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G A Wells Holding

A Reply to J. P. Holding’s "Shattering" of My Views on Jesus and an Examination of the Early Pagan and Jewish References to Jesus (2000)

G.A. Wells


In the series ‘Tekton. Building Blocks for Christian Faith’, J. P. Holding has written a long article entitled ‘Jesus. Shattering the Christ-Myth’, with sub-title ‘The Reliability of the Secular References to Jesus.'[1] Much of it consists of criticism of my views.

Holding states, correctly, that documentation about Jesus, Christian and other, is far more extensive than what is available for other ancient personages, whose existence nobody queries. The problem, however, is not that the evidence concerning Jesus in the century from A.D. 50 to 150 is sparse, but that its witness to him is not uniform; for a considerable body of Christian literature is extant which is either earlier than the gospels, or at any rate earlier than the time when they had become generally known, and which signally fails to confirm what they say of Jesus and represents him quite differently. Only from the time when the gospels had become available do we find other extant Christian documents beginning to portray him as they do.

I have repeatedly set out the all-important details of the differences between these two sets of documents (most recently in my The Jesus Legend, 1996, and The Jesus Myth, 1999, to which I shall here refer as JL and JM respectively). The gospels are agreed to have been written between A.D. 70 and 100. The early documents are not restricted to the Pauline letters, the earliest of them all, dating from the 50s, but include numerous other epistles by other authors, although my critics are wont to pretend that my whole case is built on the discrepancy between Paul and the evangelists.

The most striking feature of the early documents is that they do not set Jesus’ life in a specific historical situation. There is no Galilean ministry, no teaching, no parables, no miracles, no Passion in Jerusalem, no indication of time, place or attendant circumstances at all. Instead, Jesus figures as a basically supernatural personage obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past, "emptied" then, as Paul puts it, of all his supernatural powers (Phil. 2:6-11). He was indeed crucified for our redemption, yet the Passion is not as in the gospels. In Paul, for instance, there is no cleansing of the Temple (which according to Mark and Luke was responsible for the decision of the chief priests and the scribes to kill Jesus), no conflict with the authorities, no agony in Gethsemene, no trial, no thieves crucified with Jesus, no weeping women, no word about the place or the time of the crucifixion, and no mention of Judas or Pilate. Paul’s colourless references to the crucifixion might be accepted as unproblematic if it were unimportant for him compared with, say, the resurrection. But he himself declares it to be the substance of his preaching (1 Cor. 1:23 and 2:2).

Serious NT scholars have admitted that the way in which the authors of the early extant Christian documents write of Jesus is puzzling or worse. And what has to be explained is not just their silences, nor even merely some incompatibility between their Jesus and the Jesus of the gospels, but also the way in which, in later epistles, this silence and this incompatibility turn into their opposite, into explicit endorsement of much in the gospel picture. In other words, the later authors write as one would expect of Christians who believed in a preacher and miracle-worker executed under Pilate. Only the earlier ones do not, and this is difficult to explain if Christianity began with a teaching and miracle-working Jesus who was crucified about A.D. 30.

Numerous scholars have dealt with this all-important disparity between the early and later material by simply setting the former aside. Morton Smith, for instance, basing his view of Jesus on the gospels, regards the Pauline Jesus as a distortion. He implies either that Paul was very ill-informed about the most striking features of Jesus’ practices (even though, in the terms of this hypothesis, writing within two or three decades of their occurrence) or that he misrepresented the facts about them. And Smith gives us the same choice between these two assumptions in the case of the other early Christian writers who viewed Jesus as Paul had done. I have further criticized Smith in my The Historical Evidence for Jesus, 1982, pp. 210-212. Holding sets him up against me, mentioning, however, only his dismissive comments on my work, not any arguments.

A. E. Harvey, whom Holding also sets up against me, likewise puts the early evidence aside. Thus he admits that the early authors "write about Jesus without any mention of his miraculous power", and that supernatural feats are hardly to be expected of one who, according to Paul, "emptied himself" of his supernatural status when he took human form, "the form of a slave". Harvey, however, remains confident that, in spite of all this, we can "reasonably accept", as "a firm historical datum", the impression given by the gospels of one "who was believed to have performed notable miracles". Likewise, "the virtual silence of the epistles with regard to Jesus as a teacher" is not to be "set against the overwhelming evidence of the gospels that he was one" (quoted in the second edition of my Did Jesus Exist?, 1986, p. 209).

As an alternative to setting the early evidence aside, Harvey sometimes blurs the differences between it and the later material. Thus he claims that the crucifixion "under Pontius Pilate" is "not only described in considerable detail in all four canonical gospels", but it is "referred to on countless occasions in the other New Testament writings" (quoted by me, loc. cit.). Readers will probably overlook that the countless references in the early NT books are not to a crucifixion under Pilate, but to a crucifixion in completely unspecified circumstances, which is not the same thing at all. Moreover, the detailed attestation in the four gospels is not as impressive as Harvey suggests, for, as he perfectly well knows, these works are not independent of each other. Matthew and Luke are basically expansions of Mark; and once the crucifixion had been given a historical setting, this would be retained by later writers. Harvey is not writing as a historian simply trying to reconstruct the past. If he were, he would not devote a whole chapter to trying to interpret, into a message which has "meaning for us now", Jesus’ pronouncements that his contemporaries will see the Son of man coming on the clouds to inaugurate the final judgement.

In JL and JM I have argued that the disparity between the early documents and the gospels is explicable if the Jesus of the former is not the same person as the Jesus of the latter. Some elements in the ministry of the gospel Jesus are arguably traceable to the activities of a Galilean preacher of the early first century, whose career (embellished and somewhat distorted) is documented in what is known as Q (an abbreviation for ‘Quelle’, German for ‘source’). Q supplied the gospels of Matthew and Luke with much of their material concerning Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It is not extant, but has to be reconstructed from what is common to these two gospels, yet does not derive from the gospel of Mark, the other source from which they both drew. Christopher Tuckett’s Q and the History of Early Christianity (1996) gives a full account of recent work on Q and accepts the majority view that it originated between A.D. 40 and 70 in northern Galilee or nearby; for it assigns Galilean localities to Jesus’ activities, and links him with John the Baptist, known from the Jewish historian Josephus to have been executed before A.D. 39. This Galilean Jesus was not crucified, and was not believed to have been resurrected after his death. The dying and rising Christ of the early epistles is a quite different figure, and must have a different origin. He may have been to some extent modelled on gods of pagan mystery religions who died and were resurrected, but he clearly owes much more to a particular early-Christian interpretation of Jewish Wisdom traditions. According to Proverbs 8:22-31 a Wisdom figure stood at God’s side and participated in the creation of the world; and when Wisdom sought an abode on Earth, mankind refused to accept her, whereupon, in despair, she returned to heaven (1 Enoch 42:1-2). For Philo, the Jewish sage of Alexandria who died ca. A.D. 50, Wisdom was almost synonymous with the ‘Word’, the masculine ‘Logos’, the highest of God’s ‘powers’, which functioned now independently of him, now as aspects of him. The influence of such ideas on Paul is undeniable: statements made about Wisdom in the Jewish literature are made about Jesus in the Pauline letters. By the time we reach the prologue of the fourth gospel, the term ‘Logos’ had come to be preferred as a designation of the supernatural figure so close to God.

In the gospels, the two Jesus figures — the human preacher of Q and the supernatural personage of the early epistles who sojourned briefly on Earth as a man, and then, rejected, returned to heaven — have been fused into one. The Galilean preacher of Q has been given a salvivic death and resurrection, and these have been set not in an unspecified past (as in the Pauline and other early letters), but in a historical context consonant with the date of the Galilean preaching.

Now that I have allowed this in my two most recent relevant books (the earlier of which, JL, Holding includes in his list of works consulted), it will not do to dub me a "mythicist" tout court. Moreover, my revised standpoint obviates the criticism (gleefully endorsed by Holding) which J. D. G Dunn levelled at me in 1985. He objected that, in my work as then published, I had, implausibly, to assume that, within thirty years from Paul, there had evolved "such a … complex of traditions about a non-existent figure as we have in the sources of the gospels" (The Evidence for Jesus, p. 29). My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q in its earliest form may well be as early as ca. A.D. 40), and it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that what is authentic in this material refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles.

I must refer readers to my two recent books for justification of this brief summary. Holding is so far from even admitting any disparity between the early epistles and the gospels that he writes uncritically of "uniformity in variegated sources". Dunn acknowledges what he calls a well-known "relative silence of Paul regarding the historical Jesus". But, in the context of his criticism of me, he fails to note that it is not Paul alone who is thus silent; and he tries to account for this silence by the familiar hypotheses that Paul "had little need or occasion to refer back to Jesus’ earthly ministry", and could in any case take for granted that his addressees already knew all about it. To show that these explanations will not do was an important part of my task in JM.

Most of Holding’s article is devoted to appraisal of the pagan and Jewish testimony to Jesus. My critics commonly ascribe to me the view that the sparsity of early references of this kind is in itself sufficient evidence that no historical Jesus ever existed. This is not, and never has been, my position. As most inhabitants of the Roman empire in A.D. 100 were still unaware of or uninterested in the Christians in their midst, this sparsity is just what one would expect. My concern has been to counter the widespread belief that these non-Christian references establish beyond reasonable doubt the existence of a Jesus who lived and died as in the gospels and make any further discussion of the matter unnecessary. Apologists have been glad to exaggerate the importance of the pagan and Jewish evidence in this way because the plentiful Christian notices are so obviously shot through with legend.

Evangelicals continue, with Holding, to make much of the supposed testimony of Thallus, who published a chronological work which has not survived, although a few references to it in Christian writers are extant. Of these, the one appealed to is Julius Africanus’ statement in the third century, apropos of the three-hour darkness from noon which covered the Earth at Jesus’ crucifixion (Mk. 15:33 and parallels in Matthew and Luke): "Thallus says, wrongly it seems to me, that this darkness was an eclipse of the sun" — a wrong explanation, Africanus adds, because there is a full moon at Passover, when Jesus died, and so the moon cannot then lie between the sun and the Earth. F. Jacoby prints this material and comments on it in a companion volume (references in JL, pp. 44, 223 n. 8; this section of Jacoby is online at Jacoby). He notes that Thallus may in fact have made no mention at all of Jesus or Jewish history (nor even, I may add, of a three-hour duration), but simply have recorded (as other chroniclers did) the eclipse in the reign of Tiberius for which astronomers have calculated the date 24 November A.D. 29. It may have been Africanus who introduced Jesus in retorting that this was no eclipse but a supernatural event. This possibility is conceded by R. T. France, who observes in his The Evidence for Jesus (1986, p. 24) that, as we do not have Thallus’ words, we do not know whether he mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion, or whether this was Africanus’ interpretation of a period of darkness which he had not specifically linked with Jesus. Hence when Africanus says that in his opinion Thallus was wrong ("wrongly it seems to me"), he may well mean that the darkness we now date at 24 November A.D. 29 is not to be classed as, as Thallus supposed, with those that are naturally caused, but is to be recognized as the one that was supernaturally occasioned at the crucifixion. Murray J. Harris, who makes as good a case as he can for Thallus’ supposed testimony, is not justified in claiming that "both Thallus and Africanus take it for granted that there had in fact been an unusual darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion". (See his article in Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels, ed. D. Wenham, Sheffield, 1985, p. 344. My italics.)

If, however, Thallus did mention the death of Jesus, then his testimony would be important if it were earlier than the gospel traditions. But France, rightly rejecting the confident claim of some apologists that Thallus wrote as early as A.D. 52, says that "his date of writing is not known", so that any reference to Jesus he perhaps made may have been "drawn from Christian sources". Harris allows that his source "might well have been any one of the synoptic gospels" (p. 361). Putting his date of writing as early as A.D. 52, is based on identifying him with a wealthy Samaritan mentioned by Josephus as being a freedman of the Emperor Tiberius. Even F. F. Bruce admitted that this identification is "doubtful" (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, London, 1973, p. 30n.); for the manuscripts of Josephus have to be amended to yield the name ‘Thallus’ at all: allos, meaning ‘another’ Samaritan, has to be changed to thallos. L. H. Feldman, the editor of the Loeb edition of this section of Josephus, has retained the unamended text. Without the amendment there is no evidence that the historian Thallus was a Samaritan, or a freedman of Tiberius.

The date A.D. 52 is sometimes supported by claiming that, according to the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, Thallus covered world history up to that date. In fact, however, as Harris admits (p. 360), Eusebius avers that Thallus went only as far as the 167th Olympiad (112-109 B.C.). Harris favours the "conjecture" that 167th should be corrected to 207th (even though the figures are not strikingly similar in the Greek), bringing the date to A.D. 52. He adds that "all agree that Eusebius’s date is in error". This is not so. What is agreed is that, if Eusebius’ date is right, and if Thallus nevertheless mentioned an eclipse of A.D. 29, then "his work must have been later extended" (art. ‘Thallus’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1970).

Jacoby says that Christian writers were drawn to Thallus’ History because it "was the latest thing and appeared only in the second century". Thus if he mentioned the crucifixion at all, he probably derived his information from what Christians were already saying, and is therefore not an independent witness. Conzelmann’s article on Jesus in a standard religious encyclopaedia notes curtly that "Thallus cannot be considered as witnessing to events in the life of Jesus" (quoted in JL, p. 43; cf. pp. 45 f. where I discuss the supposed corroboration of Thallus by Phlegon, the chronicler who was a freedman of Hadrian).

Holding, who upholds the accuracy of the gospels, takes the three-hour darkness as historical, and is incensed with those who "parrot" Gibbon’s remarks on it at the end of chapter 15 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The passage well illustrates the irony which has so often infuriated Gibbon’s clerical readers. This darkness, he said, "happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects or received the earliest intelligence of the prodigy" which is said to involve "the whole Earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire". "Each of these philosophers", he continues, "in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter in Pliny is designated for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar", which "had already been celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age". To all this (which of course he does not quote) Holding can only reply that neither Seneca nor Pliny intended their listings to be exhaustive, and that Pliny in any case "would not have recorded this event unless he had been there himself", for, as "a skeptic and rationalist of the highest order", he would have ignored reports of miracles. This response does not do justice to the fact that a prolonged darkness over much of the Earth, if historical, must have been experienced by many who could have known nothing of its supposed supernatural cause. Hence Gibbon asked, ironically: "How shall we excuse the supine inattention of the pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence not to their reason but to their senses?"

Conservative Christian scholars make what they can of Thallus because there is no other testimony from a non-Christian gentile or Jew that they can try to date so early [2].

Turning now to the younger Pliny, we know that he encountered Christians when he interrogated them in his law court early in the second century. He found that they were accustomed to recite "a form of words to Christ as to a god", and that some of them would rather die than renounce their faith. That we learn from his report "the ethical grounding of Jesus’ teachings", as Holding claims, is not true. He did indeed find that these Christians asserted that they abided by certain ethical principles, but it is not said whence these were derived. Moreover, neither Pliny, nor Suetonius, nor Tacitus make any mention of ‘Jesus’, but speak only of Christ. (Suetonius in fact names only ‘Chrestus’, which we may interpret to mean ‘Christus’.) To infer, as Holding does, that Pliny’s phrase "to Christ as to a god" points to someone who, "in Roman eyes", was both a "known" and a "supposedly mortal" person is quite arbitrary.

Pliny had written, as governor of a distant province, to his emperor, Trajan, asking whether he was right to leave Christians unmolested provided they were prepared to conform to Roman religious rites and to forswear Christianity. His statement that, on interrogating suspects, he "discovered" this religion to be no more than "a perverse and extravagant superstition" shows that he had no prior knowledge of it. He had, he declares, never before taken part in investigation of Christians, and had no idea how they should be dealt with. This ignorance does not suit Holding, who finds it "very plausible" to suggest that "he had learnt about Jesus" — whom Pliny never mentions — "and the Christians at an earlier time, in his position as state priest". J. J. Walsh, in a recent article, gives a truer picture, saying: "Pliny evidently knew next to nothing not only about the sect but about his own government’s policy towards the sect" (quoted in JL, p. 43).

Whether the ‘Christ’ worshipped by the Christians had been on Earth as a man will have been of no interest either to Pliny or to Trajan. What worried them was that Christians were holding meetings which might be seditious. Hence Trajan noted, in his reply to Pliny’s enquiry: "If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them, and for whatever reasons, they soon turn into a political club (hetaeria)".

Holding finds it unlikely that some of these Christians would have been willing to die for their faith if Jesus had not existed. Of course it is not in question that they believed Christ to have existed, as god or man or perhaps as both. But readiness to die for beliefs testifies to the strength with which they are held, not to their accuracy. Close inquiry into the evidence supporting them is not necessarily involved. Such fanaticism has been shown by orthodox Jews and by Christian heretics as much as by orthodox Christians. All alike regarded belief as in itself a virtue, and as the key to salvation. This raises the wider question of how behaviour is affected by ideas and emotions and, if one tries to generalize about this, one may say that an individual may be influenced by fear of punishment (in this world or the next), by the example, precept or command of a leader, and by general example and contagion when certain beliefs have become widespread. Fascism, Nazism and Communism, as well as religious beliefs of many kinds, have influenced their adherents in all these ways, not infrequently to the extreme extent of leading them to the supreme self-sacrifice. People will die for all manner of things that touch their imagination or their sympathy.

Suetonius is no more forthcoming than Pliny. What he said about Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome "because they constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" may fairly be interpreted to mean that, under this emperor, who died in A.D. 54, there were disturbances in Rome between Jews and Christians concerning the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. But no more about the historical Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudius’ day than what extant Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying before the gospels became established later in the first century; and this much does not confirm the gospels’ portrait of Jesus as a preacher and wonder-worker who died by sentence of Pilate. Holding declares that the only way to devalue what Suetonius says is to allege that it has nothing to do with Jesus or with Christians at all. This is not so. We can couple accepting it as a reference to ‘Christ’ with recognition of the disparity between the earliest extant Christian literature and the gospels concerning the manner in which Jesus is regarded.

Tacitus wrote about the same time as Pliny, and tells that Christianity originated in Judea. (He regarded it as a subversive foreign cult which did not deserve the tolerance Rome showed to many religions.) This statement, says Holding, "mitigates" — he means ‘militates’ — against ideas that it was "designed piecemeal from pagan religious ideas". If this is directed against me, I must reply that I have long insisted that Christianity originated from Judaism. Early Christian documents accept the God of Israel, the Old Testament, Jewish apocalyptic and angelology, and Jewish ideas about the Messiah. A non-Jewish origin for a sect which embraced all this is out of the question, and so the Jewish background will have been of prime importance for the convictions of the earliest Christians. This is not to say that pagan ideas will have been of no significance at all. Even Judea was not intellectually isolated from its Hellenistic environment.

Tacitus goes further than Pliny and Suetonius by stating that "Christians derive their name and origin from Christ who, in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate". I have given three reasons for holding that this merely repeats what Tacitus had learnt from Christians or from hearsay. First, he gives Pilate an incorrect title: procurator was the title of governors of equestrian rank in Tacitus’ own day. Under Augustus and Tiberius the title was ‘prefect’ and this is what Pilate is called in an inscription naming him which was found at Caesarea in 1961. Tacitus cannot, then, have been quoting from any official document which reported ‘Christ’s’ execution.[3] Second, he does not name the executed man. He could hardly have found, in a state document, a statement that the Messiah (Christ) was executed on such and such a date. Third, he was glad to accept from Christians their own admission that Christianity, pernicious superstition that it was, originated only recently, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults.

Holding is visibly disconcerted by R. T. France’s acceptance of my case here as "entirely convincing". (When I once described France’s scholarship as "conservative", he protested, on the — perfectly true — ground that it is less so than that of numerous others.)

Holding believes that the negative tone of Tacitus’ remarks shows that his information did not come from Christians. What, then, of Pliny’s comments? He, at about the same time, gleaned knowledge of Christians from interrogations, yet from this basis called their religion "a perverse and extravagant superstition". In any case, what is important in Tacitus’ testimony is not its denigration of Christianity, but the statement that Christ died by sentence of a Roman governor. To say that this could not have come from second-century Christians is absurd. And Tacitus will have been glad to repeat their admission that their founder was sentenced as a criminal.

Holding would like to believe that it was from imperial archives in Rome that Tacitus learnt of the death of Christ by sentence of Pilate. But can we really believe that the crucifixion of any obscure person in the provinces who was not even a Roman citizen was dutifully recorded in the archives of the capital? Josephus tells that Varus crucified 2,000 after the death of Herod, and that Felix, governor of Judea from A.D. 52, crucified "innumerable" offenders. Other governors behaved no better. Can we expect particulars of their victims to have been documented in a form for permanency, or indeed at all? Whether Pilate sentenced Jesus or not, we cannot expect records about it to have been deposited in Rome when nothing is known even about the fate of Pilate himself subsequent to his arrival there to answer charges of having committed one atrocity too many. He was sent there by the legate of Syria, following complaints from Samaritans, and at that point he simply "disappears from authentic history" (art. in The Oxford Classical Dictionary). Josephus, even though writing his history in Rome, and before the end of the first century, does not follow Pilate’s fortunes further.

For Holding, Tacitus is a thoroughly reliable historian, meticulous over detail. Opinion on this is more divided than he suggests. Ronald Martin’s 1981 book on Tacitus reports that some have declared him unreliable, while others ascribe to him the scrupulousness of a modern historian. Martin considers something midway between these two extremes to be the most plausible view (p. 11). However, thoroughness would not have been needed in the present case; for Tacitus had no motive for ferreting out archive or other material about the superstitious perversity he here mentions. His purpose went no further than to give his educated readers some indication of what it consisted. He clearly felt he could not expect them to know this already, so little impact had Christianity made upon educated Romans.

He himself knew rather more about it, quite possibly from his experiences as governor of the province of Asia, where he could well have had the kind of trouble with Christians which his friend Pliny experienced as governor of a neighbouring province about the same time. (That these experiences may have been the source of his knowledge is not, as some have suggested, an outlandish idea of mine, but was argued by Hilgenfeld in 1910, then by the historian Eduard Meyer, and endorsed in 1950 by H. Fuchs in his German article on ‘Tacitus and the Christians’ in volume 4 of Vigiliae Christianae.) A perceptive eighteenth-century French commentator compared what Tacitus says about Christ with what a French historian might say for the benefit of his readers if he had occasion to mention an Indian sect that had won some adherents in France, namely that these people were called Brahmins after a certain Brahma who had lived in India at a certain time past. Such a statement would clearly not imply that he had done antiquarian research on the matter.

Holding nevertheless tries hard to find reasons for supposing that Tacitus investigated Christianity thoroughly. Dio Cassius records that ca. A.D. 95 Domitian executed Flavius Clemens and exiled his wife, both related to the imperial family, for "atheism" and for "drifting into Jewish ways". For Holding, this probably means that they were Christians, and that Tacitus would have been alarmed to find "some of Rome’s highest-placed people" turning to this new religion. The Canadian theologian S. G. Wilson considers that "most likely Dio’s notice should be taken at its face value, that is, Clemens and his wife were Jewish sympathizers, not Christians" (Related Strangers. Jews and Christians 70-170 C.E., 1995, p. 12).

As a second reason for investigating Christianity, Tacitus had, according to Holding, some interest in persons who claimed to be resurrected from the dead. The only example specified is his interest in someone who claimed to be a resurrected Nero. Tacitus does say, in his Histories (I. 2), that such an impostor was well received in Parthia. There was a belief that Nero would return at the head of Parthian armies to regain his throne. The instability of the eastern border of the Empire, the so-called ‘Eastern Question’, exercised the Romans over a prolonged period; and it is not surprising that Tacitus gave it detailed attention.

A third possible motive to set Tacitus studying Christianity was, says Holding "the accusations of Nero concerning the fire". Tacitus was writing about the burning of Rome in Nero’s time and the belief that the fire was started by order of the Emperor himself. "To scotch this rumour", he says, "Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost cruelty, a class of men loathed for their views, whom the crowd styled Christians". It is at this point that he explains briefly to his readers that these are people who worship Christ, who died at Pilate’s behest. It is the Emperor, not the Christians, to whom his interest is here directed. He wanted to paint Nero as black as possible, and to show that his behaviour toward these admittedly contemptible persons had been unreasonably severe and had brought him just opprobrium. Hence he adds that "there arose a sentiment of pity" for the victims (criminals though they were), "due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state, but to the ferocity of a single man". There is nothing here to motivate any scrutiny of Christian doctrines. Holding obviously finds it convenient to assume that, because Tacitus took considerable care over what he said, in various contexts, about Nero, he will have given Christ the same amount of critical attention. This expectation is absurd. Nero is the subject of Books 13, 14, 15 and 16 of the Annals, whereas Christ is dismissed in a single sentence.

As Holding deems it of great importance to be beholden to properly qualified scholars, he should give due weight to the following assessments from such quarters: The Catholic scholar J. P. Meier allows that Tacitus and Pliny "reflect what they have heard Christians of their own day say", and so are not "independent extracanonical sources" (art. in Biblica, vol. 80 (1999), p. 466). E. P. Sanders’ verdict is fully justified: "Roman sources that mention Jesus are all dependent on Christian reports" (quoted in JL, p. 43). And these reports were, for long, not widely known. Walsh (art. cit.) observes: "Tacitus had to inform his readers of the very basics. Trajan and Hadrian betray no knowledge". He adds that, even after 165, the satirist Lucian of Samosata, who mocked Christian simplicity, was obliged to provide his readers with rudimentary, though somewhat inaccurate, information about the Christians.

Holding takes Lucian rather more seriously, as witnessing to the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion; for he would not have said, as he did, that Christians "worship the one who was crucified in Palestine", but "would certainly have satirized Christian belief in a fictional or historically doubtful personage if such arguments existed at the time". But there is no reason for expecting such arguments to have existed at the time, whether or not the crucifixion is historical. As I noted in JM (p. 246), pagans will have had little by way of open conflict with earliest Christianity, and surely not enough exposure to it for their writers to take note of it before the gospels had become available. Subsequent opponents, Jewish and pagan alike, will have gathered from these gospels that Jesus was a teacher and wonder-worker of a kind perfectly familiar in both the Jewish and pagan world. As he could thus be assigned to a familiar category, there was no reason to query his historicity. The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has noted in his Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983, p. 27): "In an age and society in which the combination of sanctity and the miraculous was considered normal, Jesus’ talents and activities fitted the image of the holy man". Wilhelm Nestle made the same point in a 1941 article on pagan critics of Christianity in the Archiv für Religionswissenschaft. The Greeks and the Romans, he said, regarded Jesus as a "sophist" teacher and miracle-worker. "For them, both these attributes were no novelty", but represented a quite credible type of person, not unique in any way. It is noteworthy that references to him as a teacher and "magician" are also prominent in the rabbinic notices.

The church has allowed few of the pagan criticisms to survive, except as quotations in Christian rebuttals. But it is clear from what Arnobius recorded of them in the fourth century that, like most people today, pagans assessed Jesus from the gospels, from which they gathered that Christians were foolish enough to worship a being who was born as a man, lived as an ordinary magician, and died the kind of death which would have shamed the lowest of mankind. Here was substance enough for rejecting him, and it is unrealistic to expect them to have further pursued investigations into what was for them obvious rubbish. The historicity even of pagan deities long went unquestioned, by pagan and Christian writers alike. Nobody today would argue that there must have been a historical Osiris because these writers believed him to have been king of Egypt. And even if some ancient writer had expressly denied Jesus’ historicity, it is most unlikely that the church would have allowed such a statement to survive.

I turn finally to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In the extant manuscripts of his Antiquities of the Jews, which was written ca. A.D. 93, there are two mentions of "Jesus". (He is actually named, not just called ‘Christ’.) The longer of the two relevant passages states that Pilate had him crucified after he had been indicted by the highest Jewish authorities, that he was a "wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man", that he was the Messiah ("the Christ") who wrought "surprising feats", taught "such people as accept the truth with pleasure", won over many Jews and Greeks, and appeared alive to his followers on the third day after his death. Finally, it is said that "these and countless other marvellous things about him" had been foretold by "the prophets of God" and that "the tribe of Christians named after him has still to this day not disappeared".

I began my long discussion of this passage in JM, by noting that Josephus, as an orthodox Jew, would not have written such obviously Christian words, and that, if he had believed all that they affirm, he would not have restricted his comments to this brief paragraph (and to a single phrase in the other, shorter passage). Hence the most that can be claimed is that he here made some reference to Jesus which has been retouched by a Christian hand.

Holding himself allows that this is so, yet nevertheless finds it significant that the passage is included in all the extant manuscripts. He does not disclose that the earliest of these (for this part of the Antiquities) dates from the eleventh century, and hence may derive from an interpolated copy. He is aware that the transmission of Josephus’ work was almost entirely at Christian hands. This historian was popular with Christians partly because he stressed the superiority of biblical ethics to Graeco-Roman morality, but — as Steve Mason observes in his 1992 book Josephus and the New Testament — far more because he gives detailed description of the appalling suffering during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which Christians regarded as God’s decisive punishment of the Jewish people for their rejection of Jesus. (That the ‘God of love’ had thus carefully arranged the slaughter of a later generation that had played no part in Jesus’ death rapidly became a commonplace among Christian writers. Cf. Mt. 27:25.) Since, then, the relevant mss. are late, and since the copying was done principally by Christians, there was plenty of time and opportunity for an entry about Jesus to be inserted.

In their debates with Jews, Christians would have found the disputed passage very useful as evidence of what had been conceded by an orthodox Jew. Yet it is not cited by any writer before Eusebius in the fourth century. L. H. Feldman observes: "No fewer than eleven church fathers prior to or contemporary with Eusebius cite various passages from Josephus (including the Antiquities)", but not this passage. He adds: "Moreover, it is a full century — and five other church fathers, most notably Augustine, who had many an occasion to find it useful — before we have another reference to the passage in Jerome", who "knows Josephus so well, cites from him ninety times, and admires him so much that he refers to him as a second Livy", yet cites this passage "only once". It seems, then, that, even after the time of Eusebius, some further considerable time elapsed before all or most copies of the Antiquities came to include the passage.

Feldman adds: in the passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War parallel to the one in the Antiquities about Pilate, there is no mention of Jesus, despite the fact that the account of Pilate in the War is almost as full as the version in the Antiquities. This, he says, "corroborates our suspicion that there was either no passage about Jesus in the original text of the Antiquities or that it had a different form". He also notes that Justus of Tiberias, the great contemporary and rival as historian of Josephus, "apparently made no mention of Jesus" (quoted in JM, pp. 204 f.). Not surprisingly, Holding mentions none of all this.

The disputed passage would have been an extremely effective answer to the Jew Trypho. Yet Justin Martyr’s second-century Dialogue with this Jew does not appeal to it in response to Trypho’s words:

"If the Christ has been born and exists somewhere, he is incognito and does not even recognize himself, and has no power, until Elijah comes and anoints him and makes him manifest to all. You [Christians] have received a futile rumour, and have invented some sort of Christ for yourselves" (ch. 8).

Throughout this Dialogue, Trypho is objecting to the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and does not question his historicity, as Holding rightly says. Yet an admission from the orthodox Josephus that the Messiah was no powerless obscurity but the renowned Jesus would have served Justin here very well.

Further relevant is that the point in the narrative where the disputed passage occurs is exactly where one would expect a Christian interpolation to be made, namely where Josephus has occasion to make some mention of Pilate. Steve Mason has noted how remarkable it is that "the Gospel authors unanimously and without equivocation know that the Roman governor at the time of Jesus’ death was Pontius Pilate", even though they are much vaguer about the Jewish leaders whom they represent as the chief culprits in his condemnation. So prominent then, was Pilate in Christian minds from the time of the gospels that it will have been felt unacceptable for Josephus to have written of him without mentioning Jesus. Christian scribes would have seen this as an omission to be rectified. So far from appreciating this, Holding supposes that a Christian interpolator would have connected Jesus with John the Baptist. Josephus does notoriously fail to make any mention of Jesus in what he says about the Baptist — an omission rectified by interpolations in the Old Russian translation of one of his works.

Holding appeals to Mason’s statement that Christian copyists were "quite conservative" in transmitting texts. I noted against this in JL (pp. 51 f.) that this seems to overlook these considerable interpolations (which Mason agrees to be such) in the Old Russian version of Josephus’ The Jewish War. Since today we are accustomed to printed copies of a book which are all identical, it is all too often forgotten that, in the ancient world, where books were copied by hand, every individual copy was a newly created scribal artifact which could be as faithful or as deviant as the scribe or his patron chose.

Holding also supposes that a Christian interpolator would not have called Jesus’ miracles "surprising works". But even Charlesworth, to whom he here appeals, allows that the Greek here can mean ‘wonderful works’, and that this is how an early Christian would understand such an expression (cf. JM, p. 207). At Lk. 5:26 Jesus’ audience, impressed by a miracle he has wrought, declares "We have seen marvellous things (paradoxa) today" — the same word as is used in the passage in Josephus.

What has been widely admitted as a powerful argument for excising the whole passage is that it breaks the thread of the narrative at the point where it occurs. Its removal leaves a text which runs on in proper sequence. Holding calls this "a favourite objection" which "comes from people who obviously have not read very much of Josephus", who is a patchwork writer given to digressions. He does not disclose that H. St. John Thackeray — who has been called "the ‘former prince’ of Josephan scholars", as Holding himself records — allowed in 1929 that the objection "carries great weight" and was "powerfully advocated " by Norden (another close student of Josephus), who regarded it as conclusive. Holding deals with this whole issue by writing as if Josephus’ prime concern in this section of his narrative were to detail the misdeeds of Pilate, so that the mention of his condemnation of Jesus would not be an irrelevancy. But Josephus’ actual concern here is to list upheavals which have brought misfortune to the Jews. He mentions Pilate as responsible for some of these upheavals, but includes others in which Pilate was not involved, as Holding’s own summary of this section shows. Now the condemnation of Jesus was neither an upheaval nor something that brought misfortune to the Jews — except from the Christian perspective which made the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 God’s punishment for their rejection of Jesus. Mason puts the point as follows:

"Josephus is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here [in the disputed passage]. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit. He says only that those who denounced Jesus were ‘the leading men among us’. So unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson. Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of ‘another outrage’ that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time, there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage" (quoted in JL, p. 50. For France’s attempt to brush this objection aside, see JM, pp. 202 f.).

Thus the words "another outrage" follow on naturally from the outrages listed before the intervening disputed passage.

There is a tenth-century Arabic version of the whole passage which has recently attracted attention. I have discussed it in JM, pp. 214-217 and also in my earlier Belief and Make-Believe (1991, pp. 144-148), where I criticize the use made of it by R. H. Charlesworth. (Incidentally, it is by following Charlesworth uncritically that Holding wrongly includes Rudolf Augstein with those who have denied Jesus’ historicity.)

The shorter passage in the Antiquities that mentions Jesus consists of a reference to James "the brother of Jesus, him called Christ". Holding recognizes that some scholars regard the phrase as interpolated, for reasons which I have given in JL, pp. 52-55. Certainly, the use of the term ‘Christ’ (Messiah) without explanation in both passages is not to be expected of Josephus who takes considerable care not to call anyone Christ or Messiah, as the term had overtones of revolution and independence, of which, as a lackey of the Roman royal house, he strongly disapproved. Also, it is not true that the phrase ‘him called so-and-so’ is either invariably dismissive in Josephus’ usage (so that it would mean ‘so-called’, ‘alleged’ and so could not here be from a Christian hand), nor that ‘him called Christ’ is an unchristian usage an interpolator would have avoided. (On the contrary, the phrase occurs, as a designation of Jesus, both in the NT and in Justin Martyr’s Apology, 1, 30.)

Apart from the two questionable passages in Josephus, Jewish literature is totally unhelpful concerning Jesus, as is widely admitted. We cannot, then, be surprised that efforts have been made both to salvage some mentions of him from this historian, and to insist that these were not uncritical repetitions of what Christians were at that time claiming, but were based on independent information. On this latter point, Holding dismisses as "senseless" a statement he ascribes to me, namely that, even if genuine, the two passages would be "too late to be of decisive importance". What I actually wrote was:

"Even if Josephus did make some (perhaps uncomplimentary, or at best neutral) reference to Jesus that has been reworked in the longer passage into the present eulogy by a Christian hand, the date of the work in which both passages occur (A.D. 93) makes it too late to be of decisive importance for the historicity of Jesus; for at least some of the gospel accounts, placing Jesus in Pilate’s Palestine, were in written form by then, and Josephus could, like Tacitus, have taken his information from what Christians were by then saying. This would be quite in accordance with his largely uncritical attitude to his sources in this late work where — as is noted in the new English edition of Schürer’s The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ — they are often employed ‘not only negligently, but also -at least where it is possible to check them — with great freedom and arbitrariness’, with only ‘occasional’ evidence of any critical attitude towards them" (JL, pp. 55 f.).

The Catholic scholar J. P. Meier admits that it is quite likely that Josephus had "met or heard about Christians" in Rome after the Jewish War. But for Holding, Josephus (like any historian who chanced to make or can be alleged to have made some mention of Christ or Christians) was "generally reliable" and so can be presumed to have sifted his information with the utmost care.

Holding begins his criticisms, as do many of my critics, by questioning my qualifications to say anything on the subject at all. His final dismissal of my views as "the result of a fallen and sinful human nature, and nothing more" is just childish. His case is not improved by his accusations of "outright misrepresentation to get round the evidence", of ignoring "a great deal" of it, and of treating what is left "most unfairly". My readers will surely find that such charges recoil on his own performance.

Addendum on Holding’s responses to this article

Characterization of me as “a measly professor of German spouting balderdash dug up from old books by F.C. Baur” well illustrates the abusive and vituperative material that dominates these responses.[4] One cannot expect to find much in such writing that is worthy of serious attention, and so I will restrict myself to scrutiny of what is said about the evidence of Pliny. It well illustrates the niveau of the whole.

Holding reiterates his claim that Pliny is “a decisive source for the historicity of Jesus” and that the Christians and ex-Christians whom he interrogated believed their ethical principles to be Jesus’ teachings. These principles are specified in Pliny’s letter as “not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded”. Most of this is already in the Decalogue and so is not even specifically Christian. That such behaviour was believed to be required by the Christian god does not make it teaching of a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Pliny’s interrogations occurred ca. A.D.112. By then gospels had been written, and so the defendants may have known of the story that Jesus had lived as a man in Palestine, although Pliny does not suggest that they told him as much. However, if his testimony is to be accepted as “decisive” for Jesus’ historicity, he must have known of Jesus’ life independently of Christian testimony and so before what he heard from Christians in A.D.112. But, contrary to what Holding supposes, he does not suggest that, before reaching his province as governor, he knew enough of Christianity to distinguish Christians from non-Christians. He did not himself recognize the persons brought before him to be Christians, but questioned them only because other people had denounced them as Christians (ad me tamquam Christiani deferebantur). The ecclesiastical historian W.H.C. Frend states the position well: “Pliny writes as though he knew that there were such people as Christians, and that they committed crimes, but otherwise had to learn as the inquiry proceeded” (Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church Oxford: Blackwell, 1965, p.220).

Some of those who claimed to have already relinquished their faith told Pliny that theirs had been a religious cult, “the whole of whose guilt” consisted in meeting before daybreak on a certain fixed day to sing “a hymn to Christ as a god”. What they thereby meant to affirm was that this was all perfectly harmless and not to be held against them as ‘guilt’ at all, Holding, however, maintains that Pliny himself “notes that this identification of Christ as a god is part of their ‘guilt’ or ‘error'”, and so he must have already believed that Christ was merely human and not a god at all. But it was the persons under interrogation, not the governor, who volunteered the information that Christians worshipped Christ as a god. All that Pliny’s response shows is that he regarded this Christ as a fanciful addition to the traditional gods of Rome whom (as we know from other of his writings) he respected. As we saw, his inquiries convinced him that Christianity was “an extravagant superstition”. This does not commit him to the view that Christ had been a historical personage.

That some of those whom Pliny interrogated were ready to die for their faith did not, to my mind, establish its truth, and I pointed out that such fanaticism was evidenced in antiquity by orthodox Jews and by Christian heretics, and has been evidenced quite recently by some religious and other groups (I mentioned Fascists and Communists). Holding dismisses these perfectly true statements as “merely generalizing bigotry” on my part. He thinks that what I said implies “the complete stupidity of ancient peoples” and is therefore “nothing more than chronological snobbery”. But, as I noted, dying for questionable convictions (religious and other) is as much in evidence in modern times as of yore; and it certainly does not necessarily entail stupidity. Sometimes it is the most intelligent persons whose thinking goes furthest astray, since intelligent people are well equipped to answer objections to their faiths. It is such people who attract less well-informed followers who display the kind of “obstinacy and unbending perversity” with which Pliny found himself confronted. Literacy was rare in those days, and few were in a position to avail themselves of the “libraries” and “records” which, Holding confidently supposes, confirmed their beliefs. He continues: “It is typical skeptical psychomanipulation to portray all religious believers as crazed, foaming-at-the-mouth stoolies …. without a critical thought in their head …. Wells is merely projecting his own evaluation of religious believers onto the persons who composed the early church”.

This final sentence, imputing to me disrespect for all religious believers, is precisely the kind of speculation about what motivates someone’s opinions of which Holding at every turn accuses me, and which, according to him, makes my whole article worthless “psychological bufoonery”, a product of my “egomania”. I have repeatedly acknowledged my debt to numerous Christian scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including many still living; and that I have been able to show that much in my account has the backing of such scholars neither weakens my position nor evidences contempt for believers. Nor, I would add, is it mere “balderdash from old books”.


[1] See Tekton 1-1-1 spotted February 1, 2000.

[2] The Thallus question, as well as the related Phlegon question, is also thoroughly addressed by Richard Carrier, cf. Thallus.

[3] Richard Carrier notes that the conclusion here is correct but for a different reason: Pilate could not have executed Jesus as a procurator even in Tacitus’ own day much less in the time of Tiberius, and therefore any official record of this act would refer to Pilate as prefect, not procurator. Before even half a century after Tacitus wrote, procurators never had general juridical power of any kind, much less the power to execute criminals. However, it could happen that a prefect might also be appointed procurator at the same time, and there are some reasons to believe Pilate may have held both positions (see A.H.M. Jones, “Procurators and Prefects in the Early Principate,” Studies in Roman Government and Law, 1968, pp. 117-25).

[4] See his “Wells Without Water” and “Too Many Dips in the Drink,” spotted September 27, 2000.

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