TACITUS: MORE PROMISING?

A reference in Tacitus is the last of three supposed ‘pagan’ references to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (though the first two cited, Pliny and Suetonius don’t mention either a Jesus or a Nazareth).

In 64 AD a terrific fire swept through Rome (such fires occurred again 5 and 16 years later) – Tacitus claims rumors spread that Nero set the fires deliberately.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., Crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Now this story is more promising as it has this Christ associated with Judea and with public execution during the time of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate. Still not quite ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ yet, but at least a little closer.

It would be good to consider before going any deeper into this what the passage really tells us : Tacitus, writing 50 years later claims that Nero blamed Chrestians for the fire and that these people got the name of their sect from Christ who was executed in Judea by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius.

Now from whom could Tacitus have gleaned this information? The most obvious source for knowledge about what christians believed are christians themselves. And is this notion of a messiah killed by a Roman governor of Judea a second century belief among christians (when Tacitus was writing)? Or is this what the christians during the reign of Nero believed? How would Tacitus find this out?

Or did, perhaps, Tacitus examine some Imperial records of executions in Judea to determine the truth behind the origins of the appellation ‘chrestian’ (as some apologists assert)? Seems like a lot of work looking through hundreds and thousands of such records to support a mere throwaway line in this tale of Nero’s awfulness. And if indeed such a record existed and Tacitus read it, we would expect Tacitus to have gotten the name of the guy who was executed, and gotten Pilate’s official title correct. I find it unlikely such records existed – especially after so many major fires in Rome during the intervening 80 years.

It’s my judgement that the most likely source for the notion of an execution of a messianic claimant by Pilate in Judea to be contemporary with its inclusion in Tacitus’s history.

Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him – they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important – but were inserted into his writings (interpolated)  by Christians who copied them, producing the manuscripts of Tacitus we have today.

It would be interesting to note who these ‘mythicists’ are, just in case we wanted to discover by what arguments they support such hypotheses. You’d think a scholar of Ehrman’s caliber would rebel at writing such a vague claim about other scholars. Oh, well…

The mythicists certainly have a reason for arguing this: they do not want to think there are any references to Jesus in our early sources outside the New Testament, and so when they find any such reference, they claim the reference was not original but was inserted by Christians.

So instead of considering the reasoning behind or evidence offered in support of the hypothesis that there may have been an interpolation in this case (as we know was not uncommon during this era of hand-copying) Ehrman treats us to ‘reasons’ –  motives – why these un-named mythicists make the claim. If Ehrman did his research, surely he could have done better than such a blanket ad hominem slur!

It seems rather odd that Ehrman claims to be able to read the minds of people whose names he doesn’t appear to know! A rather peculiar kind of ESP is on display here: if we are to credit Ehrman’s assertions it’s enough to take a wild guess at the motives of a scholar to dismiss them. No need to resort to being the least bit familiar with their reasoning or even being able to name the people you are attacking. Is he afraid if he names these people a reader might actually look them up and find they do present evidence and arguments? Is his case that weak?

In the end, Ehrman admits that this supposed reference, like the others, isn’t very helpful to the historian:

…the information is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus. How would Tacitus know what he knew? It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example)…

Yes, it would seem that even if these three references are genuine, they only are evidence of the existence of christians (which no one denies) and some of their beliefs. They do not seem to offer much by way of independent confirmation of any claims by these christians, or today’s christians, or today’s historicists about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Yet in about any discussion about the existence of Jesus it is inevitable that these same names will be dropped although any examination of their ‘witness’ shows it to be based on rather late hearsay many decades after the ‘fact’.

So, having drawn a blank on the ‘pagan’ authors, we’ll have to begin to consider more partisan writings about Jesus…

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SUETONIUS : WITNESS TO JESUS?

If Pliny tells us little of value regarding ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ it would appear that the alleged reference to Jesus in Tacitus is positively destructive to the general definition of an ‘historical Jesus’ as the details contradict the most common narratives built up around this figure:

Even less helpful is a reference found in the writings of the Roman biographer Suetonius, often also cited in discussions of the existence of Jesus… Suetonius indicates that at one point in his reign Claudius deported all the Jews from Rome because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus”.

Ehrman is quite correct, I think, in disparaging this supposed ‘evidence’ as less than helpful because if this is indeed the historical Jesus it indicates this Jesus did not die in Judea during the reign of Tiberius as depicted in the gospel tales (and generally accepted among Jesus historicists) but instead lived another 20 years or so and made it to Rome where he stirred up trouble. We never learn whether this Chrestus ends up crucified, either.

At least Suetonius’s Chrestus is associated with stirring up trouble and associated with Judaism, unlike Pliny’s Christ.

Some argue that Chrestus is just a misspelled ‘Christus’ and that this indicates friction among Jews over a particular messianic candidate (possibly an historical Jesus, but just as easily an historical Jacob or Ishmael).

…even if Suetonius is referring to Jesus by a misspelled epithet, he does not help us much in our quest for non-Christian references to Jesus. Jesus himself would have been dead for some twenty years when these riots in Rome took place, so at best Suetonius  would be providing evidence, if he can count for evidence, that there were Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. But this would have been the case whether Jesus lived or not, since mythicists would argue that the “myth” of Christ had already been invented by then, as had the supposed life of the made-up figure of Jesus.

On the whole, I would agree with this, except for a couple of points.

Certainly, if it is true Jews were at this time period especially prone to messianism, no doubt rival candidates could cause trouble among their partisans – even if none of the candidates were ‘our’ Jesus. Since Christ itself is merely an epithet that could be applied to anyone (indeed priests were ‘anointed’ too, and the epithet could apply to them) there’s no guarantee that ‘Jews arguing about Christ’ has anything to do with a putative ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. We’d need a lot more detail than we have for this to count even as evidence for Christians in Rome at this date.

Taking Suetonius at face value, it would seem that we merely have someone whose name is (or is known as) ‘Chrestus’ – a not uncommon proper name in those days – was the instigator of rioting the purpose of which is unknown. It could have been about something completely unrelated to messianism at all. It could have been food prices, or housing discrimination, or anti-semitism.

Thus far we have a couple of instances, sometimes taken to be referring to ‘Jesus’, which do not come to anything much when we look at them dispassionately.

At best they indicate the existence of christians, which no one seems to deny.