Carrier on Pliny and Tacitus from OHJ

 

We can see Josephus is a wash. That leaves only two other authors who wrote before 120 ce that actually mention Jesus (or at least, Christ): Pliny the Younger and Tacitus.[97] These authors are particularly significant because they were not only contemporaries but best friends, who frequently corresponded and exchanged information for writing their histories, and were governing adjacent provinces at the very time Pliny first discovered what Christians preached.[98] Pliny tells us that he had no idea what Christians were or believed until he interrogated some of them and discovered it was some sort of base superstition involving the worship of a certain 'Christ' who was something like a God (quasi deo\ but he gives no further details about him (not even the name 'Jesus'), and says nothing pertinent to establishing historicity.[99]

At best, we might assume these Christians repeated to Pliny material from the Gospels (at least some of those had been in circulation by then), but as such this is not independent evidence and therefore useless. Pliny's procedure involved no independent fact-checking, and from his behavior and attitude, we can conclude his effort would have been typical, and thus Tacitus is unlikely to have done any better. Pliny had been governor of Bithynia (now northern Turkey) for over a year already before even learning there were any Christians in his province, and before that he held the post of consul (the highest possible office in the entire Roman Empire, short of actually being emperor). He had also been a lawyer in Roman courts for several decades, then served in Rome as praetor (the ancient equivalent of both chief of police and attorney general), and then served as one of Trajan's top legal advisors for several years before he was appointed to govern Bithynia. And yet, he tells us. he had never attended a trial of Christians and knew nothing of what they believed or what crimes they were guilty of. This confirms that his father, Pliny the Elder, never discussed Christians in his account of the Neronian fire—despite having been an eyewitness to those events and devoting an entire volume to that year (though his account is now lost). For if he had, his devoted admirer, nephew and adopted son Pliny the Younger Would surely have read it and thus would not have known 'nothing' about Christians as he reports in his letter to Trajan.

We can therefore assume Tacitus would have been no better or otherwise informed when he wrote that Nero scapegoated the Christians for burning down the heart of Rome in 64 ce. The present text of Tacitus reads:

Nero found culprits and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on those hated for their abominations, whom the people called Chrestians [sic], Christ, the author of this name, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius, and the most mischievous superstition, cheeked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea. the source of this evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous or shameful flow in from every part of the world and become popular.

Accordingly, arrests were first made of those who confessed; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city as because of the hatred of mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their death. . . . [Tacitus here describes their torments] Hence, even for criminals who deserved the most extreme punishments, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it no longer appeared that they were being destroyed for the public good, but rather to glut the cruelty of one man.

They key line here is 'Christ, the author of this name, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius'. This is the first-ever reference to a historical Jesus outside the NT, dating to around 116 ce (very near our cut-off date for usable evidence).[100]

If the passage is authentic. I elsewhere demonstrate (following the arguments of scholars before me who have argued the same) that this line is probably an interpolation, and that Tacitus in fact originally described not the Christians being scapegoated for the fire, but followers of the Jewish instigator Chrestus first suppressed under Claudius (as reported by Suetonius: see §11). The line about Christ being executed by Pilate was added sometime after the mid-fourth century. Before then, no one, Christian or non-Christian, ever heard of this persecution event under Nero, or of any reference to Christians in Tacitus; this event is not mentioned even when second-century Christians told stories of Nero persecuting Christians![101] However, we need not rely on that conclusion for the present analysis, and to demonstrate that I will simply assume for the sake of argument that this passage is entirely authentic as received.

If we instead assume the passage has not been tampered with, then where would Tacitus have learned of this? Not likely from government records. His report contains no distinctive information that one would expect from such a source, and Tacitus would not have wasted countless hours of his life hunting through obscure archives just to verify a single embarrassing anecdote the Christians themselves were already admitting to. Moreover, it is very unlikely any such records would have survived in Rome for Tacitus to consult, the capitol's libraries having burned to the ground at least twice in the interim, once under Nero, and again under Titus.[102]

It's also unlikely Tacitus learned of this from earlier historians of Nero (such as Pliny the Elder, as discussed in §3), since had they written about Christians we would probably know of this, from their histories having been preserved (precisely because they mentioned Christ) or quoted (by Christians or their critics). Likewise, that Christians appear to have had no knowledge of the Neronian persecution having any connection whatever with the burning of Rome further entails no earlier historian is likely to have made such a connection either (as otherwise such pervasive ignorance even by the Christians themselves is nearly inexplicable). If Tacitus really made such a connection, he was apparently the first, and possibly by mistake (conflating some other persecution of Christians, or even a Christian legend about a persecution that never really happened, with the burning of Rome; for as we shall see, Suetonius had no knowledge of such a connection, either).

But we know Tacitus asked Pliny for information to include in his historical books. Thus the fact that Pliny discovered what Christians preached in 110 ce, right when Tacitus was governing an adjoining province and writing his histories, and just a few years before Tacitus completed h\s Annals before 117 ce, suggests the most likely chain of information was Christians telling Pliny about the Gospels, then Pliny telling Tacitus, and Tacitus then reporting (what would be to him) the most embarrassing details in his Annals. That would explain why his information matches what was already reported in the Gospels by that time and gives no further detail. At the very least, this cannot be ruled out. Accordingly, we cannot verify that the information in Tacitus comes from any source independent of the Gospels. And non-independent evidence carries zero weight.

So either Tacitus never mentioned Christ or his mention of Christ cannot be shown to be independent testimony. Either way, his information has no effect on the probability of myth or historicity. And neither does the information recorded by Pliny.

Indeed, even if we blow past all probability and imagine that somehow Tacitus is paraphrasing or adapting a story from an earlier historian of Nero, Christians could already have been preaching the exoteric myth (some form of proto-Mark, for example) in 64, as an allegory (an extended parable) whose real meaning (it's esoteric meaning, that of a cosmic event) would be explained only to initiates (see Elements 13 and 14). Thus even a mention of Christ being crucified by Pilate at that date, if such a detail was only learned from Christians, would not strongly confirm historicity. And even if Christians hadn't yet gelled this exoteric myth by then, their claims that Jesus was celestially crucified by the 'rulers of this world' during the reign of Pilate could easily be misunderstood by a half-interested Roman audience as crucified by Pilate. Thus, even the 'cosmic crucifixion' of minimal mythicism could so easily be misreported in a historicist fashion that our inability to rule that possibility out further complicates third-hand evidence such as this.

And that only compounds the fact that, as I've shown, Tacitus almost certainly had no such Neronian-era source, was most likely just reporting information relayed to him from Pliny (who in turn learned it from second-century Christian informants), or taking his information directly from Christians himself. If he originally even mentioned Christians at all. This passage therefore has zero effect on the probability of either history or myth.

 

Notes :

97. Pliny. Letters 10.96: and Tacitus. Annals 15.44. See. e.g.. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 23-29 and 39-53: Theissen and Merz. Historical Jesus. pp. 79-83: and R.T. France. The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove. IL: InterVarsity Press. 1986). pp. 2I-23 and 42-43: Howard Clark Kee. Jesus in History: An approach to the Study of the Gospels (New York: Harcourt Brace .lovanovich. 2nd edn. 1970). pp. 45-47: and also Bradley Peper and Mark DelCogliano. 'The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence', in The Historical Jesus in Context (ed. Levine. Allison and Crossan). pp. 366-71. For extensive critical discussion see also Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man. pp. 587-630 and 637-42.

98. On their being best friends, see evidence summarized in Richard Carrier. Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013 (Amherst. NY: Prometheus. 2014). p. 372 n. 6.

99. For my complete analysis of this passage see Carrier. Not the Impossible Faith. pp. 418-22: see also Knight. Disciples of the Beloved One. pp. 34-36 and 209-12. Note that Pliny's hesitant phrase "as if to a God' {quasi deo) could reflect his response to the exoteric myth (if his Christian informants were simply repeating the Gospels to him. in which Jesus is allegorically presented as a historical man) or the esoteric one (Jesus then being confusingly explained to him as a celestial archangel or demigod whom they pray to. but not exactly equal to "God"). It could also be a textual corruption, as there is some external evidence that Pliny may have originally written Christo et Deo. "to Christ and God", or Christo ut Deo. "to Christ as God". See Doherty. Jesus: Neither God nor Man. p. 640.

100. On dating the text: in Tacitus, Annals 2.61 and 4.4-5. references are made to Trajan's annexation of Parthian territories in 116 ce but not their loss a year or two later.

101. See Richard Carrier. 'The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus. Annals 15.44', Vigiliae christianae 68 (2014), pp. 1-20.

102. The fire of 64 ce is of course being recorded by Tacitus himself (and Cassius Dio. Roman History 62.16-18; also Pliny the Elder. Natural History 17.1.5, who was living in Rome at the time): the fire of 80 ce is reported in Suetonius, Titus 8.3 (and Domitian was tasked with rebuilding the libraries: Suetonius. Domitian 20). Officially published records that we know Tacitus relied upon, like the acts of the Senate, would have survived in libraries elsewhere in the empire, but those would not mention an obscure execution in Judea. However, we must dismiss the argument that Tacitus can't have been citing government records because he gets the office of Pilate wrong, mis-identifying him as a procurator when in fact he was a prefect, because Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect (as most equestrian governors were), and Tacitus had particular rhetorical reasons to prefer mentioning the procuratorial office in a passage like this (it was more embarrassing, and more appalling, to be executed by a mere business manager). See Carrier, Hitler Homer Bible Christ, pp. 103-40.

 


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