Socrates and Jesus: Proof in the Words

The first post attested to the existence of Jesus and Socrates.

The second in the series demonstrated the reliability of the written records.

We now turn to the veracity of the written accounts. Are the words originally recorded by the disciples a faithful record of Jesus’ and Socrates’ sayings, conversations and lives?

Herein lies the essence of this debate. For if they are true, then the reader is faced with a decision. Let’s begin…

How Do Socrates’ Words Cross-Reference?

One means of research is cross-referencing among the extant manuscripts.

The dialog Apology is the most historical in intent of Plato’s writings. Preserved in the manuscript is Socrates’ defense of himself before the Athenian Council and is regarded as his actual words. Close harmony exists with the references to other Platonic dialogues and also with the account given in Xenophon’s Memorabilia.

Verification of other accounts of Socrates is difficult because of conflicting views of the philosopher put forward by each author (namely Plato, Xenophon, and Aristothanes). They differ in describing his personality as well as representing his perspective on specific issues. For example, “in Xenophon’s Memorabilia Socrates advocates kingship within the limits of law but in Plato’s Republic, Socrates imposes no such restriction” (I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates). Nevertheless, few question the authenticity of Plato’s writings of Socrates…even if they are contradicted by Xenophon.

How Do Jesus’ Words Cross-Reference?

The accounts of Jesus’ life, on the other hand, bear remarkable resemblance to one another. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) compliment each other as various sides to one story, not contradicting one another as do Plato and Xenophon. The gospels do differ in their ordering of events and in a few differences in number (did the women see one angel or two at the empty tomb?).

Unlike the prevailing Western tradition of chronological placement of events, the disciples focused on the message and their intended audiences. Only Luke claims to be an orderly account of Jesus’ life (Luke 1.3). None of the discourses negate the words recorded by the other gospel writers. These variants are historically legitimate and could only be called “unhistorical” if the different authors explicitly disagreed on the ordering of the events.

What was the Purpose of the Words?

Louis Gottschalk, the author of Understanding History, proposes additional tests for manuscript historicity. He suggests that a document has a high probability of reliability if it: 1) is a personal letter, 2) is intended for small audiences, 3) is written in unpolished style, and 4) contains trivia and lists of details.

Socrates and Followers Say…

The writings about Socrates meet two of Gottschalk’s criteria. Trivia and lists of details appear in the manuscripts. In Apology, for example, Socrates explains in lengthy detail about his encounter with the oracle at Delphi, as well as a story about his brief days as a senator. Socrates also gives long lists, especially of people. For example, when he suggests the Council call some of his students as witnesses, he launches into a tedious list of men:

“…there is Cristo…and there is Critobulus his son, whom I see. Then again there is Lysanias of Sphettus, who is the father of Asechines –he is present; and also there is Antiphon of Cephisus, who is the father of Epigenes; and there are the brothers of several who have associated with me. There is Nicostratus…” (Justin Kaplan, Dialogues of Plato)

It is important to note also that while Apology is not a personal letter, it does include a personal appeal. Socrates had three sons. At the time of his trial, two were young and one was nearly a man. In closing his defense to the Council, Socrates says:

“Still, I have a favour to ask of them. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, –then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, both I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.” (Justin Kaplan, Dialogues of Plato)

The existing manuscripts on Socrates’ life and teachings are by Greek contemporaries who write plays and poetry. While Plato no doubt had historical record in mind for Apology, he also wanted to create a dialog to present Socrates as an intellectual martyr. Plato casts Socrates as calm, collected, and in a favorable light throughout the trial.

Apology and the other Greek manuscripts were written with a large audience in min. Plays, by their very nature, are not meant for private reading. Furthermore, plays, poems and dialogues are a polished style of writing. The literary prose in the Greek writings exhibits carefully reasoned philosophical perspectives and high quality composition.

Jesus and Followers Say…

The New Testament writings compare favorably with Gottschalk’s criteria. Fourteen of the 27 New Testament books are personal letters to individual persons or churches. The authors — fishermen, tax collector, physician — did not have a literary goal in recording and interpreting Jesus’ teachings and life. Indeed, philosopher Karl Jasper suggests that some of the words of Jesus are well authenticated because “his disciples were not writers and did not consciously try to produce literature.” (Karl Jaspers, Socrates Buddha Confucius Jesus)

The New Testament writings contain numerous lists of detail and trivia. Lengthy salutations conclude most of the letters. For example:

“…Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4.10-13)

Other personal matters are recorded in the gospels and the other New Testament writings. In Philippians 4.2, the author encourages the resolution of a dispute between Euodia and Syntyche; and in John 12.3 details of first century life are recorded.

Furthermore, the Gospels portray the disciples in various colloquial stories and detailed conversations as a rough crew, slow to understand, and even quarreling among themselves. Not a flattering self-portrait.

How Might We Conclude?

From the preponderance of evidence, if we grant authenticity to Plato’s writings about Socrates, then the same veracity must be attributed to the disciples’ writings about Jesus. The plethora of manuscript testimony to the New Testament demands its acceptance as an accurate historical account of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. Denying the Bible’s historicity is tantamount to discarding all literature of antiquity.

The Decision

Upon reading the letters and accounts of the New Testament, we are presented with none other than the divine Son of the Living God. Will the authentic and reliable words influence your life? The decision is a profound one. It’s the game changer.

Posted by Sharon R. Hoover


About Sharon R Hoover

Serving the church for over twenty years in discipleship and mission ministries, I've walked alongside many people travelling and exploring the journey of faith. Add in my own crazy path and I hope my writing will offer glimpses of life worth sharing.
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4 Responses to Socrates and Jesus: Proof in the Words

  1. Impressed says:

    Very informative. Well done.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Posts of 2011 | Journal of Missional Living

  3. Pingback: Socrates and Jesus: Proof Across the Millenium | Journal of Missional Living

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