A new survey has found that less than half of all Australians believe Jesus was a real historical person. This is bad news for Christianity, especially at Christmas, but it is also bad news for historical literacy.
. . . .
This is, obviously, terrible news for Christianity in Australia. One of the unique selling points of the Christian faith — in the minds of believers — is that it centres on real events that occurred in time and space. Christianity is not based on someone’s solitary dream or private vision. It isn’t merely a divine dictation in a holy book that has to be believed with blind faith. Jesus was a real person, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, the fifth governor of Judea, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. It seems many Australians really don’t agree.
But, frankly, this new survey is also bad news for historical literacy. This reported majority view is not shared by the overwhelming consensus of university historians specialising in the Roman and Jewish worlds of the first century. If Jesus is a “mythical or fictional character”, that news has not yet reached the standard compendiums of secular historical scholarship.
Take the famous single-volume Oxford Classical Dictionary. Every classicist has it on their bookshelf. It summarises scholarship on all things Greek and Roman in just over 1,700 pages. There is a multiple page entry on the origins of Christianity that begins with an assessment of what may be reliably known about Jesus of Nazareth. Readers will discover that no doubts at all are raised about the basic facts of Jesus’s life and death.
(John Dickson, 21st Dec 2021. Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations. Link to OCD is original to John Dickson’s article.)
That sounds overwhelming, right? Who can be left to doubt? Who dares to step out of line from what is found in “the famous single-volume” toolkit of “every classicist”?
Let’s follow John Dickson’s advice and actually “take” that 4th edition of the OCD and read it for ourselves. Here is the relevant section of the article of which he speaks. All punctuation except for the bolded highlighting is original to the text quoted:
Christianity Christianity began as a Jewish sect and evolved at a time when both Jews and Christians were affected by later Hellenism (see HELLENISM, HELLENIZATION). Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, some Jews found Hellenistic culture congenial, while others adhered to traditional and exclusive religious values. When Judaea came under direct Roman control soon after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, cultural and religious controversies were further exacerbated by the ineptitude of some Roman governors. Jesus therefore, and his followers, lived in a divided province.
The ‘historical Jesus’ is known through the four Gospels, which are as sources problematic. Written not in Aramaic but in Greek, the four ‘Lives’ of Jesus were written some time after his death (and, in the view of his followers, resurrection) and represent the divergent preoccupations and agendas of their authors. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (to give their probable chronological order) differ from John in such matters as the geographical scope of Jesus’ ministry, which John expands from Galilee to include Judaea and Samaria as well; John also is more influenced by Greek philosophical thought. Through them, we can see Jesus as a rabbi and teacher, whose followers included socially marginal women (e.g. Mary Magdalen) as well as men, as a worker of miracles, as a political rebel, or as a prophet, who foresaw the imminent ending of the world, and the promised Jewish Messiah.
If one were inclined to be mischievous one might follow up the above by reading the entry for Heracles in the same OCD and noting that the description for him, another ancient figure who also became a god, is likewise described matter-of-factly as a real person and no less a mix of historical and mythical than Jesus. The difference is that with Heracles there are no cautious caveats about the problematic nature of the sources upon which our knowledge of Heracles is derived:
Heracles, the greatest of Greek heroes. His name is that of a mortal (compare Diocles), and has been interpreted as ‘Glorious through Hera” (Burkert 210, Chantraine 416, Kretschmer 121-9 (see bibliog. below)). In this case, the bearer is taken as being—or so his parents would hope—within the protection of the goddess. This is at odds with the predominant tradition (see below), wherein Heracles was harassed rather than protected by the goddess: perhaps the hostility was against worshippers of Heracles who rejected allegiance to the worshippers of Hera on whom the hero depended. This could have happened when Argos had established control over the Heraion and Tiryns (possibly reflected in an apparent falling-off of settlement at Tiryns late in the 9th cent, BC: Foley 40-2) Some of the inhabitants of Tiryns might have emigrated to Thebes, taking their hero with him. Traditionally Heracles’ mother and her husband (Alcmene and Amphitryon) were obliged to move from Tiryns to Thebes, where Heracles was conceived and born (LIMC 1/1. 735). However, there is no agreement over the etymology of the name, an alternative version deriving its first element from ‘Hero’ (see Stafford (bibliog.) and HERO-CULT).
Heracles shared the characteristics of, on the one hand, a hero (both cultic and epic), on the other, a god. As a hero, he was mortal, and like many other heroes, born to a human mother and a god (Alcmene and Zeus; Amphitryon was father of Iphicles, Heracles’ twin: the bare bones of the story already in Homer, Il. 14. 323—4). Legends arose early of his epic feats, and they were added to constantly throughout antiquity. These stories may have played a part in the transformation of Heracles from hero (i.e. a deity of mortal origin, who, after death, exercised power over a limited geographical area, his influence residing in his mortal remains) to god (a deity, immortal, whose power is not limited geographically) See HERO-CULT.
Outside the cycle of the Labours (see below), the chief events of Heracles’ life were as follows: . . .
Why does the first account of the life of Jesus appear as late as forty years after the crucifixion? The answer I long heard was that followers of Jesus were focused on his return and, expecting his return in their lifetimes, they did not see any need to write a historical account of his life. Scholarly texts of the gospels will explain that the ancient culture was primarily oral and word-of-mouth was the standard means of spreading news. The same texts will assert that the first oral reports of Jesus’s sayings were written down about twenty years after the crucifixion although some brave souls have even proposed as early as four or five years later.
All of that sounds plausible enough — until one steps outside the mental bubble of those descriptions and compares with how people work in the real world.
I am at the moment reading Gershom Scholem’s exhaustive study of a widespread mid-seventeenth century Jewish messianic movement that fully anticipated the messiah to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem within a matter of a year or within a few short months. The messianic figure was Sabbatai Sevi and the years spanned from late 1665 to 1667. Sabbatai Sevi was what we would classify as manic-depressive. When he was “on fire” he was “on fire” but when the mood left him he was really down, withdrawn, out of the picture. Most of the heavy lifting of persuading others to believe he was the messiah was the work of his “prophet”, Nathan of Gaza. (Nathan was able to persuade outsiders that Sabbatai’s “down times” were signs of his messianic “suffering for Israel”. It must be added, however, that Sabbatai could also come across as one possessed with a dignified and caring demeanour.)
Now I think it is safe to say that most of the everyday lower-class Jews living in the Ottoman empire and throughout Europe at the time were not highly literate. Jewish communities did certainly possess leaders, rabbis and elders, who were literate. And persons from well-to-do business families often had the fortune of a sound education. And there is no doubt at all that believers in Sabbatai Sevi far and wide spoke, recited and sang of his wonderful deeds and sayings along with those of his prophet.
It is also clear that oral reports were never enough. Yes, there was no substitute for the presence of a visiting eye-witness who could report and be interrogated orally of their visits and observations of the messiah and those closest to him. But given that those sorts of visits were few and far between in places as far from Gaza, Smyrna and Constantinople as Leghorn, Amsterdam and Hamburg, believers in Sabbatai Sevi and Nathan craved the arrival of letters to prominent persons — “clerical” or business persons — in their communities. Believers would flock to the ports to meet ships with expected letters as they docked. And the prophet Nathan was not lax, nor were others who were closely associated with the “messiah”. They wrote and wrote to acquaintances and to acquaintances other acquaintances and contacts. Then those who received letters copied them both for preservation and sharing more widely still. People came to hear them read in public and private venues. Others were inspired by the reports of this news from a distance to write poems, hymns, prayers that they shared with fellow believers.
By such means believers were convinced that great miracles had been performed by the messiah, even raising the dead and appearing before authorities in a pillar of fire. They were also led to believe that the “lost” Ten Tribes of Israel were on the march to conquer Mecca and would soon arrive at the gates of Jerusalem. The ruler of the Ottoman empire was about to hand over the “keys of the kingdom of Israel” to Sabbatai Sevi without a fight. Many believers sold everything and left to live in Jerusalem in order to be where the action was when that day of the messianic kingdom came.
What sustained the believers in their excitement, what they loved to create and share in their thrilling expectation that the kingdom of God was to be inaugurated within a matter of mere months, at most a year? What did they share along with their singing and dancing and fellowship? Copies of letters, copies of written poems and prayers, all speaking of the great wonders and powerful words of the messiah who was about to be made known as God’s anointed to the whole world.
In the accounts of the believers in Sabbatai Sevi, one notion never arises: “that there is no point in writing anything about the man because we’ll all be in Palestine and he’ll be ruling over us all in just a few months from now.”
With that little episode in mind, one returns to the question of why it took so long for written accounts of Jesus to appear.
Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Ṣevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676. Translated by R. Werblowsky. Reprint edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
I think a wider discussion of Nero is necessary in order to help us understand the context of matters arising in any discussion about Nero’s purported persecution of Christians. Here are a few details that I think are relevant, all from Anthony Barrett’s book, but from chapters either side of the fifth that is the treatment of the persecution we read in the Annals of Tacitus.
This post has three parts:
1. When did the rumours that Nero was to blame for the Great Fire start?
2. Did Nero fear the populace was blaming him for the fire? Who hated Nero the most?
3. Three Nero pretenders.
A central point in the text of Tacitus is that Nero targeted the Christians in order to deflect suspicions that he himself was responsible for starting the fire of Rome in 64 CE.
During Domitian’s reign, some time in the 90s, a poet Statius wrote in praise of another poet, Lucan, who had had a strained relationship with Nero (Nero forced him to commit suicide) by saying that he, Lucan,
. . . will speak of the horrendous flames of the guilty tyrant . . . ranging over the heights of Remus.
Had Lucan accused Nero of starting the fire in one of his poems?
Another literary work from the Flavian era (late first century) is the Octavia, a tragedy about Nero’s first wife. In the play,
Nero invokes a fiery destruction on the city (line 831): “soon let the city’s dwellings collapse in my flames” (flammis . . . meis). The simple addition of the adjective “my” (meis) to the flames (flammis) leaves no doubt about the emperor’s supposed role. (Barrett, p. 122)
Josephus was a contemporary of Nero and in his Jewish War (written about ten years after the fire of Rome) he listed Nero’s sins:
Through excess of prosperity and wealth Nero lost his balance and abused his good Fortune outrageously. He put to death in succession his brother, wife, and mother, turning his savage attention next to his most eminent subjects. The final degree of his madness landed him on the stage of a theatre. But so many writers have recorded these things that I will pass over them and turn to what happened to the Jews in his time. (G. A. Williamson’s translation, p. 134)
No mention of burning much of Rome to ashes.
Then there’s Pliny the Elder. I quote Barrett:
On the other hand, Nero does seem at first glance to be blamed by an older contemporary of the emperor, the Elder Pliny. In his account of the particularly fine lotos trees found on the Palatine, published in AD 77 in The Natural History . . ., Pliny says that the trees lasted until Nero’s fires (ad Neronis principis incendia), in the years when he burned down the city. Pliny adds that the trees would have remained green and youthful had the princeps not speeded up the death of trees as well (ni princeps ille adcelerasset etiam arborum mortem). The “as well” (etiam) presumably implies that Nero killed trees as well as people as a result of the fire. This does seem pretty damning. But all is not as it appears. The words “in the years when he burned down the city” (quibus cremavit urbem annis postea) do not appear in one of Pliny’s manuscripts (MS D) and as far back as 1868 were dismissed from the other manuscripts as a later gloss (a comment added by a scribe). Also, in the final part of the sentence there is a very awkward repetition of the word princeps. There is also the equally awkward unspecific etiam (“also”), which seems to suggest that Nero killed people also, but those unspecified people have not been previously mentioned. Hence it is very possible that the phrase blaming Nero is a later addition to Pliny’s manuscript, supplied by a scribe trying to be helpful and informative, or perhaps just mischievous. Pliny does refer to the “fires of the emperor Nero” (Neronis principis incendia) in the uncontested part of the manuscript, which might be intended to convey the notion of Neronian guilt. But the phrase could be simply a chronological marker. Clearly it would be dangerous to use Pliny as evidence of a general belief in his time that Nero had set fire to Rome. (Barrett, pp. 122f)
So far the evidence for Nero starting the fire is pretty thin. Indeed, as Barrett points out,
the first explicit and documented claim that Nero was responsible for the fire is made no earlier than the final years of Domitian’s reign (he died in AD 96), in the line of the Silvae of Statius, quoted above, about the flames of the guilty tyrant ranging over Rome’s heights. (p. 123 — bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine)
So the record shows us that
there was a common belief by the end of the first century that Nero had been responsible for the fire.
And it was after that time that the historians we rely upon for the fire — Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio — wrote their works.
Loved and Hated
But what was Nero’s standing like before and in the immediate aftermath of the fire among the different sectors of Roman society?
Here is Barrett’s summary of the “before”:
Before AD 64, Nero’s position seems to have been virtually unassailable. He had committed some unquestionably outrageous acts, like the murder of his mother, but the outrageous murder of a mother can be weathered when the son is immensely popular and the mother deeply unpopular, and when there are public relations experts like Seneca on hand to manage any potentially hostile reaction. (p. 223)
The majority of ordinary Roman citizens were “notorious” in the eyes of the “upper classes” for being easily won over by “bread and circuses”. Nero did not hold back on pagaentry-frilled spectacles and games. The “free grain” was halted for a time after the fire but apparently soon resumed. Evidence of Nero’s popularity, especially in the eastern part of the empire, is seen with the rise of several imposters claiming to be Nero and gathering followings after Nero had actually committed suicide.
The historian Suetonius speaks of a mixed reaction to news of Nero’s death:
He met his end in his thirty-second year on the anniversary of Octavia’s death, thereby provoking such great public joy that the common people ran throughout the city dressed in liberty caps. Yet there were also some who for a long time would decorate his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and would sometimes display on the rostra statues of him dressed in a toga or post his edicts as if he were still alive and would soon return to avenge himself on his enemies.
One of Nero’s successors, Otho, appealed to popular sentiment in favour of Nero:
But when Otho . . . was greeted by the soldiers and ordinary citizens as “Nero Otho,” he welcomed the form of address, and, according to Suetonius, he may have used it in his earliest letters to the provincial governors. Otho also restored some of Nero’s statues, or at the very least turned a blind eye when others chose to set them up . . . and reappointed some of Nero’s old officials to their former posts. He also raised the question of special honors to Nero’s memory. One of Otho’s first acts as emperor was to allocate 50 million sestertii for further work on the Golden House [Nero’s famous post-fire architectural project]. Vitellius, who supplanted Otho, was perhaps not so overt in publicly respecting Nero’s memory, but even he carried out formal funerary rites to the late emperor in the Campus Martius, and during the banquet that followed he ordered musicians to perform Nero’s songs, and greeted them with enthusiastic applause. What Otho and Vitellius might have thought of Nero deep in their hearts is irrelevant. Their conduct shows that they had clearly decided it would be politically advantageous to present themselves as admirers of their supposedly infamous predecessor. All of this goes strongly against the idea that the great mass of the people resented Nero for the fire and for the building program that he initiated in its wake. It is surely significant that although Dio claims that some cursed Nero for starting the fire, he does admit that this is just an inference—Nero’s name did not in fact appear in the graffiti that began to materialize soon afterward. (pp. 224f)
Notice Tacitus’s description of how various social classes responded to the news of Nero’s death:
Although Nero’s death had at first been welcomed with outbursts of joy, it roused varying emotions. . . . The senators rejoiced and immediately made full use of their liberty, as was natural, for they had to do with a new emperor who was still absent. The leading members of the equestrian class were nearly as elated as the senators. The respectable part of the common people and those attached to the great houses, the clients and freedmen of those who had been condemned and driven into exile, were all roused to hope. The lowest classes, addicted to the circus and theatre, and with them the basest slaves, as well as those men who had wasted their property and, to their shame, were wont to depend on Nero’s bounty, were cast down and grasped at every rumour. (Tacitus, Histories 1.4)
Immediately after the passage setting out the horrors of Nero’s treatment of the Christians we read,
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.4)
It would appear, then, that Nero was not fearful that the public was turning against him in suspicion that he had started the fire, given such a display of mixing with them. Later in the Annals Tacitus informs us that conspirators were attempting to decide the most opportune time to slay Nero and one of the options considered was when he was making one of his public appearances.
Those who hated Nero the most in the wake of the fire were the wealthy, especially those who were being required to contribute “generously” to support Rome’s rebuilding. These well-to-do appear to have been most incensed over what they considered to be Nero’s “vanity projects” such as the Golden House as the purpose of the financial demands being imposed upon them.
Vespasian, Nero’s eventual successor, did replace some of Nero’s works in favour of building the Colosseum, a stadium for popular entertainment. Yet he also continued other projects of Nero, such as, it appears, the giant statue, the colossus.
The focus so far has been on the reaction of the people at large to the fire, and it is suggested here that the masses may not have turned against Nero at the time. This might explain the curious scheme described by Suetonius, in which shortly before his death Nero planned to bypass the senate and go directly to the popular assembly to plead his case. The speech that he prepared for the occasion reputedly was later found in his desk. It was believed that he abandoned the plan from fear of assassination. The Greek philosopher Dio Chrysostom writing almost certainly during the reign of Domitian recounts the view that Nero’s subjects would have been happy to see him rule forever, and everybody wished that he was still alive.(Barrett, p. 231)
Barrett’s view is that the wealthy classes were the ones who actively turned against Nero after the fire.
Nero’s egregious behavior in past years might not have impressed them [i.e. the ruling elite], they might at some level even have despised him. But provided his conduct did not affect their own careers or their own wealth, they seem to have been perfectly willing to tolerate it and to take the view that his antics had little impact on their own personal comfort and well-being. As a result of the fire, however, the upper classes, and in that number we have to include the wealthier members of the equestrian class, were affected personally and directly, since they were asked to dig deep into their pockets to subsidize the economic reconstruction. The rebuilding involved Nero in major expenditures and he was obliged to collect large sums from private individuals as well as from whole communities. Sometimes he was able to raise funds by voluntary contributions, but on occasion he had to use compulsion. Property owners who rented out their buildings found themselves seriously out of pocket, since for one year the rents for private houses and apartments were diverted to the emperor’s account. (p. 233)
Despite some difficulties, by and large, before 64 CE, Nero had little to seriously worry about from the senatorial classes.
This all changed in AD 64. And when it did, the resentful senators, and some equestrians, found common cause with the officers of the Praetorian guard. . . .
Whatever the reason, after the fire of AD 64, elements of the nobility, rich equestrians, and the Praetorian guard found common cause, and decided that Nero had to be removed. . . .
The relationship between Nero and the governing classes definitely changed from AD 64 on, and it is reasonable to interpret the growing tensions and hostility as one of the consequences of the Great Fire. (pp. 239, 245)
Barrett subjects Tacitus’s claims about Nero’s scapegoating of Christians to hyper-suspicious analysis. Tacitus, he notes, was the only writer to link Christian persecution with the fire until the early fifth century, when the Christian Sulpicius Severus drew on his account to make a similar connection. It seems incredible, Barrett claims, that Christian authors would have ignored this persecution if they had read Tacitus or, at least, if the episode had been in the version of the Annals that they read. Barrett comes perilously close to endorsing the extreme idea that all mention of the Christians was somehow interpolated into the ‘original’ text of the Annals by a third party before the time of Sulpicius. It would be unfortunate if the attention he lavishes on this theory were to encourage readers to take it seriously: it is simply not possible to make a convincing case for the interpolation into the Annals of a passage so thoroughly Tacitean in language and content and to explain (which Barrett does not) how the interpolation was achieved. Tacitus’s narrative remains the most reliable account of a fire the course, impact and notoriety of which Barrett elucidates so well.
(All bolded highlighting is my own.)
Here’s another. This one by John Drinkwater also from the Unversity of Nottingham. The full review is published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and available at Project Muse.
His lengthy treatment of Tacitus’ description of Nero’s savage punishment of Christian scapegoats may, indeed, smack of self-indulgence; it certainly comes close to academic heresy in its revival of the view that it may be a late Roman interpolation. Yet his frankness is forgiveable: Lay readers should be aware of the range of problems that have to be explained away by special pleading if the passage is to be accepted as authentic.
Shorter is sweeter.
Take your pick: Hyper-suspicious or Special pleading?
This post concludes Anthony Barrett’s discussion of the account of the persecution of the Christians in the Annals by Tacitus.
But there are oddities in this part of the Annals that are so serious that in the late nineteenth century the Christian episode was denounced in its entirety as an interpolation, a forgery in the style of Tacitus that had been inserted at some later date into the manuscript almost certainly not by accident, but in order deliberately to deceive.
But Anthony Barrett follows that statement up with:
The sweeping claim that the Tacitean passage was a forgery has won over very few adherents.61
The vocabulary and syntax and general Latin style, it must be acknowledged, perfectly align with the accepted corpus of Tacitus’s writings, and the text lacks the exaggerated mannerisms that might be expected in a forged piece. If the whole chapter is indeed an interpolation, it must have been inserted into the manuscript by at least the end of the fourth century AD, since parts of it are cited by a Christian writer active in the very early fifth century, Sulpicius Severus, most familiar as the author of the celebrated Life of Saint Martin.
Another context, another author: One of those arguments is the claim that such an “original passage” contains phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. But if a Christian copyist were seeking to create a convincing interpolation, he would likely try to employ Josephan fingerprints to make it appear authentic; and if he were introducing terms or ideas similar to those expressed elsewhere in Josephus he would have precedents to draw on. If he were someone who worked with the manuscripts of Josephus on a regular basis, such imitation might well become second nature to him. Guignebert opined (Jesus, p. 17): “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter…” Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 535
The putative forger, who will have succeeded in a deceptive coup of dazzling brilliance, would have been one of two things. He might have been a Christian, but one smart and sophisticated enough to know that by castigating his own faith and generating a partially negative image of Christianity he could throw sand in the eyes of a normally skeptical reader and thus create an irresistible believability. Hence, while the chapter is manifestly anti-Neronian, the Christians are deliberately not shown in a particularly favorable light. Or he might have been a pagan, both anti-Christian and anti-Neronian, who took the opportunity to kill two birds with one interpolatory stone.
Scholars whose knowledge of Tacitus is unsurpassed have accepted the Latin of the text as genuinely Tacitean, but it needs to be acknowledged that there is a long history of literary texts that, like works of art, have been recognized by gifted and honest experts as genuine but have proved ultimately to be phony. Moreover, those scholars who accept that the Tacitean passage is genuine—and they are in the overwhelming majority—do acknowledge that it exhibits some troubling features. One section of the narrative is particularly awkward: the brief summary that the writer provides of the background of the Christians. (Barrett, p. 158 — bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)
So what are the “troubling features”?
Pontius Pilate and the manner of his introduction
Pontius Pilate is introduced as “procurator” without any mention of whereabouts in the empire he was located.
The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . . Annals 15.44.3
A Christian reader would, of course, immediately think of Judea. But anyone else?
On the other hand, the earlier books of Annals are missing. Perhaps Pilate’s career was covered in those. That’s possible, yet we cannot overlook that Tacitus did say in another work, Histories, that “all was quiet” in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. We would not, from that line, expect much of troublesome note to have been written about Pilate in any other lost work.
Even the mere fact that Pilate’s term of office is mentioned as the context for the death of Christ comes as something of a surprise; it is a detail about Christ that would be of very little interest to a Roman but would have had considerable significance for a Christian reader. (Barrett, p. 159)
Another “troubling feature” is the office of “procurator” here. Literary and archaeological evidence assures us that Pilate was not a “procurator” [=governor of a small province] but a “prefect” [=commander of troops established within some provinces].
Tacitus is elsewhere quite punctilious in his use of such terminology and makes a careful distinction between procurators and prefects. . . . [T]he error over Pontius Pilate’s office . . . is a basic historical blunder and, as such, very surprising indeed if made by Tacitus. (Barrett, pp. 159f)
But if Pilate was not a procurator then why would a forger claim that he was? Barrett suggests an answer:
The gospels were written in Greek and before Jerome composed his Vulgate version in the fifth century the gospels were translated into at least two Latin versions. These Latin versions translate the loosely described position of Pontius Pilate in Luke 3:1 (hegemoneuo = “to be leader”) with the general Latin procurante Pontio Pilato — the verb “procurare” meaning “to administer”. Whoever was describing Pilate as “procurator” in Annals 15.44.3 may have been influenced by the Latin wording of Luke 3:1.
The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . . Annals 15.44.3
We have no evidence that Rome ever attempted to “suppress” the new religion (or Jewish faction, as it originally was) in Judea soon after its birth. The only opposition we are aware of comes from Jewish powers.
The notion that the early believers were officially oppressed seems more distinctly Christian rather than Roman. (Barrett, p. 161)
These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians]. — Annals 15.44.2
How likely is it that as early as the year 64 in Rome a certain Jewish sect was identified as a distinct separate body with the label “Christians” (or “Chrestians”)? The author of Acts informs us that members of the sect were first called Christians in Antioch some time before the mid-50s. But nothing in Paul’s letters suggests his congregations were known by that name. Again in Acts, Paul is identified as a Nazorean when on trial shortly before he was sent to Rome. Even if we were to think that Tacitus used the descriptor known in his own time, we must note that the passage of interest in Annals explicitly notes that the name was used by the common people in the time of Nero. (The manuscript shows that “e” has been erased and replaced with “i” — hence the uncertainty about the original text. Chrestian was a common pronunciation for Christian.)
A Principle of Historiography
Barrett next comes to a theme close to my own heart when engaging with any historical inquiry but especially with discussions relating to Christian origins. If we are to make valid use of a source we need to establish its provenance and the context of its narrative.
But there is also a principle of historiography that takes account not only of what a given source might say, but, paradoxically perhaps, of what it does not say. Such argumenta ex silentio tend not to be given great weight, since there may be a perfectly good reason why a source chooses not to allude to any given event. In the case of the fate of the Christians as described in the Annals, however, the negative evidence seems overwhelming. (Barrett, p. 163)
Other Roman historians who wrote of the fire and who likewise loathed Nero (Suetonius, Cassius Dio) do not make any mention of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians to deflect suspicions directed against him. If the treatment of Christians was so horrendous as to turn public sympathies favourably towards them this does seem at least a little surprising. The naturalist and contemporary of Nero, Pliny the Elder, made many passing remarks about Nero in his works but none reference his treatment of Christians and his son and friend of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, breathes not a hint of this persecution, not even when apparently discussing his own quandary of how to treat Christians.
But surely most surprising of all is that not a single surviving Christian author before the fifth century appears to know anything about such a persecution. Tertullian, Clement, Eusebius and others were keen to demonstrate the courage with which Christians had faced numerous persecutions and to highlight the providence by which the “church” had endured and survived and even grown despite such treatment from authorities. But none knows anything about the event we read of in Annals 15.
Perhaps Tacitus’s works were not widely read. Tacitus does not appear to have made a strong mark on his immediate posterity but if a persecution of such notoriety had been a matter of wider historical knowledge then it is most remarkable that no mention is made of it in any other source, especially Christian ones, until the fifth century.
And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes.
In the previous post we saw that Tacitus’s account of Nero’s persecution of the Christians is, given the ratio of number of words analyzed to the number of words published about them,
this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity.
What sorts of questions bedevil the scholars? And what are we to make of a passage that throws up such a cluster of confusions?
Here is a list of the problems as pointed out by Anthony Barrett in his chapter five, “The Christians and the Great Fire”:
Annals 15.44.2.But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].
44.3.The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.
44.4.And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.
44.5.Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.
Translation by Anthony Barrett (pp. 263f)
1. Linked with them?
In 44.4 of the fifteenth book of Annals the text appears to say that many persons were “linked” with those who confessed. What does “those who were linked” to the confessors mean? It is possible that we are reading a copyist’s error here. It is easy to imagine that the original sentence read “were convicted”.
coniuncti sunt = were linked
convicti sunt = were convicted
It is easy to assume that a copyist has erred but Barrett does remind us in an endnote that the verb “to link” is found in similar legal contexts in Cicero’s works.
. . . we cannot know if this obscurity is because of a manuscript error or simply because of the opacity of the narrative. The emendation convicti may well be correct, but clearly we should always be hesitant about basing any interpretation of a key controversial passage on a word that does not actually appear in the manuscript(s). (Barrett, p. 146)
2. Crucified and burned as human torches?
English translations hide the difficulty in the fifteenth-century manuscript. To turn to another work cited by Barrett, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians by John Cook (2010), we read the “original”:
et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur.
Outrages were perpetrated on the dying: covered with the skins of animals they died mutilated by dogs, or they were fixed to crosses, or [burning], and when daylight faded they were burned for nocturnal illumination. (Cook, p. 69 – my highlighting in all quotations)
Cook lists the various proposed emendations to make sense of the passage. Some scholars have deleted the phrase [“or fixed to crosses of burned”] entirely as a gloss. Others have read it as “or fixed to crosses and burned”. Another has deleted “so that burning” and adds, “they dressed in fuel for fire”. Another, “or fixed to crosses and burning, when…”; and others have reordered the words to place “so that” before “burning”. And so forth.
In other words,
we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript. (Barrett, p. 147)
3. Chronology is vague
Tacitus is very clear that the fire itself started July 19, AD 64, but he is unclear how long after that until Christians were said to be rounded up. Barrett’s conclusion:
. . . we can assume one of two things— either that [Tacitus] had found in the record that the punishments had occurred before the end of the year, AD 64, or that the source he was using was vague about when they happened and on his own initiative he determined that the second half of AD 64 best suited the material. (p. 148)
Suetonius also informs us that Nero inflicted punishments on Christians but he sets this occasion long after the time of the fire and one has a hard time thinking the passage refers to the horrendous tortures we read about in Tacitus:
Under [Nero’s] rule, many practices were reproved and subject to controls and many new laws were passed. A limit was imposed on expenditure. Public feasts were reduced to food handouts. With the exception of beans and vegetables, the sale of hot food in taverns was prohibited—previously all kinds of delicacies had been available. Punishments were imposed on the Christians—adherents of a new and dangerous superstition. A ban was placed on the diversions of the charioteers, who for a long time had taken advantage of the freedom they enjoyed to wander about the city playing tricks on people and robbing them. At the same time, the pantomime actors and their associates were outlawed from the city. (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 16)
4. The Sect was temporarily suppressed?
This is a curious claim since we have no record anywhere else that the following of Jesus “was suppressed” soon after his crucifixion. The sources we do have suggest that Rome would have had no interest in the earliest manifestations of the new movement. Christianity was from its earliest days viewed as a Jewish sect and Jews were free to practice their religion at this time.
Another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that twenty years before the Great Fire Jews were expelled from Rome because they had been “creating disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”. Was this a reference to Christ? Were the disturbances of the kind we read about in Acts when Jews sometimes became riotous over the preaching of Jesus Christ? We know that Chrestus was a common mispronunciation of Chrestus. On the other hand, Chrestus was a common name among freed slaves. It certainly does not look like a good fit for the claim we read in Tacitus’s Annals that the Christian sect was suppressed soon after it emerged in Palestine.
4. A Huge number?
A “huge number were found guilty”, we read in Annals. How many is that? How large should we expect to find the Christian community in Rome at that time? Were they distinctive enough to stand out as separate from the other Jews? Besides…
The “huge number” of the Annals may, of course, be an exaggeration, and in any case the figure is essentially relative, meant to draw a contrast between the initial group who confessed and the later group who were rounded up. If no more than two or three people were involved initially, and we have absolutely no way of knowing, then a subsequent arrest of, say, thirty people, could, relatively speaking, constitute a “huge” number. (Barrett, p. 150)
5. How much hatred?
In Tacitus and Suetonius we are faced with the language of extreme loathing towards Christians. They are justly “hated for their shameful offenses” and for the “abominable and shameful things” that they bring to Rome. But such language informs us more about the elitist attitudes in these second-century authors and not necessarily the general attitude in mid-first-century Rome. Barrett suggests “it seems highly unlikely that the deep and pervasive antipathy” of later Romas was extant as early as the 60s. Civil disturbances as we find in Acts is one thing; suspicions of human-hating behaviour so soon is another.
6. Confessed and apprehended
Once we read that Nero decided to scapegoat the Christians we immediately come upon a baffling reverse of a normal process: “And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended” [=igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur]. One expects confession to follow the arrest. A couple of scholars (Getty, Ash) have suggested an amendment (qui to quidam) to the text so that it reads “Certain individuals confessed after being arrested.”
Barrett highlights the problem:
Also, to what are these people confessing? Given that upon conviction those arrested were subjected to the most horrific punishments, and that on the basis of the testimony of those who confessed, others became implicated “more because of their hatred of mankind (odio humani generis) than because they were arsonists,” it does follow that the group initially arrested must have confessed to arson.
But if this is the case, the narrative is cryptic and contradictory. When Tacitus introduces his account of the fire, he indicates that there were two possible causes. Either (a) it was an accident, or (b) Nero was responsible. We might argue that he had tunnel vision on this issue, albeit less narrow than that of Suetonius and Dio, and that the situation was far more nuanced than Tacitus imagines. The fire could have been started deliberately, but by someone other than Nero, or it could have started by accident, then once it had taken hold it could have been helped along. The issue here is not what actually happened, but what Tacitus says happened: Nero, to deflect criticism, “contrived culprits” (subdidit reos). There is no ambiguity—the word “contrived” (subdidit) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the charges were bogus. And yet those culprits seem to have been taking responsibility for the deed. Of course there may have been special circumstances that led to this outcome, but if so, Tacitus does not explain them, and perhaps that was deliberate. It would appear that the Christians, as often happens in cases of wrongful conviction, were already unpopular for anti-social behavior that had nothing to with the Great Fire. They may not have committed the crime, but criminal by nature they were. If, however, they were being scapegoated for the arson, it seems to mean they can have confessed to only one thing, and that is, of being Christian. Does this mean, then, that Christianity was in itself a crime in AD 64? (Barrett, pp. 152f)
If there had been an edict declaring Christianity illegal we would expect it to apply throughout the empire. Yet there is no evidence of anything like this. Pliny the Younger’s testimony of fifty years after the Great Fire clearly implies that there had never been a universal ban, although I think the evidence that that letter of Pliny’s is not authentic is strong.
A potentially confusing situation
Hence we find ourselves in a potentially confusing situation. We have no precise information about the grounds on which the Christians were condemned—the charges are vague and undefined. And the presiding magistrate would have had the authority to make up his own mind about the allegations, whatever they might be, provided the accused were not Roman citizens, which was probably the case for the overwhelming majority of early Christians in the city. There may have been a belief, well grounded or not, that the Christians had been responsible either for starting the fire or at the very least for feeding the flames once it had taken hold. The Annals claim that the initial suspicions were deliberately sown by Nero, but we must be open to the possibility that if there was in fact action against the Christians after the fire, it might have had little or nothing to do with Nero and that the claim in the Annals that he falsely targeted them as suspects is totally speculative. (Barrett, p. 155)
Imagine a situation of public hysteria. Christians were blamed and were equated with arson in a manner similar to the way we have seen Muslims guilty of terrorism by association. Perhaps the situation was confusing and the account of Tacitus is confusing for this reason. Yet, recall the opening quotation of the previous post. Tacitus knew how to create suspicions in a reader’s mind behind his protestations of scepticism towards “baseless rumours”.
As Yavetz put it, “Tacitus did not want to clarify but to confuse the reader even more—slightly incriminate both Nero and Christians, both of whom he hated.” . . .
. . . But, as stated earlier, at issue here is not what happened, but what the Annals say happened. And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes. (Barrett, p. 157)
At this point Anthony Barrett bravely wades out into deeper waters where few of his peers have been prepared to go. To be continued in the next post.
Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.
Cook, John Granger. Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian. Tübingen: Coronet Books, 2010.
Historian of ancient Rome Anthony Barrett draws upon updated archaeological studies to supplement his analysis of the literary sources in order to especially analyze how the fire contributed to the downfall of Nero. Included in his study is a chapter on the evidence that Christians were singled out as scapegoats by Nero and suffered barbaric deaths as a result.
Not one of our literary sources for the fire – Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio — was contemporary with the fire itself, but they did draw upon other sources that were. Tacitus, in whose work we read the account of persecutions of the Christians, made use of works by Pliny the Elder who lived at the time of Nero and often mentioned his name. Tacitus further refers to elderly citizens of his day who were alive at the time of the fire but “frustratingly, he seems to have chosen to make relatively little, if any, use of” their recollections. At least as important to keep in mind when thinking through the account of Tacitus is Barrett’s assessment of him as a historian:
Tacitus’s account of the fire is an excellent example of his great narrative skills. Serious historian that he is, he expresses appropriate skepticism about Nero’s culpability, the only one of the three main authorities to do so, and records that the sources are divided on the issue. But his hostility to the emperor is such that by the end of his narrative the reader is left with a vaguely defined but strangely compelling impression that somehow Nero’s behavior was so abominable that he must be held accountable for what had happened. That is a remarkable feat of writing. (p. 13 – my highlighting in all quotations)
One may wonder how archaeological evidence could be relevant to the question of Christian persecutions in the wake of the fire but it is important to know what areas suffered in relation to the Jewish area since Christians were considered members of a Jewish sect. More generally, Barrett, a historian and not an archaeologist, makes an interesting comment on the evidence from archaeology that is worth keeping in mind next time one is addressing René Salm’s analysis of the archaeological reports on Nazareth:
There seems to be a rather dangerous article of faith that what is preserved in the archaeological record is ipso facto more reliable than information derived from literature, on the grounds that archaeology is uncontaminated by authorial bias.We must avoid falling prey to this widely held misconception—the situation is by no means so clear-cut. While the physical material itself may be untainted, it is almost never as explicit as its literary counterpart, and our understanding of that material is very dependent on how it is interpreted and presented to us by the archaeologist. And since archaeology very often involves the ordered destruction of the site being examined, and the archive of the site will as often as not be held in storage, for practical purposes the information to which we have access will ultimately come filtered through the investigator’s interpretations. In the case of the Great Fire we are fortunate that the main body of archaeological evidence for the event has been brought to light by a highly professional team led by Clementina Panella for the Sapienza University of Rome, and it has been published to high scholarly standards. But these standards are not necessarily maintained by other excavators, and elsewhere we must be on guard against conclusions that can be highly speculative and at times fueled by an almost poetic imagination. The archaeologist’s idiosyncrasies and preconceptions can occasionally shape what is supposedly objective evidence. (p. 16)
Amen to that manifold more times for “the place where Jesus grew up”.
Enough of the preliminaries. Let’s get to Barrett’s chapter five titled “The Christians and the Great Fire”.
We rely entirely upon just one source for the view that Nero attempted to deflect public suspicion that he had been responsible for the fire by singling out the Christians.
Despite Nero’s best efforts, Tacitus tells us that nothing that the emperor did, whether in the civil or the religious sphere, could lay to rest the persistent nasty rumor that had taken hold, that he had personally ordered the fire. Nero was astute enough to realize that once a negative idea has been implanted in the popular mind, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. He needed a dramatic solution, and dramatic gestures were his forte. The account in the Annals of what came next— it is our one and only source of information—is arguably the most disputed text in the whole of Classical literature. Complicating the debate is the question of whether this section of the Annals is an authentic piece of Tacitus, an important issue addressed later in this chapter.(p. 145)
And a few lines later the historical significance of this event strikes the reader:
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this episode in the history of the Christian church. . . . It is, as Brent Shaw puts it, a “foundational event” in the annals of Christianity. In a way it can be viewed as symbolically setting the scene for the repeated martyrdoms that Christians will endure at the hands of Roman authorities in subsequent centuries. It is also a major factor in the persistence of Nero’s image as the epitome of villainy during the nearly two thousand years since then.
Here is a key part of the passage as translated by Barrett:
Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].
44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.
44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.
44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.
On the two sections, 44.2 and 44.3, Barrett remarks,
This whole section constitutes in all only some 154 words in the original Latin text (“some” is added here as a caution because we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript). We can go a little further. Scholarly interest has focused almost exclusively on the first two sections (15.44.2–3), and together these produce a total of some ninety-three words. But this relatively brief passage, fewer than one hundred words in length, has prompted several books and perhaps as many as a hundred scholarly articles dedicated totally, or at least substantially, to the topic. Moreover, this vast and flourishing scholarship industry has so far exhibited no signs of recession. As measured by the number of words produced in research publications relative to the number of words in the text being analyzed, this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity. What follows in this chapter can convey only a brief summary of these prodigious scholarly endeavors.13
In the next post I will attempt a “brief summary” of Barrett’s “brief summary” and address his own conclusions.
Till then, endnote 13 directs readers to details of that discussion that I reformat with added links:
We are well enough aware of the way the Transfiguration scene of Jesus alludes to Moses’ change of appearance on the mountain. Less obvious are the allusions to what follows in the Gospel of Mark:
Exodus – Numbers
Moses was also transfigured once and when he descended from the mountain of his transfiguration, the children of Israel were afraid to approach him: just as, according to the original account (Mark 9:15), the people were terrified when they saw Jesus again after his return from the mountain (Luke and Matthew did not understand the meaning of this passage and omitted it).
Note, however, the contrast: while the people feared to approach Moses so that he had to wear a veil over his face, the disciples of Jesus do not fear, though greatly astonished, and run immediately to greet him.
9:2 . . . And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiantly white, more so than any launderer in the world could bleach them.
9:15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were greatly amazed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν] and ran at once and greeted him
The same word for the reaction of women seeing the young man clothed in white in the tomb in place of Jesus —
16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed [=ἐξεθαμβήθησαν].
Ex 34:29 And when Moses went down from the mountain, . . . . Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified, when God spoke to him. 30 And Aaron and all the elders of Israel saw Moses, and the appearance of the skin of his face was made glorious, and they feared to approach him.
When Moses ascended the mountain on an earlier occasion, he took with him, besides the seventy elders, three of his disciples, so Jesus chose three disciples to witness the miraculous appearance that was to take place on the mountain.
9:2 Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately. And he was transfigured before them,
Ex 24:9 Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel.
Six days Moses was on the mountain of his transfiguration and on the seventh day the voice from the cloud spoke to him – so Jesus climbs the mountain on the sixth day after Peter’s confession and it was also on the seventh day when the voice from the cloud called out: this is my beloved Son.
9:2 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately . . .
9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son. . . .”
Ex 24:16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
Moses had already appointed assistants to judge the people in his name, and he had reserved only the more difficult matters for his decision. When he ascended the mountain of his transfiguration, he left the seventy elders below with Aaron and Hur, so that whoever had a matter might turn to them. So the disciples are also below, while the Lord is on the mountain so that a matter is indeed brought before them, but it is too difficult for them, and after they have tried in vain, it is only settled by the Lord.
9:16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 A member of the crowd said to him, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that makes him mute. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able to do so.”
Ex 24:14 And [Moses] said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Indeed, Aaron and Hur are with you. If any man has a difficulty, let him go to them.”
When Moses came down from the mountain, he heard from afar the shouting and tumult in the camp (Ex 32:17) – so Jesus, on his return from the mountain, finds the disciples surrounded by a great crowd of people and scribes and in a lively quarrel with them.
9:14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and experts in the law arguing with them. . . .
Ex 32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. . . . 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”
The similarity is also evident in the fact that Jesus, just as Moses had reason to complain about what had happened during his absence, also had to complain about the fact that his constant presence was required.
19 He answered them, “You unbelieving generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you?
Num 14:26 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation”
Writing a story about Jesus was not always easy. There was very little by way of sources to help out. Imagination was all too often called for. Take the time when Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to preach in the surrounding towns, for example. What were they going to preach, exactly? They did not yet know that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. So they couldn’t preach that message. Simply trying to say that the “kingdom of God” was “coming soon” must have seemed a bit flat in the absence of new material of immediate relevance to people’s lives to flesh out that message. But miracles. Now they could be said to heal the sick and cast out demons. But that’s not really preaching, is it.
But stop and ask what Jesus was doing while his disciples were out “on preaching tour”. The towns were hosting his disciples. So where did Jesus go now that he was on his own? Did he take a break and go fishing? That would soon lose its appeal to one who had the power to bring fish up by the hundreds at a mere thought.
More to the point, how did the author of the first gospel narrative about Jesus fill in this gap? He had sent Jesus’ companions away after having instructed them in matters of sandals and staves and different household responses and now he was left with Jesus standing on his own. Unless our author could think of different subplot adventures for the various disciples “preaching” some vague message in the towns he had to do something to occupy Jesus for the readers.
But no, since nothing came to mind, our author hit on another solution. The old distraction technique. Now was the ideal time to bring in that delicious little story of how John the Baptist lost his head. He had nowhere else to use it in a story of Jesus but now was the ideal moment. The story of a birthday banquet and a dancing daughter could be colourfully filled out to create a nice interlude for the readers to forget about those preaching disciples and the lost and lonely Jesus for a while.
After that near-chapter length story it was finally appropriate to bring back the disciples from their tour. At least in the readers’ minds time had gone by and they did not have to be faced with a return the very next verse or two after they were sent out.
The introduction and placement of the John the Baptist scenario at that point, between Jesus sending out the twelve and their return, functions as a literary salve. A nice curtain interlude from the main plot to allow time to pass off-stage.
Later, the author of the Gospel we identify with Matthew, added many more lurid details to Jesus’ instructions for the disciples. Beware, he gloomily warned, of wolves. You are going out to face life-threatening dangers. You will be hauled before magistrates and called upon to answer for your faith. (Faith? They did not yet even know Jesus was Christ!) So in addition to the disciples not having any particular message to preach, those in Matthew were to face dangers that not even Jesus had faced up to that point. No, Matthew was writing from a distance long after the events he narrates. He is writing from the perspective of his own time possibly, I think, quite some decades later. He was retroverting experiences of his own day back into the days of Jesus and his twelve disciples.
Such are some of the little glimpses of how the gospels must have been put together that arise from a thoughtful reading. Thanks in particular, though not exclusively, to the works of Bruno Bauer who made such comments around 170 years ago.
I was once met with frozen silence in a forum set up for Bible scholars when I expressed the view that the Gospel of Mark has a fairy-tale type introduction: “John the Baptist came preaching and all (πᾶσα) the region of Judea and of Jerusalem went out to hear him and were all (πάντες) baptized confessing their sins…” No one reads that introduction in Mark 1:5 literally. “Obviously” not “everybody” went to hear John and be baptized. No? But that is the opening scene of the gospel. To read it as history we have to interpret “all” as an exaggeration. But what if the story is about an ideal scenario?
In struggling through my machine translations of Bruno Bauer’s chapters on gospel criticism I was pleasantly surprised to find the same thought expressed in relation to other passages in the gospels. Recall Jesus telling the would-be disciple who wanted to go and bury his father before setting out to follow him. BB points out that such a scenario can only happen in an ideal story world: no teacher could maintain widespread admiration if he forbade a person from fulfilling obviously meaningful family responsibilities. Readers accept the story at face value because it is an ideal scenario, not a real-life depiction. We know the point is to teach readers the moral of putting Jesus before family ties; but no one seriously expects a teacher to command a man to walk away from his father’s funeral in order to follow him right then and there.
Jesus’ message is to leave behind the world of the “spiritually dead”. The entire exchange is a kind of parable. It is not real life.
Yet, as per the previous post, sometimes very smart people can read the account as a literal life-and-death message that applies in the here-and-now. And that’s when the hell starts. I recall years ago walking away from a religious belief system in the stunned realization that I had been living in a fairy tale world. As children, we may fantasize about living in a fairy tale world but as adults, that game can literally be hell for loved ones, even deadly.
Hector Avalos wrote a book, Bad Jesus, illustrating exactly how a literal reading of the gospels makes good characters — and readers who are devoted to those characters — bad.
He says while intelligence quotient (IQ) tests have become the benchmark for smarts, they’re highly selective and only measure one’s ability for certain kinds of abstract reasoning.
Worst of all, they say nothing about a person’s common sense.
“When it comes to things like analysing evidence and thinking about it in a fair, even-handed way, or looking at the news and being able to work out what’s true and what’s false, actually IQ is really bad at predicting whether people can do that kind of thing,” Mr Robson tells ABC RN’s Future Tense.
And individuals with a high IQ score are just as vulnerable to cognitive biases as anyone else.
“The most important one for me is this idea of motivated reasoning,” he says.
“If you have a hunch or an intuition that something is right and it fits with your overall worldview, then you will only look for the information that supports that point of view.”
And, according to Mr Robson, when it comes to motivated reasoning, the crucial difference between highly intelligent people and the rest of us is that so-called smart people are simply better at it.
“They have that mental agility that lets them rationalise their points of view in a more convincing way.
“So, what you find is that on certain polarised issues, more intelligent people become even more polarised.”
An interesting observation in an ancient history publication:
In Babylonia demons hostile to the cult became subject to exorcism, a rite which from the earliest times was regarded as something communal. Some exorcisms were directed against storm demons, and one wonders whether behind the ‘Odyssey’ incident of the bag of winds given by Aiolos and Jesus’ command on the sea of Galilee ordering the winds to cease, there is not a common origin, the belief that winds were demons, capable of obeying human commands or being bound by magic. (The sea also as associated with evil is a characteristic Old Testament and even New Testament theme.) The Mycenaean Linear B tablets give evidence that the Mycenaeans worshipped the winds. A cult to Boreas existed in classical times at Athens. But winds would be gods in much the sense that streams, mountains, woods, etc. had gods, with less of a link between demons and winds than existed in the Orient. Another remnant among the Greeks might be the Siren passage of the ‘Odyssey’, where a daimon quells the winds just as Odysseus and his men are to pass the Sirens (12.169).
Brenk, Frederick C. “In the Light of the Moon: Demonology in the Early Imperial Period.” Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Römischen Welt 16, no. 3 (1986): 2068–2145.
I have now added Bruno Bauer’s approximately 80 page chapter on the Sermon on the Mount in the BB Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin page. (See right-hand margin.) It’s not for everyone. Only for those seriously dedicated to learning what Bauer had to say about the Gospels. It is machine translated with my own edits for corrections and to improve ease of reading. But no doubt there are still more mistakes than I would like to think about. To help those of you seriously interested I have included an OCR copy of the German script (it was originally in Old German and my reader has not done a perfect job of transferring it all to modern fonts) so you can get some idea of how to make any corrections for yourself.
My reading of late has been persuading me (again) that our canonical gospels did not appear on the scene till the mid or second half of the second century, not long before Irenaeus and certainly after Justin. Justin’s “sayings” material (like his “narrative” material) especially from the Memoirs of the Apostles, is surely from a source that was known to authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It will be a mammoth task to set out all of the arguments in favour of this late date, especially those that demonstrate, line by line as it were, that what looks like gospel material in Justin’s writings are certainly from a pre-gospel source.
I don’t know off-hand when Bruno Bauer wrote his criticism of the gospels but I’m guessing it was later in his life given the wealth of reading that lies behind his analysis and his allusions to life-experience. Hence the older pic. Or was he just a young genius?
Anyway, thanks for checking in on the blog from time to time. Hope to see you all next year again and that the new year treats you well.
It’s great to see that René Salm still adds to his website. His latest is a response to arguments that the passage in Josephus’s Antiquities about John the Baptist is part of the original Josephan text:
Further, I have added more chapters to the Bruno Bauer page. Interesting thoughts that arise:
1. The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are actually the temptations of the Church;
2. It makes little sense for a great founder or teacher to be declaring that a “greater” is following him — the founder is necessarily the greater one;
3. Contrary to what we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, no teacher has ever started out by calling for a team of disciples. Disciples must always follow after the work of teaching has been underway for some time and making an impact.