Tag Archives: Pliny the Younger

Imagine No Interpolations

What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.

What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.

What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?

What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)

What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?

What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?

Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?

I don’t think so. read more »

Fresh Doubts on Authenticity of Pliny’s Letter about the Christians

photo-1-1024x824A new article appearing in the peer-reviewed Digital Scholarship in the HumanitiesAn Application of a Profile-Based Method for Authorship Verification: Investigating the Authenticity of Pliny the Younger’s Letter to Trajan Concerning the Christians. Author: Enrico Tuccinardi.

Book 10 of Pliny the Younger‘s letters consist of his correspondence with the emperor Trajan when he was governor of Bithynia/Pontus. Letters 96 and 97 are the famous exchange over the question of what to do about the Christians. These letters are the earliest evidence for Christianity found outside Christian sources and after the controversial references in Josephus.

The article with its bibliography have introduced me to recent developments in various techniques of author attribution studies. I’ll explain some of the details later, but to begin with I’ll set out an overview of how Tuccinardi studied the style of the Pliny’s famous letter against the rest of his letters to Trajan.

First, though, here is the abstract:

Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan regarding the Christians is a crucial subject for the studies on early Christianity. A serious quarrel among scholars concerning its genuineness arose between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th; per contra, Plinian authorship has not been seriously questioned in the last few decades. After analysing various kinds of internal and external evidence in favour of and against the authenticity of the letter, a modern stylometric method is applied in order to examine whether internal linguistic evidence allows one to definitely settle the debate. The findings of this analysis tend to contradict received opinion among modern scholars, affirming the authenticity of Pliny’s letter, and suggest instead the presence of large amounts of interpolation inside the text of the letter, since its stylistic behaviour appears highly different from that of the rest of Book X.

I’ve read some of those early debates and the article by Sherwin-White that seems to have settled the argument in favour of the authenticity of Pliny’s letter 10.96, and although a few doubts have never completely vanished, I have decided it wisest to accept the letter as genuine, at least for the sake of argument, pending any new evidence that might surface.

In brief, what Tuccinardi has shown is that a stylometric analysis of Pliny’s letter about the Christians is as stylistically different from the remainder of Pliny’s letters to Trajan as are letters of Cicero and Seneca. read more »

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

This makes no sense to me. The only detail that Tacitus gives us about the crucifixion is that Christ was crucified under Pilate. Full stop. (I leave aside the debates over the title Tacitus uses for Pilate.) Tacitus does not even mention the reason, the crime, for which this Christ was crucified which would surely appear within an official archive if any such record of a crucifixion of a far-off Jew really existed. Nor does he even bother to tell us the name of this victim. read more »

5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio


Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.5

A Roman Trio


  • Pliny the Younger – Letter to Trajan
    • Information taken from Christians
    • Is “Christ” a man or only a god?
    • Christo quasi deo” – “as” or “as if”?
    • Ancient quotes have no “quasi
  • Suetonius – Life of Claudius
    • Chrestus” and the expulsion of Jews
    • Misleading translation
    • Paul and Acts
  • Tacitus – Annals 15
    • “Christ” but no “Jesus”
    • Tacitus’ source: archive or hearsay?
    • “Procurator” vs. “Prefect”
    • The question of authenticity
    • No Christian witness to martyrdom for the Great Fire
    • No Roman witness after Tacitus
    • Sulpicius Severus (c.400) the first witness


* * * * *

Non-Christian References to Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 50-56)


Pliny the Younger


After this considerable amount of prefatory material, Ehrman finally arrives at his discussion of the non-Christian references to Jesus. He begins with Pliny the Younger and his famous letter to Trajan in the year 112 CE during his governorship of the province of Bithynia,making inquiries regarding the prosecution of Christians.

At the outset Ehrman admits that any information about Jesus that might be gleaned from Pliny could be seen as having been derived from the Christians themselves (indeed, this is a virtual certainty from what he says), and thus is of little if any value in establishing the historicity of Jesus. Nor does Pliny use the name “Jesus,” referring to the Christian object of worship simply as “Christ.”

The information Pliny has collected from the accused about the sect’s activities is pretty innocuous:

  • A pre-dawn chant,
  • subscription to certain ethics and behavior,
  • assembling to “take food of an ordinary, harmless kind.”

We might note that the latter does not suggest the Eucharist ceremony with its eating of the flesh and blood of Christ, whether god or man, and there is no reference to a crucifixion let alone an alleged resurrection.

As if!

But that pre-dawn chant: Pliny says it was “in honor of Christ as to a god [Christo quasi deo].” read more »

New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan?

Forgot to include what may possibly be allusions (or may not be) in the Pliny letter to the New Testament narratives:

  1. The Roman governor, like Pilate hearing the charges against Jesus, asked those brought before him “two or three times” of their guilt in order to give them a chance to free themselves. (Matt.27:11-14; Mark 15:1-5; John 18:33, 19:9. C.f. Titus 3:10)
  2. The Roman governor finds no criminal or illegal activity in the accused (Matt.27:23; Mark 15:12; Luke 23:13-15, 22; John 19:6)
  3. The Roman governor asks for advice on how to judge the accused given his apparent innocence of any crime (Matt.27:22; Mark 15:14)
  4. The religion has spread widely beyond expectations (Acts 19:26)
  5. The temple economy in Bithynia was threatened by the astounding numbers of conversions (Acts 19:27).

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R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised

I have revised this 18th January to include more direct comparisons with Doherty’s treatment of the Pliny letter.

This one, like the emperor’s clothes, has too long been simply too good, too precious, to dare let anyone admit what they really see and laugh.

But before discussing the problems that Bruce bypasses or simply fails to notice, I should say now that I do conclude on a more positive note: the letter, whatever its provenance, whoever its author, does contain historical information of second century Christianity of genuine value and interest.

First, Doherty’s discussion:

I’ll begin with Doherty’s treatment of this letter of Pliny. I am sure most will find his analysis and commentary far more sober than Bruce’s discussion and my commentary.

After outlining the contents of Pliny’s letter (reason he is writing to Trajan, what he has learned about the Christians, including details of their assembly meetings, prayers, rites, oaths, and so forth, and finding them innocent of criminal activity) Doherty comments:

We might have expected Pliny to refer to the “Christ” as a man crucified in Judea as a rebel, if that were the object of Christian worship, for this would have been unusual and of some interest to the emperor. However, he does not. In any even, any information Pliny is imparting or implying in this letter he has received from Chrsitians. (p.201 of The Jesus Puzzle)

So in a few brief lines Doherty cuts to the core of the deficiency of Pliny’s letter as non-Christian evidence of Jesus. Compare Bruce’s three pages (six pages including the translations of the correspondence) of discussion elaborating on the face value of the text. Bruce is certainly deeply interested in the contents of Pliny’s letter about the Christians and never stops to question whether Trajan himself would be, let alone if it is the sort of content one could reasonably expect from a governor to his emperor regarding criminal cases worthy of death. One wonders if some orthodox scholars dismiss Doherty so quickly for fear of having their own intellectual nakedness exposed.

Compare Bruce:

Bruce typically starts with the passage itself. Had he begun with Pliny’s career background the nonsense that this letter contains would be all too apparent from the first few lines.

Although he gives background about Pliny’s uncle and how many books of letters were included in Pliny’s published collection, he does not appear to see any point in noting that the famous letter in question belongs to a collection (the tenth book) that was not published in Pliny’s lifetime. The significance of this latter point, if any, may be considered in light of both the other unfathomable anomalies in this letter and the relatively recent publication of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Bruce writes:

Pliny, who had never had any official contact with Christians during the fifty years of his life thus far, found himself obliged to deal with them in Bithynia because of the rapidity with which they were spreading in the province. (p.25)

What was the extent of this rapidity?

[T]hey had grown so numerous that the pagan temples were being neglected and the purveyors of fodder for the sacrificial animals found their livelihood threatened. (p.28)


  • if Pliny had never had any experience as a courtroom lawyer in Rome,
  • and if he had thus never heard of or enountered a Christian on trial in Rome,
  • and if he was just embarking wet behind the ears on his public career,
  • and if he had just arrived in Bithynia as a newly appointed governor,
  • and if the rapid spread of Christianity was confined uniquely to Bithynia and had been a virtual unknown quantity elsewhere despite being so strong in Bithynia that pagan temples were being neglected,
  • and if Pliny before setting out for his governorship position had been completely unaware of such a major development he was about to face,
  • and if not a single Christian had been implicated in the great fire of Rome of the previous generation,
  • and if Pliny had somehow moved in different circles entirely from his friend Tacitus (who also appears to have written with some knowledge about Christians),

then yes, we would have no difficulty in accepting that one of the very first things Pliny would have to write to Trajan about was “the (uniquely Bithynian?) Christian problem”.

But we have, rather, a Pliny problem:

  • Pliny had been a prominent lawyer in Rome for 28 years — it is therefore incredible to think that he had no knowledge of any precedents re Christians
    • Trajan’s reply failing to address any precedents in Rome or elsewhere in the empire (in particular the fire of Rome a generation earlier?) equally defies explanation.
  • Pliny had been travelling throughout Bithynia as governor for a year and a half before he saw fit to write a letter about the Christian problem — just how seriously can we take the letter’s descriptions of the seriousness of this problem if 18 months could lapse before this first and only letter addressing it?
  • Pliny begins by saying he has never seen a Christian trial so has no idea how to conduct one, and confesses his ignorance on how to deal with Christians and indeed, this is his reason for his letter to Trajan — to seek guidance. Yet in the same letter Pliny goes on to say:
    • that he has been conducting trials of Christians for some time — long enough to notice that the pagan temples are once again being frequented;
    • that he has routinely executed Christians who stubbornly refused to recant;
    • that he has routinely released those who do;
    • that he only decides to write the letter after carrying out these convictions and acquittals for some time when he happened to learn as a consequence of torturing two female slaves that they were guilty of “nothing more than a perverse superstition” (no details provided)

Conveniently for the naive reader the author fails to detail the cities affected, where the victims lived, how many Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial, etc. Why do not more heads spin when they are hit with this illogical and utterly implausible nonsense? Biblical scholars like to insist that the coherence of the Testamonium Flavianum is evidence that it is built on a genuine original statement by Josephus about Jesus, yet blithely accept without question the incoherence of this letter.

  • Pliny lists point by point detail to demonstrate the good character and innocence of the Christians on the one hand, then reverts to stereotypical persecuter mode by pronouncing that the Christians are nevertheless guilty of the vaguely generalized charge of perverse and unspeakable superstition. How can anyone fail to see through this blatant contradiction the hand of a pro-Christian apologist awkwardly attempting to simultaneously pose as the stereotypical anti-Christian!
  • Trajan is just as confused in his reply. Christians must die: punish them if they are accused of being a Christian. Christians are harmless: do not seek to punish them.

Bruce’s discussion is blind to any of these problems. This strange contradictory letter that did not appear in Pliny’s lifetime and that raises incomprehensible questions within the context of Pliny’s career and conventional history of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire (including Rome) with persecutions and court hearings by Trajan’s time, and what we know of Roman law and custom is seized as one of our earliest non-christian evidences of early Christianity. Pagan Rome’s tolerance of religious practice was well-known; the only people normally required to offer sacrifice to the emperor were those taking official government office; the liberty of Marcion himself and the rise and rise of Marcionism in Asia Minor are difficult to explain if, as Pliny says here, his policies restored pagan practices at the expense of Christianity; Justin Martyr’s apparent ignorance of Pliny’s and Trajan’s situation as a precedent in his letter pleading for tolerance to Antoninus Pius might also be seen as a problem; and the emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians, let alone anything from Trajan or Pliny.

Genuine historical value nonetheless

Pliny’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians nevertheless is of genuine historical interest in its description of an early Christian service. It matters little if that description was inserted some time after Pliny the Younger.

Bruce’s treatment in summary:

Bruce does not offer a scholarly thought provoking discussion of the Pliny letter but essentially narrates a confessional, “Look, here is more (rare indeed so oh how precious!) evidence of Christianity from a non-Christian source.” The source does contain an interesting description of early Christian practices, although it says nothing whatever about the name of Jesus. It does speak of a worship of Christ and thus could possibly reflect a Pauline (Marcionite?) theology of a spiritual or heavenly Christ deity as opposed to an earthly Jesus figure.

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