Daily Archives: 2007-01-16 22:30:32 GMT+0000

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised

I have revised 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Tacitus.

By now we’re getting the picture.
Bruce writes:

Pilate’s execution of Christ, and any report that he may have sent to Rome about it, would never have been heard of again, if in fact that execution had put an end to the movement which Christ began. (p.23)

If the aim of Bruce here is to offer independent evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus this logic here is of course entirely circular. He is arguing that because Jesus existed and started the Christian movement that spread like wildfire to Rome then this is evidence that Rome’s “police” would have kept records that they would not normally have kept, and that Tacitus would have used these! No hint that this passage of Tacitus (ca.115-117 c.e.) implicating the Christians in the Fire of Rome in Nero’s reign (64 c.e.) raises more questions and problems, if indeed historical, than one can throw matches at.

But Bruce does belie some sense that he is aware of the circularity and hollowness of his argument since he goes on to cover himself with the most tentative “perhaps”, “possiblies”, “who knows?”, “would have”, “if indeeds”:

[W]here did [Tacitus] go [for his information]? To some official record, perhaps — possibly to Pilate’s report; who knows? Tacitus had an official stnading which would give him access to such archives, if indeed they survived to his day.(p.23)

Pilate, he concedes, is not mentioned in any other pagan document known to us, thus underscoring further the complete unlikeliness that Tacitus would indeed have found such records in Rome in his day. This passage, he admits, is a most unlikely one — one based on “records” that would not normally make their way to Rome. Rather than prompt other questions of historical evidence and alternative explanations this “unlikely” fact (and a fact that assumes the historical existence of Jesus that this passage is meant to be supplying additional evidence for) merely increases the dramatic irony in Bruce’s eyes.

Why does Bruce insist that these admittedly unlikely police records had to have been Tacitus’ source? Because, he explains,

from the contemptuous and hostile tone which he adopts towards the Christians, we may gather that he did not seek his information from them. (p.23)

One would not have thought a historian had to be on friendly terms with Christians to have had some knowledge of their claims and beliefs. Such assertions by Bruce indicate a naivety about methods historical that surely place his book more comfortably among other confessional writings for the choir.

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

While Bruce treats Tacitus as “a source” Doherty seeks for the source that Tacitus himself used.

While Bruce is content to repeat the Eusebian model of Church history (fanning out with spirit-like rapidity throughout the empire from the time of Jesus’ death), Doherty makes note of the fact that modern historians are being forced to limit the initial impact of Jesus given, amongst other factors, the degree of silence about Jesus in the contemporary record. This silence makes it even less likely that Tacitus ever had bureaucratric records of any particular one of countless thousands of crucifixions and executions benighting the empire decades earlier.

While Bruce is content to assume that Tacitus searched police records for his information about Jesus (on the grounds that this is the only alternative given that his unfriendly tone tells him he could not have been informed by Christians themselves), Doherty notes that Tacitus was not in the habit of consulting original documents. In support of this is the fact that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong. This, of course, ought to have informed Bruce that he was being too cavalier in his discussion.

Doherty’s suggestion that Tacitus’s source was most likely picked up directly or more likely indirectly from what Christians themselves were saying in his time is by far more economical than Bruce’s presumptions of what Doherty says would have been an unheard of scale of record-keeping even for the Romans. Doherty leaves it open whether the information derived from Roman Christians or those in the province of Asia where Tacitus had earlier governed.


Bruce’s conclusion is that this passage from Tacitus presents history with “an irony” — so notable that it places the sole reference of a pagan writer to Pilate in a “hand to hand” moment with “the ancient Christian creed: ‘. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate’.” It does truly appear that Bruce’s interest in dramatic presentation of his confessional interest has caused him to view this passage from but a single — apologetic — view.

Again, there is no discussion of the historical problems involved (except to express the unlikelihood of such records normally existing in Rome). No explanation — not even any mention of — the silence of the early Church Fathers on this record. It does not do to say that an “argument from silence” in this case means anything since the arguments for and against the silence of the Josephan TF among early Church Fathers are admitted as vital in many scholarly discussions. It is unthinkable that there could be no references to this passage of a presumably most salient historical event among those early Christians given their regular cravings for all records, good and bad, of the treatment of early Christians. Doherty discusses this aspect persuasively and in depth.

But in this case it is not only the silence of the early church writers that begs for explanation. It is also the correspondence only 50 years later between emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny — neither Roman official knows of any precedent for how to handle Christians! And they were in ignorance just 50 years after Christians were slaughtered by imperial edict over the fire that destroyed a third of Rome? Yeh, right!

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised

I have revised the following 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Suetonius.

Oh dear, this is embarrassing from the historian’s point of view. I am sure F.F.Bruce represented the brightest lights of his time but, well, 1974 was another generation ago, even if I was part of it, and the series to which this book belongs is by its own account “by theologians” to further advance their belief that it is only religion that can contribute a “deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds us” (The Editor’s Preface pp.7-8).

So it is little wonder that Bruce’s work reads as a superficial rationalization of ancient evidence while demonstrating precious little of genuine historical method and serious interest in analytical debates over the evidence in which he finds nonbiblical references to the historical Jesus.

In his discussion of the passage in Suetonius that deals with the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius for reportedly rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” he writes:

Chrestus, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ.

From that, the rest of the discussion rests on this “evidence” that the Jews indeed did riot in Rome in some connection over Christ and Christianity. It matters not, it seems, that Bruce admits that the name over which they rioted really was “a common slave-name”. Surely this is every reason to take the passage at face value and not try to turn the name into something else.

But perhaps sensing a little weakness in this argument Bruce tosses in for good measure gratuitous claims that Suetonius got this information from “police records”. Of course, this causes more problems so he has to explain that Suetonius would have misunderstood the police records. — The police records would not have said that “Chrestus” was actually “in Rome” at the time of the riots that were “instigated by him”. (p.21) Bruce is silent on the implication that the police records wrote the wrong name for the instigator of these riots. Besides, anyone who knows Suetonius and his style of histories knows he was never one for painstaking research, and that for him good old gossip and rumour were far more titillating than any facts.

Bruce does not inform us in what sources the name Chrestus is found as a “common mis-spelling” of Christ. I would like to follow this up further. I do, however, seem to recall that some sects or Christians appear to have used “Chrestus” not as a mis-spelling of Christ but as an alternative to Christ. Were these expected to be known to Suetonius? That might be worth checking. But there is a more telling reason to question Bruce’s assumptions.

Comparing Doherty’s discussion of Suetonius

Who is “Chrestus”? Is this a misspelling of “Christus”? An unknown Jewish agitator with a very common name? Are these Christians at all, or simply apocalypti-minded Jews anticipating the arrival of the Messiah? Is this figure supposedly on the scene, or is he merely the object of the agitator’s beliefs? There is too much uncertainty here to take this as evidence of anything. (p.203 of The Jesus Puzzle)

I challenge anyone to dismiss this as “fringe” or “extreme” or even merely “radical” scepticism. I suggest they represent some of the questions that go through most reader’s minds on first encountering this passage in Suetonius.

Compared with Doherty Bruce looks like a naive confessionalist rationalizing anything close to his goal. Compare how creative his imagination and how his speculations become fact:

‘Chrestus’, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ. The situation referred to was probably the result of the recent introduction of Christianity . . . . Police action was called for . . . . [and] police records provided one of his[Suetonius’s] sources of information. . . . (p21 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Other reasons to reject the assumption that Suetonius meant “Christ”

But when Acts appears to refer to the same event (18.2) it gives not a hint that the expulsion by Claudius or Aquilla and Priscilla had anything to do with Christianity. Aquilla meets Paul because of his common trade only. Later in the same chapter when another Jew, Apollos, who does bring some (imperfect) knowledge of Jesus with him, arrives in Paul’s area, Acts tells us so. So one must ask if Suetonius meant that Jews were expelled because of “Christ” why both he AND the author of Acts did not say so. One cannot plead that a riot over Christianity would have been embarrassing to relate because Acts is if nothing else a long catalogue of riots instigated by the name of Christ! And if it was Paul in the vanguard of taking this controversial Christianity to the gentiles then who was responsible for these so-called “Christ-instigated riots in Rome” so early? The book of Acts concludes with Jews in Rome declaring their near total ignorance of the Christian faith, hearing only of its reputation in places outside Rome. (28.22)

Further, if Acts was a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work (assuming that its author also extensively redacted Luke) it is not impossible that Suetonius was the source of Acts 18.2. If so, then it appears that the author did not make any link between Chrestus and Christ.

What is certain is that the early Church Fathers are as silent regarding this passage in Suetonius as they are the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus — both silences begging for explanations if they were both known to refer to Christ and Christians from such an early date.
So there is no historical discussion of the evidence in question. In this case not even an uncritical naive face-value acceptance of the evidence. We have a common riot instigated by a person with a common name turned into “evidence” for another name (Christ) and a related event (riot in Rome) of which the biblical record is inexplicably silent.

Interestingly Bruce himself writes of another biblical scholar who through arbitrary recasting and erudition cleverly made texts say something other than what they clearly did say, so that:

the unwary reader might easily be misled by it; it is important to emphasize that it rests upon his own arbitrary recasting of texts which say the opposite of what he makes them say . . . . (p.46)

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Suetonius, Chrestus,

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on the Testimonium Flavianum

Where would one expect to find the most sound treatment of the textual and historical significance of the Testimonium Flavianum — in a work by a tried a true academic specializing in early Christian studies or in a lay outsider presuming to challenge the core working paradigm of those studies? F.F. Bruce’s “Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament” has been recommended more than once over recent years as an essential read for anyone wanting to come to grips with the Testimonium Flavianum, if only as a sound and sobering antidote to “radical nonsense” touted by “nonacademic upstarts”, with Earl Doherty being the principal one in mind. In fact, I once made a special 4 hour (two-way) trip to a university library just to consult this recommended reference on the strength of the erudition and assurances of an academic who strongly suggested it would put to rest any doubts raised by the nonsense pushed by the likes of Doherty re the TF. This piece is no doubt a smarting reaction against what I would like to think was a practical joke on the part of the academic rather than a true reflection of his knowledge and analysis of what Bruce has to say.

So I have finally prepared a comparison of the treatment of the Testimonium Flavianum by both Bruce (“Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament“) and Doherty (“The Jesus Puzzle“), and share it here with anyone else interested when and if similarly challenged by an academic to go to Bruce as an antidote to Doherty on this particular point. At least let it serve as a warning not to fall for the same practical joke some academics seem to enjoy playing on innocent, trusting laypersons.

Before getting into the detail of Bruce’s discussion of the TF there is another passage by Bruce I would love to share — this time with academics who scoff at views of those “less enlightened” who dismiss the TF in toto:

“[M]any students have come to the conclusion that the paragraph was interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor into the record of Josephus between the time of Origen and the time of Eusebius. It is a reasonable conclusion, held by many Christian scholars; and we must not accuse a man of undermining the case for historic Christianity because he cannot accept the authenticity of this paragraph. For, after all, it is not on the authority of Josephus that Christians believe in Christ!” (p.38 )

So what reasons does Bruce list and discuss to argue that the TF very likely represents core evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ?

On page 36 Bruce concludes a brief look (approx 350 words) at the reference to “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James” by asking if there is any more direct reference in Josephus’ work to Jesus. This leads to his discussion of the TF.

Bruce notes that the TF was known to Eusebius but that, “if we look at it carefully” (sic) (p.37) we will see that it contains wording only a Christian could use. This is underscored in the case of the sentence “He was the Christ” by explaining that Josephus elsewhere expressed his belief that the Christ was Vespasian, and that Origen a century before Eusebius also wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ.

So what reason(s) does Bruce give for thinking that Josephus did write at least something here about Jesus? I counted at least 1 (but I did keep counting many times looking for more so here they all are):

1. “The passage contains some characteristic samples of the diction of Josephus . . . ” (p.38 )

2. See 1. above

3. See 1. above

4. See 1. above

But to be fair, though, Bruce does let this single reason spawn a lengthier list of scholarly speculations on what that original Josephan passage might have said:

  • Klausner reconstructs the passage by removing the most obvious christian statements: “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the christ”, and the account of his resurrection.
  • In the time of Domitian it is more likely that Josephus would not have made any favourable comment about Christianity, hence original may have included negative expressions about Christ and Christianity as well such as:

— “a source of further trouble” (Robert Eisler, to connect the passage to what had gone before)

— “strange things” to replace “true things” (H. St. J. Thackeray since to Josephus Christianity was more strange than true)

— “[he was the] so-called [Christ]” (G.C. Richards and R. J. H. Shutt, to match “the so-called Christ” elsewhere in Josephus – and some reference to Christ is necessary here to make sense of the subsequent explanation of how the Christians got their name)

— [did not cease] to cause trouble” (Without some phrase like “to cause trouble” added here it is not known in what sense the Christians “did not cease”)

Conclusion? Hold your breath, now prepare to inhale what you are about to exhale, and study the circularity of hot air:

it seems clear (a) that Josephus’s paragraph about Jesus is not a wholesale interpolation; (b) that Josephus did not write it in the form in which it has been handed down to us.” (p.40)

And that’s it. Bruce has let his list of scholarly speculations of what an original Josephan core might have said (if there was one) cloud the fact that his conclusion rests entirely on the fact that the TF includes Josephan language. There are 2 major flaws here:

  1. Bruce offers no suggestion that there could be any reason to doubt that Josephan language in the TF must suggest that Josephus wrote something here about Jesus after all;
  2. Bruce appears to have let his array of speculations about what Josephus may originally have written persuade him enough to say “it seems clear” that Josephus did write something here about Jesus.

Bruce does conclude with a footnote on the tenth-century Arabic version of the TF, noting that it “may preserve a less thorough-going Christian editing of the original than does the traditional Greek text; at any rate it helps to confirm that Josephus did write about Jesus.” (p.41)

No argument, no details, no presentation of contrary opinions, just a footnote. (Garnering information “on the internet” is sometimes derided by academics who insist true in depth learning can only be found in hard copies of books, but in the case of checking more detailed information and arguments about this Arabic version I did come across a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Arabic_version

On the view Bruce expressed in his footnote this “internet” source says:

However, Pines’ theory has not been widely accepted. The fact that even the title of Josephus’s work is inaccurate suggests that Agapius is quoting from memory, which may explain the discrepancies with the Greek version. In addition, the claim that Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified and to die has been interpreted as a reaction to the Muslim belief that Jesus did not really die on the cross.

Thank god for the internet to help me fill out footnotes in books I drive 4 hours to pick up!

Bruce’s next chapter is titled “The Slavonic Josephus”. Perhaps, I originally hoped, here I would find the reason for being advised to read this book for a more complete understanding of the debates surrounding the TF and its relevance as evidence for the historical Jesus. But sadly, Bruce writes on the first page of this chapter:

“In fact, it is as certain as anything can be in the realm of literary criticism that they [the Slavonic extracts relating to Jesus et al.] were not part of what Josephus wrote at all, but had been interpolated into the Greek manuscripts from which the Old Russian translation was made.” (p.42)

Compare, now, what I learned about the TF from Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle”:

1. Josephus could not have written the TF as we have it because he did not subscribe to Christian doctrine (= F.F. Bruce)

2. There are 4 suspect sections in the TF (c.f. F.F.Bruce singling out 3 passages)

Arguments that Josephus wrote an original core on which the TF was built:

3. Vocabulary in the TF is characteristic of Josephus (= F.F.Bruce)

4. A Christian forger would not have limited himself to such short passage

5. A distilled Josephan original has no gospel flavour

6.Meier argues that Church Fathers would have failed to have referred to this passage because it testified to Josephus’s unbelief

7. Origen’s statement that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ is an oblique reference to the TF

To reconstruct the Josephan original core statement we need to consider:

8. That the original was neutral regarding Jesus (= F.F.Bruce)

9. That the original was hostile regarding Jesus (=F.F.Bruce)

10. That Josephus’s information came from official Roman records

11. That Josephus is likely to have made some put-down reference to the belief of Christians that Jesus was resurrected.

So I learned at least twice as much about the debates and discussion surrounding the TF from Earl Doherty’s book than I did from that by F.F. Bruce. An academic might assume that Doherty presents a one-sided discussion. I would say that Bruce has certainly presented a one-sided and narrow discussion about the TF as evidence for the historical Jesus. But Doherty presents arguments for and against on each point, concluding that within the framework of the most thoroughly addressed arguments in scholarship that the debate could go either way. He then looks at the broader context and issues in which the Josephan writings are embedded and presents fresh arguments that weigh far more decisively than Bruce’s default “it contains Josephan language … it seems clear”. Doherty’s strength is that he does not limit his discussion of the TF to the immediate textual issues. He weighs the broader context of what scholarship also informs us about what was known of Christianity in Rome around the time that Josephus wrote. He does this in part by drawing on the letters — and beliefs about Christ — of Paul. He considers the question of non-citation by Church Fathers in the broader context of what they did cite — thus breaking the narrow arguments of Meier (see point 6 above). Doherty also goes beyond the various speculations about what an original Josephan passage might have written by treating each one to an in-depth analysis within the broader context of what was known about Josephus, Christianity, and other cultural and political attitudes at the time.

Doherty’s treatment of the TF does not answer all the questions that have been raised about it. (I understand he has addressed the question in more depth on his website since publication of his book.) But if any academic recommends that you turn from Doherty and go to Bruce to better grasp the sound basics of the TF and its significance as evidence for the historical Jesus, be warned. That academic is only pulling your leg. Tricky buggers, some of them!


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