Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Hermann Detering (1953-2018)


Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2 . . . 

All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.

3. Tacitus and Josephus

The word “Christianos” – with an “e” scraped and replaced with an “I” – as it appears In Madicean II under ultraviolet light. From UU Humanist Skeptic

The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).

Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.

Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.

However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?

Nero’s rebuilt Rome: From brewminate.com

Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.

The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it.

In addition, a number of problems of content could be mentioned, which make it difficult to consider the Testimonium Taciteum as an authentic text from the pen of the Roman historian. That the Christians in Rome in the year 64 are said to have been already a “huge crowd” cannot be proved even from Christian sources. Origen speaks of the martyrs as a “small crowd that is easy to count” (Orig Cels 3:8). The fact that hatred of the human race (odium humani generis) is said to have been sufficient to punish people with death is difficult to reconcile with Roman law and has often been questioned again and even more recently.

Added to this is the lack of external testimony: Up to the monk Sulpicius Severus, who wrote in the 5th century, the testimony is not mentioned by any of the Church Fathers – which is very surprising, since the passage at Tacitus can hardly have escaped their notice in view of the monstrous events reported in it. One should not rush over such oddities as Ehrman does. But even Sulpicius Severus cannot easily be considered a textual witness. Although the section on the burning of Rome in his Historia Sacra contains a number of literal similarities, the question is: Is Tacitus really the source used by Sulpicius Severus, or is it perhaps the other way around? In other words, is the passage considered to be the text of Tacitus possibly an interpolation that goes back to Sulpicius Severus? A detailed comparison of the two passages, which is explained in my book mentioned earlier, could prove this. One indication of this could be, among other things, the word sequence humanum genus instead of genus humanum, which is unique to Tacitus. For Sulpicius also always writes humanum genus, but never genus humanum!

anyone who wants to make a scientifically responsible judgement about the Testimonium Taciteum cannot carelessly pass over these and many other problems

In any case, anyone who wants to make a scientifically responsible judgement about the Testimonium Taciteum cannot carelessly pass over these and many other problems that I deal with in my book, as Ehrman does. Since Ehrman, as we know, travels in many languages, he could have found out about this from my book, which was published six months before his. Perhaps he should also take a closer look at some of his “graduate students”, who, according to Robert M. Price, procured the material for his book for him, and check their academic suitability.


It appears that the absent-minded professor must have been in a hurry to finish this book!

For Vridar posts addressing some of Ken Olson’s discussion of the Testimonium Flavianum (evidence he cites for its Eusebian origin) see

1. The Testimonium Flavianum: more clues from Eusebius

2. Jesus in Josephus — Eusebian clues — point 4

3. Jesus in Josephus — pts 5-12

4. Jesus in Josephus – “not extinct at this day”

See the bibliography at end of this post for published articles by Ken Olson.

Even more disappointing than his Tacitus section are Ehrman’s omissions about the two Josephus passages, which have always been cited as testimony to the historicity of Jesus. Not only does Ehrman once again have nothing new to offer, but worse, he fails to engage in scholarly discussion with those who would have something new to offer: such as his former student Ken Olson, who in 1999 published some exciting theses on the Testimonium Flavianum, one after the other.

Ehrman begins with Ant 20,200-203 (= 20.9.1), i.e. with the passage about the execution of a man named James, who is described as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”. Ehrman does not hesitate to identify him with the church leader brother James because of this. With reference to Jesus, this means for Ehrman, “We learn two things about him: he had a brother named James and some people mistook him for the Messiah” (59). However, Ehrman also knows mythicists, radical critics who consider the passage to be interpolated, and announces that he will deal with them after the treatment of the Testimonium Flavianum. Well, good things take time, the reader thinks, flicks on and looks forward to the discussion announced by Ehrman at a later passage. But at the end of the section he feels disappointed. Not a trace of an answer from Ehrman! Neither in the corresponding chapter nor anywhere else. In fact, after a few pages, the author seems to have forgotten his announced promise completely. It appears that the absent-minded professor must have been in a hurry to finish this book!

In fact, it would have been extremely strange if Josephus had called Jesus “so-called Christ” just by the way. This is above all due to the political implications that the term “Christ” had, especially for Jews and especially for Josephus. One cannot accuse Josephus of naivety, that he did not know what the meaning of this term (Christ = Messiah) was: That it had an eminently political dimension besides the religious one – it was, after all, just the same title that apparently pretenders to the Messiah such as Simon, Menahem and John had also claimed for themselves, who, according to Josephus, bore the responsibility for the downfall of Israel. In the period after the Jewish War, in which Josephus wrote his work, the title “Christ” may have had about the same ring to it at the Roman court as – mutatis mutandis – the term “Führer” had had in the ears of the Allies after the Second World War. The only “Christ” that Josephus could have accepted was the Roman Emperor Vespasian (Bell 6:313). This also seems to be the reason why Josephus himself avoided speaking of “Christ” where this would have made reasonable sense, namely with the Jewish pretenders to the Messiah just mentioned. The Jewish pensioner at the Roman court would probably all too easily have fallen into a reputation of political unreliability and would easily have been suspected of flirting with the former Jewish freedom fighters. For him, the word “Christ” for Jesus would have been tantamount to a confession of faith in the Jewish underground.

If it is quite unlikely that Josephus is said to have spoken of the “so-called Christ” without comment, it can by no means be excluded that the phrase “brother of Jesus” is actually original. However, it obviously did not at first refer at all to Jesus of Nazareth, but rather in an obvious way probably only to that very Jesus, the son of Damnaeus, who is mentioned at the end of the passage quoted above as the successor of the younger Annas who was deposed from his office:

“But Agrippa, as a result of this incident, shocked him after only three months in office of his dignity and appointed Jesus, the son of Damnaeus, as high priest” (Ant 20,203).

It seems that a later Christian believed that the Lord’s brother James was the same James Josephus spoke of and simply added the phrase “who is called Christ”. The fact that the martyrdom of the Damnaeus son James reported by Josephus is identical with the martyrdom of the leader brother reported by Hegesippus is based, as I show in my book, on an imagined illusion. Like the later forger of the James Ossuary, the interpolator was able to turn an otherwise unknown James into the church’s head brother with the stroke of a pen, so to speak.

How faith can still move mountains among Bible scholars!

When asked about the authenticity of the other Josephus passage, the Testimonium Flavianum, Ehrman, as expected, joins the faction of biblical scholars who believe that Josephus originally had a short form of the same. This could have looked like the passage proposed by J.P. Meier, whom Ehrman seems to follow.

Detering’s German language article I have been given appears to have the full TF (not Meier’s shortened proposal) at this point. I have substituted Meier’s shortened version in the main post. For comparison, here is the full TF as it currently stands in Ant. 18:

At this time there appeared” Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure.” And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so.* For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out?

Al this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when [or better: although] Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.

How faith can still move mountains among Bible scholars! Are Ehrman and all those who follow Meier seriously of the opinion that with the short form that they have arbitrarily reconstructed, the problems of the TF, above all the question of the missing external testimony, have been solved? Does not the TF still offer a virtually radiant picture of Christianity or its founder even after the Christian confessions have been removed? The Christian apologists should not have had any reason to refer to the image of the “wise man”, “performer of unbelievable deeds” and teacher of truth in order to ward off pagan insults against their teacher? Anyone who wants to can believe that.

In addition, the three passages deleted by Meier are so closely interwoven with the context that they cannot be deleted without leaving painful gaps in the text. Ken Olson in particular has pointed this out:

The sentence that Jesus was “one who performed surprising deeds” is only meaningful if one knows the statement deleted by Meier and previously in the TF, “if indeed one ought to call him a man”. And how is it to be explained that the “tribe of Christians” calls itself after Christ, when the sentence “He was the Christ” is missing? How, finally, is it to be understood why “those who had first come to love him (Jesus) did not cease”, if one does not know that the reason for this lies in the resurrection of the one condemned on the cross, which is mentioned in the next sentence, also deleted by Meier?

Addressing Ehrman, one would like to say: It is not enough to know your students personally, one should also read what they have written now and then.

It is not worthwhile at this point to deal further with the fourth testimony of the Roman historian Suetonius presented by Ehrman, especially since Ehrman does not bring anything new here either and does not seem to value the text from the Vita Claudii (25,4) very highly himself.

That Ehrman has not even informed himself about the ammunition in his own arsenal is shown by the fact that he fails to refer to the second passage in the Nero biography (16,2) of Suetonius, according to which the emperor “punished the Christians with death penalties”, that Christians were “a sect that had surrendered to a new superstition that was dangerous to the public.” Perhaps it’s just as well, because this passage is also not original, as I have shown in the False Witnesses.

= Man möge mir verzeihen, wenn ich es etwas drastisch und unfein, sozusagen in gutem alten Lutherdeutsch, formuliere: Ehrman hat noch nicht einmal hingerochen, wo die radikalen Kritiker vor ihm hingesch… haben. -dd

Martin Luther: “Now they forget the God who rescued them when in sheer fright they shit their pants. We still smell the stench whenever one of these bigwigs is near.” (Annotated Luther. Vol 6)

One may forgive me if I formulate it somewhat drastically and ungentlemanly, in good old Lutheran German, so to speak: Ehrman didn’t even smell the radical critics when they shit in front of him.






The original article by Detering is at http://radikalkritik.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Ehrman_Kritik.pdf

Some of Ken Olson’s publications on the TF:

Olson, K. A. 1999. “Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (2): 305. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43723559

Olson, Ken. 2013a. “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum.” In Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations, edited by Aaron Johnson and Jeremy Schott, 97–114. Washington, D.C: Center for Hellenic Studies. https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5871.5-a-eusebian-reading-of-the-testimonium-flavianum-ken-olson

———. 2013b. “The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus (Guest Post) – Olson.” The Jesus Blog (blog). August 13, 2013. http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/the-testimonium-flavianum-eusebius-and.html



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9 thoughts on “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”

  1. Re: Ehrman’s admission that Tacitus does not refer to Jesus, etc. If we assume the validity of the Tacitus passage, it is interesting to me that both Tacitus and Suetonius refer to Chrestus and not Jesus, suggesting the possibility that the Christ cult may have preceded the Jesus cult. Ehrman and others usually have it the other way. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Starting in 1880: https://archive.org/details/chrestosareligi00mitcgoog

      But the fact remains that during the first four centuries of our era it was the common practice of the Christians to write the name of their Master Chrest or Chreist, and to style themselves Chrestiani. That the non'”Christian Gentiles were likewise in the habit of putting Chrest for Christ is extremely probable. Indeed, we have proof that this was so in the distorted allusion to Christ which is made by Suetonius : Judaeos impulsore Chresto, assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit. (Vit. Claud., 25.)

      (I especially liked his observation that the Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a threatening figure, quite unlike the “good and loving” one in John.)

      Another work is in French but I have not yet read it. It is Hermann’s 1970 Chrestos.

      Another work of interest: Chrestians before Christians?

      Frustratingly some of modern scholars who have been the most prolific on Christology, Hurtado and Dunn, don’t have Chrestos in the indexes of their major books.

      My entirely speculative and idle thoughts with only limited reading (always a dangerous thing) are that the appearance of Chrestus or Chrestiani in Suetonius and Tacitus is another pointer towards interpolation during late antiquity.

      1. Re-read the article and have no interest in posting about it. It relies upon citations of apologists like Josh McDowell and Timothy McGrew and consists essentially of a string of ad hoc rationalizations (a lot of “could have been” and “I think the flavour of this argument beats that one”, etc). I want a refund from Brill.

        1. Re-read the article and have no interest in posting about it.

          Any trend worth noting with Blom and the following?

          • Ehrman (25 April 2012). “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

          [§.The Tacitus Question] At one point in my book I indicate that “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” that the reference to Jesus in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55).

          • Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa (c.2019). “The Testimonium Taciteum”. UU Humanist Skeptic.

          1. Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was interesting but apart from that I have never understood why so many people seem to get excited over any work by Ehrman. The books of his I’ve read are very light-weight, often demonstrating an unprofessional ignorance of the current scholarship, riddled with logical fallacies, and sometimes containing fundamental errors of fact. How he acquired his reputation as such a prominent scholar I do not know.

  2. About also John the Baptist being interpolated in Josephus, I found this.

    In particular, I find interesting the detail that the reason of the death of the Baptist – potential rebellion -, supports really the case for interpolation and not for authenticity, since one would expect, after the departure of the Herod’s wife, an accusation of adultery thrown against Herod as the cause that leads to his military defeat considered as divine punition.

    1. Rather than John the Baptist being interpolated in Josephus.

      Doudna proposes that Josephus may not have wrote about a first century CE John the Baptist (a figure featured in gMark). But perhaps wrote only about a first century BCE “John the Baptist”.

      See: Doudna, Gregory L. (2019). “Is Josephus’s John the Baptist Passage a Chronologically Dislocated Story of the Death of Hyrcanus II?”. In Pfoh, Emanuel; Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz (ed.). Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Bloomsbury–T&T Clark. pp. 119–137. ISBN 978-0-567-68657-2.

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