2012-04-23

5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio

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by Earl Doherty

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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

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* * * * *

Non-Christian References to Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 50-56)

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Pliny the Younger

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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.

As if!

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 deowhen 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.

Forged?

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.

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Suetonius

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suetonius-2-sized

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.

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Tacitus

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Mirror image of Image:Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.jpg.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

Ehrman says:

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.

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. . . to be continued

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13 Comments

  • Will A
    2012-04-23 02:08:37 UTC - 02:08 | Permalink

    Uh oh don’t go into the prefect/procurator thing without talking to Richard Carrier! http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/132

    “He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.”

    • 2012-04-23 08:29:51 UTC - 08:29 | Permalink

      That is exactly what I had done. In researching Jesus; Neither God Nor Man on this point, I queried him, and he gave me permission to refer to his investigation and judgement about Pilate holding both offices.

  • Blood
    2012-04-23 02:28:01 UTC - 02:28 | Permalink

    “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.”

    Suetonius is blissfully unaware of the myth that an historical Christ spent his entire career in Judea and Egypt. That doesn’t make his information wrong. The myth could be wrong. Who would you trust more as a historian — Suetonius or Mark?

    “The Jews, being constantly in an uproar due to the instigator Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled from Rome.”

    It would be an amazing coincidence indeed if “the Jews” were in an uproar about somebody else who had the exact same name (or almost) as Christ, an entity that we have good reason to believe would have caused an uproar among Jews.

    The Suetonius passage cannot be hand-waved away, particularly with the correct translation “instigator” instead of “at the instigation of.” It suggests that Suetonius’s sources had thought there was a person named Chrestus present in Rome in the late 40s. Perhaps there was. That doesn’t support the Jesus Myth theory, but it sure doesn’t help the historical Jesus theory, either.

  • 2012-04-23 02:33:30 UTC - 02:33 | Permalink

    Hi Earl!

    You forgot to mention the forged correspondence between Paul and Seneca. Although forged, the letters are as you know believed from the fourth century. They do not, of course, witness Tacitus’ depiction, but they do witness the fire. In your book (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man) you write the following:

    “It is difficult to be sure whether Seneca is supposed to be commenting on the event of the fire and the Neronian persecution. The forger is, after all, including Jews in the equation … and he seems to be speaking in generalities. Nor is there anything to indicate reliance on Tacitus. But this is the earliest suggestion of a linkage between Christian persecution and setting of fires.” (pp. 618–9)

    But surely this is more than just a mere “suggestion of a linkage between Christian persecution and setting of fires”. In letter 12 it is said that 132 palaces and 4 whole squares were burnt down in six days and that the seventh day brought a pause. Tacitus writes that the fire ended on the sixth day, only to start anew. In both cases, the time is 64 AD and Rome, and all the people suppose that the Christians are criminal, and that they caused all the misfortunes that happen to the city. Seneca (or rather the forger) refers “to the frequent burnings of the city of Rome”, and then …

    “The Christians and Jews are indeed commonly punished for the crime of burning the city; but that impious miscreant, who delights in murders and butcheries, and disguises his villainies with lies, is appointed to, or reserved till, his proper time. And as the life of every excellent person is now sacrificed instead of that one person (who is the author of the mischief), so this one shall be sacrificed for many, and be shall be devoted to be burnt with fire instead of all.”

    This sure to me looks like a reference to the same incident as found in Tacitus and later in Severus.

    • 2012-04-23 08:33:24 UTC - 08:33 | Permalink

      Yes, I reviewed that point later on (maybe it was even at your prompting?), and would agree that the first sign of the linkage between Nero, persecution, and Great Fire, seems to have been in the letters of Paul and Seneca, although this letter, as I recall, is thought to have been added later to the corpus, which would place it in the later 4th century, pretty close to Severus himself.

  • Blood
    2012-04-23 02:40:27 UTC - 02:40 | Permalink

    “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.”

    I agree with Ehrman. This is holding the texts to an impossibly high level of proof. We have two independent sources, Tacitus and Suetonius, referencing Nero’s persecutions of Christians. By any standard, that is strong enough reason to believe it happened. Suetonius’s witness doesn’t become any less authoritative because he doesn’t go into the detail that Tacitus does.

    • 2012-04-23 07:01:51 UTC - 07:01 | Permalink

      I suppose you are right. In a few years time, people will be talking about the crimes of Al Qaeeda and never mentioning the detail that they flew planes into the Twin Towers.

      After all, Christians were charged and found guilty of burning large amounts of Rome (not just two buildings) and Seutonius , Pliny and Trajan never mention this detail.

    • 2012-04-23 08:40:58 UTC - 08:40 | Permalink

      Of course it becomes less authoritative. It witnesses only to what the words themselves say, and that says nothing about the punishment itself or the reason for it. When that is set against the silence in ch.38 about the Great Fire with no reference to Christians, and a similar omission in Cassius Dio, we are fully entitled to be suspicious and question its ‘authority’. You seem to want to draw on Tacitus as
      proof of Suetonius’ meaning, then use Suetonius as an “independent witness” to verify the authenticity of Tacitus. Something circular about that, I would say.

      We are not using texts to confer high levels of proof. We are examining texts to see if they are reliable or not. When you have two unreliable texts to try to support the historicity of an event, you can’t combine them into one reliable entity.

  • mP
    2012-04-23 07:34:26 UTC - 07:34 | Permalink

    I have no historical professorship, but couldnt the Chrestus in the disputed quote from Neros life simply be a reference to the Jewish people themselves. My understanding is Chrestus=useful which is itself not a pointer. However if we accept some copies now have Christus or accept them as equivalent, could it be that the Romans used the term because the Jews were trouble makers expecting a Messiah or Christ to save them from the Romans ? Is this so far fetched given xianity was a jewish sect in the beginning and would have been seen the same by outsiders ? If the quote was genuine couldnt or shouldnt it read that Nero was blaming it on the Jews who were not liked by anyone back then because of their attitudes towards gentile people and the fact they were different and exempted from Emperor worship ?

  • 2012-04-25 00:19:40 UTC - 00:19 | Permalink

    The wiki article on Pliny the Elder reports “He also saw the building of Nero’s Domus Aurea or “Golden House” after the fire of 64.[24]”. Footnote 24 references Natural History 36.24. Although I cannot find an online translation of Pliny’s NH with that section, I suspect the silence of scholarship on attestation of Pliny to the alleged persecutions suggests Pliny the Elder indeed did not mention any persecutions of a religious sect charged with responsibility for the fire. Although Pliny the Elder’s interest in law and ethnicity would suggest if he had known of extra-Judaical persecutions of members of a religious sect connected to the fire, he would have mentioned them perhaps in passing while extolling Nero’s virtues.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder

    • 2012-04-25 02:04:22 UTC - 02:04 | Permalink

      I found the citation I mentioned from the wiki article.

      But there are still two other mansions by which all these edifices have been eclipsed. Twice have we seen the whole City environed by the palaces of the Emperors Caius9 and Nero; that of the last, that nothing might be wanting to its magnificence, being coated with gold.10 Surely such palaces as these must have been intended for the abode of those who created this mighty empire, and who left the plough or their native hearth to go forth to conquer nations, and to return laden with triumphs! men, in fact, whose very fields even occupied less space than the audience-chambers11 of these palaces.

      http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D36%3Achapter%3D24#note10

      9 – Caligula. The Palace of Caligula was situate on the Palatine Hill: that of Nero extended from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline, nearly the whole of which was covered by it. It was left unfinished by Nero, but the Emperor Otho completed it, Martial, Spectac. Ep. 2, speaks in terms of indignation of there being now “but one house in all the City;” but, unfortunately, he gives utterance to it with a view of flattering Domitian.

      10 – Whence its name, “Aurea,” the “golden” Palace.

      11 – Sellaria.

      This reference is no help to confirm or dis-confirm Tacitus’ report of punishments inflicted on members of a religious cult.

  • gunsh
    2012-04-25 17:28:03 UTC - 17:28 | Permalink

    What about Richard Carriers argument about Tacitus naming Pilate a procurator in spite – http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/132? Carrier: Pilate “also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”).

    In regards to the argument from silence regarding Tacitus, is Suetonius passage about Christians (Nero 16.2) mentioned by anyone? Richard Carrier says: “The notion it’s an interpolation is baseless speculation. It appears in a list of several briefly stated acts of Nero. If they are not interpolated, why would this be? Indeed, that it is so brief is proof it isn’t an interpolation.” http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/749/comment-page-1#comment-8623

    Was it really Chrestus in Suetonius? Drews mentions Cherestus in the manuscripts. What would be the difference?

    “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.” – Why would Trajan follow the policies of the infamous Nero?

  • Roger Parvus
    2013-07-29 22:37:37 UTC - 22:37 | Permalink

    Historian Stephen Dando-Collins, in his book The Great Fire of Rome, proposes that in the original text of the Tacitus passage the victims were Egyptians, i.e., devotees of Isis. He says that the cult of Isis had many non-Roman devotees in first century Rome, and this would jibe with the “immense multitude” of Tacitus’ account. Christians could hardly have been so numerous in Rome in 64 CE.

    And Dando-Collins points out that there were always Romans, especially among the upper classes, who disliked and ridiculed the Egyptian cult. They found its worship of animals particularly distasteful. “These animal gods were hideous to Romans accustomed to worshipping deities that took human form, while participation in the cult was considered shameful.” (p. 13). This worship of animals instead of deities in human form could be what’s behind the “hatred for mankind” comment that Tacitus makes.

    And the Epyptian worship of animals could explain the particular form of punishment that Nero chose for the offenders: “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished.” As Dando-Collins notes:

    Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, had the head of a dog. Conversely, the priests of Isis eschewed all contact with animal products, which were considered unclean, and wore linen garments and sandals made from papyrus. For all these reasons, the mockery to which Tacitus refers¬—with the condemned made to wear animal skins as they were torn to pieces by dogs—strongly suggests that these people were followers of Isis.” (p. 13)

    True, the Tacitus passage also says that some of the condemned were nailed to crosses. But although this may be what attracted the intention of a later Christian interpolator, crucifixion “tells us not that they were Christians, but that they were not Roman citizens. Crucifixion was the regular method of execution for noncitizens convicted of some crime throughout the Roman empire, for centuries before and after the crucifixion of Christ.” (p. 9)

    In light of these considerations, Dando-Collins proposes that “[T]he first part of the relevant passage from Tacitus, as he wrote it, may have originally read something like the following:

    Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, followers of the cult of Isis, called Egyptians by the populace, which had taken root at Rome, where all things hideous and shameful find their center and become popular. (p. 13)

    (But I’m not sure how well-informed Dando-Collins is about Christianity and its literature. On page 7 he writes:

    Tellingly, neither Saint Paul nor Saint Peter, who are believed to have died during Nero’s reign, describe their followers as Christians in their Gospel letters. Neither does the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, thought to have been written by Saint Luke.

    What are “Gospel letters”? And what about the reference to Christians in Acts 11:26?)

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