galatians as an example since it’s most likely the oldest book in the New Testament. It mentions Jesus in literally the very first verse and that reference is present in the Codex Vaticanus, which likely predates the Codex Sinaiticus, and in Papyrus 46, which probably predates the Codex Sinaiticus by over a century.

Furthermore, Bartram’s argument would be more credible if he discussed why the spelling of Χρίστος was significant, why the abbreviation of Ἰησοῦς was definitive, the use of abbreviations in late antique manuscripts, comparable texts in Latin, Syriac, or Coptic, or an analysis of known orthographic variants in 4th century Greek. Frankly, this is another situation where his lack of historical training becomes a problem. It was actually quite common for early Christian scribes to abbreviate Jesus’ name as a sign of respect and these abbreviations, known as nomina sacra, seem to have been standardized fairly quickly and we can trace their development from the second century onward. In fact, both of the texts I mentioned abbreviate “Jesus Christ” – as ΙΥ ΧΥ in the Codex Vaticanus (DigiVatLib) and as ιηυ χρυ in Papyrus 46 (P46: Reading The Text).

Put together and this means that Bartram is simply dismissing evidence that doesn’t fit his theory. ΙΥ ΧΥ was a standard abbreviation for “Jesus Christ” – in fact it appears multiple times in the Codex Sinaiticus (Manuscript GA 01 – CSNTM)‡, without evidence of correction, in Galatians alone – and the mere fact that there are multiple existing manuscripts that predate the Codex Sinaiticus – let alone Alcuin of York – is enough to sink Bartram’s argument.

It gets worse for him. He keeps going back to the Codex Sinaiticus because he has literally no way to explain the mountain of contradictory evidence. At very least he has to explain how the Byzantine, Georgian, and Ethiopian sources – many of which predate Alcuin – fit into his theory. For instance, Eusebius of Caesarea explicitly mentions Jesus in his Church History – and we have copies of this that date from the fifth century in both Latin and Syriac. Bartram claims that these manuscripts do not exist. Since they do in fact exist, we can easily conclude that Bartram is, at best, misinformed.

There’s also still the matter of diffusion. For his theory to work, Alcuin’s ideas had to spread from Ireland to China in under 20 years. However, there’s no evidence that the Byzantines, Irish, Georgians, and Ethiopians – all of whom claimed to have been Christianized before Charlemagne – resisted having their religion changed. And given the dust up over the filioque clause or even comparatively minor issues like the proper way to calculate Easter we know that people weren’t shy about defending their beliefs.

Further, we know from the Nestorian Stele (…) that there were Christian communities in China before 781. Even if you ignore the chronological issues – the stele dates from the year before Alcuin became the master of the Palace School at Aachen – you still have to explain how Alcuin’s ideas made it to China so rapidly and without any record of disruption in the local Christian community.

Last, but certainly not least, Bartram’s insistence that literally every early Christian manuscript was doctored or forged by Carolingian monks is simply wrong, as we saw earlier with Augustine and Eusebius. Quite frankly, this shows an extremely simplistic understanding of history and little to no understanding of how we date a text. The age of the physical book is a part of it, but we can also look at the words themselves. Let’s use Tacitus as an example (Tacitus and his manuscripts). The only known manuscript of Book 15 of the Annals is an 11th century manuscript from Monte Cassino. However, all that tells us is that the book was copied in the 11th century. The actual text is written in exquisite Latin that was clearly the work of a well-educated author who lived in the 2nd century and we know that by comparing it to other second century authors who are only known from other manuscripts, scattered across Europe, and copied over a period of centuries. Hell, we even have other manuscripts of Tacitus to compare it to: the first six books of the Annals survive in a single manuscript from Fulda Abbey, that’s clearly the work of the same author, and dates from the 9th century.

By contrast, compare that to what happened when an 8th century writer did decide to forge something ancient – the Donation of Constantine. The text claims that it was written in the 4th century, but if you have even a passing familiarity with 4th century Latin you know that the text is an obvious fake because it contains terms that simply didn’t exist at the time. Or compare it to the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus. We know the text was doctored in large part because whoever pulled it off couldn’t mimic Josephus’s writing style. Or compare that to the Epistle to the Hebrews which was almost certainly written by a different person than Galatians.

Now I’m sure that Bartram will read this and simply dismiss this as mere “mythologies” or “untruths”, but I stand by every single word I’ve said here. His thesis relies on a very limited selection of the texts and he’s either unaware of additional manuscripts or unwilling to deal with the implications of them. He’s either unaware of the work that’s been done on nomina sacra or unwilling to consider it because it would force him to challenge his theories. He’s also someone who’s said elsewhere on Quora that he’s not an historian and has no historical training. Quite frankly, it shows in how little he understands about using textual evidence.


*Strictly speaking, these should have a horizontal line over the letters, but I don’t know how to make that happen in Quora.

Also, if anyone knows how to type Fraktur in this thing, I’d love to hear it.

‡I counted about 18 different places where ΙΣ, ΙΥ, ΧΥ, or ΙΥ ΧΥ appeared in Galatians as it’s recorded in the Codex Sinaiticus, but I’m sure somebody with a better grasp of Greek could give a more accurate count. Either way, I suspect the “IS CHREST” that Bartram keeps citing is the exception, not the rule.

VII. Quodlibetal Questions: Yours Truly Responds[7]


This question, which I asked in ignorance of the fact that many of these issues had been debated before, kicked up quite a storm. I will now rewrite this answer.

When my first, wholly different response was written, there were only a couple of dashed-off responses to the question. I wanted to see Quora’s historians — who are amazing and underrated — take on an exceptionally unusual set of truth claims and produce either a “smoking gun” (textual or material evidence) or a set of arguments that addressed the methodological presuppositions underlying my friend John’s position.

John has been nothing but gracious to me, so I expected an eirenic set of responses. Instead we had a little tussle of the historians. It was something to behold.

My new answer consists of two things:

  1. The observation that Robert Todd, Michael Wright, and Jason St. Pierre (in his answer and comments on other answers) offered responses that struck me as exemplary. I refer the reader to their offerings.
  2. The list of ten initial questions/objections I offered in response to John’s own answer, which is, I maintain, very interesting reading. Those ten questions can be taken for a summary of some of my misgivings about John’s thesis and what it might involve. I do not doubt he has answers for some or all of them. In the end there is room enough in the world for thee and me.

I commented on John’s answer as follows:

I have many questions; I do want to understand some of the ramifications of your claims. I’ll ask just a very few.

  1. So what’s in that ‘e’ by your lights? How do we know Χρεστός =/= Χριστός? Because the former is not the proper koinē spelling of the word that equates this personage with the Anointed, the Messiah/moschiach? How do we know that Christianity and “Chrestianity” are different in terms of cult, etc. What’s in a name?
  2. Are references to Jesus in the Qur’an not remarkable, if no religion based on him exists to explain the coupling in suras like The Cow (al-Baqarah) of Jew and Christian? What does this mean for the textual foundations of Islam? Surely Alcuin had nothing to do with that, or with the Hadith, or with persons like ibn Taymiyya?
  3. Wherefore the history of heresies and schisms? Why such a back and forth on the unity of trinity, the distinctions among prosopa, homoousios vs. homoiousios, filioque or not, monenergism and monotheletism, rival soteriologies, etc., if the religion was being confabulated in relatively short compass, under a guiding intelligence, and one would imagine with some programmatic pretense to unity?
  4. Why is it more likely that all the texts were invented rather than that they were fragile and lost?
  5. How do you explain the vast stylistic differences between an Augustine or a Lactantius and the Latin of Alcuin, let alone the Latin of later centuries? The style of De civitate Dei is infinitely more classical than that even of Gregory of Tours.
  6. Speaking of Gregory of Tours, Jordanes, Paul the Deacon, et al., are they also monastic inventions? Are we to imagine that diachronic phases of Latinity were invented synchronically in some bizarre Tolkienesque project (but still without systematic doctrinal unity)?
  7. If so, why didn’t this kill Latin as a living language, when the classicizing efforts of Renaissance Latinists are often charged with killing the language for very similar reasons (adopting ancient stylistic norms)? Above all: how did medieval Carolingians produce such a dazzling variety of Latin styles so dissimilar to Cicero’s or to Alcuin’s, and from author to author? Lactantius always sounds like Lactantius. Augustine writes consistently at different registers that line up very well with audience (sermons are conversational; De civitate Dei lofty, as might befit a summa written when learned pagans fled to North Africa in the wake of Alaric’s sack of Rome)?
  8. What were the fourth-century sites Candida Casa, St. Martin, St. Athanasius, etc. used for if they were not monasteries? Can we tell? How?
  9. Are all councils and synods — which record shifts in doctrine —fake? No Nicaea? No Synod of Orange?
  10. Last and most treacherous: why has no other scholar or group of scholars seen what you see? How does one square oneself with the notion that one is alone among persons in an entire millennium to have seen this clearly?

That’s just the first decade. I have a lot more. Essentially what I want to get at is whether anything at all that we can know was going on in Latin Europe, let alone in the Greek East, for all these Christianity-less centuries? And why would monks working in concert under a pretty clear doctrinal program create such a refractory and convoluted tradition in a Latin Alcuin himself never wrote? If there’s no Christian there there, what is there there?

These strike me as difficult questions but also as the tip of an iceberg. The amount of explaining we need to do to prove the history of Christianity a fake seems to me downright bewildering. What then can we posit more confidently than the historical consensus of piled-up centuries, if the latter is all myth and its proponents all dupes?

These questions and implicit criticisms were, I discovered after writing, anticipated And better-stated by Professor St. Pierre. The difference between his offerings and mine is that between a professional and an amateur.

VIII. “A Great List of Questions”: John Bartram Responds To Yours Truly

[Comment in response to my comment on his answer, which was the first draft of my own answer.]

A great list of questions – my work for today.

  1. Chrest is a Greek word and used as a title: Mithridates Chrestos – the fate of a younger brother. Isis was also called Chrest:

The usual translation is Good, though IMO this changes a little with cultural changes.

2. There is no Jesus in the Quran: the name is Isa. There are no Christians in the Quran; they are ‘Followers’.

3. Why heresies? They are parodies of Roman history. Consider adoptionism by Roman Emperors. It is part of the process to make the Holy Roman Empire appear Roman.

4. Sure, some must be lost, but all of them? No – they cannot all have been lost because we have the scriptoria output. Anyway, since then, archaeologists have found many manuscripts of the Imperial period, and older, so we know they can be preserved. Here’s one from Egypt: Order to arrest a Chrestian 28 February 256 CE

We also have early gospels.

5. I have not offered an argument on style. I am not very literary. Let those who are expert do that. Whatever is the answer is fine with me – as long as it is based on facts.

6. Some were invented; some of the inventions used real names, but the personage was changed; much is just added to existing works.

7. Same again as (5). I can think of various explanation, such as monks in different cultures used differing styles. Scriptoria were widespread.

At this point,I hope you see that I am not insisting that my history is right, merely that (a) existing history does not follow the proper rules of evidence; (b) the archaeology is being either ignored, or mistreated. Follow the rules and account for the archaeology – and I will settle for that. I m not a historian – I am just trying to account for observable realities,

8. First, check the earliest cultural layers for these sites. Second, do not assume that Chrestian symbols, such as the solar cross and Chi-Rho, are Christian. If I am right, then the arly baptistries, chapels, saintly monuments and places of worship are not Christian. If I am wrong, show the artefacts and we can discuss them – maybe the dating is unreliable.

9. Why wouldn’t the state organise meetings? It doesn’t make them Christian. If the Christian, textual tradition for them is true, demonstrate that,

Further, look at (a) Church titles – they are all pagan Roman, most from the past era. Why do you think this is?

10. I look at an artefacts – manuscript, ceramic, mosaic – as it clearly uses the eta, for Chrest; the transliterators and translators then say it is an I, for Christ. I can see the difference between an H and an I, so who tells the truth and who lies? Go look for yourself. I have posted many examples.

This is why I say the fraud continues. They cannot even argue their case, just keep repeating the lies.

VIII. Facts or Lies?: Steve Theodore’s Climactic Response, Including the Case for Eusebius[8]

The historical method is not a truth test. It’s a set of guidelines for dealing with source material probabilistically.

Especially when dealing with antiquity, historical source criticism deals with weighting, not vetting; source reliability is a scalar, not a binary value. While historians can be verbally lazy, and toss the words “true” and “false” around the way anyone else does, in their professional capacity are primarily interested in establishing relative probability rather than absolute truth.

Ultimately, the practice of history works likes Bayes’ Theorem: every statement is evaluated against the balance of probabilities established by the rest. Historians evaluate texts the way your email provider evaluates spam. As with email, there are inevitably going to be both false positives and false negatives. The historian’s art is to minimize the chances of both by properly weighting samples.

Thus, the weightings of all the sources are constantly being renegotiated — that’s what’s going on in all those footnotes most people ignore. Citations are easy; arguments about the relative importance of the citations is where the work is. Tightly argued debates about sourcing are why scholarly communications are often so dry. People want stories and drama; professionals argue about ranking, classifying, and sifting sources.

Source handling is an art, not a science. However, it’s an art form with strict rules. There are a range of recognized approaches: extreme empiricists are very reluctant to stray far from the highest quality sources, others are more willing to paper over more of the cracks in the evidentiary records in pursuit of a larger picture. However both camps recognize that the outer extremes of the continuum are not very productive places to operate. Radical skepticism leads to sterility, like those questions which crop up here on Quora demanding ‘proof’ of the existence of the Roman empire. Naive acceptance of any particular statement leads to the fables of Mandeville.

So: methodology is a big deal. No practicing historian thinks otherwise. The idea that they are in the business of naively recycling fables is not just wrong, it’s wrongheaded.

The methodology sketched out in the linked question is as far towards the skeptical method as possible. If followed consistently it would render the writing of history for any period before the sixth or seventh century nearly impossible. The author refuses to assign any weight to a text which can’t be attested as a physical object to the period it describes. To overstate things a little (just a little): there are no Greco-Roman texts which satisfy that criterion before the first century, and precious little beyond that.

OK, that’s an oversimplification… a minor one. There are plenty of fragments of familiar works (and a few new discoveries) from Ptolemaic Egypt, which pushes the time horizon back about two and half centuries for individual passages or sections. But — given the standards of evidence that the author of the linked question asserts — fragments must have a very low weighting too. Few of the ‘standard’ classical authors exists in any attested form, even scraps, earlier than the first century — and apart from a few poets, none of them exists in continuous form that early. Typically the cutoff date for complete manuscripts is somewhere between the fifth and the eleventh century.

Here’s a couple of illustrations: The oldest Livy is from the 9th or 10th century. Tacitus’s Agricola is the same. Herodotus is quite lucky — the earliest fragments, amounting to a handful of pages from perhaps a dozen finds, are probably first century, in the very first league as far as MS. tradition goes — but still about 500 years after he “lived” and “wrote”. Our oldest continuous Herodotus dates, like so many of the others, to the 10th C. Homerdoes very well, with few scraps and tatters going back all the way to the third century BC, probably the second or third generation of Ptolemaic Egypt. But again, the readable continuous text is only attested from the ninth century: the gap between the version we read in school and the earliest archaeologically verifiable sentences is more than a millennium wide — and that is for the foundational text of all subsequent Greek literature. I could go on, but I think the point is clear.

You can certainly try to work without any of these texts if your tastes run that way, as long as you are clear and consistent about it. I had a graduate prof whose ideal was epigraphy or it didn’t happen. As I remember well, from some rather snippy seminars, that approach is going to erase significant swathes of coherent narrative. It cannot, however, replace what it removes.

Consider the vast bulk of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: as far as I know there is nothing in his textual sources which can demonstrate a manuscript tradition going back further than the 9th century apart from the Aeneid — for which we have a lovely 5th century original. He cites a handful of inscriptions (cadged from Muratori), but out of the entire work there is scarcely a page which would survive the critical method suggested in this link intact.

The linked article about Eusebius of Caesarea offers an object lesson in the real implications of the author’s methodology. It neatly demonstrates the difference between absolutist binary arguments and actual historiographic practice.

The article argues for the non-existence of Eusebius on the basis that there was no Christian church in the city, and no congregation for him to be part of during his notional lifetime.

The statement that there are no physical remains appears to be correct. However a good Bayesian will observe that this could easily represent a false negative. Out of the countless authors cited by Gibbon, I can think of perhaps three who can be tied to contemporary epigraphy: Augustus, Marcus Aurelius and and the tendentious poet Claudian, for whom there was a statue in the Roman forum. For that data set, in other words, lack of epigraphic evidence has a false-negative rate well over 90%. If you excise every Greek or Roman author who left no personal epigraphic trace, every Classics department on earth would shut down the next day.

Perhaps recognizing this, the article immediately moving on to a further claim: that Eusebius’ supposed position as bishop must be factitious because there was no church in existence for him to be part of. This is a repetition of the first claim, although it’s probably a better argument: exactly the sort of argument which ancient historians debate all the time.

However, in this case the claim would be heavily under-weighted by any mainstream historian, since there is a clear mentions of fourth century churches in Caesarea in Jerome’s Epitaph on Paula and an arguable one in fourth century pilgrim texts. The author’s text-skepticism lets him simply ignore these. The lack of physical remains, of course, is subject to future revision: no fourth century church has been found yet; but clearly that’s a different statement than the claim that the existence of such a church as been disproved. We can leave that to the arbitration of ground-penetrating radar and the shovel.

Thus far we have absence of evidence, to be sure — but not evidence of absence.

However — probably because that’s not a very satisfying resting point — we stray off the strict via negativa. The author attempts to expand these two bona-fide holes in the record to make a larger positive claim: that there was no Christian church of any kind for Eusebius to be part of — not just in fourth century Caesarea, but anywhere else.

This is idiosyncratic, particularly for somebody who professes strict adherence to physical evidence. The Dura-Europos church is (or was, until those ISIS lunatics rampaged through the area in the last few years) a substantial chunk of masonry dated with no ambiguity to the middle of the third century by the coinage found at the site right before its destruction by the Persians. The paintings at the site contain four recognizable New Testament stories (Jesus healing a paralytic man, Jesus and Peter walking on water, Mary waiting at the tomb, and the Samaritan Woman at the well) along with the “Good Shepherd” motif, as well as a baptismal font.

Jesus and Peter walking on the water, from the Dura-Europos church.

The same site produced several fragments of a Hebrew-language version of the Christian Didache and a Greek text of a Gospel “harmony”, necessarily of the same date. So “no Christian church at all” is an argument of little value: certainly, it’s more clearly discounted by positive evidence from Dura than traditional claims about Eusebius are by the negative.

This is a potential impasse. The epigraphy-only method says “no Eusebius,” though it demonstrably produces false negatives with great regularity. The bigger claim is baseless. One can legitimately — if weakly — stick with “no physical evidence for Eusebius” and hope that sways the uncommitted.

What a professional would do at this point is ask, can we use the physical evidence to get a better sense of the reliability of the textual tradition? Can we use it to check the assertion that the tradition is unreliable?

The article wants to exclude texts on the basis of physical chain of custody. In this specific case, however, the textual tradition happens to have a very physical manifestation to consider: the Madaba Map, a mosaic map of Judaea from 6th-century Jordan. It depicts post-Constantine Jerusalem and other places with biblical history.

The Madaba map (542–610), featuring biblical place names from Eusebius

As far as we can, tell the primary source for the attributions is the Onomasticonattributed to Eusebius: there’s no other epigraphic or literary source which contains them all. The map even reproduces some unusual spellings. A pro will concede this doesn’t “prove” the existence of Eusebius — but it certainly shows that texts attributed to him were literally set in stone by the sixth century. In this connection it would be useful to note that the Syriac translation of Eusebius in the National Library of St. Peterburg is dated to 452 by a note on the manuscript in a fifth century hand. The manuscript gap for Eusebius does not, as the author claims, reach all the way to the Carolingians; it’s between 100 and 250 years at most. Does that prove the existence of Eusebius? No. Proof is not the point: relative plausibility is. And this evidence does make the Caesarea archaeology case seem more like the false negative that it is already statistically likely to be.

This is another plausible resting place for the discussion: you can stop here and say “well, we can’t prove the existence of a Eusebius of Caesarea, but the traditions relating to him were circulating in the region within a century or two of his supposed date.” This is not a ringing conclusion, but it’s safe, and sticks within the ostensible guidelines we’re trying to follow. Every classics bookshelf contains hundreds of statements just like this.

Still, if you were interested in using this as a test case for the validity of the prevalent textual tradition there are some interesting arguments to consider. There’s plenty of (non-theological) data in the textual stream about the physical geography of fourth century Judea. You could try to use that as a control on the reliability of texts like the Jerome’s Epitaphium, Sozomen, Socrates Scholasticus or Eusebius’ own works as they relate to the region, and then use that to gauge whether to accept the several reports of churches in Caesarea. In that context I’d mention that the archaeology relating to the pilgrim itineraries and Constantine’s building program in Jerusalem has been studied for more than a century without major falsifications — and, just recently, chemical tests confirmed the date of the mortar used in the vault of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates to the mid 4th century – exactly when Sozomen, Scholasticus, Jerome and Eusebius would tell us to expect it. The details of all this material is probably where a mainstream scholar would get busy.

However, that is emphatically not what happens here. The instead article claims unequivocally that the textual tradition around Eusebius is an interpolation or forgery, perpetrated at some point between the 330s and the 8th century.

This is emphatically an affirmative claim, not a null hypothesis.

That claim is not supported by any positive evidence — certainly not by any evidence that passes the test being proposed in the article. Where is the epigraphy or archaeology supporting a college of forgers, creating or altering the several million words of the Greek, Latin, Syriac and Coptic traditions which the author wants to discredit? What’s the medium by which these medieval French and German monks managed to translate their their texts into Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Persian, Gothic, Bulgarian, and Ge’ez ?

This does not even need to be a critique of the plausibility of such a huge, audacious claim: it’s simply pointing out that it fails the test the article trumpets as the gold standard of evidence.

It’s one thing to claim strict adherence to the most rigorous standards of proof. It’s quite another thing to claim them only when it’s convenient.

Concluding Remarks

The Educational Blog itself exists to educate. It is written by educators and specialists, and its goal is the preservation of truth and research-justification in a world where the phrase “post-fact” has too much currency.

None of the writers lacks faith in fact. They have disputed what is and is not fact. That I ended this entry with Steve’s remarks about “weighing” versus “vetting” in the practice of ancient history and historiography is, however, an indication of the conclusions I myself accept.

What the discourse in this post showcases is just how carefully the historian must wield his tools. There are, of course, outlier views in every field. Consensus in and of itself is no guarantor of truth. But when the consensus view is backed up by rigorous arguments, physical proofs, and methodological arguments that render the outlier hypothesis untenable, that, in my view — as the author of this post — is what ought to give us pause in the evaluation of ideas.

As a reader, writer, thinker, and teacher, I believe this discussion demonstrates that the traditions we have, while prone to revision on this or that minor point when new evidence emerges, exist for very good reason, and rest on the best collective interpretation of the available data we have. That modern historians should, to all but a man, be engaged in an act of willful “fraud” seems to me untenable. To what end would they do so, particularly the secularists among them?

From where I sit, the consensus of scholars has reasserted the claims of order.

And as Augustine of Hippo, bishop of Hippo Rhegius, a Berber born in Thagaste in Roman North Africa (modern Algeria) in 354 CE, once put it, pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis — “the peace of all things is the tranquility of order” (De civ. Dei 19.13).[9]


[1] John Bartram’s answer to Is history true?

[2] John Bartram’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[3] Robert Todd’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[4] Michael Wright’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[5] Jenny Hawkins’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[6] Jason St. Pierre’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[7] Michael Masiello’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[8] Steve Theodore’s answer to A Quoran archaeologist-historian argues there is no textual evidence for a Christian theological tradition in the West prior to the life of Alcuin (735-804 CE), and that earlier Christian history is a fiction. Is there any rigorous counterargument?

[9] De Civitate Dei Liber XIX