John Dickson

Australian writer, speaker, and academic. Public advocate for the Christian Faith

Is Jesus Missing from the Oxford Classical Dictionary? Or, Why Internet Scepticism is Sometimes Really Dumb.

John Loftus is a former evangelical theology student who lost his faith and started the popular atheist blog “Debunking Christianity”. A few weeks ago, he published a piece by a regular contributor Harry McCall, whom Loftus describes as “having a background in high-level biblical scholarship.” McCall’s article questions the existence of Jesus—of course—under the headline, “For the fourth time Jesus fails to qualify as a historical entry in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD).” 

After building up the importance of the OCD (quite rightly) as the “ultimate work on the classical world”, the author points out that the editors of the newly published 4th edition of the dictionary fail to give Jesus an entry—as they do for thousands of other historical figures from Graeco-Roman antiquity, such as Julius Caesar, Cicero, and so on. There is an entry on ‘Christianity’, of course, but even here, so McCall tells us, the entry highlights the many unknowns in the expansion of the new religion. “In conclusion,” he declares with innocent delight, “while Christian apologists may find proof of Jesus as a historical figure in a few Classical authors, the professional editors and contributors of this long standing ultimate reference work on the classical world would strongly disagree!” 

Whether ignorance, deliberate deception, or just good old-fashioned dogmatic blindness, this line of reasoning provides an unhappy window into much that is wrong with evangelical atheism. John Loftus knows more about Christianity than the average atheist. He should know better than to give airtime to the intellectual gibberish of Harry McCall.

The following critique is not really intended as a rebuttal of the arguments of Loftus and McCall—which cannot be taken seriously—but, rather, as an illustration of the absence of truth-telling in much internet scepticism. 

The difference between classical and Near Eastern studies

First, while comprehensive for the Greek and Roman worlds, the Oxford Classical Dictionary has very little interest in events or figures of what is called the ancient Near East (Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on). Jesus is formally part of that history not Graeco-Roman history. In the Oxford tradition, especially, the ‘classical world’ is a wholly different subject area from that of Near Eastern and Jewish studies (or what is sometimes called Oriental studies). Oxford University, for example, the publisher of this famous academic dictionary, has a Faculty of Classics which deals with Greece and Rome and a Faculty of Oriental Studies which treats Israel, Mesopotamia, and so on. It was this latter faculty that was home to one of the great Jesus scholars of the last 40 years, Professor Geza Vermes. McCall and Loftus show no awareness of this basic division in the study of the ancient world. (My own university, by the way, Macquarie University, seeks to bridge this divide with its Ancient History Department, where students can study both the Classical and Near Eastern / Jewish worlds within a single program. But we are special!).

Other certain figures without entries in the OCD

Secondly, illustrative of this academic division between classical and oriental studies, especially at Oxford, is the fact that the Oxford Classical Dictionary fails to give entries on a multitude of important figures from ancient Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on, people who certainly existed. Some Jewish figures appear in the OCD, on account of their direct involvement in the affairs of Greece and Rome (Herod and Philo, for example), but the vast majority of significant historical figures in Judea and Galilee fail to get their own entry. I am thinking of Caiaphas, the high priest of Israel at the time of Jesus. Or Izates, the king of Adiabene who along with his mother Helena were the most famous converts to Judaism in the period and whose tombs in Jerusalem can be visited to this day. Then there’s the 1st-century BC tyrant king and high priest Alexander Jannaeus, whose coins are littered throughout archaeological digs in the region. Then there are the leading rabbis of the period, Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel, or the great rebel leaders such as Judas of Gamla the founder of a mass rebellion in Judea in AD 6 and Eleazar who led the revolt against Rome right through to his death at Masada in AD 73. 

All of these figures were as well known in the period as Jesus of Nazareth (some more so). None of them earns an entry in the OCD. Why? Because they are not formally part of Classical history in the Oxford tradition. They are, however, found in the standard works of Jewish and Near Eastern history. And no one doubts their existence. 

That King Izates and Jesus of Nazareth fail to get their own entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary is no more significant than the fact that there is no article on Cicero in the four volume Cambridge History of Judaism (where, by the way, there is an 50-page article on the historical Jesus).

What the Oxford Classical Dictionary actually says about Jesus

Thirdly, what the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article fails to mention is even more revealing than what it claims. One can forgive John Loftus and Harry McCall for not knowing their Classical history from their Near Eastern and Jewish history, but it is very difficult to understand their omission of what the OCD in fact says about Jesus in its entry on Christianity. McCall gives the appearance of having dealt with the content of the entry. He quotes from its closing paragraph (which concerns the 4th-century expansion of Christianity). But it is telling that he says nothing about the opening paragraphs of the entry, which set the figure of Jesus in his world and contains such statements as: “The first followers of Jesus inhabited a political system, the Roman empire, that regarded Jews as singular…”; “Jesus lived, therefore, in a divided Palestine …”; “It is likely that Jesus reflected several tendencies in the Judaism of his day …”; “Jesus emphasized the imminent ending of the visible world and the judgement of God …”; and so on. 

The existence of Jesus is treated as certain in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, even if the reason he rates a mention in this standard Classical reference work is that it was Christianity—rather than Jesus himself—that went on to become an important feature of the Greek and Roman worlds. 

The conclusion of the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article—that the professional historians of the OCD equivocate on the existence of Jesus—is fanciful. If McCall and Loftus aren’t evidence of the ignorance or dishonesty of evangelical atheism, they are surely examples of its one-eyed dogmatism. As a result, sometimes internet scepticism is really dumb.