Richard Carrier helps us in understanding ancient evidence

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Richard Carrier helps us in understanding ancient evidence

After sleeping on this and talking to the boys about prize #2 (name 5 figures that existed without evidence within 25 years of their life) we may end up withdrawing that particular prize. Here is an important question answered from Richard Carrier sent to me today:

Q. Shouldn't we expect to have evidence within 25 years of any important ancient figures life?

A. This is true for well-documented periods--e.g. almost anything after 1500 AD. The problem is that antiquity has gone through a meat grinder: well more than 99% of all documents produced (journals, records, letters, archives, libraries, receipts, etc.) have been destroyed, even relative to the documents produced since 1500, and over 90% of all literary texts that were in circulation throughout antiquity, at least up to around 200 AD, have also been lost, even relative, again, to the texts that have survived that were written after 1500. The choice of which documents were preserved was not random, but culturally and geographically determined (the sands of Egypt have been kind, but even then, primarily only what was thrown in the garbage has survived), and the choice of which texts survived has also not been random, but is a direct function of what Christians (and much more rarely, Muslims) chose to preserve, and their choices were not based on an interest in preserving a good, consistent documentation of every generation of antiquity, but on their dogmatic and aesthetic fancies, and often personal idiosyncratic happenstance.

For example, we are enormously lucky to have Tacitus--only two unrelated Christian monasteries had any interest in preserving his Annals, for example, and neither of them preserved the whole thing, but each less than half of it, nd by shear luck alone, they each preserved a different half. And yet we still have large gaps in it. One of those gaps is the removal of the years 29, 30, and 31 (precisely, the latter part of 29, all of 30, and the earlier part of 31), which is probably the deliberate excision of Christian scribes who were embarrassed by the lack of any mention of Jesus or Gospel events in those years (the years Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection were widely believed at the time to have occurred). There is otherwise no known explanation for why those three years were removed. The other large gap is the material between the two halves that neither institution preserved. And yet another is the end of the second half, which scribes also chose not to preserve (or lost through negligent care of the manuscript, etc.).

This is not an uncommon story. It is actually a typical story. It should be obvious that when your source list has gone through this kind of meat grinder, it soon becomes unreasonable to expect even famous people to be well-documented. Sure, they would have been--emphasis on *would have*. But that does not mean any of that documentation was or even would have been preserved by Christian scribes over a thousand years of copying, storage and care, because preserving a record of every famous person was never a criterion they used for choosing what to copy, store, and take care of. In fact, who knows how many famous people were never preserved in the surviving record at all--we don't talk about them, because we don't know they existed, because nothing that mentioned them was preserved.

Musonius Rufus is an example arguing that possibility--he was universally regarded in antiquity as the second greatest wise man in history, second only to Socrates. In effect, this was the most famous man in the world, at least in the category of philosophy and wisdom tradition. Yet almost nothing about him survives. We do have some stuff, so he doesn't meet your criteria, but it is astonishing that so little survives--so little, in fact, that most people today have never heard of him and find it very odd that he should have been the second most famous man in the world. If this is how medieval scribes treated the records of one of the most famous men in the world, why would we expect even that much treatment for anyone of lesser fame or prestige?

Another example is Strato of Lampsacus, who was widely regarded
throughout antiquity as the greatest scientist who ever lived, so much
so that he was referred to as THE scientist (literally, "The Natural Philosopher"Eye-wink, and what we know of late scraps discussing his work, they were right--he accomplished amazing things, greatly improved Aristotelian physics, perfected the concept of the controlled experiment, and so on. But I bet you've never heard of him--or if you did, you had no idea he was the most famous and revered scientist of the ancient world. Alas, he was an atheist. Consequently, not a single jot of his writings was preserved by Christian scribes, except what got smuggled through in quotes by other authors. As far as I know, all records about him--and many did exist--were not preserved either, and he may well meet your criteria (unless, again, quotations of him centuries later count--though they shouldn't, since that would be as circular as citing quotations of Jesus).

Thus, "you'd expect people who actually lived during that person's life to tell the story" may be true, but "you'd expect such writings to have been preserved up to today" is not true. And that's the crux of the issue. And this is just for people of considerable fame. When it comes to minor religious nut cases, for example, who hardly bleeped on any educated writer's radar, even the first expectation is unwarranted. You might expect documentation to be produced, e.g. census records or tax receipts or court documents, but even then, you have no reason to expect any of that documentation to have survived, even in quotation, precisely because we know that rarely happened for *anyone* in antiquity, even the most famous, much less the unfamous. For example, name the leaders of the Qumran community from 100 B.C. to 60 A.D. I doubt you can name even one of them--and we actually have the extremely unusual luck of having found some of their original library. Who founded the Egyptian Therapeutae community that Philo speaks of? Surely these founding figures were as famous as Alexander of Abonuteichos, but it is shear luck that Lucian stumbled across him and decided to write about him--what if Lucian didn't stumble across him, or did but didn't think him important enough to write about, or did, and nothing Lucian wrote about him was preserved? How many other founders of novel religious movements did Lucian and his parallels not stumble across, or not write about, or write what was not preserved? How well do we know the founders of the Gnostic sects? How late do our sources start on them? What about even the orthodox bishops (i.e Popes) in Rome between Paul and Clement? Our earliest even mention of them I believe is Eusebius, quoting sources mid-2nd century. In fact, one might be able to win your contest by naming the five least-attested Popes between 60 and 300 AD. There certainly had to have been Popes continuously in that period, so there can be no doubt as to their historicity, even if sources like Eusebius got their names wrong.
Or try this: Who held the Imperial Epicurean Chair at Athens between
140 and 230 A.D.? Think about that one. The Emperor of All Rome established a paid position as a professor of Epicurean philosophy at
Athens--arguably one of the most prestigious offices anyone could hold in the Western world. Anyone occupying such a position could not possibly be regarded as *not* a famous person. So who were they? I would be surprised if you could name even one of these men, much less all of them, and yet the office continued to be funded and appointed for almost a hundred years, if not two hundred. And even if you are lucky enough to find one of their names in some source somewhere, how likely is it that that source will have been written within 25 years of that professor's death? I think this should put your problem in perspective.

BTW, you can post this email to the forums if you like.

Richard C. Carrier, M.Phil.
Columbia University