2022-01-15

Nero – the Followup: Reviews of Barrett’s Discussion of the Neronian Persecution

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

So what do reviewers have to say about Anthony Barrett’s chapter-length discussion of the Neronian persecution of the Christians that we find in the Annals of Tacitus?

Here’s one take. It’s by Simon Malloch of the University of Nottingham. The full review is published in Literary Review: Did He Really Fiddle? (link is to academia.edu site).

Barrett subjects Tacitus’s claims about Nero’s scapegoating of Christians to hyper-suspicious analysis. Tacitus, he notes, was the only writer to link Christian persecution with the fire until the early fifth century, when the Christian Sulpicius Severus drew on his account to make a similar connection. It seems incredible, Barrett claims, that Christian authors would have ignored this persecution if they had read Tacitus or, at least, if the episode had been in the version of the Annals that they read. Barrett comes perilously close to endorsing the extreme idea that all mention of the Christians was somehow interpolated into the ‘original’ text of the Annals by a third party before the time of Sulpicius. It would be unfortunate if the attention he lavishes on this theory were to encourage readers to take it seriously: it is simply not possible to make a convincing case for the interpolation into the Annals of a passage so thoroughly Tacitean in language and content and to explain (which Barrett does not) how the interpolation was achieved. Tacitus’s narrative remains the most reliable account of a fire the course, impact and notoriety of which Barrett elucidates so well.

(All bolded highlighting is my own.)

Ouch.

Here’s another. This one by John Drinkwater also from the Unversity of Nottingham. The full review is published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and available at Project Muse.

His lengthy treatment of Tacitus’ description of Nero’s savage punishment of Christian scapegoats may, indeed, smack of self-indulgence; it certainly comes close to academic heresy in its revival of the view that it may be a late Roman interpolation. Yet his frankness is forgiveable: Lay readers should be aware of the range of problems that have to be explained away by special pleading if the passage is to be accepted as authentic.

Shorter is sweeter.

Take your pick: Hyper-suspicious or Special pleading?

 


2022-01-13

Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes Anthony Barrett’s discussion of the account of the persecution of the Christians in the Annals by Tacitus.

But there are oddities in this part of the Annals that are so serious that in the late nineteenth century the Christian episode was denounced in its entirety as an interpolation, a forgery in the style of Tacitus that had been inserted at some later date into the manuscript almost certainly not by accident, but in order deliberately to deceive.

61. Hochart (1885); Dando-Collins (2010), 9–16, 106–10, offers a variant, with Egyptians substituted for Christians in the putative interpolation

But Anthony Barrett follows that statement up with:

The sweeping claim that the Tacitean passage was a forgery has won over very few adherents.61 

And then:

The vocabulary and syntax and general Latin style, it must be acknowledged, perfectly align with the accepted corpus of Tacitus’s writings, and the text lacks the exaggerated mannerisms that might be expected in a forged piece. If the whole chapter is indeed an interpolation, it must have been inserted into the manuscript by at least the end of the fourth century AD, since parts of it are cited by a Christian writer active in the very early fifth century, Sulpicius Severus, most familiar as the author of the celebrated Life of Saint Martin.

Another context, another author:
One of those arguments is the claim that such an “original passage” contains phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. But if a Christian copyist were seeking to create a convincing interpolation, he would likely try to employ Josephan fingerprints to make it appear authentic; and if he were introducing terms or ideas similar to those expressed elsewhere in Josephus he would have precedents to draw on. If he were someone who worked with the manuscripts of Josephus on a regular basis, such imitation might well become second nature to him. Guignebert opined (
Jesus, p. 17): “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter…”  Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 535

The putative forger, who will have succeeded in a deceptive coup of dazzling brilliance, would have been one of two things. He might have been a Christian, but one smart and sophisticated enough to know that by castigating his own faith and generating a partially negative image of Christianity he could throw sand in the eyes of a normally skeptical reader and thus create an irresistible believability. Hence, while the chapter is manifestly anti-Neronian, the Christians are deliberately not shown in a particularly favorable light. Or he might have been a pagan, both anti-Christian and anti-Neronian, who took the opportunity to kill two birds with one interpolatory stone.

Scholars whose knowledge of Tacitus is unsurpassed have accepted the Latin of the text as genuinely Tacitean, but it needs to be acknowledged that there is a long history of literary texts that, like works of art, have been recognized by gifted and honest experts as genuine but have proved ultimately to be phony. Moreover, those scholars who accept that the Tacitean passage is genuine—and they are in the overwhelming majority—do acknowledge that it exhibits some troubling features. One section of the narrative is particularly awkward: the brief summary that the writer provides of the background of the Christians. (Barrett, p. 158 — bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

So what are the “troubling features”?

Pontius Pilate and the manner of his introduction

Pontius Pilate is introduced as “procurator” without any mention of whereabouts in the empire he was located.

The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . .  Annals 15.44.3

A Christian reader would, of course, immediately think of Judea. But anyone else?

On the other hand, the earlier books of Annals are missing. Perhaps Pilate’s career was covered in those. That’s possible, yet we cannot overlook that Tacitus did say in another work, Histories, that “all was quiet” in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. We would not, from that line, expect much of troublesome note to have been written about Pilate in any other lost work.

Even the mere fact that Pilate’s term of office is mentioned as the context for the death of Christ comes as something of a surprise; it is a detail about Christ that would be of very little interest to a Roman but would have had considerable significance for a Christian reader. (Barrett, p. 159)

Another “troubling feature” is the office of “procurator” here. Literary and archaeological evidence assures us that Pilate was not a “procurator” [=governor of a small province] but a “prefect” [=commander of troops established within some provinces].

Tacitus is elsewhere quite punctilious in his use of such terminology and makes a careful distinction between procurators and prefects. . . . [T]he error over Pontius Pilate’s office . . . is a basic historical blunder and, as such, very surprising indeed if made by Tacitus. (Barrett, pp. 159f)

But if Pilate was not a procurator then why would a forger claim that he was? Barrett suggests an answer:

The gospels were written in Greek and before Jerome composed his Vulgate version in the fifth century the gospels were translated into at least two Latin versions. These Latin versions translate the loosely described position of Pontius Pilate in Luke 3:1 (hegemoneuo = “to be leader”) with the general Latin procurante Pontio Pilato — the verb “procurare” meaning “to administer”. Whoever was describing Pilate as “procurator” in Annals 15.44.3 may have been influenced by the Latin wording of Luke 3:1.

Christianity Suppressed?

The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well . . .  Annals 15.44.3

We have no evidence that Rome ever attempted to “suppress” the new religion (or Jewish faction, as it originally was) in Judea soon after its birth. The only opposition we are aware of comes from Jewish powers.

The notion that the early believers were officially oppressed seems more distinctly Christian rather than Roman. (Barrett, p. 161)

Called Christians/Chrestians?

 These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians]. — Annals 15.44.2

How likely is it that as early as the year 64 in Rome a certain Jewish sect was identified as a distinct separate body with the label “Christians” (or “Chrestians”)? The author of Acts informs us that members of the sect were first called Christians in Antioch some time before the mid-50s. But nothing in Paul’s letters suggests his congregations were known by that name. Again in Acts, Paul is identified as a Nazorean when on trial shortly before he was sent to Rome. Even if we were to think that Tacitus used the descriptor known in his own time, we must note that the passage of interest in Annals explicitly notes that the name was used by the common people in the time of Nero. (The manuscript shows that “e” has been erased and replaced with “i” — hence the uncertainty about the original text. Chrestian was a common pronunciation for Christian.)

A Principle of Historiography

Barrett next comes to a theme close to my own heart when engaging with any historical inquiry but especially with discussions relating to Christian origins. If we are to make valid use of a source we need to establish its provenance and the context of its narrative.

But there is also a principle of historiography that takes account not only of what a given source might say, but, paradoxically perhaps, of what it does not say. Such argumenta ex silentio tend not to be given great weight, since there may be a perfectly good reason why a source chooses not to allude to any given event. In the case of the fate of the Christians as described in the Annals, however, the negative evidence seems overwhelming. (Barrett, p. 163)

Other Roman historians who wrote of the fire and who likewise loathed Nero (Suetonius, Cassius Dio) do not make any mention of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians to deflect suspicions directed against him. If the treatment of Christians was so horrendous as to turn public sympathies favourably towards them this does seem at least a little surprising. The naturalist and contemporary of Nero, Pliny the Elder, made many passing remarks about Nero in his works but none reference his treatment of Christians and his son and friend of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, breathes not a hint of this persecution, not even when apparently discussing his own quandary of how to treat Christians.

But surely most surprising of all is that not a single surviving Christian author before the fifth century appears to know anything about such a persecution. Tertullian, Clement, Eusebius and others were keen to demonstrate the courage with which Christians had faced numerous persecutions and to highlight the providence by which the “church” had endured and survived and even grown despite such treatment from authorities. But none knows anything about the event we read of in Annals 15.

Perhaps Tacitus’s works were not widely read. Tacitus does not appear to have made a strong mark on his immediate posterity but if a persecution of such notoriety had been a matter of wider historical knowledge then it is most remarkable that no mention is made of it in any other source, especially Christian ones, until the fifth century.

The Debate

Polydore Hochart made the case for interpolation in 1885 with Études au sujet de la persécution des Chrétiens sous Néron. Barrett sums up the main themes of academic debates but I’ll post some of it in full here. First, a translation of pages 219-21 of Hochart: Continue reading “Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus”


2022-01-11

Rome Burning – Difficulties with the Tacitus Passage

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes. 

In the previous post we saw that Tacitus’s account of Nero’s persecution of the Christians is, given the ratio of number of words analyzed to the number of words published about them,

this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity.

What sorts of questions bedevil the scholars? And what are we to make of a passage that throws up such a cluster of confusions?

Here is a list of the problems as pointed out by Anthony Barrett in his chapter five, “The Christians and the Great Fire”:

Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].

44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.

44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.

44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.

Translation by Anthony Barrett (pp. 263f)

1. Linked with them?

In 44.4 of the fifteenth book of Annals the text appears to say that many persons were “linked” with those who confessed. What does “those who were linked” to the confessors mean? It is possible that we are reading a copyist’s error here. It is easy to imagine that the original sentence read “were convicted”.

  • coniuncti sunt = were linked
  • convicti sunt = were convicted

It is easy to assume that a copyist has erred but Barrett does remind us in an endnote that the verb “to link” is found in similar legal contexts in Cicero’s works.

. . . we cannot know if this obscurity is because of a manuscript error or simply because of the opacity of the narrative. The emendation convicti may well be correct, but clearly we should always be hesitant about basing any interpretation of a key controversial passage on a word that does not actually appear in the manuscript(s). (Barrett, p. 146)

2. Crucified and burned as human torches?

English translations hide the difficulty in the fifteenth-century manuscript. To turn to another work cited by Barrett, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians by John Cook (2010), we read the “original”:

et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur.

Outrages were perpetrated on the dying: covered with the skins of animals they died mutilated by dogs, or they were fixed to crosses, or [burning], and when daylight faded they were burned for nocturnal illumination. (Cook, p. 69 – my highlighting in all quotations)

Cook lists the various proposed emendations to make sense of the passage. Some scholars have deleted the phrase [“or fixed to crosses of burned”] entirely as a gloss. Others have read it as “or fixed to crosses and burned”. Another has deleted “so that burning” and adds, “they dressed in fuel for fire”. Another, “or fixed to crosses and burning, when…”; and others have reordered the words to place “so that” before “burning”. And so forth.

In other words,

we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript. (Barrett, p. 147)

3. Chronology is vague

Tacitus is very clear that the fire itself started July 19, AD 64, but he is unclear how long after that until Christians were said to be rounded up. Barrett’s conclusion:

. . . we can assume one of two things— either that [Tacitus] had found in the record that the punishments had occurred before the end of the year, AD 64, or that the source he was using was vague about when they happened and on his own initiative he determined that the second half of AD 64 best suited the material. (p. 148)

Suetonius also informs us that Nero inflicted punishments on Christians but he sets this occasion long after the time of the fire and one has a hard time thinking the passage refers to the horrendous tortures we read about in Tacitus:

Under [Nero’s] rule, many practices were reproved and subject to controls and many new laws were passed. A limit was imposed on expenditure. Public feasts were reduced to food handouts. With the exception of beans and vegetables, the sale of hot food in taverns was prohibited—previously all kinds of delicacies had been available. Punishments were imposed on the Christians—adherents of a new and dangerous superstition. A ban was placed on the diversions of the charioteers, who for a long time had taken advantage of the freedom they enjoyed to wander about the city playing tricks on people and robbing them. At the same time, the pantomime actors and their associates were outlawed from the city. (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 16)

4. The Sect was temporarily suppressed?

This is a curious claim since we have no record anywhere else that the following of Jesus “was suppressed” soon after his crucifixion. The sources we do have suggest that Rome would have had no interest in the earliest manifestations of the new movement. Christianity was from its earliest days viewed as a Jewish sect and Jews were free to practice their religion at this time.

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that twenty years before the Great Fire Jews were expelled from Rome because they had been “creating disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”. Was this a reference to Christ? Were the disturbances of the kind we read about in Acts when Jews sometimes became riotous over the preaching of Jesus Christ? We know that Chrestus was a common mispronunciation of Chrestus. On the other hand, Chrestus was a common name among freed slaves. It certainly does not look like a good fit for the claim we read in Tacitus’s Annals that the Christian sect was suppressed soon after it emerged in Palestine.

4. A Huge number?

Christians seeking like-minded neighbours may have settled in the Trastevere district (circled) of Rome. Some evidence suggests that poorer Jews occupied this area which was protected by the Tiber from the main fire. One can imagine them coming under suspicion if their area was not affected. (see Barrett, pp. 150f)

A “huge number were found guilty”, we read in Annals. How many is that? How large should we expect to find the Christian community in Rome at that time? Were they distinctive enough to stand out as separate from the other Jews? Besides…

The “huge number” of the Annals may, of course, be an exaggeration, and in any case the figure is essentially relative, meant to draw a contrast between the initial group who confessed and the later group who were rounded up. If no more than two or three people were involved initially, and we have absolutely no way of knowing, then a subsequent arrest of, say, thirty people, could, relatively speaking, constitute a “huge” number. (Barrett, p. 150)

5. How much hatred?

In Tacitus and Suetonius we are faced with the language of extreme loathing towards Christians. They are justly “hated for their shameful offenses” and for the “abominable and shameful things” that they bring to Rome. But such language informs us more about the elitist attitudes in these second-century authors and not necessarily the general attitude in mid-first-century Rome. Barrett suggests “it seems highly unlikely that the deep and pervasive antipathy” of later Romas was extant as early as the 60s. Civil disturbances as we find in Acts is one thing; suspicions of human-hating behaviour so soon is another.

6. Confessed and apprehended

Once we read that Nero decided to scapegoat the Christians we immediately come upon a baffling reverse of a normal process: “And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended” [=igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur]. One expects confession to follow the arrest. A couple of scholars (Getty, Ash) have suggested an amendment (qui to quidam) to the text so that it reads “Certain individuals confessed after being arrested.”

Barrett highlights the problem:

Also, to what are these people confessing? Given that upon conviction those arrested were subjected to the most horrific punishments, and that on the basis of the testimony of those who confessed, others became implicated “more because of their hatred of mankind (odio humani generis) than because they were arsonists,” it does follow that the group initially arrested must have confessed to arson.

But if this is the case, the narrative is cryptic and contradictory. When Tacitus introduces his account of the fire, he indicates that there were two possible causes. Either (a) it was an accident, or (b) Nero was responsible. We might argue that he had tunnel vision on this issue, albeit less narrow than that of Suetonius and Dio, and that the situation was far more nuanced than Tacitus imagines. The fire could have been started deliberately, but by someone other than Nero, or it could have started by accident, then once it had taken hold it could have been helped along. The issue here is not what actually happened, but what Tacitus says happened: Nero, to deflect criticism, “contrived culprits” (subdidit reos). There is no ambiguity—the word “contrived” (subdidit) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the charges were bogus. And yet those culprits seem to have been taking responsibility for the deed. Of course there may have been special circumstances that led to this outcome, but if so, Tacitus does not explain them, and perhaps that was deliberate. It would appear that the Christians, as often happens in cases of wrongful conviction, were already unpopular for anti-social behavior that had nothing to with the Great Fire. They may not have committed the crime, but criminal by nature they were. If, however, they were being scapegoated for the arson, it seems to mean they can have confessed to only one thing, and that is, of being Christian. Does this mean, then, that Christianity was in itself a crime in AD 64? (Barrett, pp. 152f)

If there had been an edict declaring Christianity illegal we would expect it to apply throughout the empire. Yet there is no evidence of anything like this. Pliny the Younger’s testimony of fifty years after the Great Fire clearly implies that there had never been a universal ban, although I think the evidence that that letter of Pliny’s is not authentic is strong.

A potentially confusing situation

Hence we find ourselves in a potentially confusing situation. We have no precise information about the grounds on which the Christians were condemned—the charges are vague and undefined. And the presiding magistrate would have had the authority to make up his own mind about the allegations, whatever they might be, provided the accused were not Roman citizens, which was probably the case for the overwhelming majority of early Christians in the city. There may have been a belief, well grounded or not, that the Christians had been responsible either for starting the fire or at the very least for feeding the flames once it had taken hold. The Annals claim that the initial suspicions were deliberately sown by Nero, but we must be open to the possibility that if there was in fact action against the Christians after the fire, it might have had little or nothing to do with Nero and that the claim in the Annals that he falsely targeted them as suspects is totally speculative. (Barrett, p. 155)

Imagine a situation of public hysteria. Christians were blamed and were equated with arson in a manner similar to the way we have seen Muslims guilty of terrorism by association. Perhaps the situation was confusing and the account of Tacitus is confusing for this reason. Yet, recall the opening quotation of the previous post. Tacitus knew how to create suspicions in a reader’s mind behind his protestations of scepticism towards “baseless rumours”.

As Yavetz put it, “Tacitus did not want to clarify but to confuse the reader even more—slightly incriminate both Nero and Christians, both of whom he hated.” . . .

. . . But, as stated earlier, at issue here is not what happened, but what the Annals say happened. And their author seems to have gone out of his way to try to pull the wool over our eyes. (Barrett, p. 157)

At this point Anthony Barrett bravely wades out into deeper waters where few of his peers have been prepared to go. To be continued in the next post.


Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Cook, John Granger. Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian. Tübingen: Coronet Books, 2010.



2022-01-10

Rome Burning — and the Christians: A New Study

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Barrett – UBC profile

Historian of ancient Rome Anthony Barrett draws upon updated archaeological studies to supplement his analysis of the literary sources in order to especially analyze how the fire contributed to the downfall of Nero. Included in his study is a chapter on the evidence that Christians were singled out as scapegoats by Nero and suffered barbaric deaths as a result.

Not one of our literary sources for the fire – Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio — was contemporary with the fire itself, but they did draw upon other sources that were. Tacitus, in whose work we read the account of persecutions of the Christians, made use of works by Pliny the Elder who lived at the time of Nero and often mentioned his name. Tacitus further refers to elderly citizens of his day who were alive at the time of the fire but “frustratingly, he seems to have chosen to make relatively little, if any, use of” their recollections. At least as important to keep in mind when thinking through the account of Tacitus is Barrett’s assessment of him as a historian:

Tacitus’s account of the fire is an excellent example of his great narrative skills. Serious historian that he is, he expresses appropriate skepticism about Nero’s culpability, the only one of the three main authorities to do so, and records that the sources are divided on the issue. But his hostility to the emperor is such that by the end of his narrative the reader is left with a vaguely defined but strangely compelling impression that somehow Nero’s behavior was so abominable that he must be held accountable for what had happened. That is a remarkable feat of writing. (p. 13 – my highlighting in all quotations)

One may wonder how archaeological evidence could be relevant to the question of Christian persecutions in the wake of the fire but it is important to know what areas suffered in relation to the Jewish area since Christians were considered members of a Jewish sect. More generally, Barrett, a historian and not an archaeologist, makes an interesting comment on the evidence from archaeology that is worth keeping in mind next time one is addressing René Salm’s analysis of the archaeological reports on Nazareth:

There seems to be a rather dangerous article of faith that what is preserved in the archaeological record is ipso facto more reliable than information derived from literature, on the grounds that archaeology is uncontaminated by authorial bias.We must avoid falling prey to this widely held misconception—the situation is by no means so clear-cut. While the physical material itself may be untainted, it is almost never as explicit as its literary counterpart, and our understanding of that material is very dependent on how it is interpreted and presented to us by the archaeologist. And since archaeology very often involves the ordered destruction of the site being examined, and the archive of the site will as often as not be held in storage, for practical purposes the information to which we have access will ultimately come filtered through the investigator’s interpretations. In the case of the Great Fire we are fortunate that the main body of archaeological evidence for the event has been brought to light by a highly professional team led by Clementina Panella for the Sapienza University of Rome, and it has been published to high scholarly standards. But these standards are not necessarily maintained by other excavators, and elsewhere we must be on guard against conclusions that can be highly speculative and at times fueled by an almost poetic imagination. The archaeologist’s idiosyncrasies and preconceptions can occasionally shape what is supposedly objective evidence. (p. 16)

Amen to that manifold more times for “the place where Jesus grew up”.

Enough of the preliminaries. Let’s get to Barrett’s chapter five titled “The Christians and the Great Fire”.

We rely entirely upon just one source for the view that Nero attempted to deflect public suspicion that he had been responsible for the fire by singling out the Christians.

Despite Nero’s best efforts, Tacitus tells us that nothing that the emperor did, whether in the civil or the religious sphere, could lay to rest the persistent nasty rumor that had taken hold, that he had personally ordered the fire. Nero was astute enough to realize that once a negative idea has been implanted in the popular mind, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. He needed a dramatic solution, and dramatic gestures were his forte. The account in the Annals of what came next— it is our one and only source of information—is arguably the most disputed text in the whole of Classical literature. Complicating the debate is the question of whether this section of the Annals is an authentic piece of Tacitus, an important issue addressed later in this chapter. (p. 145)

And a few lines later the historical significance of this event strikes the reader:

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this episode in the history of the Christian church. . . .  It is, as Brent Shaw puts it, a “foundational event” in the annals of Christianity. In a way it can be viewed as symbolically setting the scene for the repeated martyrdoms that Christians will endure at the hands of Roman authorities in subsequent centuries. It is also a major factor in the persistence of Nero’s image as the epitome of villainy during the nearly two thousand years since then.

Here is a key part of the passage as translated by Barrett:

Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].

44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.

44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.

44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.

On the two sections, 44.2 and 44.3, Barrett remarks,

This whole section constitutes in all only some 154 words in the original Latin text (“some” is added here as a caution because we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript). We can go a little further. Scholarly interest has focused almost exclusively on the first two sections (15.44.2–3), and together these produce a total of some ninety-three words. But this relatively brief passage, fewer than one hundred words in length, has prompted several books and perhaps as many as a hundred scholarly articles dedicated totally, or at least substantially, to the topic. Moreover, this vast and flourishing scholarship industry has so far exhibited no signs of recession. As measured by the number of words produced in research publications relative to the number of words in the text being analyzed, this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity. What follows in this chapter can convey only a brief summary of these prodigious scholarly endeavors.13

In the next post I will attempt a “brief summary” of Barrett’s “brief summary” and address his own conclusions.

Till then, endnote 13 directs readers to details of that discussion that I reformat with added links:

13. The early sources are summarized in

Canfield (1913), 45–56, 141–60,

and a useful, if selective, bibliography up to 1934 is found in Cambridge Ancient History X (1934), 982–83.

From 1948 on, we have the benefit of the valuable surveys conducted periodically by Classical World:

48 (1955), 121–25;

58 (1964), 69–83;

63 (1970), 253–67;

71 (1977), 1–32;

80 (1986), 73–147;

Shaw (2015), 98–100 provides a useful bibliography of more recent contributions.

Other sources cited by Anthony Barrett and of interest to some Vridar readers include Richard Carrier’s 2014 article and even Earl Doherty’s 2009 book Jesus Neither God Nor Man – the Case for a Mythical Jesus.


Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.


 


2021-09-05

How to Read Historical Evidence (and any other information) Critically

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

no claim is above the requirement of justification

Anyone who reads widely about how historians work and how we can know anything about the past — as well as how to critically analyse news and media reports and any information at all — will likely at some point come across an interesting perspective in an article by Peter Kosso, Observation of the Past. I describe it as “interesting” because Kosso compares how we (should) read scientific instruments with how we (should) read our sources of information.

Here are some key points from that article.

There are three ways that knowledge of history is said to differ from our knowledge of the natural sciences:

  1. History is largely the study of unique objects and singular events. Thus history cannot make generalizations about principles seen in nature. (Historians who once did try to find laws in history were called positivists but they are a rare species now.)
  2. Historical subjects of inquiry cannot be manipulated to test hypotheses as can those of the natural sciences.
  3. The third point is one that Kosso criticizes in his article: it is the common view that since historical events “are dead and gone, they are not amenable to observation.” Historians are like the jury at a criminal trial: they can listen to the testimony of witnesses but they can never see the crime itself.

But, argues Kosso, that third statement is misleading. The pastness of the phenomena that historians study is “not an epistemically significant factor in the process of our observation.”

Thus, “No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses,” but particle physicists routinely observe the telltale tracks of electrons.

But here is the deep flaw in that analogy according to Kosso:

it is based on a mismatch between the objects of theoretical interest in history, for example Ramses, and the evidence, the tracks, for objects of theoretical interest in physics. (p. 23 – highlighting is mine in all quotations)

What would be a more accurate comparison? Either a comparison between studies of Ramses himself and studies of electrons themselves; or, a comparison between the evidence we have for Ramses (textual, archaeological) and the evidence we have for electrons (the tracks in a bubble chamber).

The interesting comparative analysis then is of the link, in each case, between the objects of interest and their image as shown in the evidential objects. (p. 23)

We come now to the quotation with which we opened this post,

no claim is above the requirement of justification (p. 26)

The scientist who proposes a description or theory on the basis of what the instruments have indicated about something — via electron microscopic image, seismic waves, ultrasonic image — that is invisible to the human eye will not, every time he or she speaks, explain how each point is justified by a particular reading of a particular program with known conditions, etc, but that background information is vital nonetheless and the scientist as a professional will always be able to produce whenever questioned about it.

Scientific observation, in other words, is observation, all things considered. It depends on an understanding of how the image was formed, that is, how the information got from the object of an observation report to the reporter. Only then is it reasonable to accept the report as reliable. (p. 27)

Particle Tracks In Bubble Chamber

For a claim to be justified among scientists they must understand the principles by which a bubble chamber, a seismometer, a particle accelerator, a radio telescope detect information and how that information is interpreted. Much of the data collected is indirectly derived from the objects and recorded in what, to the untrained eye, look like meaningless lines and splotches. And before that end product of lines and splotches, there will have been earlier stages in the transmission of information involving various unfocussed images and electrical pulses that are in themselves unrecognizable as information. So what counts as information at the end of the process must include an understanding of how that data was derived.

Kosso refers us to Maxwell’s continuum of our increasing indirectness of observation of the natural world: personal spectacles are necessary for some of us simply to see a tree or house in focus; microscopes and telescopes distort the “natural” image for us to gain more insight into an object; then we have other instruments that register different kinds of waves beyond the light spectrum. Similarly, Kosso notes,

Historical observing involves a continuum of observability similar to Maxwell’s continuum. In the historical case there is an increasing indirectness in the observation of an event due to its distance in the past and the amount of mediation of information. (p. 30)

As scientific data is filtered through a range of indirect processes that observers must understand in order to best evaluate the results of their instruments, so historians have similar challenges with the interpretation of their data:

Atkinson, citing David Hume, suggests (and subsequently opposes) that “Statements about the past are claimed necessarily to diminish in credibility as time goes on. First observation, then memory, then first-, second-, third-hand testimony, and so on to the point of complete incredibility.” This scale of credibility of information will have more epistemological significance if it is sensitive not simply to how many stages are involved in the transmission of information but to the nature of those stages and their reliability for conveying information accurately. Thus one’s own memory may be no more credible than the testimony of an eyewitness, especially a witness with independent credentials as a competent, reliable, and even expert observer. This testimony is little different from a newspaper account by a reporter on the scene, which is in turn similar to an historical account, such as Thucydides’ description of the Peloponnesian wars, where the witnessing and faithful recording of the events are independently accountable. The point is that objects of historical interest, like objects of scientific interest, fill out a tight spectrum in terms of indirectness in the process of observation. Rather than drawing a dubious dichotomy in this spectrum it is epistemologically more enlightening to analyze the various kinds of stages in the indirectness and their potential threat to the conveyance of information. (pp. 30-31)

So if we follow the comparison with Maxwell’s continuum of observability in the sciences (from eye-glasses to Hadron colliders) we find that we have a continuum of degrees of clarity in the traces of historical events. The question to ask is not, “Can we observe Ramses?” but

Ask instead, Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information? (p. 31)

That’s worth highlighting again:

Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information?

In detail, that means the following for the historian and anyone interested in researching history:

Historical studies, no less than the sciences, are able to deal with these questions of information and accountability and are therefore able to analyze and use observation reports as do the sciences. In the case of written information from the past, the historical record, accounting claims are a standard part of the case for credibility of the evidence.

One ought to know, for starters, whether the information from the past has been intentionally passed on by the author, as in explicit chronicles or histories, or is unintended information which has been teased out of documents of the times by our reading between the lines and noting presuppositions or implications of the text. Attending to this unintended evidence in texts, looking “not for what their authors wanted to say, but for the unarticulated assumptions they carry with them,” not only increases the informational content but makes it more difficult for the authors to deceive or mislead. The background understanding of the intent behind textual evidence, in other words, helps account for the reliability of the information by describing aspects of the process by which the information was conveyed. The advice of M. I. Finley for assessing the credibility of textual evidence, “The first questions to be asked of any written source are, why was it written, why was it published?” initiates the process of accounting . . . (pp. 31-32, my formatting)

There are other questions to ask, too. What were the circumstances of the interaction between the event how the information came to us: how did the author know about the event? what has happened to the text in the hands of editors and copyists since it was composed? what do we know about the author, his status, his interests?

Whence Objectivity?

And don’t look for or complain about the lack of “objective accounts”. But do look for independent verification or “external controls”.

The objectivity of evidence is secured not by using foundational, indubitable observational claims, for there are none.

Objectivity comes with the prevention of circularity in the accounting whereby a claim of evidence contributes to its own verification. If an author describes things which can be evidenced in alternative ways, as Pausanius writes of monuments and topography which can be seen in the archaeological record, there is this independent check on his credibility in general. References to one author by another, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the historical method of Thucydides, and coincidence of an author’s account with inscriptional reports, where the dating and authenticity of the inscription can be verified by independent means, both contribute to the assessment of the credibility of the textual information from the past. The reports from past historians, like the observation reports in science, must come with independent accounting claims if they are to be responsibly accepted as evidence. (p. 32)

What we read, then, in Josephus or Herodotus is not a focused image of the past. No. What we get is an “information-bearing signal” of something in the past that has begun with certain events, and been conveyed through various interactions that lead to us. That is Kosso speaking, but I would add a further point to be aware of: sometimes a signal can appear to be about a past event but is in fact a false signal. The historian must attempt to establish if what he or she is observing is “a false-positive”. It took a long time before historians came to understand that the accounts of the Trojan War and the Worldwide Flood were myths.

In sum…

For the historian, then, the text

…. is not a light signal and it is very slow, but neither of these features disqualifies observational information in the case of science, nor should it in the historical case. What counts for observational information in science is that it gets to the observer by interaction with the object and that there is a credible account of the interaction. The same standards can apply in history. (p. 33)

To encapsulate the comparison:

The point is that the data in history, the tokens of written reports of the past, play an evidential role that is similar to the data in science, the images in microscopes, tracks in particle detectors, and the like. Both bear information of less accessible objects of interest and both are amenable to an analysis of the credibility and accuracy of that information in terms of an independent account of the interactions between the object and the final medium of information, an account, that is, of the formation of the image. As long as we understand the formation process, in science or in history, we can be quite liberal in allowing many kinds of signals to carry the information. (p. 33)

And that last sentence applies especially to ancient history where we find historians using all kinds of sources, not just ancient historians but even poets and playwrights to attempt to get a better handle on, say, an inscription unearthed by archaeologists.

And a word here for biblical apologists:

As with empirical evidence in science, the important epistemic standard is independence between the accounting claims and the benefactors of the evidence. (p. 34)

How does a researcher who prays to the resurrected Jesus spoken of in gospels do serious research into “the historical Jesus”? What would we make of an Egyptologist who was known to communicate — privately, of course — with the eternal pharaohs whose spirits had been immortalized in the pyramids?

What is necessary at all times is that the observer, scientist or historian, be able to see that the information has been “transferred by some accountable chain of interaction.”

all informational claims must have some justification (p. 34)

We think of science as being more theory-laden than history but that is an error. Theory, values, … these determine all our observations, our selections of topics of interest. Our background knowledge similarly determines our selection of topics of interest, how we interpret it and how we justify our observations and conclusions.

Kosso is writing about historical inquiry. I think the principles apply to anything we read. “All information claims must have some justification.”


Kosso, Peter. “Observation of the Past.” History and Theory 31, no. 1 (February 1992): 21. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505606.



2021-05-10

Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The point of this post is to demonstrate how easy it is to read documents from the perspective of commonly accepted knowledge and mistakenly misread them, thinking they say what we have always assumed they say, and to fail to register that the original texts are not quite as clear in their meaning — nor even as assuredly “authentic” — as we have always assumed.

A historian needs to work with facts to have any chance of proposing a narrative or hypothesis that is going to stand up to scrutiny. The facts lie in the sources we use. But sources must be interpreted and it is easy to read into a source what we think it must be saying.

We are taking as our starting point in these posts the youtube presentation of Tim O’Neill, Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably).

–o–

From 8 min 20 sec:

The key point here is that … Paul’s letters … do contain references that indicate Paul understood Jesus to have been a recent, historical, and earthly human being who was elevated to higher status after his death

Re “recent”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
In Romans we read it said that the revelation about Jesus is recent; it is the revelation of Jesus that happened in Paul’s time.

Romans 16:25-26

the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God 

The things revealed in that revelation happened “now”, “very recently”. 1 Peter 1:18-20

… you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Belief in the recency of an event does not support its historical truth: Examples…

Ancient writings inform us that the ancients also believed gods and goddesses (sometimes in human form) were periodically seen by sundry eyewitnesses and not only in a mythical time.

The second-century author Lucian wrote a biography of his teacher, Demonax, whom many readers have subsequently assumedwrongly — to have been a historical figure.

Ned Ludd was understood to have been a recent figure, if not a contemporary, of protestors in eighteenth-century England.

Re “historical”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
No historical context is found for Jesus in Paul’s letters except for:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-15

in Judea … those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. 

but scholars are not agreed that this passage is genuinely from Paul so it is not a secure base from which to make a point about Paul’s thought. See https://vridar.org/tag/1-thessalonians-213-16/ for the scholars’ reasons for interpolation.

1 Timothy 6:13

Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession 

Overwhelmingly critical scholars agree that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul.

When the 1 Thessalonians 2 passage is cited, since not all scholars agree it is an interpolation, it is thought sufficient to casually dismiss the interpolation thesis as unlikely.

More generally, the simple fact that Paul wrote of the Christ event as reality is taken as proof that there was a historical person behind it.

Ancient historians, like modern historians, sometimes wrote about persons and events they believed to be historical but in fact weren’t.

Re “earthly”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
As above; additionally…

1 Corinthians 2:8

… the rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of glory.

Also “born of woman” — see below

Events imagined to have happened on earth are presumably historical.

“Rulers of this age” are assumed to have been the rulers of Judea and Rome we read about in the gospels who were responsible for the crucifixion.

Until Earl Doherty in the 1990s advanced his thesis that Paul believed “the Christ event” occurred entirely in a “heavenly realm”, albeit a sublunar one, the Christ myth idea generally understood Paul’s letters to speak of birth, life and death of Jesus on earth. Apart from a very early view that the entire gospel story was fleshed out from astrological beliefs, the only exception that I am aware of is the view of Paul-Louis Couchoud who anticipated Doherty’s views, though Doherty’s thesis was his own. Richard Carrier has further elaborated and popularized Doherty’s entirely “celestial Christ”. Such has been the success of the Doherty-Carrier Christ myth view that among some quarters it has become equated with the Christ Myth theory itself and it appears that some critics are unaware that there is an alternative. However, most Christ myth views over the decades have accepted Paul’s view of Jesus as an earthly human. The Christ myth thesis certainly does not stand or fall upon the thoroughly “celestial Christ” view of Doherty-Carrier. The “celestial Christ” hypothesis is not the foundation or reason Doherty became sceptical of the historicity of Jesus. Carrier raises many problems with the historicity thesis that stand apart from the “celestial Christ” idea.

*My own view of the question is different from above. I point out opposing arguments when I think they are unfairly ignored.

Re “human being” Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4”


2021-05-02

Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again – and not just Probably) — #2

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Tim O’Neill makes a statement about history that I have never encountered in any work by any historian explaining to readers what he or she does. The only persons I have heard make the claim come from theological faculties when they try to place the evidence for Jesus on the same (or even higher) level that we have for other historical persons and events. O’Neill points his listeners to the title of his presentation: Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) (link is to the 28 minute youtube video I am discussing). O’Neill explains:

It is … important to note the word “probably” in my answer to the question of whether this historical Jesus existed. Unlike some of the sciences, history can rarely arrive at definitive answers. . . . Historians are like detectives who examine evidence . . . and work out what probably happened. So when it comes to the pre-modern world, the sources, texts, passing references and documents and perhaps archaeology the historians analyse make it impossible for them to do more than than assess what is most likely. (from about 3 min 22 secs into the program)

Anyone who reads any work by historians discussing what they do will recognize that that remark is totally confused about what is the nature of history and the sorts of conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence — at least according to professional historians. At the very best the description might, with some slight modification, apply to a very narrow range of inquiries some historians undertake.

O’Neill continues:

People who like definite answers or proof are usually going to find ancient history pretty frustrating or perhaps disappointing. This means we can’t prove Jesus existed. But scholars can and do conclude that his existence makes most sense.

Given that we cannot give a definitive answer to the question there should be no surprise to learn that there’s no single piece of relevant evidence that definitely shows a historical Jesus existed. . . . The conclusion he most likely did exist depends on several vectors of evidence converging on that as the most likely conclusion.

I – nor you – have never read in a history book that “Rome probably or most likely — we can’t prove it, but it seems most likely from the convergence of several vectors of evidence — once had an empire stretching from Spain to Mesopotamia”, or “Julius Caesar probably existed and was probably assassinated”, or “A probable Spartacus probably led a probable slave rebellion and was probably defeated”.

Where there are questions with unclear answers, historians don’t fudge the odds and say “probably” if there is reason to doubt. They debate, or suspend judgement, or take clear sides because the evidence that does exist convinces them one way or the other. Did the ancient Greeks practice human sacrifice in historical times? Was the practice of temple prostitution practised in the ancient Near East? Did slaves build the pyramids? When questions like these were asked by historians, historians set out what they believed to be their answers — affirmative or negative — and cited the evidence supporting their beliefs. They didn’t fudge with a “probably”. Being intellectually honest types they were willing to concede that they were wrong and ready to change their minds when presented with new evidence or arguments. But that is still taking clear cut sides. It is not a position of “probability”.

Most history is narrative history. The facts are known and the problem for the historian is to decide how best to interpret them and judge the role they played in a narrative about, say, the lead up to a war, or progress toward social changes. That’s where “probably” enters the thinking. Would World War 1 have broken out even if the Archduke of Austria had not been assassinated? Probably. Was the Archduke assassinated? No probably about it.

Eric Hobsbawm

But enough of my words. Hear/read it from some renowned historians themselves:

Eric Hobsbawm

I strongly defend the view that what historians investigate is real. The point from which historians must start, however far from it they may end, is the fundamental and, for them, absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction, between historical statements based on evidence and subject to evidence and those which are not.

There is a postmodernist question about truth but even here we are not dealing with probability but with whether objective truth can be known or not.

It has become fashionable in recent decades, not least among people who think of themselves as on the left, to deny that objective reality is accessible, since what we call ‘facts’ exist only as a function of prior concepts and problems formulated in terms of these. The past we study is only a construct of our minds. One such construct is in principle as valid as another, whether it can be backed by logic and evidence or not. So long as it forms part of an emotionally strong system of beliefs, there is, as it were, no way in principle of deciding that the biblical account of the creation of the earth is inferior to the one proposed by the natural sciences: they are just different. Any tendency to doubt this is ‘positivism’, and no term indicates a more comprehensive dismissal than this, unless it is empiricism.

In short, I believe that without the distinction between what is and what is not so, there can be no history. Rome defeated and destroyed Carthage in the Punic Wars, not the other way round. How we assemble and interpret our chosen sample of verifiable data (which may include not only what happened but what people thought about it) is another matter.

O’Neill compared historians to detectives. Hobsbawm extends that analogy to its logical conclusion: Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again – and not just Probably) — #2”


2021-04-30

Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

A Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, believes that the entire “stoning of James” passage — yes, that James who is said to be “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” —  in Josephus is a Christian forgery.

Now Efron does get under the skin of a few scholars when he argues with a sometimes abrasive style contrarian views relating to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history,  Christian influence in the Pseudepigrapha and views on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have not read a rebuttal of his arguments about the existence, function and character of the Sanhedrin in the Second Temple period. I would be interested in doing so. Josephan scholar Louis Feldman acknowledges Efron’s “enormous learning”.

Of the New Testament references to the Jewish Sanhedrin Efron writes:

The New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) was created in the bosom of Christian theology, nurtured by its characteristic tenets and trends in order to provide a concrete, albeit artificial representation of Jewish leadership that denies and contemns the wondrous heavenly savior. (337f)

Efron’s detailed survey of the evidence and all references to the word translated “sanhedrin” that the common image we have of a supreme ruling Sadducee body at the time of Second Temple Judaism is an anachronistic myth:

It is not purely terminological details but facts that prove the non-existence of the Great Sanhedrin at the end of the Second Temple period. Here Josephus appointed at his side in Galilee a high council of seventy in exercising his authority to judge criminal cases, and the zealots in Jerusalem set up a tribunal of seventy for capital cases. In these two salient cases there is no indication of any coordination or contact or of conflict with the sacred rights of the Great Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones which alone was supposed to have seventy members. A Gerousia of the Jewish community of Alexandria, mentioned by both Philo and Josephus, had “seventy elders” in it according to the talmudic legend, with no reference at all to the supreme institution in Jerusalem. All these testimonies lead to the solid conclusion that from the time of the Return to Zion up to the destruction of the Second Temple there were representative, administrative, public bodies, intermittently appearing and disappearing as Gerousia, and Synedrion and Boule, but they were never identifiable with the talmudic Great Sanhedrin at the head of the judicial system that defines the law and disseminates the Torah among the people of Israel. (318)

With that background perspective, read again about the stoning of James in Josephus’s Antiquities. I have set Efron’s paraphrase alongside the Whiston translation. The sentences in italics are Efron’s introductory and concluding commentaries on the scene.

Josephus: Antiquities 20.9.1 (20:197-203) Efron’s paraphrase of Josephus: Studies, p. 334
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. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.

The second passage pictures an evil, harsh Sanhedrin, very similar to the one in the New Testament.

 But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, The younger Ananus (or Annas), the high priest, son of the elder Ananus, was extremely bold and brazen, belonged to the Sadducees, who were severe (“savage”) in trial more than any Jews, took advantage of Festus’ death and before the arrival of the new procurator Albinus, “seated a Synedriort (Sanhedrin) of judges,”
 and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: brought to trial James the brother of Jesus, “called the Messiah (Christ),” and also “certain others,” accused them of violating the law “and delivered them to be stoned.”
 but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified;  However, circles among the residents of the capital considered “the most fair-minded and most strictly law-abiding” did not wish to tolerate such an injustice and applied secretly to King Agrippa to obtain his order preventing such deeds, for Ananus did not act properly to begin with.
 nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Some of them set out to meet Albinus and explained that Ananus did not have the authority “to seat a Sanhedrin” without the procurator’s consent.
 Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. “Albinus was convinced” and angrily wrote an irate and threatening letter to Ananus. That is why Agrippa also took the high priestly crown away from him.

So ends the episode, which at first glance seems free of weaknesses and faults. And yet a careful examination collapses this naive testimony.

Here are Efron’s objections to a naive reading of the passage. Continue reading “Is the Entire James Passage in Josephus an Interpolation?”


2021-04-29

Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

But the fact is this huge consensus exists. So in history, that means something. After all, academics work in an environment where it pays to find reasons to disagree with each other. — Tim O’Neill

Since watching Tim O’Neill’s 28-minute video Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) I have been toying with the idea of bringing out lessons I learned from my teaching days and try making short podcasts or video clips in response. Why I think they need a response is, well, if this particular video is any guide, — almost everything he says in it is either factually wrong or logically fallacious.

Take the above quotation. That is made at about one minute in. The point is that if Jesus mythicism had any reasonable case at all then the academic environment would logically make significant room for it because, after all, academics are in an environment where it pays to present ideas that disagree with traditional or majority views.

That is wrong. Academics work in an environment where it pays to advance knowledge by testing and building on prior research. Think “shoulders of giants”.

But does it pay “to find reasons to disagree”? Recently I posted here some of the ideas of prominent economist, one who worked at the University of Sydney and later became a prominent Greek and then European political figure, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis was a left-wing economist, one who disagreed with the relevant ideological status quo — though this was not known to the hiring committee at the university. He wrote of his appointment as an academic to the University of Sydney:

When I chose the subject of my doctoral thesis, back in 1982, I deliberately focused on a highly mathematical topic within which Marx’s thought was irrelevant. When, later on, I embarked on an academic career, as a lecturer in mainstream economics departments, the implicit contract between myself and the departments that offered me lectureships was that I would be teaching the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx. In the late 1980s, I was hired by the University of Sydney’s school of economics in order to keep out a left-wing candidate (although I did not know this at the time).

Note that. Ideological conformity was a key criterion in his academic appointment. And that’s in Economics. Imagine Biblical Studies!

Academic Arthur Bedeian explained how it works — the academic environment that “pays”:

Within academic disciplines, knowledge-claims are socially validated through negotiation and eventual consensus among experts, with recognition and esteem accruing to those scientists who, in Merton’s words, “have made genuinely original contributions to the common stock of knowledge” (1957/1973: 293). Writing in the field of biology, Myers (1990) shows how knowledge-claims are negotiated and, thus, socially constructed through the peer-review process, with its characteristic exchange of referee comments and author revisions. He illustrates this by analyzing the transformation and ultimate denouement of two manuscripts, each of which was revised multiple times in response to referees’ criticisms before being accepted for publication. In doing so, he describes the negotiations that unfold as the manuscripts’ authors try to make their claims to originality as strong as possible and the referees attempt to place the authors’ assertions within a body of existing literature. Myers documents that such negotiations are flexible, but only within limits. Authors must claim some minimum level of novelty (or have their work dismissed as unoriginal). At the same time, however, if they venture too far beyond a discipline’s established knowledge structure, they risk the charge that their work is irrelevant to existing research and, thus, unworthy of publication.

Let’s bring in an example directly relevant to Jesus mythicism. Here is what Mike Bird, one of the editors of the academic Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus wrote:

I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.

That’s as blunt as can be. No caveats to allow for an original or methodologically sound argument. Just a big red No sign on the door. (The remainder of Bird’s article is riddled with blatant misrepresentation of Lataster’s book but that’s another story. He makes it very clear that mythicism is to be excluded from any academic discussion without any acknowledgement that there could possibly be anything new to say about it since it first appeared over 100 years ago.)

Or is that example too extreme? What about Thomas L. Thompson’s thesis that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis had no historical basis, a view that challenged the consensus of the day (mid-1970s)? The view has since become the consensus but not because TLT “worked in an environment where it paid to disagree.” He explained:

During the whole of this period, the reaction in the States to my dissertation, both from within the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, was consistently negative, with a large number of review articles, criticizing and rejecting my work, my competence and my integrity.

If challenging the historicity of the Genesis patriarchs met with such a determined response what can we expect to be the response to questioning Jesus’ historicity? Continue reading “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1”


2021-01-21

The 1776 Report: History as Political Propaganda

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Thank Clio that Biden withdrew the report on his first day but I still feel some dismay after having read it right through last night. It is the American counterpart of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, a treatise of holy writ as sacred and unquestionable Pat Robertson’s Holy Bible. My initial curiosity was stirred by having read only a few days earlier on page one of Rupert Murdoch’s leading newspaper in Australia a news item about a report by right wing “think tank”, The Institute of Public Affairs, for the incumbent Liberal Party, deeply critical of the way humanities courses are being taught in Australian universities. (The report can be found here.) The 1776 Report is more of the same, in particular more of the same of an earlier IPA report focusing on the teaching of history, or to be even more exact, many pages more of the same type sweeping bromides and absence of substance, ignorance about the nature of history, outright falsehoods about how it is taught and inability to comprehend the outcomes of history teaching today.

The 1776 Report opens by declaring that the United States was founded in “fundamental truths” that must never be abandoned. All political concerns of different sectors of society can be addressed harmoniously by a “proper understanding” of the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Whether you belong to the richest 1% or are one of the long-term unemployed in a slum area, you are a part of a same nation, one people, and are part of a system that is set up to “promote your happiness” that all “the nations of the world” will envy and want to emulate. The purpose of teaching history is to create a people united in their beliefs about themselves as Americans, who feel “inspired and ennobled” by what they learn about America’s past. The opening sentence points to the spirit of fundamentalism through which it enjoins readers to believe in their history. Despite mistakes and wrongs from time to time, the American people have always been fundamentally good and righteous:

. . . . Americans will never falter in defending the fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed on July 4, 1776. We will—we must—always hold these truths. [Later, seven times, the documents speaks of America’s “self-evident and eternal truths” — implying their ultimately divine origin.]

. . . the principles of the American founding . . . have shaped our country. . . . [The founders] sought to build America as a shining “city on a hill”—an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice. The record of our founders’ striving and the nation they built is our shared inheritance and remains a beacon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “not for one people or one time, but for all people for all time.”

. . . .

The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history. Controversies about the meaning of the founding can begin to be resolved by looking at the facts of our nation’s founding. Properly understood, these facts address the concerns and aspirations of Americans of all social classes, income levels, races and religions, regions and walks of life. As well, these facts provide necessary—and wise—cautions against unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far.

. . . the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice, which are the political conditions for living well. To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.

. . . America’s principlesare named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. 

No nation, we further read, has “strived harder, or done more, to achieve” “equality, liberty, justice and government by consent” than America.

It is like reading a holy book, a promise that to “truly” understand American history is to enter a sacred experience and progress towards becoming an ideal citizen, one who is part of showing the world the epitome of universal truths, becoming part of the nation that is the envy of the world.

It does not replace religion, though. At least not directly. It lays claim, in effect, to being the one sacred place where one can find the true fulfilment of one’s religion. Religion is given meaning insofar as religion allows itself to become a prophet of the American experience. “God” and “Providence” are mentioned 26 times and Providence in the Project. “Religion” and “religious” 18 and 51 times respectively. “Faith” 29 times. “Christian” and “Christianity” 12 times. “Sacred” 7 times and “divine” 6. Two Bible verses are quoted. Even “miracles” and “miraculous” make mentions — each time to describe the creation of the United States of America.

Some years back I posted on the characteristics of fundamentalism as set out by the scholar Tamas Pataki: 10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism. Among the characteristics are

  • the seeking to restore golden past;
  • the belief that they are part of an elect, a chosen;
  • the narcissistic self-perspective that they are part of something unique, special;
  • the conviction that there is only one true and correct way of life and there is no middle ground: you are either with us or against us;
  • there is a sacred founding book, a bible, (or sacred writings of the fathers,) to which literal obedience is mandatory;
  • the belief that law and authority come from God (or the worlds of nature and reason that God explicitly created as means of revelation of himself);
  • a spirit of nationalism.

I have adapted some points where I believe they apply to the perspective expressed in The 1776 Report but they all apply and so also, I suspect, do the others that I have not listed here.

The idea of fundamentalism is not that one thinks oneself is perfect but that one is “fundamentally good”, and because one is fundamentally good, one’s failures can be minimized, swept aside, excused. So when slavery is discussed it is pointed out very quickly that “slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout history” and that the Western world only began to repudiate slavery “at the time of the American Revolution.” The same discussion takes a curious byway into a discussion of how the pro-slavery senator John Calhoun promoted a “new theory” of “group rights” (those of the slave-owners) that opposed the “unifying” “self-evident and eternal truths” of the Declaration of Independence. It is only when one reads further on and into the section on Racism and Identity Politics and one learns the purpose of this digression:

The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders. The ideas that drove this change had been growing in America for decades, and they distorted many areas of policy in the half century that followed. Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of “group rights” not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers. The justification for reversing the promise of color-blind civil rights was that past discrimination requires present effort, or affirmative action in the form of preferential treatment, to overcome long-accrued inequalities. 

It takes some chutzpah to find a way to compare advocates for affirmative action to Calhoun-type racism. (For a discussion on racism today see Racism (without the hatred).

Other noble movements in the course of American history that have been part of making the United States the “most free” and the “envy of the world” have been

abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-Communism, and the Pro-Life Movement. 

Did you also find yourself catching your breath for a moment when you read some of those programs on a list of “great reforms” that have “come forward [to] improve our dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence under the Constitution”? I don’t think I need to elaborate here. Movements that oppose these, indeed, even today’s generation born from the Civil Rights movement, are condemned as being “fundamentally” anti-American:

More problematic have been movements that reject the fundamental truths of the Declaration of Independence and seek to destroy our constitutional order. The arguments, tactics, and names of these movements have changed, and the magnitude of the challenge has varied, yet they are all united by adherence to the same falsehood—that people do not have equal worth and equal rights.

Stick that, you Black Lives Matters protesters.

The 1776 Report informs Americans that

All the good things we see around us—from the physical infrastructure, to our high standards of living, to our exceptional freedoms—are direct results of America’s unity, stability, and justice, all of which in turn rest on the bedrock of our founding principles.

Clearly, the authors are all well-to-do, live in very nice surroundings and with high standards of living. What of the others? Well, the Project does happily say that Americans who are “down on their luck” (it’s luck that is to blame) are rescued by good religious folks:

Local religious leaders have been a key buttress supporting our communities. Neighborhood and parish churches, temples, and mosques still are the strongest organized centers of help for the local poor, jobless, homeless, and families down on their luck. For generations, neighbors have assisted neighbors through church networks, helping the needy avoid the dehumanization of prolonged dependency on government welfare. Today, countless men and women actively feed and care for the poor, house and speak for immigrants and the disadvantaged, minister to jailed and released criminals, and advocate powerfully for a better society and a more peaceful world, supported by the charitable funding of Americans of all faiths.

Interesting wording. Other more “socialist-inclined” nations consider it society’s responsibility to care for those who have been victims of an economic system that has penalized them through no fault of their own. That society would through the state care for these people is considered by the authors of The 1776 Report to be an act of “dehumanization”.

I could write much more but enough is enough. The 1776 Report is an odious document that would use a particular historical narrative to justify the present power structures in the United States and condemn those who would seek serious change and justice.

History as properly taught is not a single narrative designed to promote tingly feelings of being “the most exceptional people on earth”. There is no justice in promoting “unifying, inspiring and ennobliing” feelings if they hide one from the past injustices that have produced the divisions and inequities we see all around us today. I am not suggesting that one must hate one’s nation. Remember that one of the traps of fundamentalism listed above is black and white thinking. To critically understand and explore the truth, very often too long lost from view, of the past does not have to be an act of hatred but one of determination to make things better. That sort of determination is an act of love, not hatred.

There is much more to address, especially with respect to the emphasis in both the American and Australian reports on “Liberal education” (as in the sense of Classical Liberal). Maybe over time I can post more on why this kind of education is not necessarily the way to “human understanding and liberation” that it is cracked up to be, but why an education in the humanities is indeed an essential part of a just society.

Moreelse’s Clio, Muse of History

 


2020-12-21

To Start a Religion or Movement: Jesus and Ned Ludd

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Here are some excerpts from A.J. Droge‘s article in the Caesar journal, “Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a Name?” (2009)

Droge begins with two quotations that, despite their difference in tone, are saying much the same thing:

Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a few nonevents. (Hitchens, God Is Not Great)

To start a religion all you need is a name and a place. (Jonathan Z. Smith)

Droge segues into noting that to think through the implications of those two sayings is to realize:

first, that religions are not “founded” because there are no “founders” in the first place;

second, that there is no originating moment of insight, or “big bang,” that sets any religion in motion and drives it into the future;

third, that when it comes to the study of the religious imaginary, invention is everything.

The Ned Ludd analogy

Luddism was not generated by the dramatic actions of any one individual nor by the sudden emergence of class consciousness but rather by a single, forceful act of naming—the creation and appropriation of the eponym, “Ned Ludd.”

Take Ned Lud[d], for example. Luddism (so called) was a movement of early nineteenth-century English textile workers who, when faced with the replacement of their own skilled labor by machines, turned to destroying textile machinery to preserve their jobs and their craft. The movement began with an attack on wide-knitting frames in a shop in the vicinity of Nottingham in 1811 and in the next two years spread to surrounding cities. The “Ludds” or “Luddites,” as they called themselves, were generally masked, operated at night, and often enjoyed local support. They swore allegiance not to any British king but to their own “King Ludd” (also referred to as “Captain” or “General Ludd”). Some three decades earlier, in 1779, one Edward (“Ned”) Lud[d] is said to have broken into a house in the vicinity of Leicestershire and “in a fit of insane rage” destroyed two machines used for knitting hosiery. Soon, whenever a stocking-frame was found sabotaged—something that had in fact been occurring in Britain since the Restoration in the late seventeenth century(!)—folks would respond with the catchphrase, “Ludd must have been here.” By the time his name was taken up by the frame-breakers of 1811, the “historical” Ned Ludd had become “King Ludd,” now a more-than-human, nocturnal presence, roaming the hosiery districts of England.

What is called the “Luddite movement” consisted of

a number of sometimes conflicting tendencies, including appeals to centuries-old traditions, customs, and statutes regulating the textile industry, trade-unionist ambitions to gain a seat at the table with manufacturers, and Jacobin calls to overthrow king and aristocracy alike. Luddism turns out not to have been monolithic but a series of overlapping protests with discrete sets of discourses generated under unique local circumstances. . . . Luddism was not generated by the dramatic actions of any one individual nor by the sudden emergence of class consciousness but rather by a single, forceful act of naming—the creation and appropriation of the eponym, “Ned Lud[dJ.” 

The study of the origins of Luddism is a study in social formations and mythmaking. Historians are not preoccupied with uncovering the “historical Ned Ludd”. Studies of the rise of Luddism treat it as a very human event that can be explained as other events are through historical inquiry. Searches preoccupied with uncovering some lost moment of “genius”, “dramatic visionaries”, “charismatic leaders” are not called for.

The myth of Luddism has not died. Stories of the exploits of Luddites spread a romantic interest in the nineteenth-century events and today various protest movements are known to have embraced and reshaped the myth:

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but these neo-Luddites have nothing in common with their alleged forefathers other than the name. Instead, they are engaging anew in the imaginative and dynamic processes of social formation and mythmaking, in the construction of genealogies and the invention of histories, as they re-confect and re-deploy the figure of Ned Ludd in their own image and in their own struggles with what they see as the dehumanizing effects of rampant globalization, the dark forces of technology, and postmodernity.

That is, the figure of Ned Ludd has taken on a meaning that lies well beyond any historical figure. It is easy to lose sight of this fact because the renewed myths generally claim to be speaking of the “historical” Ludd. But we know that such historical reconstruction is another form of mythmaking.

Could any of us—at least those of us who construct our-selves as historians—imagine participating in the “quest of the historical Ned Ludd”? Or imagine writing books with titles like Meeting Ned Ludd Again for the First Time (cf. Borg 1995) and The Incredible Shrinking Ned Ludd (cf. Price 2003)? Or imagine ourselves pronouncing that “Ned Ludd and his first followers . . . were hippies in a world of Georgian yuppies” (cf. Crossan 1994: 198)? Or finally, and more pertinently, contributing a paper to “The Ned Ludd Project”? The answer to all four questions should be a resounding “No!”

Droge concludes . . .

Swan Song

Esteemed colleagues, haven’t we learned by now that the Nazarene simply can’t be killed? That he always manages to escape? And that, rather like Ned Lud[d] himself, he will always be out there somewhere, a more-than-human presence roaming the countryside of the religious imaginary? So let us be content simply to pronounce that, like Ned Ludd, Jesus [of Nazareth] was “probably apocryphal.” Please, just let it go at that and let us turn our attention to matters much more interesting and important when it comes to the invention of Christianity (and the invention of Christian “origins”). Take Marcion, for example.

Amen.


Droge, Arthur J. “Jesus and Ned Ludd: What’s in a Name?” Caesar: A Journal for the Critical Study of Religion and Human Values 3 (2009)


 


2020-12-09

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Smith and the Ideal Type

As you recall from the first post in this series, on several occasions Robert M. Price has accused Jonathan Z. Smith of not understanding and grossly misapplying Max Weber’s ideal type. For example, in Price’s critique of Drudgery Divine (see: Higher Critical Review), he wrote:

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common. [Price 1996]

Eugene V. Gallagher

He has recycled this accusation elsewhere, sometimes copying and pasting the “et.” error, sometimes not. Price is quite proud of his “throw-out-the-box” turn of phrase, as he should be — if he were correct.

Fortunately for us, Smith actually discussed ideal types, so we have a window into his thinking on the matter. In a footnote on p. 99 of Drudgery Divine, he refers to a book by one of his students, Eugene V. Gallagher. In Divine Man or Magician, Gallagher examined the work of Ludwig Bieler, whose studies of the divine man (θεῖος ἀνήρ) type were groundbreaking and insightful, but often misunderstood.

Smith put it this way:

While justifiable criticisms can be brought against both Bieler’s theoretical presuppositions and his methodological procedures, it is sadly revealing and utterly characteristic that most scholars of early Christianity have fundamentally misunderstood his enterprise, in that they have historicized the Typus and viewed the second comparative step as genealogical. E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, 1982): 10-18, in the series, SBLD, 64, offers a sophisticated account of Bieler’s enterprise, and usefully compares his work to Max Weber’s notion of the ‘ideal type’. [Smith 1990, p. 99]

Let’s examine the two fundamental errors Smith has identified above. First, some scholars forgot (did they ever know?) that the ideal type is a modern construct. The “theios aner” exists not in the historical past, but in the realm of ideas. Hence, to criticize Bieler’s type as an anachronism misses the point entirely. Second, when Smith criticizes scholars on the basis of genealogy, he means they’ve jumped the gun on issues of dependence and who borrowed from whom. The second step should be that of analogy, which includes seeking evidence of both difference and similarity. In To Take Place, he wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)”


2020-12-06

“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:] Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”