“Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources

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by Neil Godfrey

The third chapter of Is This Not the Carpenter? is by Lester L. Grabbe, “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources”. The first of these he addresses is Tacitus. (This is the sixth post in the series.)


Here is the passage from Annals 15:44, though Grabbe does not include the passages I have italicized here in his extract for discussion:

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians [Chrestians]. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.

And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
(From LacusCurtius)

Lester Grabbe introduces this as “one of our most important references to Jesus” – though the name Jesus nowhere appears in it.

This passage appears in a work (The Annals) that is generally understood as being written almost a century after the supposed death of Jesus. Like many commentators, Grabbe sugests that Tacitus more than likely had access to imperial archives and accordingly argues the likelihood that Tacitus did indeed pore through those official documents to acquire his material, including the fact of Christ’s crucifixion under Pilate.

This makes no sense to me. The only detail that Tacitus gives us about the crucifixion is that Christ was crucified under Pilate. Full stop. (I leave aside the debates over the title Tacitus uses for Pilate.) Tacitus does not even mention the reason, the crime, for which this Christ was crucified which would surely appear within an official archive if any such record of a crucifixion of a far-off Jew really existed. Nor does he even bother to tell us the name of this victim. No. Tacitus is clearly informed about the Christians by general gossip. All his loathing of the sect is fueled by popular attitudes towards the Christians. (Tacitus often resorts to malicious gossip as fodder for his history in which he let his anti-Julio-Claudian feelings free reign. This is rarely mentioned by scholars who discuss this passage, it seems, even though anyone who has read Tacitus knows he admits to relying on rumour for some of his “historical” information.)

Nor does Grabbe seem aware of the problematic question of why this account in Tacitus, and even more importantly, why this supposed historical persecution of Christians, fails to appear in the works of any Christian writer in the second and third centuries CE. We know early Christian writers relished their history of persecutions and honoured saints who had so perished. (The last italicized passage above could well have come from the pen of a Church Father who began his passage through the persona of an anti-Christian but who quickly reverted to confessional glorying in the suffering of the martyrs.) But Tacitus’s account is surrounded by a wall of eerie silence in the early record.

I would have liked Lester Grabbe to have at least raised these questions in his discussion.


Once again Lester Grabbe drops in the suggestion that a historian “could” have been using official archives, despite acknowledging that as a historian Suetonius is a well-known lover of scandalous hearsay and has a poor reputation for reliability.

I was particularly disappointed that Grabbe failed even to point out that in one of the key passages in Suetonius that the name appearing there, Chrestus, was a common slave name of the day. Readers are led to understand only one possibility: that Suetonius confused the name Christ for Chrestus:

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome.

Maybe this did originate as a confused account of Jewish Christians. Even if so, it tells us nothing about a Jesus in Galilee over a decade earlier. The passage appears to understand “Christ” (if this was originally meant) as a figure the troublesome Jews believed was in their midst in Rome.

Suetonius follows with a “chapter” on Nero with the following vague notice:

a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food, the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers,

This tells us nothing whatever about any first century Palestinian Jew.

Grabbe rightly concludes that we can make nothing of Jesus from the passages in Suetonius, but he nonetheless pleads that “Suetonius may possibly have had some independent information on Jesus”.

Pliny the Younger

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded. (From earlychristianwritings.)

Here Lester Grabbe surpasses many other commentators on this passage who attempt to use it as evidence for Jesus. Grabbe rightly concludes:

This passage gives no information about the historical Jesus beyond the traditional beliefs of the Christians themselves.

And of course the passage speaks of the beliefs of those Christians without any reference to a Galilean or crucified Jew.

Grabbe does not raise the question of the passage “they sing hymns to Christ as to [quasi] a god”. Some have argued that this implies Christ was not a god. But these discussions rarely address the manuscript support for this passage with quasi which dates from the 16th century. Tertullian cited this passage as saying “Christ and [ut] God” and Jerome appears to have understood his source to have read the same [ut]. In addition to such questions we still have the debates over the actual meaning and inference of quasi itself. Nor does Grabbe breathe a mention of the questions of authenticity of the letter and the tenth book of Pliny’s letter collection.


The bulk of Lester Grabbe’s discussion on the famous Josephus passage is given to S. Pines’ 1971 comparison of a tenth century version [of Agabius] and of Michael the Syrian’s version of Josephus’s words, arguing for a reconstructed earlier Syrian copy that predated the text most of us today know. I quote here the Testimonium Flavianum that we are familiar with, followed by a hypothetical earlier Syrian passage:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Compare an earlier Syrian version that I do not reproduce faithfully, only approximately, here. There is uncertainty over which of the two passages, “he was thought to be the Christ” and “accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah” should be preferred.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was thought to be the Christ. But not according to the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for they reported that he appeared to them alive again the third day and accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

I have posted often enough and in depth on the Testimonium Flavianum and the other James passage in Josephus. Earl Doherty has also gone into all of this in some depth with his recent series of responses to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? Probably among the most comprehensive studies of these Josephan passages in existence is Earl Doherty’s Josephus Unbound and Josephus on the Rocks (also covered in his latest book). I have yet to read any scholarly attempt to defend the Josephan evidence for Jesus that has not already been undermined by this study.

One also reads often of arguments that dissect the possible phrases or words Josephus may have used, but rarely is any such reconstruction justified in its wider context. Every reconstruction runs aground on the fact that it flies in the face of Josephus’s well-known attitudes towards those who bucked the religious establishment. The paragraphs surrounding the TF all function to build up a theme of sin and punishment — and in this flow the TF stands alone. It just does not sit in the immediate context, nor the broader context of the values of Josephus.

We also have the quite Lukan-Acts picture of this Josephan passage. If the Gospels contain truth then Josephus is simply wrong to say that this Christ converted many Greeks as well as Jews. That’s a picture of the Christian mission that emerges with Acts.

It should also be a worthwhile study to explore the history of scholarly interpretations of the TF. Can we see a clear shift matching social changes since the Second World War and should we be alert to subtle influences on the way the debate has moved since then?

Finally, there is also James, brother of Jesus who is called Christ, passage:

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus… Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Grabbe again unfortunately discusses nothing more than the common arguments we read about this. He uncritically assumes that mention of this Jesus is evidence that Josephus had discussed Jesus Christ earlier. As R. Joseph Hoffmann himself has most sensibly argued, the Jesus in question probably referred to the same Jesus in the remainder of that very paragraph — the son of Damneus. The awkward phrasing and way of introducing “who was called Christ” points to something odd having happened to the text. But I will not revisit here the many posts I have published in the past, nor the in-depth articles by Earl Doherty.

In other words, Grabbe’s treatment of Josephus will leave many readers wishing for more. Which is a shame.

In conclusion Lester Grabbe declares that the evidence from the above sources, thin though it is with respect to Jesus, confirms that Jesus existed and founded the Christian sect. He won disciples from among Jews and non-Jews. He was, at the instigation of leading Jews, tried and executed by Pilate. (No accounting is given of other traditions that said he was executed by Herod.) Christians were still around in the time of Josephus and believed their founder had been raised from the dead, etc. In other words, whatever we read in Josephus!

There are a number of other works by Lester Grabbe that I have enjoyed much more.


  • 2012-08-21 23:02:51 UTC - 23:02 | Permalink

    Grabbe sugests that Tacitus more than likely had access to imperial archives and accordingly argues the likelihood that Tacitus did indeed pore through those official documents to acquire his material, including the fact of Christ’s crucifixion under Pilate.

    Yes, this makes no sense. If Tacitus had gotten his information from official archives, he would not have called him “Chrestus” (it looks like the manuscript was changed from that to Christus). He would have called him Jesus, since he wasn’t “Christ” until after his resurrection. Only Christians would have called him Christ, and any official archivists at the time of Pilate weren’t Chrisians.

    • 2012-08-22 15:58:59 UTC - 15:58 | Permalink

      Exactly. Even if his followers began to think of Jesus as the Messiah before his death (unlikely), none of the actors involved in the trial would have called him “ho Christos”. If Tacitis had any records to go by (also unlikely), and if each executed prisoner was named, then best the apologists could hope for is a line item saying, “Jesus of Nazareth: sedition (perhaps banditry?).

      As you say, how would Tacitus have known that Chrestus was this guy in Pilate’s records? And if apologists argue that the historian must have asked Christians or perhaps Jews who knew about this new “superstition,” then we have to imagine Tacitus asking people first about what Christians believed, then going back to the supposed records in order to verify that there really was a Jesus who was crucified.

      But why would he bother? For his purposes, he didn’t need to prove that Jesus existed and was really executed; he only needed to know what Christians themselves believed.

  • Grog
    2012-08-22 00:57:33 UTC - 00:57 | Permalink

    One comment on the reconstructed TF. A lot of this argument is based on Alice Whealey. Carrier is arguing now that Whealey’s paper discredits this position, showing that Agapias and Michael are both based on Eusebius and are not confirmation of an alternative passage ever existed. I think this will be in his paper that will be published Winter 2012 (I don’t think it is published yet).

    • 2012-08-22 05:43:00 UTC - 05:43 | Permalink

      Lester Grabbe also addresses Alice Whealey’s views and their relationship to (revision of) Pines’ views. But I was skipping the details in my post.

      • Grog
        2012-08-22 09:44:31 UTC - 09:44 | Permalink

        The 2008 Whealey paper (not the earlier 2003 book) is important but complicated. As Carrier explains it, Whealey finds that Agapius and Michael are both dependent on translations of Eusebius but argues still that they are evidence of a more authentic TF. Carrier’s argument is that Whealey’s solution to maintain the revised TF theory is to postulate an improbable set of subsequent interpolations so we get today harmonized manuscripts. I hope I am getting this right. So it isn’t quite the usual discussion related to Whealey that you find in HJ defenses. Thus the important point is that Whealey finds:

        “…Agapius’ Testimonium is a loose paraphrase of the Testimonium from the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica while Michael’s Testimonium is a literal rendition of this same text…”

        While the revisionist position does not rest on the attestation of Agapius or Michael alone, these works are important to the maintenance of the revisionist consensus. It is significant then that Whealey herself finds that neither of these witnesses are independent attestation going back to a manuscript of Josephus, but that they both go back to versions of Historia Ecclesiastica. It is important to emphasize that Whealey argues that all this demonstrates that Michael’s TF is “closer to Josephus’ original passage.” Whealey argues that the Eusebius passage was tampered with and Michael’s TF more accurately reflects the original. Carrier points out that this would require all Eusebian references to the TF would have to be harmonized and in all manuscript traditions.

        Citation for the Whealey paper:
        Whealey, A. “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic.” New Test. Stud. 54, pp. 573–590. (2008)

  • 2012-08-22 01:03:43 UTC - 01:03 | Permalink

    Regarding Josephus, my own related Legendary Thread is here:

    http://www.freeratio.org/thearchives/showthread.php?t=263670 Say It Ain’t So Joe. Testimonium Flavium. Will Eusebius Be Convicted In Civil Court?

    There are 3 categories of evidence suggesting that Eusebius was the author of the TF:

    1) Patristic silence up until…Eusebius.

    2) Language (Eusebias’)

    3) Motive & Opportunity (Eusebius had the Tools & Talent and the “Protection” of Constantine)

    Lesser evidence that is not commonly discussed is:

    1- The entire tone of the TF is positive

    2 – As a historian Josephus normally gives the thoughts of the subjects, not his thoughts

    3 – Any inclusion of a supposed contemporary reference of “Christ” sounds anachronistic since Jesus was probably not referred to as such by his supposed audience.


  • 2012-08-22 06:49:27 UTC - 06:49 | Permalink

    If you look at the latin Tacitus never actually says that Christus was crucified, only that he was ordered slain by Pilate.

    Fortunately enough for us Josephus talks about the only possible event that can be interpreted as the origin of the christian mythology concerning Pilate ordering the slaying of rebels, in his Antiquities of the Jews – Book XVIII, chapter four verse 1: “BUT the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there (12) So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.”

    This is the real Testimonium Flavianum [TF], not the forged one in the chapter before. The forged TF was placed in the chapter before the real TF, and by a good reason. If you put it there you can hide the real identity of the rebel leader who was ordered slain by Pilate, at least for a while. The most logical way that “Jesus” was slain by was the ordinary punishment for rebellious acts against Rome i Judea, namely beheading. It also quite likely that the samaritans saw their prophet as the return of Joshua, or in greek, Jesus.

    Note that all the main ingredients in christian Pilate mythology is present in this story. The mount, the followers, the troops of Pilate and the slaying.

    The real TF tells us all we need to know who the “Jesus” punished by Pilate really was, the samaritan prophet.

    The Christ risen from the dead was a story that took place some eight to ten years before Pilate ordered the samaritan prophet slain. It was about James the Just and the aftermath of Pauls attack on him on the top of the temple stairs. James is a much better contender for the title “historical Jesus” than the samaritan prophet in most aspects, except for the execution by Pilate. James was accused of heresy by the jewish high priest and stoned for his “crime” in the beginning of the 60´s modern time. Josephus talks about that too.

  • RoHa
    2012-08-22 11:12:13 UTC - 11:12 | Permalink

    There is more to be said about Suetonius. (And Earl Doherty has probably said it somewhere.)

    First, in Nero the passage “afflicti suppliciis Christiani, genus hominum superstitionis novae ac maleficae;” suggests that he thinks of Christians as a special group, and can spell their name. And yet in Claudius he makes no mention of them in connection with “Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit.” Did he only learn about them after he had finished that bit?

    And let us assume for the moment that by “Chrestus” he meant “Christus”. “Christus” is not Jesus’ name. It is the title “messiah”.
    So all we have here is a bunch of Messianic Jews making trouble in the name of some messiah.
    That could be any old messiah, real, self-declared, and present in Rome, or totally imaginary and expected at any moment.

  • Blood
    2012-08-22 12:27:03 UTC - 12:27 | Permalink

    I’ve never heard that Chrestus was a common slave name. Can you point me to some sources?

    • 2012-08-22 12:50:18 UTC - 12:50 | Permalink

      Not off-hand, sorry. It’s something I learned as an undergrad studying the literature of the Julio-Claudian era of the Roman empire. I’ve heard or read the same since then several times but never bothered to register “the source”. If you can gain access to an academic library with classics/ancient history departments you may find a volume about Roman names somewhere. — or just keep reading widely all you can find on the Suetonius passage.

    • Grog
      2012-08-22 13:11:00 UTC - 13:11 | Permalink

      I don’t know about slave names, but this is interesting:


      Note, in particular:

      Socrates was a popular prince with the citizens of Bithynia. He received the surname Chrestus because he was peaceful and lamented in his personality.


      This is in reference to a paid clerk of Cicero referred to as Chrestus:

      “According to SB (ad loc.) this refers to “an actual theft, by or from Chrestus (a common slave-name).”

      Link to above: http://www.focusbookstore.com/bookviews/BV9781585101382.pdf

      So, it isn’t just Neil making the observation about the name Chrestus. This is as far as I can go with this though. I can see that the name “Chrestus” was not unheard of.

      • 2012-08-22 13:51:09 UTC - 13:51 | Permalink

        Thanks for this. If you do a Google search on the words — chrestus common slave name — you will find many citations for this bit of data. Zero in on those that are from wikipedia pages and google-books and filter the ones from reliable sources. I think you’ll be overwhelmed with references.

        • Blood
          2012-08-22 23:20:13 UTC - 23:20 | Permalink

          Neil, I did the search, but it largely returned references that simply assert that Chrestus was a common slave name. We need to find a more reliable source, perhaps a book on Roman names of the era.

          • 2012-08-23 08:08:28 UTC - 08:08 | Permalink

            Kurt Linck lists more than 80 Chrestus in inscriptions and his list can be found here: http://rogerviklund.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/kurtlinckbook.jpg
            In one of my posts (in Swedish) I reproduce an image from Botermann’s book, where she (in German) lists more inscription. She refers to H. Solin, who list 122 Chrestus found in inscriptions in Rome. Of these 122, 1 was born free, 60 were of uncertain origin, 4 probably freedmen, 55 were slaves or freedmen, 1 was a son of a freedman and 1 a foreigner.

            I reproduce Botermann’s footnote with the inscription @ http://rogerviklund.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/suetonius-som-jesusvittne-del-4a-–-botermann-om-nar-och-vem/

            • 2012-08-23 08:31:02 UTC - 08:31 | Permalink

              Thanks Roger, and for those links — also for those to the Josephus question above.

            • Blood
              2012-08-23 13:11:13 UTC - 13:11 | Permalink

              Roger, that was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks.

          • 2012-08-23 21:17:23 UTC - 21:17 | Permalink

            I did not write on a kea-board previously. So as an addition, there were also a number of Chreste noted by Solin; i.e. the female equivalent of Chrestus and the distribution of that name were similar to that of Chrestus. In the list of the most popular males Greek names, Chrestus is number 34, while the female Chreste is number 10.
            Also Dessau ILS lists 31 people wearing those names, and 11 (1/3) were slaves. In a lexicon of Greek personal names (Bd. I, the Aegean Islands, Cyprus and Cyrenaika) there are 2 Χρηστοσ, 1 Χρηστα and 1 Χρηστη; In Bd. II (Attica in Greece) there are 24 Χρηστοσ and 1 Χρηστα.
            Among Jews though, the name is only found once (for certain) and that in the female form of Chreste (the inscription can be seen here: http://rogerviklund.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/cirb-70-about-chreste.jpg )
            Kindly, Roger Viklund

      • Blood
        2012-08-22 23:28:01 UTC - 23:28 | Permalink

        Socrates Chrestus and Mithridates Chrestus — so “Chrestus” (“the good”) was an actual royal title (like “Epiphanes”) in places like Pontus and Bithynia, later hotbeds of Christianity, in the 150 years prior to the first century CE. I wonder if there were other princes with this title in the area?

    • 2012-08-22 22:18:57 UTC - 22:18 | Permalink

      Chestus (χρηστός) makes sense as a slave name since it means useful.

  • Niels Peter Lemche
    2012-08-22 18:39:49 UTC - 18:39 | Permalink

    The ironic thing is that there need not be an absolute borderline between what people call mythcism and what is considered to be historical-critical scholarship. Funny of course that this has also come up in nT studies but we in the OT sector have always thought of our NT colleagues as late to new ideas.

    However, I agree that Tacitus is not more of a witness than young Pliny. No sane person would doubt that there were people around c. 100 CE having their ideas about JC. So Tacitus only wrote what some Christian bloke had told him. We don’t need archives for that.

    On the other hand, when playing naughty, the real important evidence for som historical basis of the JC story may be the young man in Mark 14:51-2. Why? Because this information is totally unnecessary. Why is he here? I know of a series of explanations, including something in 2 Samuel, but it is not an explanation of the presence about this note. Either this young man is Mark himself or his “Q” (I have little fiducia in the beauty of the Q hypothesis). If it is Mark, say at the age between 15 and 20, it could also be the Mark (and again that name is as much a convention as everything else), who many years later constructed his narrative about a certain Jew who was executed by the Romans “in the time of Tiberius”. If I am right, does this make Jesus a historical person? Yes, but it does not make the JC of the Gospels (canonical as well as para-canonical) historical. That is a mixture of genres. Mark may have used everfy possible mean to describe his hero as the Christ (among many other pretenders at this time–and who says that JC was the first “Christian”?). I would not even go into the basics of his gospel to discuss in details what is historical and what is not. It is up to the credubility of the individual scholar.

    It is also clear what happened to Mark’s gospel, rather a torso without a beginning and an ending. He was rewritten by other people, both of them presenting their own introductions and endings.

    So Jesus might be a historical person, but the JC beloings to narratives about him.

    A parallel case might be Plato’s description of the process against Socrates and the story of his execution. Plato is explicitly said not to be present, but by not being present, he is free to wright what he think should have been said at the two occasions.

    Or it might be like the old joke about Bultmann and the pope:

    Maybe you don’t know it:

    One evening the pope’s chief archaeologist in Jerusalem phoned his master.
    The archaeologist: We have found the grave!
    The pope delighted: Phantastic!
    The archaeologist: But we have a problem. The bones are still there.

    Panic in the Vatican until late night. The the pope had to crawl to Canossa and phoned the greatest authority in the NT in those days, Professor Dr.Dr. Rudolf Bultmann in Marburg. It was two or three o’clock in the morning.

    The pope: I have a problem!
    Bultmann (not without a smile): So, what can that be?
    The pope: My archaeologists have found the grave.
    Bultmann (rather sceptical): so ….
    The pope: The bones are still there.
    Bultmann: But then he must have lived!

    My little contribution to the carpenter’s son was about this: The church need JC, but not a historical Jesus. He is almost an embarrassment to the Church.

    • 2012-08-23 04:41:45 UTC - 04:41 | Permalink

      “No sane person would doubt that there were people around c. 100 CE having their ideas about JC.” A deliberately provocative assertion? Maybe: “no sane, well-informed person would doubt…ideas about a Christ or Chrest figure.”

      But I like your opening sentence – folklorists recognise no absolute distinction between legend and myth, and Jesus scholars would save a lot of hot air to follow suit. In fact, I’d like to coin “legendism” to designate the the consensus position, and leave “historicism” to the apologists.

      Oh, and – nice way to interject the taboo Talpiot tomb.

    • 2012-08-23 05:52:48 UTC - 05:52 | Permalink

      Ah, the famous young men of Mark — fleeing naked, sitting in tombs, hinted at by the naked demoniac among the tombs of Gerasene — all foils of the man from the old order wearing animal skins and living in the wilderness and, of course, the naked man on the cross whose clothes were taken by lot . . . .

      He’s become a topic in his own right, here. This comment could be added to the growing treasure chest.

      • Niels Peter Lemche
        2012-08-23 15:50:46 UTC - 15:50 | Permalink

        I know, but the provocative issue is that there is no need for him. What is he doing here? And the references to Plato and Socrates say that being absent (in Mark 14 by name) means that you are free to say whatever you want to say. So all the fuss about the historicity of Jesus is ridiculous (both sides). The historical Jesus is unimportant; it is the narratives about JC that are important. The fundamental denying that there was a person and that somebody few years after his death (Paul–if you are not disputing the historicity of Paul as well) went around having invented this person as JC is a bit pathetic. The important question i why this man went around saying so (and why a little more than thirty years after his execution there were enough in Rome to make up fora garden party of Nero).

        As Gavin correctly says, the important issue is not between historicity and non-historicity: that’s adiaphora, it is how this interpretation of or invention of a certain person as JC came about. Here the version in Life of Brian is as good as any other proposal–the holy sandal.

        So this insistance on discussing historicity is simply taken away the real interesting questions. It is simply the same nonsense as we have seen in OT studies for many years about the historicity of David. And it says a lot about the low standard of our field that so much energy is vasted here.

        • 2012-08-23 16:29:43 UTC - 16:29 | Permalink

          What the young man in the tomb is doing there has been the subject of a number of studies that do see him as integral to the structure of the larger Gospel itself. That is also very largely a literary cum theological question. It is one of the questions that looks at what brought about Mark’s gospel in the first place. That’s not arguing for or against historicity: it is treating the historicity question as irrelevant — as per your request. That’s what my earlier posts on this question have addressed. (Historicity or nonhistoricity is irrelevant. The interesting question is to ask what produced the literature we have, and of course the religion that has embraced that literature.)

          I don’t believe any posts on this blog have argued that anyone (Paul, e.g.) “went around having invented JC”. Perhaps you were not directing your remark to this blog. (Earl Doherty’s work, for example, is very much on reading the New Testament letters afresh without Gospel presuppositions and instead on reading them through the philosophical-religious traditions we find in the wider relevant literature — as opposed to reading them through the literature that came decades later. He himself has likewise said that such a study does not resolve a simplistic debate over whether or not Jesus existed, but opens up a whole new world of exploration — the interesting questions just begin. Though of course Earl Doherty is certainly tackling the question of historicity head-on at the same time. That is where we differ.)

          And this has been the constant theme I have pushed ever since starting this blog. Most of my posts are explorations of ways we can validly understand the literature of the Bible — Old and New Testaments. What produced it? What is it really all about?

          As a consequence two anti-mythicists (McGrath and Hoffmann) have even attacked me for not arguing a comprehensive case against the existence of Jesus. They are right, even though they accuse me of a serious failure in their own eyes. That has never been my agenda. All I have done is offer various cases to explain the Gospels as we have them. Those explanations have implications for the historicity of Jesus — so that upsets some people — but the historicity of Jesus is not the focus of the study.

          Here is also the reason I have always been in two minds about being called “a mythicist”. I don’t think of myself as a mythicist, but simply as someone interested in history and understanding the nature of the biblical literature and accounting for it. That has nothing to do with mythicism per se. I have tried to make this clear in my “About Vridar” page. (Historians of early Rome don’t call themselves Romulus mythicists or Romulus historicists. They are open to questions and evidence that address the most valid reconstructions — whatever the conclusions reached.)

          So it’s curious that hostile anti-mythicists so strongly attack this blog — very often they are really attacking what their own peers themselves have published, so sensitive are they to any suggestion that any studies might have negative spin-off implications for the question of Jesus’ historicity.

          The reason some of them do attack this blog so strongly is probably more to do with my discussions of what I see as invalid — circular — methods of their historical reconstructions of Christian origins. Those posts have attracted some hostility, even though I very often quote their own peers in support.

          • Niels Peter Lemche
            2012-08-23 17:00:15 UTC - 17:00 | Permalink

            Nothing here I cannot support. And it was not against the blog but more generally. However, I am not well enough informed to know much about the modern discussion about the individuality of the various gospel writers. It is to my mind clear that Mark is a “proposeal” of how to write the biography of a hero. Ever since Wrede the prepafratory status of this gospel has been emphasized. However, in an Antique environment, it is quite ridiculous to write a biography of the historical Jesus based on this gospel. It is so obvious that ancient story tellers wrote the stories they liked and paid little attention to historical facts. Ctitical sense is a modern invention.

            The are a few exemption, when Thucydides arote, and perhaps also Polybios, but bot were officers and probably used to write military reports. Thucydides also wrote about a war where he definitely had a role to play until he was sent to Limoges (an expresssion from WW I). However, in Antiquity the meaning was always more important than the facts. And it remained so until the modern breakthrough. AS somebody said about the Icelandic Sagas: Is this true or just something that happened!

            • 2012-08-23 17:48:13 UTC - 17:48 | Permalink

              I thought you might have been speaking more generally, but commented as I did because I do often encounter misconceptions about this blog from friend and foe alike.

              The Gospel of Mark has long been one of my favourite studies and I wonder if we will ever be able to fully plumb its depths. It was for too long mistaken as a crude tale by a semi-literate author. Some still see it like that. Another perspective of Mark’s genre (against the view that it is biography) is Michael Vines’ The Problem of Markan Genre. He draws on Bakhtin’s genre theory to argue it is a Jewish novel. But then as I think you indicate, the dividing line between ancient historiography/biography and fiction is often blurred.

              Some have wondered if the young man in the tomb is a cipher for Paul (something that would not be inconsistent with Roger Parvus’s recent speculations on the identity of the Beloved Disciple, nor with the curious relationship between the Gospel of John and Gospel of Mark.) I have always preferred to see him as part of the whole, as one of a number of other mysterious characters and events that pop up and then vanish in the Gospel. There is so much evident symbolism and esoteric meaning associated with each of these that is easily missed if read through Matthew or Luke. The explanation I favour (at the moment) is that these persons, variously clothed or naked, relate to the early Christian rite of baptism — which was the believer’s symbolic union with Christ in his death and resurrection. But what I’ll think next year, who knows! It’s always an interesting question.

              • 2012-08-24 00:41:46 UTC - 00:41 | Permalink

                What would be interesting would be if Mark and John were written by the same person. Mark written as a “secret” or secretive gospel made for public consumption and John being the “real” gospel written for the chosen. That might make the Beloved Disciple and the Neaniskos the same person; from what I recall of ancient Greek society, there were “lover-beloved” relationships between older men and young men. The “lover”, the older man, giving instruction as a sort of mentor figure to the “beloved” young man (young man = lit. neaniskos). In both gospels it is the Beloved/Neaniskos who discover the tomb empty first.

              • 2012-08-24 22:45:39 UTC - 22:45 | Permalink

                It is so easy (unless you are a scholar with a certain reputation to safeguard) to see a syzygistic relationship step by step between Mark and John. It’s a fascinating question.

                Your remark about the lover-beloved relationships between older and younger men brings to mind the astonishing difficulty I had in filtering out repetitive homo-erotic images of Beloved Disciple scenes when I did an image-search for Roger Parvus’s Paul and the Beloved Disciple post. Against this interpretation are the modern studies of Paul that align his teaching on same-sex relationships with classic Roman and late-Plato injunctions — that is, they are a sin, forbidden, an abomination. I have plans (hopes) to post in future on the moral codes set out by Paul showing their conformity to Stoic and Platonic ideals of heterosexual union and condemnation of homosexuality — contrary to what some liberal theologians like to preach in order to force a 2000 year old tract into relevance for people today.

              • Roger Parvus
                2012-08-26 10:47:10 UTC - 10:47 | Permalink

                Another Vridar post already contains my thoughts about the young man in the tomb and the Gadarene demoniac (the post with title, “Jesus’ Journey Into Hell and Back”, and its 7th comment). So here I would like to comment just about the episode of the young man clothed in linen who flees naked from Gethsemane (Mk. 14:51-52). Like Neil I am inclined to think there is a baptismal motif present in the episode, but in my case that inclination is in part related to my admittedly eccentric view of Mark’s Gospel. So I will need to first briefly summarize that.

                UrMark as a Simonian writing

                I think canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a gospel, urMark, that was of Simonian origin. I see urMark as being a cryptic allegory in which a single life was put together using two components:

                1. The older component was a barebones myth about a descending and crucified Son of God who, in order to surreptitiously get himself wrongfully killed by the princes of this world, switched places with failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion.

                2. The second component was an allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.

                Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son who suffered in Judaea. So after his death a follower of his combined these two supposed manifestations of the Son of God into a single life. The author dressed up the composite figure, Jesus, using Scriptural language and images. It was understood that those “on the inside” (Simonians) would recognize who the allegory was really about.

                In this scenario I would assign the transition seam between the two components to Mk . 15:15:

                So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and delivered up Jesus, having scourged him, that he might be crucified.

                That is to say, the narrative up to the release of Barabbas is the allegory about Simon/Paul’s apostolic labors. I think Simon/Paul did indeed go up to Jerusalem as planned (Rom. 15:31), was arrested there, but was released. His release is allegorically portrayed by the release of Barabbas (“the Son of the Father”). From the scourging of the failed King of the Jews through to the end of the Gospel is the part that contains the earlier myth of the Son of God who tricks the princes of this world. In this part the Son of God enters the scene as Simon Kyrenaios.

                The linen-clad young man

                Both flights—the clothed one of Peter, James and John and the subsequent naked one of the young man who leaves behind his linen cloth garment— belong to the allegorical portrayal of the ministry of Simon/Paul. In Mark ’s Gospel Peter, James, John as well as the rest of the Twelve are presented as disciples of Jesus in name only. They never really understand him and ultimately abandon him (See T. Weeden’s Mark: Traditions in Conflict). This, in my opinion, is an allegorical portrayal of the relationship of the Jerusalem church to Simon/Paul. That church and its leaders claimed to believe in the descending Son of God but—from the perspective of the Simonian author of urMark—their failure to recognize that Simon/Paul was a new manifestation of that Son shows that their faith was defective. They ultimately disowned Simon/Peter when he was arrested in Jerusalem.

                By separating the flights of Peter, James, and John from the subsequent one of the linen-clad young man the author was making some kind of distinction between them. What his intent was in making that distinction is anyone’s guess. Zahn was the first to suggest that the young man was the author himself, painting himself into the picture. I am open to that possibility, but I am tempted to at least see him as being Simon/Paul’s successor: Menander. Here’s why:

                The proto-orthodox anti-heretical writings about Simon never connect him with any teaching about baptism. They describe Simon as requiring that to be saved one had to have the knowledge he brings, to believe in him, and hope in him. But nowhere is it said that he required any kind of baptism.

                The first mention of baptism in a Simonian context is in the admittedly scant information the proto-orthodox give us about Simon’s successor Menander:

                His (Menander’s) disciples received resurrection through baptism into him… (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,23,5).

                The listing of this as one of the few known teachings of Menander, together with the absence of any mention of baptism in connection with his teacher Simon make me think that Menander may have been the one who introduced a mystery type baptism into Simonianism sometime towards the end of the first century CE. If so, and if I am right in my overall view of this Gospel , there would be a plausible reason why a baptismal motif is present at such an inappropriate point in it. The baptismal motif here was simply a cryptic identifier of Menander, one which would be recognized by Simonians, but probably not by anyone else (in accordance with the intentions of the author. See Mk.4:11-12).

    2012-08-27 01:04:51 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

    To Roger Parvus:

    What a superb elaboration.

    The game of combining the various possibilities of hypothesized ur-documents (without mentioning postulated traditions) seems to have become an essential part of the advanced scholarly discussion of the sources.

    It takes the mind of a good chess player to keep all the sources in focus and see how they nicely fit together.

    To us, simple neophytes, the continued work of insightful scholars such as your has complicated the problem of understanding the sources of the Gospels, and it seems too much of a simplification to speak any longer of a simple two-sources theory.

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