Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.5
A Roman Trio
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Pliny the Younger – Letter to Trajan
- Information taken from Christians
- Is “Christ” a man or only a god?
- “Christo quasi deo” – “as” or “as if”?
- Ancient quotes have no “quasi”
- Suetonius – Life of Claudius
- “Chrestus” and the expulsion of Jews
- Misleading translation
- Paul and Acts
- Tacitus – Annals 15
- “Christ” but no “Jesus”
- Tacitus’ source: archive or hearsay?
- “Procurator” vs. “Prefect”
- The question of authenticity
- No Christian witness to martyrdom for the Great Fire
- No Roman witness after Tacitus
- Sulpicius Severus (c.400) the first witness
* * * * *
Non-Christian References to Jesus
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 50-56)
Pliny the Younger
After this considerable amount of prefatory material, Ehrman finally arrives at his discussion of the non-Christian references to Jesus. He begins with Pliny the Younger and his famous letter to Trajan in the year 112 CE during his governorship of the province of Bithynia,making inquiries regarding the prosecution of Christians.
At the outset Ehrman admits that any information about Jesus that might be gleaned from Pliny could be seen as having been derived from the Christians themselves (indeed, this is a virtual certainty from what he says), and thus is of little if any value in establishing the historicity of Jesus. Nor does Pliny use the name “Jesus,” referring to the Christian object of worship simply as “Christ.”
The information Pliny has collected from the accused about the sect’s activities is pretty innocuous:
- A pre-dawn chant,
- subscription to certain ethics and behavior,
- assembling to “take food of an ordinary, harmless kind.”
We might note that the latter does not suggest the Eucharist ceremony with its eating of the flesh and blood of Christ, whether god or man, and there is no reference to a crucifixion let alone an alleged resurrection.
But that pre-dawn chant: Pliny says it was “in honor of Christ as to a god [Christo quasi deo].”
Many translations render “quasi” by the words “as if.” Ehrman does not; he leaves out the “if.” Traditionally, it is claimed that the idea of “if” conveys Pliny’s view that Christ was not a god, but that his believers treated him as such; and if he was not a god, what was he? What else but a man? And Ehrman concurs, even without the “if”: “that the songs were offered to Christ ‘as to a god’ suggests that Christ was, of course, something else.”
But does it?
- First we can ask why, if Pliny had learned or already knew that the object of their worship was a man who had been crucified in Judea almost a century earlier, this was not mentioned in his account of the Christians to the emperor.
- It is also curious that he would have used the term “Christ” and not “Jesus,” or failed to make any reference to the meaning of “Christ.” It sounds no more than that Pliny has simply picked up this ‘name’ as that of the god of the Christians. This would make his “Christo quasi deo” a simple statement that “Christ” was their “god.” This would make sense, since “Christ” was not in the regular pantheon of any culture’s gods of the time and would need identifying as such.
- I point out in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.637f) that commentators are divided as to whether Pliny is using “quasi” in its ‘supposal’ sense—i.e., “as if”—which implies that something is not actually the case (“I felt as if I were king of the world”), or simply in a descriptive sense—i.e., “as”—which states an actuality (“He acknowledged his partner as an equal”). An examination of all Pliny’s letters shows that he uses “quasi” in both senses. It is therefore impossible to say from his words alone that Pliny views Christ as having been not a god but a man.
- Besides, had he known this and wanted to convey it, he should have used the man’s name.
We could go so far as to say that if Pliny was not aware of the man and his role in the sect, which is what his letter indicates, he is actually stating a view that the Bithynia Christians worshiped an entirely non-human figure, and thus he could be said to provide evidence that there was no historical Jesus.
Ehrman has ignored these considerations as outlined in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, as well as the observation (p.640) that no text by an ancient commentator contains “Christo quasi deo” when quoting this passage in Pliny:
Tertullian (Apology 2) shows “Christo et Deo” (Christ and God),
Jerome shows “Christo ut Deo” (Christ as God),
and Eusebius (H.E. III,33) quotes a Greek translation of Tertullian’s Latin as “ton Christon theou dikēn” which is “Christ in the manner of God,” suggesting an “ut” in the Latin being translated.
Make of this what you will, but we have no evidence for a “Christo quasi deo” before the printed editions of Pliny in the 16th century.
Whether this letter of Pliny is a forgery is also discussed in my book, but need not be gone into here. There are several problems existing in the letter which in fact justify questioning its authenticity, as opposed to Ehrman’s disparaging accusation that mythicists simply declare interpolations when it’s convenient for them, with no justification at all.
I personally am more than willing to accept its authenticity, for by doing so, internal evidence can be used to demonstrate that Pliny is not a witness to an historical Jesus and quite possibly the opposite.
Ehrman next addresses the Roman historian Suetonius, who makes a somewhat cryptic reference in his Life of Claudius (25:4) to (literally):
The Jews, being constantly in an uproar due to the instigator Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled from Rome.
The obvious plain reading
While noting that a significant number of scholars have chosen to read this as a reference to Christ (despite the misspelling) and to Christians (despite the reference being to Jews), Ehrman compromises by suggesting that the situation was that Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah were in conflict with Jews who did not, and all got expelled together. The misspelling of the name was Suetonius’ mistake, or else a common mispronunciation of the term perhaps current in Rome in Suetonius’ time. (It was so in later centuries.)
The most likely explanation and the misleading translation
On the other hand, Ehrman acknowledges that the name “Chrestus” was common, and that “since Chrestus itself could be a name, it may well be that there simply was a Jew named Chrestus who caused a disturbance that led to riots in the Jewish community.” This indeed is far more likely the explanation, especially since the Latin sentence contains “impulsore” which means “instigator” as a person, not “instigation.” This makes the usual translation (including by Ehrman) of “at the instigation of Chrestus”—which could be seen to refer to a past founding figure rather than one on the scene—misleading. But it is unlikely that an accomplished historian would, if he knew anything about the subject, place Jesus in Rome at the time of Claudius.
The evidence of Paul and Acts
There is also no suggestion by Paul in Romans that Roman Christians of any stripe had recently been embroiled in large-scale tumults, with Jews or anyone else, leading to the expulsion of the Christian community from Rome.
Ehrman suggests that Acts (18:2) might support his scenario, in that Aquila and Priscilla were said to have recently arrived from Italy because of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews. But apart from the uncertain sources and reliability of a document most likely written in the second century, the text here could even suggest that the two were not yet Christians. It is also possible to postulate that in the expulsion of Jews from Rome, though the cause entailed no Christian activities, some Christians were caught up in the forced exodus.
Overstatements and contortions
Even Ehrman’s summary statement that the Suetonius passage is “of limited use” is an overstatement. It is of no value at all, and the mere fact that it is regularly inserted for consideration in the “non-Christian witness to Jesus” with all the contorted efforts to interpret it against the natural meaning of the text, is a sign of the desperate need to come up with some kind of witness to Jesus from the outside world.
Ehrman calls Tacitus “more promising.” He recounts the tale of the Great Fire in Annals 15, how Nero, himself presumed responsible for the fire, falsely accused the Christians of setting it and inflicted the goriest of punishments upon great numbers of them. Tacitus then says (in Ehrman’s words):
The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city [of Rome]. (DJE? p. 55)
Straining to read Jesus into Tacitus
Once again, Jesus is not actually named here, but it is obvious in this instance that he is the one being referred to . . . (DJE? p. 56)
But is it really that simple? Tacitus says that the group known as Christians derived their name from Christ. But how do we know that Tacitus was aware of his actual name if he doesn’t give it? It is commonly argued that Tacitus had to use the term “Christ” in order to properly explain the derivation of the term “Christians.”
Undoubtedly so, but in making that secondary point he has thereby created the impression that ‘a man named Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate’ (which is quite possibly the way he understood it). To avoid the confusion he could have mentioned both names in a few simple words.
Hearsay or Official Archives?
Similar to the case of Pliny, Tacitus’ evident misunderstanding is best explainable by the fact that he is simply repeating hearsay, perhaps through police interrogations (as Norman Perrin puts it), in which word reaches Roman ears from a group which refers to their perceived founder by the term “Christus,” easily assumed to be his name. Had Tacitus consulted a record in the archives (if it were even conceivable that such a thing could be found about a crucifixion in Judea 80 years previously, one of thousands taking place around the empire) it is not likely that such a report would lack the man’s name, or would even use the term “Christ”—unless by way of an explanation about him, assuming Romans back at head office would need to know such an explanation or would understand the concept—especially as early as 33 CE and before Christians even existed.
Ehrman himself admits to the likely scenario that Tacitus was using hearsay, and he is led to this conclusion by the additional fact that Tacitus refers to Pilate as “procurator,” the term in use for a provincial governor in Tacitus’ day, whereas in Pilate’s day it was “prefect.” Despite arguments that the term was “fluid” in the latter’s time (dependent on usages outside Roman historians and writers in Latin), the two terms actually referred to different offices, and it seems to be the case that in Judea both were held by Pilate. “Prefect” was the higher office (military commander as opposed to a financial officer), and is the one given to Pilate on the stone inscription referred to earlier. It would be virtually impossible that any formal report from Pilate would identify him by the inferior term, and thus if Tacitus were consulting an archive he could hardly have made his mistake.
The Question of Authenticity
But all this may be moot. Once again, Ehrman denigrates mythicists for their alleged practice of simply declaring inconvenient passages as Christian interpolations: they don’t want there to be any references to Jesus, he says, so out they go. But in the case of Tacitus, there is very good reason to do so, and in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I spend 25 pages presenting an argument in this direction. Ehrman makes not the slightest reference to it, let alone tries to rebut it.
The mythicist case that Ehrman avoided
It can be simply stated.
- For the next 300 years, no Christian commentator makes any reference to Nero’s slaughter of the Roman Christians for setting the Great Fire. Not just to Tacitus’ account of such an event, but to the event itself as something known in Christian tradition. That it would not be known is impossible. That it would not be referred to in any connection is almost equally impossible. Christians in those early centuries were fixated on the fact and history of their martyrdom. A great literature of martyrology was produced in that time, even if a lot of it was fiction or exaggeration. Eusebius (the pre-eminent church historian!) can refer to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul at the hands of Nero, but he fails to include the array of Christian residents of Rome and makes no link of anything to the Great Fire.
- Now, there is in Eusebius, and in the earlier Tertullian whom he quotes, as well as in the odd writer like Melito of Sardis, a vague allusion to Christians in general being put upon by Nero, but never with any specifics given, and certainly nothing even suggesting the scale of the event in Tacitus.
- Tertullian, a man obsessed with the issue of martyrdom and the only one to suggest that Nero’s persecution of Christians was particularly sanguinary, says that it was “the singular excellence of Christians (which) brought on Nero’s condemnation” (Apology 5). No mention of the Fire, and no details given to illuminate his remark that “Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect.” He suggests that the Romans consult the “records” about this which he says they possess in the same breath as mentioning the report of Tiberius becoming convinced of Jesus’ divinity due to information about his death from Palestine (is this the alleged ‘Letter of Pilate’?), and later making reference to the Roman ‘record’ of the world-wide darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion!
These sorts of remarks, some of them so mild as to be unidentifiable with anything resembling Tacitus (see Melito as quoted by Eusebius in H.E. IV, 26), can be put down to either vague traditions of a minor event of persecution under Nero about which no details were remembered, or simply nothing at all but a tendency to regard Nero (who came to be prophesied as the future embodiment of the Antichrist and due to return at the End-time to persecute the faithful) as having been a persecutor in his first life.
Accounting for the tradition?
- On the other hand, the entire tradition may have arisen as a result of Nero’s alleged persecution of Peter and Paul, whose legends of martyrdom in Rome developed around the middle of the second century. (1 Clement at the end of the first is less than precise even about martyrdoms for the two figures, let alone that such took place in Rome.) Indeed, Tertullian conveys this very thing in Scorpiace 15 and elsewhere, that his concept of persecution by Nero is basically limited to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and perhaps a few of their companions; and the same goes for Eusebius (H.E. II,22).
The silence of the historians
- The record in Roman historians is also curiously silent.
- Cassius Dio at the beginning of the third century has an account of the Fire, but puts the responsibility on Nero, with no mention of Christians or their ghastly persecution.
- Suetonius, in his Life of Nero, details the Great Fire (ch.38) with not a word about the Christians or their responsibility for it, nor about their infamous punishment. Earlier, in chapter 16, amid a list of measures taken by Nero to curb such problems as improper eating in public establishments, chariot drivers who cheated and robbed ordinary citizens, and pantomimic actors who had to be expelled from Rome, Suetonius makes this cryptic statement:
Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.
No word on what that punishment was, or the reason for it. (Actually, the final phrase sounds like the reason.) If it was meant to refer to the fire, why was that point not included in his later description of the fire? If this line is authentic (though it would stand out like a sore thumb from its context if it referred to the Tacitus scene), it would seem Suetonius knew no more about an event of Neronian persecution than Christian writers did. Also, it is curious that he did not draw on Tacitus (a common practice among ancient historians), from his Annals recently published, yet another nail in the coffin of authenticity for the famous passage.
Calling on Pliny and Trajan as witnesses
We might also note that Pliny’s letter to Trajan all but forces us to conclude that neither one of them knew of the great Neronian persecution. Pliny seems almost ignorant about Christians; and finding them virtually innocuous and inquiring what treatment they should be accorded is hardly consonant with their recent history under Nero and the accusation that they had been guilty of burning down half the city of Rome. Nor is Trajan’s advocation of a ‘go easy’ policy on the Christians.
Calling on the testimony of the apocryphal acts
But all this long silence is trumped by a Christian record which goes so far as to rule out the historicity of the Tacitus account. The apocryphal Acts of Paul, from the late second century, in the context of Paul’s martyrdom, has a number of local Christians condemned to execution by fire at the same time as Paul’s beheading. No mention is made of the Great Fire or Christians executed on its account. If such a tradition were known, it is hardly conceivable that any writer would have erased it in favor of the scenario given in the Acts of Paul.
Even more damning is the Acts of Peter, written around the same time. This tale has Nero, following the crucifixion of Peter, planning to “destroy all those brethren who had been made disciples by Peter.” But he is dissuaded by a dream in which he is being scourged and told “you cannot now persecute or destroy the servants of Christ.” An alarmed Nero “kept away from the disciples . . . and thereafter the brethren kept together with one accord . . .” No writer who knew of a general persecution and killing of Christian brethren in the city of Rome by Nero could possibly have constructed this scene, one which effectively rules out any such persecution.
The first witness for Tacitus
When a Christian account of the fire and persecution first appears around the year 400 in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, we find a definite literary connection with the extant account in Tacitus, though we cannot be sure in which direction the dependency lies. And Severus does not include in that common material the reference to Christ as executed by Pilate, though this he could have cut as unnecessary for his readers. Yet Severus does not identify his information as coming from Tacitus or indeed any other source.
Was he drawing on a description of the persecution previously interpolated into the Annals (post-Eusebius) by either a Christian or even a Roman scribe, reflecting the phenomenon known from the later 2nd century on (as in Tertullian) of “blaming the Christians” for every misfortune that befell society?
Or did he create the description of the Neronian persecution himself, on which basis a later interpolation into Tacitus was made, along with the reference to Christ himself as a victim under Pilate? (In that case, “Christ” as a name instead of “Jesus” would have been perfectly natural for a Christian scribe.)
Appeal to authority and mud-slinging
Other aspects to the question of authenticity in regard to Tacitus’ alleged witness to Jesus are discussed in my book. I bring the subject up in some detail here to show that,
- despite Ehrman’s dismissal of mythicists as compulsive interpolation advocates, there is indeed very good justification for rejecting the much-vaunted reference to an historical Jesus in Tacitus;
- and to show that Ehrman made no effort to counter or even mention that 25-page argument.
In fact, the only rebuttal offered is once again the old appeal to authority:
I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think this, and it seems highly unlikely. (DJE? p. 55)
And this is followed by his above-mentioned mud slinging against mythicists.
. . . to be continued