Tag Archives: Tacitus

“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500010043.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs?

All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

Tim O’Neill (TO) writes some very true words that enable us to identify a “careful” and “honest” treatment of a work:

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

So let’s see if TO himself has followed his own advice and given his readers a “careful, honest or even just competent treatment” of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book.

Read TO’s second part of that above sentence:

but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position – that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels – even exists.

It is very difficult to approach a topic calmly and with dispassionate reasoning if one is predisposed to have a deep loathing for what one believes is in the printed page. It is almost impossible in that mood to grasp the original meaning of what one is reading. One will project into the page what one believes is there. One needs to let go of all defensiveness in order to read stuff like that fairly and respond meaningfully. That’s no excuse, of course. Any competent writer will recognize that sort of bias, confess it, and work against it.

As we saw in our previous post DF does indeed not only “acknowledge this middle ground position” but he frames his book with it: the opening pages and closing chapter are dedicated specifically to it. The same position further appears throughout the body of the book. So TO does not simply fail or neglect to deal with the full argument of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book, he ‘carelessly, dishonestly or even just incompetently’ tells readers the opposite of the truth about its contents. I am reminded of several James McGrath’s “reviews” of Earl Doherty’s Neither God Nor Man. If “mythicism” is such an incompetent and silly proposition why do people need to write brazen falsehoods in order to refute it?

But maybe we are being harsh and he was tired and distracted while reading the arguments in DF’s Nailed that he tells his readers are not there.

So let’s give him another chance.

Another of TO’s damning indictments begins:

Fitzgerald insists that there are elements in the story of Jesus which should have been noticed by historians of the time and insists that there is no shortage of writers then who should have recorded some mention of them . . .  (O’Neill 2011)

He quite correctly quotes DF to support this:

There were plenty writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus’) region and its happenings …. We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs. (Fitzgerald, p. 22)

DF did say that these other writers, both Roman and Jewish, did have enough interest in Palestine of the day to make mention of it in their writings — and he does say that their writings “included” mention of “several failed Messiahs”.

Manipulator or Debater?

TO then moves in to close the semantic trap. He accuses DF of saying that “scores of writers” wrote of failed Messiahs in Palestine: 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 »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

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

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

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

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


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

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

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