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Severus Is Not Quoting Tacitus: A Rebuttal to Eric Laupot (2006)

Richard Carrier


In "Tacitus' Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans," a paper that was originally published in Vigiliae Christianae (54.3, 2000: pp. 233-47), Eric Laupot argues that a passage in Sulpicius Severus actually comes from the lost section of the Histories by Tacitus, and is therefore a very early testimony to first century Christianity. In particular, he claims it proves that the original "Christians" represented a major Jewish rebel movement (almost completely unrelated to the Christians of the New Testament) that participated in the War of 66-70 A.D. and used the Temple as its base of operations. However, Laupot's arguments are multiply flawed, and no such conclusion is warranted. The following rebuttal is by no means comprehensive (many more problems could be cited), but aims to summarize the main points that are fatal to Laupot's argument.

The passage in question reads (in my own translation):

It is reported that Titus had first deliberated, in a council called up for the purpose, whether he should destroy a Temple of such workmanship. For it seemed improper to some that a sacred shrine, famous beyond everything mortal, should be destroyed, a shrine which could serve as a testimony to Roman moderation, but if torn down would provide a continual evidence of their cruelty. But, on the other hand, others, even Titus himself, argued the Temple had to be torn down above all things, so the religion of the Jews and Christians could be swept away even more completely. For these religions, although hostile to each other, nevertheless arose from the very same authors. The Christians appeared from among the Jews, so with the foundation torn away, the offspring will easily pass away. And so by the will of God, once everyone's mind was inspired to the task, the Temple was destroyed.

Fertur Titus adhibito consilio prius deliberasse, an templum tanti operis everteret. Etenim nonnullis videbatur, aedem sacratam ultra omnia mortalia illustrem non oportere deleri, quae servata modestiae Romanae testimonium, diruta perennem crudelitatis notam praeberet. At contra alii et Titus ipse evertendum in primis templum censebant, quo plenius Iudaeorum et Christianorum religio tolleretur: quippe has religiones, licet contrarias sibi, isdem tamen ab auctoribus profectas. Christianos ex Iudaeis extitisse: radice sublata stirpem facile perituram. Ita Dei nutu accensis omnium animis templum dirutum.

                                           (Sulpicius Severus Chronica 2.30.6-8)

The key words here reveal that Laupot is stretching the evidence even from the beginning. The word radix often refers to the foundations of physical structures, and it is a physical structure whose destruction is being contemplated. And by Laupot's own admission, stirps routinely means descendants (as well as root, plant, or stem), not just branch, and it is the common descendants of the shared originators (auctores, "founders") whose destruction is being sought. Therefore, my translation actually fits the context better than his. And yet when we see it in this light, there is no obvious link to Isaiah at all--the same words could readily be inspired by the context even for an author who knew nothing of Isaiah. But since Laupot's argument requires such a connection, it is clear his entire argument rests on a very thin thread of supposition.

But even if we buy into that supposition, Laupot's argument remains weak, and this is what I shall argue below. Note that Laupot's case for the origin of the Christian appellation "Nazareans" from Isaiah 11:1 is well argued and may be correct. However, the rest of his argument suffers from a fundamental flaw: failing to rule out plausible alternative hypotheses. Besides the hypothesis above (that the phrase was simply an obvious logical way to articulate the thinking of Titus), there are at least two others that Laupot also does not consider or argue against: (1) that the original passage (whether from Tacitus or anyone else) referred to the Zealots, and a later Christian redactor simply swapped "Christian" for "Zealot," or, much more probably, (2) that the passage was entirely written or redacted by a 4th-century Judeo-Christian author. We shall discuss each of these in turn.

Zealots Rather than Christians

The fact that the Christians called themselves Nazareans (or were called that by others) does not entail the Jewish root word netser only ever applied to their movement, nor does the use of netser entail an allusion to a proper name, since such a word (and the corresponding passage from Isaiah) could be used to refer to any "branch" of Judaism--especially any branch that had Davidic messianic expectations. And Christianity was certainly not the only such faction among the Jews.

In fact, such a metaphor and reference is more probable if the original text said "Zealots" and not "Christians," and therefore Laupot's thesis is less probable than the Zealot thesis. This is because the content of the passage in question makes absolutely no sense as a reference to any Christians we know from any source. All other sources know only of Christians who were an anti-Temple movement even as early as the prewar letters of Paul, for whom destroying the Temple would have had no effect at all. This was surely known to anyone in Titus' staff who knew enough to grasp the linguistic and Biblical nuances required by Laupot's argument. If anyone understood Christianity that well, they could not have been so ignorant as to think destroying the Temple would do any good.

Laupot might insist that the anti-Temple structure of Christian theology (which at every level used Jesus to supplant the Temple cult as obsolete) was a late development, but he would then have to argue that all the epistles are postwar forgeries, which is surely an incredible thesis. He would also have to argue that Acts is almost entirely fiction. Yet this is the only way his theory could ever hope to attain even a modicum of probability--unless, of course, he insisted that Pauline Christianity developed in parallel to the "rebel movement" even before the war. But for such a "rebel" faction of Christianity there is absolutely no evidence, not even in the letters of Paul, and there is no evidence the Romans ever encountered such a thing.

Indeed, the very Histories of Tacitus all but proves this: we still have the first half of book 5 directly from Tacitus, which covers the Jewish War all the way up to the battle for Jerusalem (where the text cuts off in the middle of his detailed account of the siege), and yet never once are Christians mentioned as a force the Romans had to contend with or were worried about. Tacitus devotes his first ten chapters of book 5 to detailing the history and geography of Judaea as faced by the legions of Titus. No Christians. In chapter 12 he discusses the importance of the Temple and the fact that two factions of the Jews were attacking each other for control of the Temple and Jerusalem--the factions of Eleazar and John. This is exactly what is reported by Josephus, who also records that Eleazar was the leader of the Zealots and at the time using the Temple as their base of operations (Jewish War 4.216-29). Laupot's thesis requires Tacitus to have believed the Christians were using the Temple as a base of operations, and while his passage from Severus mentions two factions "hostile to each other," here Tacitus mentions two such factions, one of which is definitely the Zealots, but neither of which is Christian. Nor even in what survives on the siege of Jerusalem (Histories 2.14-26) is any mention made of Christians. So it would seem next to impossible that Tacitus ever thought or wrote that Christians were a military force vexing Rome by using the Temple as their base of operations. But he did know the Zealots were.

In contrast, it is only Paul whom Acts tells us went to Rome for an audience with Nero, and the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan (Letters 10.96-97) shows no awareness of any "rebel" movement. Yet this exchange took place shortly before Tacitus wrote the Annals (in which Tacitus describes Christianity in 15.44), when Tacitus was governing a neighboring province to Pliny, his good friend and regular correspondent--which means Pliny is the most probable source of information for Tacitus' knowledge of Christianity. Conversely, if Tacitus knew of a rebel Christian movement that even Titus wanted crushed, he surely would have told his friend about it. Yet, again, Pliny shows no awareness of any such threat, and even the emperor Trajan himself explicitly tells Pliny not to make any special effort to crush the Christian movement. Therefore, Laupot's thesis utterly fails to fit the surrounding evidence, and lacks any evidence in its support.

However, the passage Laupot argues from makes perfect sense if it originally named the Zealots instead of the Christians. As Laupot himself explains, his thesis requires that the "Christians" in this passage constituted a group that aimed to use the Temple as a military base of operations for restoring Israel's liberty (and hence God's promised monarchy). But that describes the Zealots, not any Christians we know from any source. And the Zealots were also an offshoot of the Jews with Davidic messianic expectations (as a faction of the Essenes per Hippolytus Refutation of All Heresies 9.26.2), just as the Christians probably were (per Sid Green, "From Which Religious Sect Did Jesus Emerge?"). Furthermore, the Zealot movement was obsessively Temple-focused (per Josephus, Jewish War 4 & 5).

Destroying the Temple would indeed be essential to stamping out the Zealot ideology, and that, too, would be obvious to any informed advisor--indeed, it would be obvious even to Titus himself. And so we have it from an actual eyewitness: Josephus blames the war on the Zealots, gives a completely different account of the reasons the Temple was destroyed, and makes no mention of any participation of Christians in the war, nor any deliberation about Christians by Titus. All of this is so even though Josephus was with Titus for the whole relevant part of the war (Jewish War 6, esp. § 236-61) and thus would have been present at the debate Laupot alleges to have taken place there. Josephus may even have been the very advisor who summoned the allusion to Isaiah in describing the Zealots as a "branch" of the Temple Jews seeking to restore Israel to its divinely-promised freedom. That Josephus places the Zealots in the conceptual place of the Christians here--as the only offshoot of Judaism he records that needed to be crushed by the Romans, and that could only be crushed by destroying the Temple--provides strong evidence for the Zealot thesis, evidence Laupot's thesis completely lacks. And the Zealot thesis fits all other surrounding evidence in exactly the way Laupot's thesis does not.

Later redactors could easily have changed Zealotes to Christiani without changing the style of the passage at all, thus escaping every tool Laupot claims to have for excluding imitators or redactors. Josephus certainly describes the Zealots actually fighting with the Jews (with both military actions and regular assassinations)--even Tacitus himself reports this--and so the two would indeed be called "hostile" to each other. And since everything in Laupot's argument applies equally well to Zealots (they, too, were a branch of Judaism that probably had the Davidic messianic expectations of the Temple cult "root"), this would appear to be a considerably stronger thesis than his. And it agrees with most scholars, as Laupot himself observes, who believe the passage has been subject to Christian redaction.

Laupot claims that Severus would not perpetrate or accept a redacted "forgery" like this, but this argument makes no sense at all. Severus does not name the passage's author. In fact, he never even claims to be quoting anyone. He merely says "it was reported" that Titus said and did all that. Therefore, there could be no claim of forgery or doctoring from his peers. Only after some 19th century scholar "assumed" the passage came from Tacitus did even the question of forgery or redaction arise. Of course, it is possible that Tacitus himself, typically poorly informed about the Jews, actually mistook the Zealots for the Christians--for the very same reasons that Laupot proposes (and both the Zealots and the Christians appear to have been Essene movements). But then we would expect some mention of their role in the upcoming war in Annals 15.44. It is more likely, especially if everything else Laupot argues is correct (e.g. if this passage came from Tacitus or any early author), it originally said "Zealots" and not "Christians." Laupot cannot prove otherwise.

Late Source Rather than Tacitus

But more probable than even that is the theory that this passage in Severus does not come from Tacitus at all, but rather some 4th-century Judeo-Christian author, or Severus himself. Many Christian authors had the required skill set. Jerome, for example, was an ample master of Hebrew and the Old Testament, and he was not the only one. Therefore, any number of authors in the 4th century could have written the passage exactly as Laupot argues, complete with the pun on netser and the paraphrase of Isaiah and the root-branch metaphor.

There are several reasons this is the most probable theory. First of all, there is no indication the passage even is a quote. Severus only says "Titus is reported to have deliberated..." He never mentions Tacitus as his source, and we know Severus must have used sources other than Tacitus in the same work. Moreover, the manner of expression ("Titus is reported to have deliberated") and non-Tacitean vocabulary (the repeated use of religio) suggests Severus is speaking in his own voice, not someone else's.

There is in fact no good case for Tacitean authorship. The passage in question is much too brief to confirm its authorship by any stylistic analysis accepted by 20th-century scholars. Of course, even if Tacitean, most scholars agree the material has been tampered with, and even Laupot admits to this when he notes that Tacitus would never use the word religio. But there is no reason to believe it originated with Tacitus anyway: none of the words or phrases are peculiar to Tacitus (even the ones Laupot calls attention to are routinely found throughout Latin literature), and the grammar is actually un-Tacitean in my professional opinion. Having passed an advanced course on Tacitean style, I must say this passage does not look like Tacitus. It is too wordy. Tacitus is infamous for his amazingly tight and concise style. And in that very vein, the passage lacks the most trademark of Tacitean characteristics: frequent use of the ablative absolute to form entire sentences.

But the final blow is the fact that a contemporary of Severus, Paulus Orosius, records a very similar story in completely different words. Comparing the two, it is undeniable that Severus and Orosius are drawing from a common source (or from each other). Yet Orosius makes no mention of "destroying the Christians" as a reason for destroying the Temple voiced by Titus or anyone else. Instead, Orosius says:

After seizing the Temple, which he nevertheless admired because of its workmanship and antiquity, Titus deliberated for a long time whether to set on fire this inspiration of the enemy, or spare it as a testimony to his victory. But since the Church of God had already grown very fruitfully throughout the whole world, this temple was essentially vain and pointless, and suitable for no good use to anyone, so by the will of God it had to be destroyed. And so, once the emperor was pronounced by the army, Titus burned the Temple in Jerusalem.

Quod tamen postquam in potestatem redactum opere atque antiquitate suspexit, diu deliberavit, utrum tamquam incitamentum hostium incenderet, an in testimonium victoriae reservaret. Sed Ecclesia Dei jam per totum orbem uberrime germinante, hoc tamquam effetum ac vacuum, nullique usui bono commodum, arbitrio Dei auferendum fuit. Itaque Titus imperator ab exercitu pronuntiatus, templum in Hierosolymis incendit.

                                           (History Against the Pagans 7.9.4-6)

Orosius therefore says nothing about Titus knowing anything about Christians, and does not say what reason Titus himself gave for deciding to destroy the Temple--except that it was an "incitement to the enemy" (which certainly would not have been true for any Christians we know). What Orosius says instead is that God didn't need the Temple any more and so it was God's will that it be destroyed. God let Titus destroy it.

That Orosius gives a completely different account than Severus, while both clearly employed a common source, is a serious problem for Laupot. We can only be sure the material that is shared by two authors quoting or paraphrasing a common source actually originated from that source. And this rule is fatal for Laupot. For Severus completes his story in almost exactly the same way as Orosius: "and so, at the pleasure of God ... the Temple was destroyed" (Chronica 2.30.8), "and so, by the will of God, the Temple had to be destroyed" (History Against the Pagans 7.9.6). This confirms the common source theory--yet clearly this source could not have been Tacitus! Tacitus would not have included this element of the story (that the Temple was destroyed because of the will of God), for Tacitus is well noted for excluding divine causation from his historical accounts. Even if Tacitus, unknown to us, once dared to credit gods with moving historical events, he would never have said God's reason was the fact that Christianity was now large enough to make the Temple obsolete. Indeed, that is exactly the opposite of what Laupot's thesis requires Tacitus to have said. Instead, only a Christian apologist could ever have contrived such a notion. So it would seem quite obvious that whatever source Severus and Orosius share would have a Christian author.

As far as I can see, this destroys Laupot's case. For now we have a different, and far more probable theory of how this passage came to be written, even assuming everything Laupot says about the netser connection and the Isaiah paraphrase is true (statistics and all). For it would seem quite certain that some 4th-century Christian author wrote the original passage (possibly, though not necessarily, drawing loosely on Tacitus), and Orosius and Severus are both relying on that author. Their shared source attributed the event to divine causation, which Tacitus would never do--but a 4th-century Christian author certainly would, especially since the alleged purpose of God carries a pro-Christian slant. And a 4th-century Christian author could have all the knowledge and skills to produce the passage even as Laupot theorizes, and argues for statistically. Therefore, it is far more probable that the passage comes from a 4th-century Christian author, and not from Tacitus.

It is also possible that Severus is the origin of the material that Laupot insists could not be his. Suppose for a moment that Orosius was more faithful to their source. On this assumption, it would follow that Severus simply inferred that the growth of the church was the reason Titus went ahead and burned the Temple, from the fact that his source (shared by Orosius) said the size of the Church made the Temple obsolete. After all, Orosius knows nothing of such an inference about Titus, and though both share the same source, only Severus inserts this material--which even seems to say the exact opposite of what Orosius says (that destroying the Temple was harmless, rather than a threat, to the Christian Church).

And this is where Laupot's probability argument derails: Laupot assumes there was no other possible cause of the correspondence, and therefore the only thesis other than his own is pure "accident." But that does not follow. We've already seen another possible cause in the Zealot theory, as well as the simple fact that destroying a "base" to cut off a "descendant" of Judaism is simply an obvious way to articulate such an inference. Both of these theories actually carry greater probability than Laupot's.

Even assuming Severus crafted the passage, Laupot's arguments against this still don't hold up. Severus certainly knew the Bible well enough to be able to paraphrase Isaiah. And the entire "root and branch" metaphor could easily have been inspired by the language used by Orosius (or his source)--that the Church "germinated" and no longer needed the temple from which it came--or by the simple fact that removing a "foundation" to destroy its "descendants" is an obvious turn of phrase, even without Isaiah in mind. Either way, no knowledge of Hebrew was required in order to contrive a root-and-branch metaphor or a "foundation-and-descendant" argument, whether from Isaiah or on one's own.

Supposing Laupot is right that radix and stirps were meant agriculturally (and as we have seen, there is no strong reason to suppose this), agricultural metaphors are quite common throughout ancient literature. Antiquity was an agriculture-based civilization, and everyone was more familiar with agricultural concepts than any others. Such metaphors would be most readily understood by the most people, and therefore authors would, and did, favor them. Severus certainly believed Christians were in fact a "branch" that sprouted from the "root" of Judaism. He also believed that Christianity derived from, but branched away from, the Temple cult. From Orosius we find that their shared source probably already used an agricultural metaphor (germination) and believed the Temple was no longer necessary--which implies that it once had been, and constituted Christianity's root. And Severus could certainly have believed that Titus would not have known this, but would have instead seen the size of the Christian Church as a menace, rather than a boon.

It is not at all improbable that Severus would have put all these pieces together and inferred that Titus destroyed the Temple to fulfill God's will because he believed destroying the Temple would sever Christianity's "root" (by destroying its radix, "base") and thus kill the "branch" (the stirpes, "descendants"). This assumption could surely evoke the Isaiah passage as a stylistic source of the metaphor--though it didn't have to, since Temple foundations and physical descendants already inspired the metaphor on their own (especially the very words radix and stirps). That this also happened to be the same connection made in the 1st century by or about the Christians in forming their original name would then be a coincidence--but not a coincidence born of pure random chance, as Laupot thinks (and his statistical argument requires). Rather, it would be a coincidence born of the fact that both inferences were made in the same way, from the same core assumptions, in much the same way that the wheel was simultaneously invented by several cultures--not because of blind chance, but because the same thinking was set to the task of solving the same problem.

So I think ordinary authorial creativity could have lead to the colorful (but fictional) embellishment that Severus added to the story, even if Severus knew nothing of the netser connection that Laupot sees. This certainly seems more probable than that Orosius would consciously exclude so crucial a point, as well as so clever a turn of phrase, in his own account of the same story, even though he clearly used the same source as Severus. But even if someone should disagree with me about this, it still follows that a 4th-century Christian author with knowledge of Hebrew and Christian tradition, comparable to that possessed by Jerome (hence conforming to all the requirements set by Laupot himself for crafting the passage) is the most probable source. This is even more probable than the theory that Tacitus (or someone comparably early) originally wrote about Zealots rather than Christians, and yet even that theory is more probable than Laupot's. Therefore, there is no reason to believe the passage in question ever came from Tacitus, or if it did, that it originally mentioned Christians.

Copyright ©2006 Richard Carrier and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.