Ted, please permit me several comments with regard to this subject matter. First let me say that I have Dawkin’s book as an iPad app, and while I applaud his attempt to preach to children on this subject, I agree that he has done so with mixed success. I read the review that you cite and with which you take issue.I think it is significant to note that the author of the review comes from a Jewish background and is apparently either a Jewish atheist which is what I call myself or at the very least, a highly secularized Jew. One thing that necessarily results from this is that when it comes to Christianity, he would have no investment or belief in the truth or historicity of the New Testament. Therefore he may merely be projecting his own rejection of all things mythical onto the public at large when it comes to Christianity. It would be interesting to see whether he rejects all of the Old Testament’s Jewish myths as well.
The second point I have relates to Dawkins’ book, and is that when engaged in a war, it is often the case that one will overstate their position or take a starting position that is more extreme than what they are willing to accept as victory. An oversimplified example of this might be seen in the beginnings of the women’s movement in the late 60s and early 70s where women at the forefront of that sociological battle would burn their bras in demonstration. Their point in doing so was never that women should not wear bras or even that men made them wear them, it was an attention grab. in this case, therefore, Dawkins’ antagonistic tone is part of the engagement procedure.
My third comment relates to Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality. As mentioned in the review, the chapter regarding evolution is wonderful. As I have mentioned elsewhere in the forums, my wife, though a medical practitioner, is a creationist. I sat down with her one day and went through Dawkins’ chapter from the Magic of Reality on evolution. As we read his discussion of ancestors and the iterations of great-grandparents, I do believe that she had an “aha” moment. She started to get it. This is not insignificant. What Dawkins is doing is important and clearly, can be effective.
Maybe, I think, all the reviewer is really saying is that he objects to Dawkins’ sarcasm and, as my father always tries to tell me,”It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Unfortunately, I, like Dawkins, don’t always follow that advice.
Having grown up in Chicago, I have fond memories of the late columnist for the Chicago Daily News and Sun Times, Sydney J. Harris. He would, every so often, instead of his normal editorial column, run a small compendium of “Things I Learned on my Way to Looking up Other Things” (and this before there was even a notion that an “Internet” might someday exist. Anyway, here is something I found tonight while looking up something else. I thought it might be interesting for course participants, so I am posting it here. Please forgive me if I am wasting your time.
THE JESUS PUZZLE
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Major items: 7 arguments against mythicism; Thallus & Phlegon; Pliny; Suetonius; Tacitus; Mara bar-Serapion; Talmud; Josephus; Special M & L; Signs Source; Q
Robert E. Van Voorst: Jesus Outside the New Testament
We come now to the most recent defender of the historical Jesus, Robert Van Voorst. His anti-mythicist argument forms a short introduction to a larger study, Jesus Outside the New Testament, but even in the main part of the book it is illuminating to look at some of the ways he analyses the outside record to throw light on the historical Jesus.
Van Voorst’s opening sentence of Chapter One is worth commenting on: “Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential person in history.” There are few who would dispute this; and even mythicists could agree if the word “person” were changed to “figure,” since it would leave open the question as to whether such a figure as is found in the Gospels actually existed as an historical individual. But the comment worth making is this. Quite apart from what may be Van Voorst’s own confessional interests (which I will not presume to know), this statement, one shared by so many, religious and otherwise, demonstrates what a sea change would be involved, what a shocking reorientation would be required for much of the world, if strong doubt on the very existence of that “most influential person” could be established. It is not surprising that interests, both religious and secular, have traditionally mounted a campaign against it, a tooth and nail struggle, a disdainful dismissal of the very idea and those who promote it.
After a survey of the history of research into the historical Jesus, Van Voorst tackles “the noisy side current” of Jesus mythicism. He notes that over one hundred books and essays during the last two centuries have denied the existence of Jesus. Their arguments, he says, are dismissed as “weak and bizarre” by contemporary New Testament scholars. Van Voorst is quite right in saying that “mainstream scholarship today finds it unimportant” [p.6, n.9]. Most of their comment (such as those quoted by Michael Grant) are limited to expressions of contempt.
But contempt is not to be mistaken for refutation. After reviewing the opponents of Jesus mythicism we have already surveyed, Van Voorst focuses on G. A. Wells, “the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis” (a quote from R. Joseph Hoffmann), and he summarizes seven points made by contemporary commentators such as France against Wells’ case. If we hope to find any in-depth refutation here, we will be sorely disappointed. It covers exactly three pages. Yet in that limited span, Van Voorst manages to lay out several questionable and even fallacious ‘defenses.’
“First, Wells misinterprets Paul’s relative silence about some details in the life of Jesus: the exact time of his life, the exact places of his ministry, that Pontius Pilate condemned him, and so forth. As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or undetailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times, here about the supposed lack of biblical or extrabiblical references to Jesus, are especially perilous….” [p.14]
As we have seen before, when objectors bring up the question of the argument from silence, they invariably treat it in cursory and dismissive fashion. One wonders how the concept can have any standing at all in theories of critical thinking if it is so readily to be rejected, if it is always invalid, as such comments imply. The point is, it is not always invalid. (I note Van Voorst himself appeals to it on page 33.) It can have a degree of force depending on the circumstances, but neither Van Voorst nor anyone else ever discusses those circumstances. He never weighs the degree of expectation one should have for mention of those things that are in fact never mentioned, their usefulness to the argumentation and urgings of the epistle writers, and so on. And look at Van Voorst’s first sentence above: a deliberate attempt to obscure the situation. Paul’s silence is not “relative,” it is complete. It is not on “some” details, it is on all of them. (The only possible exception being his ‘Lord’s Supper’ which in any case his own words indicate is derived from personal revelation.) It is not the “exact” time or “exact” places of his ministry, but any allusion to them at all. For Paul and every other epistle writer for three-quarters of a century to never once mention any such details is astounding, and the “perilous” aspect lies in dismissing this as inconsequential. Van Voorst goes on:
“Moreover, we should not expect to find exact historical references in early Christian literature, which was not written for primarily historical purposes. Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one.” [p.15]
On what basis is it to be considered that only documents written for primarily historical purposes should contain historical information? This is simply another dismissive tactic. As noted earlier, we need to examine the documents themselves and ask whether a certain amount of historical and biographical information about a human Jesus should be expected to be included, by choice, accident or necessity. To claim that there never is such an occasion in those almost 100,000 words by those dozen different writers engaged in discussion and dispute about the nature of their Jesus, about issues of doctrine and authority, about the movement’s history and ethics and the approach of the end of the world, is simply ludicrous. Not only does Van Voorst turn a blind eye to this situation, he appeals to “good evidence” that Paul regarded Jesus as historical. If he is not simply imposing the Gospel picture on Paul, we all know what that ‘evidence’ constitutes: “the brother of the Lord,” “born of woman,” the usage of terms like flesh and blood: a small number of items which mythicists (including myself) have fully taken into account and offered alternate explanations for, explanations that fit into the mythicist scenario. Even more important, Van Voorst is oblivious to the positive things that Paul and others say, which can, as I lay out through the first section of The Jesus Puzzle, only be regarded as pointing to a faith that knows no historical Jesus. One cannot claim to have refuted a theory that has been so shallowly engaged.
“Second, Wells argues that Christians invented the figure of Jesus when they wrote gospels outside Palestine around 100. Not only is this dating far too late for Mark (which was probably written around the year 70), Matthew, and Luke (both of which probably date to the 80s), it cannot explain why the Gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate.”
Wells dates Mark to around the year 90, myself perhaps a little earlier. While it is true that older mythicists were guilty of “radically late dating of the canonical Gospels” (so Price), this is generally not true today. 15 or 20 years later than the preferred date of 70 for Mark is hardly risible, and Van Voorst’s use of “probably” indicates that scholarship lacks its own sufficient basis to lock any of the Gospels into a firm and narrow date range. The basis for dating Mark lies almost entirely on the Little Apocalypse of chapter 13, and there are so many uncertainties about the significance and provenance of this passage that it would be folly to bet one’s life—or Jesus’ life—on any firm date. I myself (The Jesus Puzzle, p.194) have pointed to verses in it which strongly suggest a passage of time after the Jewish War in the mind of the author. And the general dating of all the Gospels within the 1st century is persuasively belied by the lack of any attestation for them for another 50 and more years. Van Voorst is oblivious to all of this, or at least he does not mention it. As for their non-Palestinian provenance, Wells may certainly be wrong; I believe they all come from the Levant, perhaps not too far from Galilee and not further than Antioch or Edessa. But the fact that there are some inaccuracies (which Van Voorst tries to sidestep) indicates that they may indeed not have been composed in the thick of the action.
“Third, Wells claims that the development of the Gospel traditions and historical difficulties within them show that Jesus did not exist. However, development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove nonexistence. (Some of Wells’s readers may get the impression that if there were no inconsistencies in the Gospels, he would seize on that as evidence of their falsehood!)”
The “difficulties” referred to here would have to be enumerated and addressed. However, I suspect that this is a reference to the fact of Gospel evolution through successive writers and redactions, the wholesale reworking of all aspects of the story of Jesus by those who rewrote Mark, the evidence of literary expansion and reworking of episodes, editorial changes by each evangelist to conform to their own theologies and agendas, the pervasive use of midrash on the Old Testament to create elements in every part of the Gospel story, leaving little that could be recognized as experiences remembered, and so on: a vast array of “difficulties” which render the Gospels necessarily non-historical in so many ways. Taken with the maligned argument from silence in the non-Gospel record, one is very tempted—and very justified—to regard it as possible that all of it is indeed “wholesale invention.” The question is not whether this range of difficulties necessarily proves nonexistence. Rather, it is an argument for nonexistence; it is part of the picture which points in this direction. And for detractors not even to acknowledge this, but to dismiss it with the bare contention that “difficulties do not prove non-existence,” as though this simplistic platitude deals it a death-blow, is beneath contempt—and miles from ‘annihilation.’ Van Voorst’s bracketed aside is another transparent attempt at dismissal, a snide remark indicating his disdain for the whole idea, hardly bespeaking a dispassionate and scientific approach to the question.
Price, in his comments on this point, presents the nature of the aforementioned “difficulties” in a woefully inadequate fashion. “[B]eing well-written does not make you fiction. Nor does making mistakes.” This hardly covers or does justice to the range or seriousness of those features of Gospel development, revision, contradiction and disregard for history that lead mythicists to question whether they can possibly contain anything which represents historical reality.
“Fourth, Wells cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.”
I like to style this argument the historicists’ Second Law of Thermodynamics, in reference to that favorite of anti-evolution debaters. No matter how many times creationists have explained to them the simple mistake involved in their appeal to the Second Law, they keep repeating it. In the historicist case, there are a number of simple mistakes. The most obvious is: Who would be around early in the 2nd century to dispute what Christians were beginning to say, especially after the great upheaval and slaughter of the Jewish War and the dispersion of much of the Jewish population of Judea? Moreover, how widespread was the claim even among Christians that an historical Jesus had existed? Ignatius is a virtual lone voice on the matter in the record of the time, though we can assume that voices in Rome a few years later (after Ignatius’ visit and martyrdom there?) were reaching the ears of Tacitus. None of the early Fathers well into the 2nd century show evidence of the phenomenon of apostolic tradition, the tracing of teaching and precedent back to an historical Jesus. 1 John at the end of the 1st century is still focusing solely on revelation to decide accuracy of doctrine: good and bad “spirits” from God and Satan. What surviving 80-100 year old Judaean who might have preserved personal memories of Pilate’s governorship and could confidently declare he had never heard of this Jesus of Nazareth, and who might be in the right place at the right time to encounter those faint beginnings of Gospel awareness, would care enough to speak out or even be listened to? In any case, 1 John and Ignatius bear witness to voices that were raised—from within the Christian community itself—in what seems suspiciously like denial of an historical Jesus; and we can see how they were received: with rabid rejection and ostracism. (From which nothing has changed.)
Van Voorst and others seem to be presupposing an era of communication like our own, widespread and available libraries and archives, a rational and educated populace able to differentiate fact from fiction, memory from wishful thinking, religious truth from scientific and historical truth. Detractors in this vein go so far as to demand that Celsus—a century and a half after the reputed Jesus—should have availed himself of the argument that Jesus never existed. On what grounds, through what exegetical means and abilities, Celsus could possibly have uncovered the fundamental falsity of what Christians had claimed and written about their origin, is never explained. Even a cursory consideration of this whole argument ought to reveal its obvious illusory basis, yet from Goguel to Van Voorst it is regularly parotted as historicity’s Second Law.
Price, too, repeats the same mantra, equally oblivious to the realities of the situation and the limitations of ancient times. He calls Van Voorst’s argument “one of the least discussed but most obvious flaws in the Jesus Myth,” ignoring or ignorant of the many times a response of this nature has been made, including on Internet discussion boards he has been a part of. He also refers to “the absence of internal Christian conflict on this issue,” overlooking the very texts of 1 John and Ignatius which point to that very thing. The dramatic conflict between Gnostic and orthodox expression of the faith (according to which some like to interpret those texts), which began in the early 2nd century, is also a telling indicator. It can be no coincidence that docetic and separationist views of Jesus arose at that time, whereas they had not troubled the Christian mind in the 80 years previous. The concern about whether a god could partake of full humanity is not likely to have arisen until a new trend of the faith developed which claimed that the spiritual Christ had actually been a human man on earth. The otherwise unexplainable lack of conflict over such a matter during almost a century was arguably because no such idea had as yet appeared. (Any Gospel in existence before that time would not have been regarded as history, and would have enjoyed very limited dissemination, as the record shows.)
This is only one example of how the simplistic views and arguments of Price and Van Voorst show no cognizance of the subtlety and complexity of much of the mythicist case, locked as they are into old paradigms and an inflexible adamance against considering any others.
“Fifth, Wells and his predecessors have been far too skeptical about the value of non-Christian witnesses to Jesus, especially Tacitus and Josephus. They point to well-known text-critical and source-critical problems in these witnesses and argue that these problems rule out the entire value of these passages, ignoring the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy.”
Not only is this the height of naivete (and contradicts some of what Van Voorst himself will conclude in his study of them), it ignores the fact that the reliability of these alleged witnesses to Jesus has been debated for over a century with no resolution that can be backed up with demonstrable proof, and that includes within the anti-mythicist camp. (We have seen above how several scholars virtually dismiss them as having any value whatsoever.) Even if one did have a “strong consensus” does not provide that demonstration, since this ‘basic trust’ is an expression of opinion and preference. This is shown by Van Voorst’s own words above: if there are indeed multiple “text-critical and source-critical problems” in all these documents, on what secure basis in the texts themselves is the “trustworthy” judgment based? Nothing can be demonstrated about Josephus to confirm such a judgment; we simply have sets of contrary arguments with no way of knowing which side can be relied on. (My own aim has been nothing more than to demonstrate the unreliability of these reputed references, so as to set them aside.)
What Van Voorst’s “strong consensus” represents is also dubious. We have seen that Maurice Goguel, whom so many appeal to, did himself virtually accept that Josephus did not refer to Jesus at all (though he had a rationale for it). Charles Guignebert, a respected critical scholar of the same generation, was of the same opinion. Goguel’s (and others’) support of the rest of the non-Christian witness-group is so reserved and qualified as to be valueless. On what basis, then, can Van Voorst claim that mythicists have been “far too skeptical” toward them, and how can he accord them any significant “value” in the refutation of the mythicist position? We will see how Van Voorst himself handles them in the main part of his book.
“Sixth, Wells and others seem to have advanced the nonhistoricity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Freethought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. They have correctly assumed that to prove this hypothesis would sound the death knell of Christianity as we know it, but the theory remains unproven.”
This is the most objectionable of Van Voorst’s arguments (actually, it’s not an argument at all), and reveals more about his outlook than anything else; it completely destroys any claim of objectivity. Has he looked inside Wells’ mind? Has Wells expressed himself anywhere on this point? I am not going to be naïve enough to maintain that no mythicist has ever harbored ‘anti-religious’ feelings, or felt that improvements to society and human enlightenment would not be achieved if the historical basis of Christianity were proven false. But an equal if not greater prejudice can be imputed to the traditional side, whose undeniable confessional interests have determined much of their own interpretation of the Christian record and have invited mirror-image accusations. In any case, “They’re out to get us” is an expression of paranoia, and it pervades virtually every attempted refutation ever written. (And virtually every one of the more recent, including Price, has called attention to the fact that mythicism was an official stance of the Soviet Communist Party, a cheap and transparent attempt to discredit by association.) It ought to be replaced on both sides by the respectful attitude that we are all simply trying to arrive at the truth of the matter, to let historical reality take precedence over uncritical faith, no matter where it leads. I firmly believe that such a principle has driven every Jesus mythicist since Bruno Bauer, and until that is realized, the two sides will continue to glare and shout at each other over an impassable gulf. Sentiments like those of Van Voorst will do nothing to bridge the gap.
“Finally, Wells and his predecessors have failed to advance other, credible hypotheses to account for the birth of Christianity and the fashioning of a historical Christ. The hypotheses they have advanced, based on an idiosyncratic understanding of mythology, have little independent corroborative evidence to commend them to others. The nonhistoricity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds.”
The issue of credibility is a subjective one. Quite apart from a disposition to examine, or refuse to examine, an alternative scenario, one must be able and willing to think outside the box before alternatives can impress themselves upon one. There are those, scholars and laypeople alike, who regularly assume that something ‘big’ and unique, some powerful figure, had to be responsible for the Christian movement. But if one has consistently misread that movement, failed to recognize its antecedents, the steps of its development, imposed preconceptions upon it, they will be forever forced to make the same erroneous assumption, and alternatives will not commend themselves. Perhaps older hypotheses were based on an “idiosyncratic understanding of mythology”; Robertson and Drews and Smith strike me the same way. Perhaps Wells’ case is not as well organized as it could be. The problem is, New Testament scholarship has not kept pace with today’s mythicism. They are in a rut of rejection and condemnation, repeating the same old objections, recycling the same old prejudices. Michael Grant is a good illustration. Someone in the mainstream, a respected, open-minded critical scholar, unencumbered by confessional interests and peer pressure, needs to take a fresh look, to consider and address every aspect of the mythicst case in an in-depth fashion, without the perennially jaundiced eye of a Van Voorst. It is possible there is no such candidate available.
We proceed now to the main part of Van Voorst’s book in which he surveys mention of Jesus in sources outside the New Testament. The bias he brings to the interpretation of these texts will be abundantly clear.
Jesus in Classical Writings: Thallus
The first is his consideration of the historian Thallus, a favorite among apologists, since it is claimed he mentioned the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. We do not have Thallus’ text, but it is referred to in a 9th century work by Georgius Syncellus who cites the 2nd-3rd century Christian writer Julius Africanus mentioning Thallus (making the whole thing third-hand). Now, Africanus does not quote Thallus but puts things in his own words, and those words are anything but indicative of exactly what Thallus said. Africanus is discussing the portents at Jesus’ crucifixion, and mentions: “the most dreadful darkness fell over the whole world…Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun in the third book of his Histories, but erroneously it seems to me.” (Erroneous, he says, because a solar eclipse cannot happen at the full moon.)
This does not tell us that Thallus mentioned Jesus, or connected his reported eclipse with the Christian tradition of the crucifixion. He could merely have been chronicling an eclipse around the period associated with Jesus’ death, and Julius Africanus is making his own link, assuming that Thallus is in fact referring to the “darkness” erroneously. Such an interpretation would make Thallus useless as a witness to Jesus. But Van Voorst chooses to read it this way: “The context in Julius shows that he is refuting Thallos’ argument that the darkness is not religiously significant.” I can see no justification for that statement. “Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun” does not entail that Thallus referred to the eclipse in connection with Jesus; it is Africanus who is making that connection and identifying the two. He obviously believed that Thallus’ eclipse was a reference to the Gospel darkness, but there is no reason to think that Thallus was refuting such an equation.
Van Voorst quotes Maurice Goguel (Life of Jesus, p.91-2): “If Thallus had been writing simply as a chronographer who mentions an eclipse which occurred in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, Julius Africanus would not have said he was mistaken, but he would have used his evidence to confirm the Christian tradition.” This again, is coming to unnecessary conclusions. Africanus would have to say that Thallus was mistaken since he called it an eclipse, which would have made it impossible to link the two and support Christian tradition. Having pointed out this glaring mistake, Africanus might have felt reluctant to make a confident statement that here was confirmation of the Gospel “darkness.” In any case, Africanus’ mere mention of Thallus’ report is an implied support for the portent he has discussed.
Van Voorst also places Thallus as close to Jesus as possible, around 55 CE, giving him a much-needed ‘witness’ who knew of the death of Jesus in the mid 1st century. But the dating is far from secure (which Van Voorst admits), and in fact is unlikely. This is well argued in Richard Carrier’s Internet article “Thallus: an Analysis (1999)” at: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/thallus.html. The most likely date for Thallus is in fact the 2nd century, so that even if the historian had mentioned Jesus in connection with his eclipse, it would be in response to the Christian Gospels.
Carrier offers a number of pieces of reasoning fatal to Van Voorst’s use of Thallus:
“This is where proper historical method turns the tables on Christian apologists. The usual argument is that Thallus is the earliest witness to the gospel tradition, proving that the story was circulating, and taken seriously enough by pagans to debunk it, before the 2nd century. But the opposite reasoning applies: since we do not know that Thallus wrote in the 1st century, but know that he could have written in the 2nd, it follows that Thallus most likely wrote in the 2nd century—or at the earliest, the 90’s AD, since there is some evidence that Josephus referred to Luke in that decade, although that same evidence just as easily suggests that Luke used Josephus, dating that gospel after 96 AD. Otherwise, since all other sources which mention any gospel tradition appear only in the 2nd century, and Thallus may easily have written in that period, it follows that Thallus most likely wrote in the 2nd century.”
Carrier further observes that there is a telling discrepancy in Christian accounts of another historian of the time, Phlegon (often treated by apologists as the Siamese twin of Thallus), who we know wrote in the 140s. Eusebius quotes Phlegon as recording (for 32 CE) “a great eclipse of the sun” at the hour of noon (in an unidentified location), along with an earthquake in Bithynia (too far from Jerusalem to be identified with the Gospel one). No mention of Jesus by Phlegon. But if Eusebius was familiar with Phlegon, there is no reason to suppose he would not have been familiar with Thallus, and especially so if Thallus had mentioned Jesus, even if only to refute Christian interpretation of his eclipse. The fact that Eusebius does not quote Thallus makes it virtually certain that the latter made no such mention. Van Voorst shows no sign of being aware of this complication.
Further, in contrast to Eusebius’ quote of Phlegon, Africanus, immediately following his mention of Thallus, refers to Phlegon as well. And what do we find in that reference? It attributes to Phlegon the placement of this eclipse at the time of the full moon, and that it lasted from the sixth to the ninth hours. Neither of these details is present in Eusebius’ direct quote of Phlegon; so they are insertions by Christians (which we would have been led to think in any case, by their conformity with Gospel features). As well, Carrier presents arguments for regarding this sentence in Syncellus/Africanus as an interpolation. This clear reworking of Phlegon discredits the reliability of anything reported as having been said by Thallus, even if the text had mentioned Christian tradition about Jesus’ crucifixion.
Van Voorst, in summing up his first ‘witness’ to Jesus, says [p.23]:
“While this fog prevents us from claiming certainty, a tradition about Jesus’ death is probably present. Like Christian tradition as found in the Synoptic Gospels [note that it is unmentioned by John, and that Matthew and Luke seem to have simply taken it from Mark who would have drawn it by midrash from Amos 8:9], Thallos accepts a darkness at the death of Jesus….We can conclude that this element of Christian tradition was known outside of Christian circles and that Thallos felt it necessary to refute it….His argument makes him (if our dating is correct) the first ancient writer known to us to express literary opposition to Christianity…(and) before that tradition was written in the canonical Gospels.”
Quite a coup. But not only is it enveloped in fog, it all rests on sand. More thorough and objective research has shown that this is shifting sand, bringing the whole shaky edifice down. When refuters of Jesus mythicism offer such wishful and ill-conceived conclusions, their claim of victory is hollow indeed.
The Letter of Pliny the Younger
In most cases, Van Voorst provides an extensive analysis of the documents he examines, although this does not prevent him from making unfounded assumptions and self-serving choices. Often he will include an observation or interpretation which is actually detrimental to his case and then downplay or ignore it, preferring a more amenable conclusion. In regard to Pliny’s letter to Trajan, he notes [p.28] that A. N. Sherwin-White “points out that in Pliny ‘quasi is used commonly without the idea of supposal,’ to mean simply ‘as’.” I’ve long made that observation myself, but Van Voorst is the first I’ve seen since Sherwin-White to admit that “Christo quasi deo” does not have to be translated “Christ as if (to) a god.” Van Voorst goes on to note that “Pliny can also use quasi in its typically hypothetical meaning (‘as if, as though’),” but we have no means of knowing which way Pliny meant it. If the key phrase can be taken as “sang a hymn to Christ as (to) a god,” then there is not even the implied suggestion of an historical man. Van Voorst himself concludes: “So while ‘as if’ may imply here that the Christ Christians worship was once a man, we should not place too much weight on this.” Van Voorst concludes that Pliny got whatever his information might be on Christianity from Christians themselves in Bithynia. If five years before Tacitus wrote in Rome, Bithynia does not seem to know of an historical Jesus, it is quite possible that the news of such a founder had not yet reached the southern shore of the Black Sea.
Van Voorst points out something that escapes many people’s notice in regard to the uncertain reference in Suetonius. As he says [p.31]:
“This sentence is most often translated in a way similar to the influential Loeb edition, ‘Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.’ Yet impulsor does not mean ‘instigation,’ but rather ‘instigator’.”
So what we have, on the surface of it, is a reference by Suetonius to a man who was in Rome during the reign of Claudius (41-54). Unless this is just confusion on the part of the historian (both as to the time of Christ and placing him in Rome at some point in his career), this can hardly be a reference to Jesus. Suetonius is not likely to have found such erroneous information in an archive if it referred to Christ, nor is he likely to have taken it from Tacitus writing a few years earlier. Nor would he have gotten it from Christians. Van Voorst undertakes a lengthy discussion about whether Chrestus could have been a misspelling or alternate name for Christus, but we need not go into that here. He judges it “most likely” to be such a mistake. But he cautions “against placing too much weight on (Suetonius’) evidence for Jesus.” In his later summation of this chapter, however, he lists Suetonius among those who gave some “treatment” to Jesus.
Van Voorst concludes—and I would tend to agree—that the passage in Tacitus, detailing Nero’s persecution of Christians following the Great Fire in 64, is authentic, though I do allow that doubt is possible. This passage contains the first clear reference in pagan writings (almost a century later!) of “Christ” (Christus), used as equivalent to a personal name rather than a title, as the founder of Christianity, one put to the death by Pontius Pilate. Van Voorst addresses the question of why Tacitus did not use the name “Jesus.” It would be curious if Tacitus consulted any official record or written document from any source and did not find therein that name. Van Voorst suggests he did not use it because it would have interfered with his use of “Christus” to correct the populace’s erroneous use of “Chrestians” (referred to in the previous sentence). Van Voorst also appeals to Tacitus’ “terse” style as a reason why he didn’t clarify that Christus was a name belonging to Jesus; he didn’t want to risk “confusing his readers.” Possibly. But lack of clarity is what usually induces confusion, and if Tacitus knew that the man was actually named Jesus, he should have felt that not clarifying the man’s proper name would be more confusing than anything else.
Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion to draw from all this is that Tacitus knew only the designation “Christ” and mistook it for the name of the founder. What might that tell us about the source? In discussing the source question, Van Voorst rules out any written Christian source, or even an oral source of Gospel traditions. While the popular apologetic argument is that he consulted some Roman archive, Van Voorst is skeptical, since imperial archives were closed and secret, while the more accessible senatorial archives were not likely to contain such a record. He even allows that Tacitus’ use of the anachronistic “Procurator” for Pilate (in the latter’s time the term was “Prefect”) “may indicate that he is not using an official imperial or senatorial document, which would not likely have made such a mistake” [p.50]. A different type of historical record now lost is possible, but, Van Voorst admits, purely speculative.
In view of the situation, the most sensible explanation is that Tacitus got his information from Christians, who would have used the term “Christ” to refer to their founder, either because that was the designation used by the Christ cult for at least the better part of a century, or because any human Jesus would by this time have been sufficiently elevated to be referred to by the more exalted “Christ.” Either way, this is essentially to say that Tacitus is reporting Christian hearsay—which is a term writers such as Van Voorst do not like to acknowledge. To say that Tacitus was in this case likely to have used “dicunt” or “ferunt” (“they say”) carries no more force than the same argument we have seen used by Goguel, which Van Voorst is quoting. In fact, Van Voorst ultimately opts for a source which is virtually indistinguishable from hearsay: “The most likely source of Tacitus’ information about Christ is Tacitus’ own dealings with Christians, directly or indirectly” [p.52]. In other words, he is reporting what Christians are saying in his own time about the origins of their religion. This would make his ‘testimony’ to Jesus insignificant, and ineffectual as support for the existence of an historical Jesus.
Van Voorst has claimed [p.46] that “hearsay does not produce ‘documentary precision’ about controversial topics like Christ and Christianity.” What ‘precision’ is he talking about? “The founder of the name, Christus, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” What is ‘documentary’ about this? What in that brief statement could not have been derived from Christian hearsay? The rest of the passage comes from recent Roman history, where there might well have been a memory or record of execution of Christians by Nero after the fire. Van Voorst is exercised to draw anything substantial out of this much-invoked passage. His summation on the point is ironic. “In his sparse but accurate detail, Tacitus gives the strongest evidence outside the New Testament for the death of Jesus” [p.50]. Ironic, because if this is the strongest evidence we have, then that historical fact is utterly tenuous. But even Van Voorst cannot take refuge in the exaggerated value of this murky evidence. In the stark light of day comes this admission [p.52]:
“(Tacitus’) independent knowledge is unverifiable. As R. T. France concludes, while the evidence from Tacitus corroborates the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus, ‘by itself it cannot prove that events happened as Tacitus had been informed,’ or even the existence of Jesus. This latter, France correctly argues, has abundant persuasive evidence in the New Testament.”
Thus far at least, the non-Christian evidence for Jesus has proven elusive, something Van Voorst has been forced to admit at each step of the way, despite his best efforts. Ultimately, he falls back on the Christian writings themselves. Appealing to France, he takes refuge in a plea for the New Testament’s “abundant persuasive evidence” as a witness to itself. Thus far at least, Van Voorst has largely wasted our time.
The Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion
Few studies of the non-Christian sources for Jesus bother to address the letter of Mara bar-Serapion. It could have been written anytime between the 70s CE and the 3rd century. The sole manuscript comes from the 7th century. It makes no certain reference to Jesus, using neither that name nor “Christ.” The writer seems to be a Stoic, and not a Christian. His city, and the wise men within it, have been conquered by the Romans, and he chastises them by pointing to three examples of famous wise men who had been killed by their own people: Socrates by the Athenians, Pythagoras by the Samians, and an unnamed “wise king” by the Jews. Because the Jews have been punished by being “driven from their kingdom and scattered through every nation,” this is considered a reference to the Second Jewish Revolt (after the First, the consequences were not quite so devastating). Van Voorst opts for the 2nd century dating as well, and says: “Jesus is doubtless the one meant by ‘wise king’.” While it may be true that no other obvious candidate immediately presents itself as one who was “killed” by the Jews themselves, it is also not immediately obvious that Jesus should be meant. He was not known as a “king,” certainly by the pagans (Van Voorst’s calling attention to Gospel references to Jesus as ‘king’ at his trial and crucifixion hardly does the job).
But the greatest impediment is Mara’s reference to this figure being “the wise king because of the new laws he laid down.” Van Voorst rather naively interprets this [p.55] as “a reference to the Christian religion, especially its moral code…he implicity appeals to the fame of the wise king’s teaching.” Yet how could this be a widespread opinion among pagans? We are forever being told that so many of the major apologists in the 2nd century were silent on the very person of Jesus, let alone his teaching, because he was a persona non grata to pagans. Christian ethics and teachings are never attributed to him by such apologists. Celsus had nothing but venom for Jesus, and Lucian nothing but ridicule. Christians were still undergoing regular persecution and martyrdom right up to the time of Tertullian, who laments its injustice. Tacitus made them popularly-viewed “haters of mankind.” What pagan could possibly rank such a Jesus and his religion alongside Socrates and Pythagoras? Furthermore, if we are to assume that Jesus and his teaching were so well known by pagans in the 2nd century, they surely knew the basic story of his death, crucifixion by Roman execution under Pontius Pilate. Mara could hardly represent him as killed by the Jews, whose crime brought down upon them such a punishment. Van Voorst has not thought this one through.
Placing Mara in the 1st century makes even less sense, as pagans would hardly have been familiar with Jesus and his teachings to this extent. Not even Christians were, to judge by the entire early record outside the Gospels. Jewish messianism, with which Christ would be associated in either the 1st or 2nd centuries, did not have a glowing reputation. And it is hard to think that a pagan, even one who may have lived on the periphery of the empire (Van Voorst suggests the Euphrates), perhaps outside the areas of greatest hostility toward Christianity, would have had any conceivable reason to rank the crucified Jesus with Socrates and Pythagoras.
In an article in the Skeptical Review (1995 #4, edited by Farrell Till, and accessible on the Secular Web), the author of “The ‘Testimony’ of Mara Bar-Serapion” notes the possibility that Mara could have been referring to the Essene Teacher of Righteousness, who in the Dead Sea Scrolls “was presented as a Messianic figure who suffered vicariously for the people.” On the other hand, the article suggests, it could have been the Exile to which Mara was referring in speaking of the destruction of the Jews’ kingdom and the dispersal of its people; and a king had been murdered only 50 years prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. (This would also be in line with the much more ancient provenance from which Mara is drawing Socrates and Pythagoras.) As well, an earlier dispersal and destruction had taken place in the northern Kingdom at the time of the Assyrians. The point is, there are just too many other possibilities to accept Van Voorst’s “doubtless” that it was Jesus Mara was referring to.
The Skeptical Review article also points out that Jesus would not have been regarded as the author of any laws for the Jews, much less the Jewish Law itself, which is the implication entailed in Mara’s statement. I would carry that a step further and suggest that this may point to a more realistic judgment about Mara’s knowledge. It would also explain why this wise king’s name is not stated, much better than the convoluted reasoning indulged in by Van Voorst involving the presumption that Mara knew the name of Jesus but suppressed it. In a private letter to his son, there should have been no compelling reason not to mention the name—unless he simply didn’t know it, or only had a vague idea of what he was talking about. Socrates and Pythagoras were ancient figures. Might Mara have been so foggy on equally ancient Jewish history that he envisioned Moses (whose time and name he didn’t know or couldn’t recall) as the wise king responsible for Jewish laws, and because the Jews supposedly had a reputation for killing their prophets he assumed Moses, too, had been killed? He was trying to make an argument for his son, not writing a treatise for public consumption, and he may not have been overly concerned that he was getting all the details right. (In New Testament discussion as a whole, we too often overlook the more mundane motive and explanation for this or that feature.)
Despite all these uncertainties, and Van Voorst’s admission that “The results for study of the historical Jesus are slim” [p.57], he confidently places the letter of Mara bar-Serapion in the plus column of witnesses to an historical Jesus.
I will not spend time on Van Voorst’s discussion of the satirist Lucian who, around 165, derided and lampooned Christianity and its founder in his The Death of Peregrinus, a Cynic con-man who had reputedly taken advantage of Christian congregations in Palestine. Any knowledge Lucian possessed about Christ and Christianity does nothing to support the former’s existence. Similarly, Celsus, who wrote around 175 and was nothing short of vicious toward Christianity and Jesus, based his witness on the Gospels, some of which he had clearly read. As noted before, he would have been in no position to believe or demonstrate that Jesus was not an historical figure.
In his conclusions to this chapter of “Jesus in Classical Writings,” Van Voorst grapples with the inevitable question as to why more classical writers did not refer to Jesus, and especially why there are none more
On The Long Search, a BBC television series surveying world religions, host Ronald Eyre inquired of a Zen abbot, “Does the Buddha exist?” The answer was, “For those who need the Buddha to exist, he exists. For those who do not need him to exist, he does not exist.”
Isn’t this kind of like Schrodinger’s Cat? Oh, we’re back to quantum entanglement again.
By the way, forgive my ignorance here, but when it comes to quantum physics and the nature of reality, what’s the difference between the paradox involved in the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment and the paradox of Jesus being god and man at the same time? Isn’t a paradox a paradox? Same question when it comes to physicists’ description of light as being both a wave and a particle. If it is both, by what mechanism does it manifest itself as one or the other? And is this not the same issue I vilified believers for in their defense of miracles and creation, to wit: how does the metaphysical god interact with the physical?
Sorry. My brain is cramping.
Thank you, Dr. Price. This is indeed a very interesting quandary. What you describe above manifests itself in other situations as well–take the former smoker for example… Similarly, psychologists often emphasize to divorcing or divorced patients that their goal should be to get to apathy regarding their former spouse. Neither love nor hate (two sides of the same coin, so to speak) should remain. The idea, I think, is that your blood pressure should not change when thinking of the subject.
Earlier today I listened to your podcast from last May with Bo Bennett, a self-described Christian Non-theist. I found that conversation very interesting and, it seems to me, that this is exactly the type of person you are pointing to in your essay above. Does he have an organization or group that could serve in a role as a sort of theological half-way house?
While typing this, I found his book “The Concept” on Kindle for $0.99 and bought it. His idea of Christian Non-theism does seem like an interesting idea, but I do fear that what will happen is what you described with Francis Collins’ “The Language of God”–as it tries to square Christian theology with evolution. It ends up suffering derision from both sides; too much god for the evolutionist and too much of a stretch for the believer, who, absent Adam and Eve and the whole original sin thing, loses any reason for needing a savior in the first place…