I recently got in a discussion with a man claiming that there is more reliable historical proof of the existence of Jesus Christ than of Julius Caesar.

On face value, this claim seems ridiculous — ignoring everything else, one would think that an emperor, politician, general, etc. of one of the most powerful nations in the world living around the same time would have left tremendously more reliable proof of his existence than a leader of, at the time, a minor religious group.

His main argument was that the oldest copy of a text talking about Jesus we have was older than the oldest copy of a document we have about the famous emperor, and that ones about Jesus are more consistent.

The unfortunate thing about trying to find the answer to this question by myself is that, when I search for proof of Caesar etc. on Google, the results page is covered by heavily religious websites, seemingly repeating this argument, but without good sources (apart from references to other religious books), and most of them look as if they were from mid-2000. (My guess would be it was a popular argument at some point?)

Wikipedia has a list of primary sources, but, according to this person, they don't count because the oldest copy of, for example, Julius' works about his conquest of Gaul were copied 600 years after his death, so they are more likely a fabrication/fake than the Bible, so seemingly only "old" manuscripts count.

Side note: Finding information on how old the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are is very easy, finding the same information about any books in the primary sources list on Wikipedia is the opposite.

So my question is, what are the best primary sources I could point to regarding the existence of Julius Caesar, where only manuscripts/objects from the period "count" (so, if a historian who wrote about him was a contemporary, but the oldest copy of the work we have is from 500 years after, it doesn't count, also coins with his face don't count apparently).

I just found the topic interesting. I would also be grateful for hints on how to best find this type of information in the future.

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    I am not expert, but I'm skeptical of the oldest copy of text talking about Jesus we have, was older than the oldest copy of a document we have about the famous emperor, since Caesar lived before Jesus and there were contemporary accounts of Caesar. I would start by searching for the texts by Cicero. – Allure May 17 at 5:13
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    On the other hand, there is more reliable historical proof of existence of Jesus Christ, then Julius Caesar seems rather silly, since the odds are that both Jesus & Caesar existed. It would be like claiming that there is more reliable historical proof of existence of Winston Churchill than Donald Trump on the grounds that documents on Churchill are older than those on Trump - sounds pretty nonsensical. – Allure May 17 at 5:15
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    I don't understand your question then - Caesar wrote his own accounts of his conquests, so Juliuses works about his conquest of Gaul were written 600 years after his death is incorrect. There were also accounts of Caesar written by contemporary authors. To quote Wikipedia, "Caesar was an accomplished author and historian as well as a statesman; much of his life is known from his own accounts of his military campaigns. Other contemporary sources include the letters and speeches of Cicero and the historical writings of Sallust*. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar – Allure May 17 at 5:28
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    @Allure We have exceptionally ancient manuscript copies of (fragments of) the gospels. I don't know if the answer to this question is positive or negative but it's not such an unreasonable claim - Jesus is exceptionally well attested as far as ancient figures go. For example we have definitely more proof of the existence of Jesus than the existence of Socrates. Caesar is sort of a silly example to make for this - we might actually have contemporaneous stone carvings given his importance - but the sentiment is not crazy. – Denis Nardin May 17 at 5:36
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    "They brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Matthew 22 19-21, also in Mark and Luke. The emperor on the coin was probably Tiberias, but the title Caesar came from Juius Caesar's personal cognomen. – davidlol May 17 at 9:37

The claim to analyze and compare here is that for 'mentioning Jesus' we have many more existing manuscripts that are much older than many and most manuscripts for almost any other historical person of antiquity. And that overly specific claim is correct.

If we just compare Caesar with Jesus, in that way, Caesar almost loses. "Almost", since the bulk of manuscripts by Caesar or about him undoubtedly are lost now. However, one tiny and exceedingly rare counterexample is shown below.

The oldest fragment for 'Jesus' is the recto of the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, 𝔅52 / 𝕻52:

enter image description here


And this is dated to be an 'original copy' from between first and 3 century. Note that the actual word 'Jesus' is missing in this piece, but assumed to be 'has to be there' from later and more complete papyrii. For a direct evidence of that word we need to look at the slightly younger 𝕻90, in which we find the part of the Gospel of John that mentions Jesus wearing a crown thorns.

The list of extant biblical manuscripts is long.

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work of literature, with over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts catalogued, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages…

Compared to for example Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico one might argue that this is seen as at least being from Caesar himself as the original author.

But unfortunately the oldest known manuscripts for this work date only to the ninth century.

Caesar's literary fame in modern times is founded solely on the comm., which were published posthumously in the Middle Ages as part of the Corpus Caesarianum; rarely read in antiquity, they survived in a late-antique MSS (corrected in the BG ?), which in the Middle Ages was transmitted in a few copies, mainly in France.

— Will, Wolfgang (Bonn) and Rüpke, Jörg (Erfurt), “Caesar”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider, English Edition by: Christine F. Salazar, Classical Tradition volumes edited by: Manfred Landfester, English Edition by: Francis G. Gentry. First published online: 2006 doi

And that caesarian literary heritage of bello Gallico is summarised as:

Alpha family

There are 6 early witnesses to the alpha family. Two derive from a common lost ancestor: these are:

  • Amsterdam 73, 2nd quarter of the 9th century, written at Fleury (=A)

  • Paris lat. 5056, 11-12th century, written at Moissac (=Q) The remaining four derive from another now lost ms:

  • Paris lat. 5763, 1st quarter of the 9th century, French, later at Fleury (=B)

  • Vatican lat. 3864, 3rd quarter of the 9th century, written at Corbie (=M)

  • Florence, Laur. Ashb. 33, 10th century, possibly French (=S)

  • British Library Additional 10084, 11-12th century, probably from Gembloux (=L) Some 75 mss later than the 9th century have been listed by Virginia Brown, who has classified them into groupings tentatively.

Beta family

The Klotz edition of 1950 used 8 mss, although at least 3 of these are now considered to be non-primary. The five are:

  • Florence, Laur. 68.8, basically 10-11th century, probably Italian, once the property of Niccolo Niccoli (=W)
  • Vatican latinus 3324, 11-12th century, possibly French (=U)
  • Paris lat. 5764, 3rd quarter of the 11th century, French (=T)
  • Vienna 95, 1st quarter of the 12th century, probably from Trier (=V)

With Paris 5763:

enter image description here

— ark:/12148/btv1b8426038x Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 5763

The same applies to other authors writing about Caesar: their works are sometimes known to us today but, the historical literary transmission of ancient texts is much sparser and temporally more removed from the actual time they lived than New Testament writings. Most of the manuscripts containing information about 'profane' historical figures are high and late medieval copies.

Of course:
one of the best contemporary primary sources for providing historical proof of Caesar's existence would be to point to more robust than papyrus material remains, like inscriptions in stone or metal, perhaps even a coin that the man had issued himself, sometimes with his name or even head on it.

enter image description here

A thing we're told Jesus didn't care for that much.

This answer so far avoids 'the question in title on purpose'. The 'best primary sources for the existence of Caesar' is really a XY-problem. Answering the title question as is, would mean that 'claimant to be disproven' and OP will talk past each other, largely.

We have comparatively 'hard' objects which point to Julius Caesar directly, like CIG 2957:

Honorary inscription for Gaius Iulius Caesar by poleis, [demoi], and ethne (of Hellenes) in Asia; 48 BC; found at Ephesos: CIG 2957; LW 142; Syll3 760; Tuchelt, Frühe Denkm. 141; *IEph 251.

However, there probably is one striking example fulfilling all the requirements needed to get a surviving manuscript from the time of Caesar's assassination:

Fata mihi, Caesar, tum erunt mea dulcia, quom tu / maxima Romanae pars eris historiae / postque tuum reditum multorum templa deorum / fixa legam spolieis deivitiora tueis.

This is Latin poetry written by Gaius Cornelius Gallus (c. 70–26 BC). Coincidence: this is classified as PQasrIbrîm inv. 78-3-11/ (L1/2) and also portrayed as

The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of Latin Poetry Was Discovered in Qasr Ibrim — Circa 50 BCE to 25 CE.

enter image description here

"The book can be dated from its archaeological context, more precisely (c.50-20 B.C.) or less precisely (c.50 B.C.- A.D. 25). It therefore provides one of the few fixed points in the early history of Latin literary scripts."

But what the claim brought forward alludes to is the undeniable fact that for a text from classical antiquity the literary transmission of New Testament writings is indeed remarkably well, in many cases going back far with little variants and alterations as evidenced from the oldest copies we did find. The vast body of classical literature seems to be present in our finds only in often much younger copies, and with fewer copies. Some of those then also with heavy disagreements between them.

For literature from classical antiquity the claim has a sizable kernel of truth to it. Many of the otherwise seemingly well known historical figures can be seen as being harder to ascertain as being 'real' than the main protagonist of the gospels, if going by oldest surviving manuscripts alone. Unfortunately, that on its own doesn't even prove the existence of said protagonist without remaining doubts…

At the beginning of this answer, we read "almost any other historical person of antiquity". Since that claim is often phrased as "better evidence for (absolutely) any other historical figure", and meant to convey 'any source material at all included' we see that this special viewing angle is then taken to extreme exaggerations that is simply untrue.

A more fitting comparison would be to compare literary transmission for Sokrates and Jesus and the value of this transmission history for 'judging things'. Known basically only through writings about him, mainly by his disciple, whose writings are of quite late provenience, etc. That would not prove anything either on its own, but illustrates the sometimes differing scales that are applied in these matters in disputes.

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    The fact that there are many more/older manuscripts seems like simple selection bias, though. Are there ANY ancient manuscripts mentioning Jesus that were preserved outside the Church? – jamesqf May 17 at 17:38
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    @jamesqf Of course it this survivorship bias. Outside of church tradition it looks quite similar for both. The (indirect?) mention in Tacitus eg is as medieval as Caesar's texts for this matter. Pliny's letters: 9th century (except Pierpont Morgan Library Manuskript M.462: 5th cent). – LаngLаngС May 17 at 18:49
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    Regarding the overly specific claim: it turns out there is a contemporary document which mentions Nero, and which remarkably has survived to date from AD 57. So the claim works for Caesar, but not for all emperors... – Andrew May 17 at 19:17
  • What about Augustus' Res Gestae? It only mentions "my father", but from context it seems quite clear who Augustus is referring to. Oldest surviving copy is in Ancara, created around 25 AD – Jan May 17 at 23:58
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    This is a great answer! We can't be reminded too often how lucky it is that any ancient literature survives. – Mark Olson May 21 at 12:08

This claim not only seems ridiculous but it really is ridiculous. About Ceasar we have plenty of contemporary sources, and they are not limited to later copies of ancient texts. There are coins, inscriptions on stone, etc. And finally, a lot of texts. It is true that all texts that we have are actually later copies of the originals but the point is that they are all consistent with each other, and can be corroborated in many ways.

On the other hand, on Christ we have only gospels written many years after his supposed death, and one sentence in Josephus. The gospels themselves are not trustworthy, since they describe miracles etc., and contradict each other in details.

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    I think this answer overstates the case on the Historicity of Jesus a fair bit. The evidence is much stronger than we honestly have for a lot of other historical figures, and his existence as a historic human figure is accepted by nearly all serious historians studying the matter. However, I think this answer probably still gets the ">" relationship correct. – T.E.D. May 17 at 13:59
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    I think that part of the problem is that, in fact, the oldest documents about Christ are in fact much older than the oldest documents about Caesar: We have gospels from late ancient times, but the oldest document mentioning Caesar was copied nearly a thousand years later. BUT there's all those coins and statues and inscriptions which were contemporary for Caesar, but mostly at least a century or two later for Christ. – Mark Olson May 17 at 14:12
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    Even disregarding coins and statues, the point is that documents where Ceasar is mentioned are very abundant, diverse (have different origins) and CONSISTENT with each other, no matter when the earliest surviving copy was copied. – Alex May 17 at 14:29
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    @Alex: Another point is that the documents we have concerning Caesar are also consistent with observed reality - that is, we have many examples of ambitious generals & politicians trying to seize power, so Caesar's life is not out of the ordinary. The documents we have concerning Jesus mostly require us to accept miracles :-( – jamesqf May 17 at 17:34
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    And it is widely accepted that that (clumsy and obvious) insert in Josephus was added much later. – RedSonja May 18 at 8:05

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