Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mark’s resurrection narrative: where is it?

I come to be writing about the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark’s Gospel in particular for one reason: the ending from Mark 16:9-20 which forms part of it, arguably shouldn’t be there at all. Some would argue that case by saying that all that should be included at the end of Mark’s Gospel are Mark’s own words, and that 16:9-20 are someone else’s words. Not Mark’s words. And so they should be dismissed. And so, I’ve heard it claimed, that leaves Mark’s Gospel without a resurrection account, or at least without mention of Jesus appearing to his disciples. But, I have to ask, is that true? And how do we know?

The question arises because in the most ancient manuscript evidence, Mark's Gospel ends at chapter 16:8. The signs are that extra verses were added later. Most modern bibles tell the reader so in the footnotes, so that the reader knows that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not originally part of Mark's Gospel. (There are other alternative endings too, but I'm trying to keep this simple.)

It matters not least because most experts would say that Mark’s Gospel is our oldest gospel. This means, if you listen to some internet voices especially, that the absence of a resurrection in the oldest gospel means that the resurrection story was somehow invented after Mark wrote his Gospel, with dire consequences for the truth of the resurrection and Christianity. in other words, so the claim goes, the first Christians didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Jesus at all, and the sceptics think so because they think the resurrection wasn't originally in the earliest gospel. (This view ignores that Paul, writing earlier than Mark, had already mentioned the resurrection, but that's for another post, and I am keeping things simple here. This post is just about what Mark says.)

For the purpose of this post, I am going to dismiss Mark 16:9-20 out of hand[1], simply in order to see what Mark really says without it. That is the test: if we only go by Mark’s words, we can ask what they say – if anything – about Jesus being resurrected.

So that leaves us only with Mark 16:1-8. This is what it says in its resurrection episode:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And there it breaks off. If you were to add Mark 16:9-20 - and I won't do that here - then you get stories in which is told what happens during appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. But we don’t have that here. Now, I am going to zoom in on what we do have here, in Mark 16:1-8, the words that are normally accepted by scholars as Mark's words. Some sceptics say there is no resurrection account here. But is that true? This is what we find in it.  

In verse 2, we have, early on the Sunday, three women visiting the tomb of Jesus.

In verse 4, the women witness that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb entrance.

In verse 5, the women witness a man, a messenger in effect, in the tomb.

In verse 6, this man tells them that Jesus, the one who had been crucified, now ‘has risen!’

They witness that the tomb is otherwise empty, as the man explains, “He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

In verse 7, we learn where the resurrected Jesus will appear, to whom and when: it will be the disciples and especially Peter, it will be in Galilee after they arrive there. So resurrection appearance(s) are mentioned here, but not described.

The messenger’s promise to be conveyed to Peter and the others about what to expect in Galilee is, “There you will see him, just as he told you.” So the promised appearance in Galilee links to something Jesus said earlier to them. (Mark’s Gospel is actually laced with the promise and expectation of Jesus’ resurrection. See Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 and especially Mark 14:28 about the promise of the risen Jesus going to Galilee.)

In verse 8, the women run from the tomb in fear, and, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone,” except of course that they obviously did tell, otherwise their great moment at the tomb would not be found here. So we are left anticipating the promised appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee. In light of that story and promise, you can’t close the book there and say that Mark doesn’t believe that. Mark is clearly a believer and clearly believes that the appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee are bona fide. But we don’t get to hear more, because that is where the text of Mark’s Gospel breaks off.

So after dismissing Mark 16:9-20, what do we have left here of the resurrection story in Mark? We have this:

  • when: Sunday morning
  • where: the empty tomb
  • who is there: the women and a messenger
  • what: Jesus has risen
  • why: it is as Jesus foretold
  • what Jesus is doing now: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.”
  • what will happen: Jesus will appear
  • to whom he will appear: Peter and the disciples
  • where he will appear: Galilee
  • when he will appear: after they arrive in Galilee.

That seems to me to be the basics of the resurrection story. That is the story Mark tells. Mark in writing what he did clearly believed that the resurrection happened. To claim that there is no resurrection story in Mark is spurious.

What is absent is the cued-up Galilee scene, and that is the blank filled in by Mark 16:9-20. Without it, all you have is the basic resurrection story, the empty tomb witnessed by the women, the message that Jesus is resurrected, that Galilee is where the disciples will see the resurrected Jesus appear to them. As said, resurrection appearance(s) are thus mentioned in Mark's Gospel, but not actually described: Mark is not in doubt that resurrection appearances are part of the story. It is a resurrection narrative, plain and simple, without the extras. To deny this, as some sceptics do, borders on desperation.

If you would like to read more about the ending, NT Wright approaches it with a historian’s common sense. As does Ben Witherington.


As NT Wright observes, one place where we find Mark's promised appearances of Jesus in Galilee is in the ending of Matthew's Gospel. And since Matthew re-uses 95% of the material provided to him by Mark, then this makes it all the more likely that Matthew's description of the Galilean appearances are at least in part derived from Mark. In fact, it reads well if you tag onto the end of Mark some verses from Matthew 28. Taking a bare minimum, in fact, you would get this, where the material flows from Mark 16:8 seamlessly into the words from Matthew:

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”... Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”.

I've minimised material taken from Matthew, just to show how it flows. I could have used more. It gives an impression of what the original ending of Mark could very possibly have looked like. I am not saying it was so, just that it could have been so, given that it flows naturally, and that this delivers what Mark promises, and that Matthew reuses 95% of Mark's material, so the wording in the latter paragraph above, which is found in Matthew, could have been derived from Mark's original ending.

[1] The argument that Mark 16:9-20 should be dismissed is actually a kind of fundamentalist version of scepticism. Its basic premise is that the Bible should exclude any additional material found to be attached to the ‘original’ version of a gospel. Quite why this should be so is never clear to me. The Bible itself is a compilation of different books. And Luke’s Gospel announces boldly at its start that it is a sort of compilation itself, making one long gospel from other writers’ shorter attempts. So the Bible itself announces in various ways that it is fine to be a compilation and still be an inspired religious text. Nevertheless, one finds this kind of fundamentalism that says compilation is not fine, that compilation is a kind of naughty tampering with the text, and so Mark 16:9-20 has no place in the Bible. But for the sake of this post, I am merely interested to see what the end of Mark’s Gospel looks like without Mark 16:9-20.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Arguments for Luke’s Gospel being written after 70AD: how do they rate?

In another post, I set out clear arguments for why Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts would have been written by about 62AD. However, most biblical scholars today take the view that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after 70AD. This post puts that opinion, and its best arguments, to the test. (NB: I am not trying to argue about all the gospels here. This post is only about Luke’s Gospel.) The boundary set by 70AD is simple: this is the year when the Roman army overran Jerusalem’s defences and destroyed the city and the temple. That is an undisputed historical fact. Which side of that line does Luke’s Gospel fall? Before or after? Does Luke show that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen, rather than its fall being something that Luke was waiting to happen?

A few words about method. Secular historians will look at an issue like this and seek naturalistic explanations for why a book was written and why it says what it does, an explanation that works in purely human terms. Their given task is to explain the world as if God didn’t exist. That is how their job is done in the modern era. This makes their work of little interest to many Christians, who don’t see the point of such work. But what I’m interested in is to ask whether the majority secular reading is even the best naturalistic reading.

First, for ease of reference, here are five key passages in Luke which are at the heart of scholars' arguments for a late date:

Luke 13:1-9 suggests the Jews still had time to repent:

‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (emphasis added)

Luke 13:33-35 is full of foreboding for Jerusalem, because it has rejected Jesus, without saying what will actually happen: ’”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.”’ (This should not be assumed to be a reference to the temple, since it says 'your' house, not 'God's house' or 'my Father's house'. 'Your house' could just mean the nation of Israel, and the saying may mean that the spiritual state of Israel is hopeless.)

Luke 19:41-44 suggests time was running out: ‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ (emphasis added)

‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”’

‘“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (emphasis added - note the mountains here are a positive image and in the next passage they are a negative image)

Luke 23:27-31: ‘A large crowd of people was following Jesus, including some women who were sad and crying for him. But Jesus turned and said to them, Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the women who cannot have children and who have no babies to nurse.’ Then people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ And they will say to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (emphasis added)

Clearly, the fall of Jerusalem was a big deal for Luke, more so than for the other gospels. But all the biblical gospels show a keen interest in the Jerusalem temple, repeatedly mention it, never forget it. This is unlike most apocryphal Christian literature of the following centuries which for most part show little or no interest in it.

Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel.

1) Post-70AD arguments: stories of predictions coming true should be assumed to be fictional and after-the-fact

So the argument goes, the balance of probabilities is that people get predictions wrong most of the time, and so stories of people getting predictions right are suspect, especially if they have religious meaning. (Even more so if some people hold this to be so-called ‘prophecy’.) Therefore, in this case, it should be assumed that Jesus didn’t predict the fall of Jerusalem. That’s the argument. Therefore when Luke tells the story of Jesus predicting the fall of the temple, it should be assumed that this was made up after the temple fell, after 70AD. And so, Luke wrote about it after 70AD. That’s the case in brief.

Counter-argument 1: fallacy

This argument is fallacious because it applies the general to the specific indiscriminately. The odds have to be assessed rather differently when you weigh them as words of an up-and-coming Jewish prophet in first century Israel during a time of political unrest under enemy occupation, with strong views about the temple leadership and an interest in apocalyptic Jewish prophets (e.g. Jeremiah). That such a prophet should do as Jeremiah did and predict the fall of Jerusalem is not wholly unexpected. The likelihood of Jesus predicting disaster can’t be judged on the general principle that most predictions don’t come true, religious or otherwise. The balance of probabilities shifts dramatically when specifics come into view.

It is reasonable to think that a prediction about the temple falling could have been made before 70AD. Such warnings more clearly evoked Israel’s past rather than the future. Narratives of the 7th century BC fall of Jerusalem and its temple were hardwired into the Jewish psyche. Scars from the disastrous fall of centuries previous haunted the Jewish imagination. They were just the sort of dark memories you would invoke, as if modelling oneself on a Jeremiah, if you were to speak woes upon the country’s elite. And it’s not unlikely Jesus did exactly that.  

The fortunes of the temple were a big deal of national interest, and some Jews took particular interest in it. And Jesus in the gospels is clearly one of them. I go into the reasonableness of this prediction in another post here.

Counter-argument 2: doing history better

Expanding on that, I have two more particular points to make here.

 i) Is it prophecy?

I want straight away to dispense with the idea that Jesus’ words are meant to be some kind of supernatural prophecy. It is going beyond scripture to make any such claim, and ironically both conservatives and liberals err into judging the text on the flawed basis of a supposed ‘supernatural’ theme. This creates a huge distraction. Viewing readings here as a contest between naturalism versus supernaturalism is a mistake. It simply distorts readings of what the issues in this text are. Highly political warnings, that’s what Jesus’ words are. There is nothing obviously supernatural in Jesus’ words. After all, I hear dire predictions in mainstream media every day, some quite explicit, currently about the likely consequences of Brexit or the Trump Presidency; but I don’t need to interpret these media predictions as supernatural prophecies, and I won’t, even if some of them might come true. Ditto for Jesus’ warnings in this case. Set that distorting issue of supernatural prophecy aside, and the text is easier to read.

ii) Are we projecting our knowledge onto Luke?

Another distorting problem is that we can look at the text through our historically aware post-70AD viewpoint. We know that Jerusalem fell. But we shouldn’t rush to project that onto Luke as if we know that Luke was aware as we are.

2) Post-70AD arguments: Luke writes things that must have been written after 70AD, doesn’t he?

The cornerstone of this argument is to say that Luke shows his hand and gives away that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen already when he was writing. Those arguing this, to justify their position, cite the scriptures above. e.g. Some take Luke 23:27-31, interpreting it as something that would have been written only after 70AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, made up by the author, not spoken by Jesus.

In it, Jesus speaks on his way to die upon the cross. All scholars make a reasonable inference that these words comprise a warning of trouble and strife for Jerusalem especially: “Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children”. This shows us a Jesus (and a Luke) who took a personal interest in the waning fortunes of Israel and Jerusalem. Luke alone sees fit to include these words, unlike the other gospel writers. For that reason, sceptical scholars are apt to say that Luke was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem in a way that sets him apart from the other writers. Luke seems to make a bigger deal of the fate of Jerusalem that the other gospels do. From this, scholars infer that the author had something in mind more than was in the basic story he had received of the death of Jesus, the extra thing being that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen. But does this rather mysterious sounding and ambiguous passage really warrant dating the book post-70AD?

Counter-argument 1: “what will happen …?”

One problem for those who opt for later dating is Jesus’ question in it: “What will happen…?” Translated differently, you could put it, “what will become of the dry branch?”

What will cause the women’s sorrow? Jesus falls short of saying anything specific. It literally works as an open question. “What will happen…?” means “What will happen…?” It sounds like, “Be warned, be ready, wait and see.”

It shows no cleverness about events, and does not, on the face of it, mean “Look what happened!” It relies for meaning on its ambiguous ‘dry’ metaphor, not resembling factual reporting: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will become of the dry branch?” It is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended about specifics. If “what will happen…?” alone were all we had to go on, we would lean towards it dating to before 70AD, not after 70AD.

Counter-argument 2: “what will happen …?” is typical of the vagueness

This stands or falls on whether you think the references are so descriptive of the fall of Jerusalem that they cannot have been written before 70AD. But the case for that is not overwhelming. Of the five passages, three are so vague that they could be about anything, if we were not projecting a particular perspective onto them. They are Luke 13:1-9, 13:33-35, and Luke 23:27-31 with its ‘dry branch’. The vague descriptions in Jesus’ words are insufficient evidence for supposing that Luke was writing with historical awareness of 70AD. Typically of these three passages, the “what will happen?” passage does not stipulate whether it refers to one particular event, or just more broadly a time of trouble and strife, in the shadow of the rejection of Jesus. Jesus is here talking in Old Testament language (e.g. Hosea 10:8), not describing some scene like a reporter might.  

The signs in the passages are that Jesus’ grim fate will bear grim consequences for Jerusalem. If issued pre-70AD, they serve as a shrill warning to Jerusalem (more on this later). Jesus’ words also give meaning to suffering. That is so, whether it is a suffering anticipated, or one that has happened by the time Luke was writing, or is unfolding at the time the Gospel was being written. Whichever it is, the words link trouble in Jerusalem with the rejection of Jesus. It is left ambiguous as to precisely what suffering Jesus’ words refer to in “what will happen?” but it is natural to associate it with the other passages. But trying to find particulars in this vagueness is not scientific. It is like trying to read tea leaves.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that this “what will happen?” passage could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel.

3) Post-70AD arguments: a siege is mentioned

So this boils down to two of the five passages: Luke 19:41-44 and Luke 21:5-6, 20-24. Late-daters think they have a smoking gun in that Luke’s outline bears some resemblance to what Titus did to Jerusalem in his siege of 70AD.

Counter-argument: there’s nothing unique about the siege in Luke

Again much of this is vague, a warning rather than factual reporting. Did the Judeans go to the mountains as Jesus advised? We don’t know. It is more Jeremiah than newsflash. In any case:

  • Yes, in Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would tackle a walled city but a siege?
  • And Luke’s Gospel predicts the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans, but after all, who else would be conducting such a campaign but the Romans?
  • And Luke predicts the slaughter and capture of Jews, but really, what else would happen to those in a conquered walled city?

Quite what kind of imagined defeat of a walled city by the Romans would of necessity exclude those elements is never explained by late-daters, and as such this does not meet any reasonable test for dating the Gospel post-70AD. The skimpy outline detail in Luke is applicable to almost any conquest of a walled city in the near east in antiquity.

Luke’s description is also coated in the sort of religious language you find in the Old Testament, which did in fact influence how Luke wrote generally, rather than relevant detail.

Have sceptics really done comprehensive evidence analysis of Luke 21:5-36? Luke’s work shows no actual detailed knowledge of the who what when of 70AD and its preceding siege whatsoever. Luke seems blissfully unaware that the siege of 70AD began during the Jewish festival of Passover, which would have been replete with meaning for him. He seems unaware that during the siege, Jews committed atrocities against each other, which would have fitted the apocalyptic tone of judgment. It appears no-one told Luke that his description should be adjusted to reflect the fact that the temple was destroyed by fire. He seems clueless about the detail that it was preceded by a ruthless purge by the Romans of Jesus’ beloved Galilee. Why isn’t there more of a good fit? Where is the proper consideration of all these issues when late-daters assert that Luke’s knowledge is what makes the Gospel post-date 70AD?

4) Post-70AD arguments: historical-critical view

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the historical-critical approach. This is particularly to do with looking for a human explanation for a text, as if God does not exist. It is common for scholars to take the view that one of the reasons for the inclusion of material in a gospel is that its content mirrored the current experiences of the Christians who heard and read that gospel, making it particularly relevant to them at that moment in time. In other words, if we can match the tenor of the passage with another historical moment, that could help date the book. I’m not saying that the historical-critical approach is an exact science. (See Eta Linneman’s critique of it.) But it is worth asking a question: if this method is used, does scholars’ usual reading stand up as the most convincing result of applying this method?

By way of expanding the question, why was it relevant to speak of the rejection of Jesus and his message, by his fellow Jews, in such anguished and apocalyptic terms, waiting for Jerusalem to fall or looking back on its fall? What author or audience felt that way, at the time of its composition, such that the drama would resonate?

What would occasion Luke to include in his Gospel something (so dramatic) that the other gospels don’t include (other than the possible reason of Luke being the only one who knew the material)? Why was it special to Luke to speak of fall-out from the rejection of Jesus by his fellow Jews in such highly-charged terms? In short, what fresh moment gave the author the impetus to write it down?

Scholars who date the Gospel post-70AD infer that these verses are indicative of a post-70AD Christian audience who are interested in the theme of rejection. Since in this view there is nothing sure to anchor the date, scholars arbitrarily date the gospel anywhere between 70AD and 100AD. Here, the occasion post-70AD becomes very speculative. We should note that, for such a rejection by Jews in this era, there is scant evidence. We don’t have any strong evidence of rejection by Jews after 62AD (the death of James), except for tensions that manifest in second century Christian texts and third century rabbinic texts.

Sceptical scholars conjecture that unknown Christians were experiencing unknown rejection by unknown Jews in some unknown moment. I know I’m harshly characterising this view, but that is the essence of it.

Counter-argument 1: this is weak

This does not provide an identifiable impetus for writing these verses at all. That, unfortunately, is what comes of a priori dating post-70AD. Layer upon layer of inferences can become a house of cards. Why was the fall of Jerusalem a big deal for this Gospel’s audience, say, 20 or 30 years after it fell? It’s an important question. After all, we don’t see explicit anxiety over the fate of Jerusalem in any other Christian literature of the first hundred years of Christianity, only In Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no good evidence base for the historical-critical approach to hang a hat on post-70AD, so it has to imagine one.  

Side-note: Dating the Gospel post-70AD of course drives further inferences. Either that Luke, the companion of Paul, was still alive post-70AD. Or that the Gospel was written by someone else who was not a companion of Paul and was living and writing post-70AD, and indeed some scholars really do make such an inference founded on the prior inferences, so that Luke and Paul are removed from any direct connection with the author of Acts (as well as the Gospel)! Actually, we know nothing at all of Luke’s life after the end of the narrative in Acts other than that he finished writing it up. We know so very little at all of church history post 62AD (where Acts breaks off) to the early second century – it is one of the least recorded in church history - that all assumptions about a post-70AD Gospel are awash with thinly grounded speculations, of which we should be cautious.  As thin as this is, it is attractive to some scholars who want the door of doubt pushed wider ajar so that they can march their own innovative historical narrative through it, with late dating and author-guessing and imagined situations: reconstructed histories are in vogue. But it is not wholly convincing as an occasion for the writing of the verses.

Counter-argument 2: what about a pre-70AD occasion?

Also undermining the force of the post-70AD case, the fact is that it was possible to be agitated about the fate of Jerusalem before or after its destruction, so what is to be determinative for dating?  

What if there is a clearer occasion that could have existed for the writing of these words? Let’s return to the historical-critical approach. Given that the passage is about Jesus being rejected and its consequences for Jerusalem, could it have appealed to the gospel’s first audience because they too, or Christians whom they knew, were – like Jesus - being rejected by powers in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was deserving of consequences? Such an occasion would be a harsh lived experience of Christians there. Do we know of such an occasion?

Yes, we know of one (more than one, actually) in Luke’s text. However highly or lowly we rate the historicity of Acts, there is a clear parallel of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Christians who, like Jesus, felt their message, and they themselves, got rejected by fellow Jews in Jerusalem. No mistake: Christians unquestionably saw it that way. Parallels in persecutions within Luke-Acts are a key theme on page after page.

This is promising ground for understanding the text better, if the historical-critical approach is valid. Our author Luke describes in Acts a significant Christian – one especially significant to him - who equated his own suffering with Jesus’ suffering. That is to say, his message was rejected in Jerusalem and he personally suffered harm for it. This was Paul. We know that he felt acutely grieved that Jewish people were not listening to him. (See for example Paul’s words in Romans on the gospel not being heeded by Jews. See also the similar message from the closing paragraphs of Acts. In particular, Paul is rejected in Jerusalem at its most holy site, the temple.)

Luke is able to use this for his own agenda. There is a scholarly consensus that Luke was writing with sympathy for Paul. According to Luke, his friend has been almost brutally murdered in the temple. So it’s little wonder that his Gospel bears more negative sentiment about the temple, and predicts its future more gloomily than the other gospels do. Rejections of Jesus and Paul are major focal points in Luke’s Gospel and Acts. The parallel is striking. As evidence of this, see Acts 21:10-14, where Paul is leaving Miletus fearing death in Jerusalem:

“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

The story has clear echoes of Jesus being handed over by Jews to Gentiles for execution in Jerusalem, after ignoring the pleadings of his disciples not to go there, with people weeping over his apparent fate. So this is just like the gospel story of Jesus. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”. Like his hero, Jesus.

Clearly, Luke sees and draws out the parallel. And the fate of Jerusalem hangs in the balance in such moments according to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ dire warnings would have resonated strongly with Paul’s sympathisers, seeing their hero rejected like Jesus in Jerusalem.

So, if we forma view of the best historical-critical reading, was it the case that the occasion for the above verses being written was a time when the author’s ears were ringing from the sound of Paul’s anguish at the rejection of himself by his fellow Jews, and when the author was deeply affected by Paul being nearly murdered in the temple? Such an occasion fits all the facts. The implication here is that for rejection of Jesus and Paul, there will be bad consequences. Thus, we have a naturalistic explanation for the writing of the verses. That is, “Reject our man, who was sent by God, and see what will happen to you!”

Of course, the impact of that on dating Luke’s Gospel is that it tends it towards being an earlier Sitz im Leben – closer to the time of Paul’s anguish and pre-70AD - rather than later and further removed from Paul’s time.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that the historical-critical approach could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be absolutely determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel. If anything, it is better provided with a literary context by a pre-70AD dating.

5) Post-70AD arguments: lack of attestation of Luke’s Gospel being read for decades after 70AD

From the fact that there is no direct attestation of Luke in other extant writings before the mid-second century, an argument from silence is made that the gospel was not written till then.

Counter-argument: tiny pool of witnesses

However, this is from a tiny pool of witnesses (basically fragments of Papias, one letter from each of Clement, Polycarp and Barnabas, and a few from Ignatius). It is nowhere near as powerful as the arguments from silence about what is not said within the text of Luke-Acts, regarding key events and details of persons of the 60s that are absent in Acts. What is not said in Acts particularly points to pre-70AD authorship.

6) Post-70AD arguments: writing after Josephus

An old argument for a later date is that Luke cribbed off Josephus’ Jewish War and his 93AD work Antiquities of the Jews, and thus can only have been writing much later than 70AD. Both of course were writing about events in first century Israel.

Counter-argument: it doesn’t look like Luke did

If Luke did copy Josephus, then why does he not get it ‘right’ when Luke tells of the same events as Josephus: his version of events has discrepancies compared to Josephus. The classic quote on this is from Emil Schurer back in 1876! “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83). It would be too much extra length for this post to be plunging deep into this pool of evidence and analysis, but, instead, relevant comments can be found here.

7) Post-70AD arguments: re-writing Marcion’s Gospel

Here’s another suggested argument for late dating. Second century church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian understood that the heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, cut a copy of Luke’s Gospel into a shorter version for use in his church. (Marcion was a church leader whose heresy was that he rejected the Old Testament and its God.) The radical suggestion by revisionist scholars today is that the truth is the opposite of what the witnesses say, and that actually Luke’s Gospel is a rewrite of Marcion’s Gospel. And thus, Luke was written later, sometime in the second century. (A further implication of this is that the autobiographical first person ‘we’ passage in Acts would be fake, since Paul’s travelling companions could not feasibly be alive writing mid-second century.)

Counter-argument: proto-Luke

This is an interesting fringe view. It is one of those instances where scholars’ literary criticism is like the ‘art’ of reading tea-leaves and some of the conclusions that scholars try to draw are about as firm. Its primary problem is that it has no sound evidence base. Marcion’s gospel is lost to the ravages of time, and all we have is reconstructions of bits of it, and the reconstructions are based on quotes in Tertullian and Epiphanius which may have been done from memory inaccurately and from different versions of Marcion’s gospel. And it gets worse. With such an uncertain evidence base, scholars are unable to agree on just about anything. Some suggest that Marcion just cut bits from Luke’s Gospel (because Irenaeus and Tertullian say so and they lived in the same century as Marcion, so they should at least be given a hearing, and it’s an easy conclusion to jump to). Other scholars suggest that Luke’s Gospel is a second century expanded rewrite of Marcion’s (the fringe view stated above). Others suggest that both Luke and Marcion had common source(s).

Actually, this last suggestion seems to best fit the evidence, such as we have it. It is truthful to Luke’s statement (Luke 1:1-4) that other unfinished gospel materials were given to him and that he expanded/collated them (into our longest gospel), which allows us to say a couple of things: Luke says these versions were given to him but he never says they were destroyed – we might call part of this material ‘proto-Luke’. So proto-Luke was around as well as Luke’s Gospel, judging by Luke’s testimony. And it was proto-Luke that Marcion edited to be his own Gospel. This is not a million miles away from the witness of Irenaeus and Tertullian – i.e. Marcion edited more or less the same text that Luke had used before he did. It is easy to see why the church fathers looked at Marcion’s Gospel and thought “Ah! He’s used Luke!” So this is consistent with Luke’s witness and partly consistent with the church fathers’. It is also consistent with what some scholars today find. That is to say, some of Marcion’s Gospel happens to look like a deviation from Luke whereas sometimes Luke looks like a deviation from Marcion, but you can’t have it both ways, and a simpler solution is that both are probably deviations from proto-Luke. Again sometimes Luke’s differences seem unlike deviations from Marcion, and Marcion’s differences seem unlike deviations from Luke in all probability, but both could be deviations from proto-Luke. So, what is really happening is probably that both had been editing a version(s) of the first century text ‘proto-Luke’ which was still circulating, Luke in the first century according to his own witness and Marcion in the second century.

In this light, arguing a late date for Luke from this evidence is not robust.  

Side note: The earliest direct witness to the problem is Irenaeus who wrote that Marcion “mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, I.27.2). And Tertullian: “Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process…” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.2). Tertullian adds: “that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people”.

In any case, problems with the theory of Marcion coming before Luke’s Gospel are myriad. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t really explain all the evidence, why on earth would Christians bother to rewrite Marcion’s gospel when they already had others of their own (e.g. Matthew, Mark and John)? If they wanted an anti-Marcion gospel (so some suggest), they had one in the form of Matthew (it is especially honouring of the Old Testament), so why not just use that? Why didn’t they just treat Marcion’s as an apocryphal gospel? Why not just dismiss it as they did other apocryphal gospels? If they rewrote this one, why didn’t they rewrite other apocryphal gospels too, if rewrites of them were a worthwhile cause? It’s a problematic base from which to argue for late dating of Luke.

Final reflections

Seven arguments for late dating have been assessed there. You might be forgiven if you got the impression that Luke’s Gospel has been subjected to sustained assaults to date it post-70AD. But none of these late-date arguments is determinative. None of them is able to bear the weight of late dating.

The most compelling data for dating, and this all points to a pre-70AD authorship, is that which provides dating for Luke’s Acts (the most compelling of this data is outlined in my post regarding dating of Acts). The majority of scholarship pays little attention to this data. Of course, dating Acts to pre-70AD entails a pre-70AD date for Luke’s Gospel too, since one author wrote both, Luke first, Acts second. (This sequence of authorship is more or less undisputed by scholars, but most are reluctant to ascribe pre-70AD dating to either.)

The state of affairs being as we have seen, you have to ask what else could be driving scholars to a late dating? Is it based on data, or is it that a preference for a naturalistic worldview – working for the cause of eschewing narratives about miracles as false - pushes scholars into trying to date the gospels as far away from the lifetime of Jesus (and the apostles) as they reasonably can? In other words, they don’t want the books written too close to the time of Jesus and the apostles because that would put the gospel miracles in a different light. Worldview has a good deal to do with it.

What strikes me is that it seems no Christian voices other than Jesus were predicting the fall of Jerusalem. No-one in the church seems to have stuck out their neck to say that, except by way of repeating Jesus. And only three biblical gospels highlight Jesus saying it (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It is virtually unique to the voice of Jesus in early Christian literature to agonise over the fate of Jerusalem specifically. You don’t see it in the epistles of Paul or other early Christian letters inside and outside the New Testament. This in itself suggests that it was of more concern to Jesus pre-70AD than to the broader church before or after 70AD. (That this was a preoccupation mainly of Jesus rather than of the church holds true whether or not a gospel was written before or after 70AD.)

This seems to make it all the more plausible to me that it is Jesus in particular we are hearing when we read predictions of the fall of Jerusalem.

It also seems to me that Luke, more than other gospel authors, is especially interested in waiting for the fall of Jerusalem. He links the crisis to the fatal rejection of Jesus which he clearly parallels to the near-fatal rejection of his friend Paul who was almost murdered in the temple. It is no surprise in that light that negative feeling to the temple is brought more to the surface in Luke’s Gospel than in other gospels. This all relates to pre-70AD situations. There is certainly nothing here to date Luke’s Gospel post-70AD unless we are a priori committed to that.

Late-daters sometimes say that the gospels were actually written to explain why Jerusalem was destroyed. But why then is there an absence of any other literature trying to make such an explanation in the whole first hundred years of Christianity? One has to explain why no-one else was trying to make such an explanation if they thought a Christian explanation ought to be published. Why is it only in the gospels? Why does such a message not come in the name of anyone in the church? Why is it only in Jesus’ voice? A simpler explanation is that Jesus predicted the fall and the gospels merely highlight it.

What to make of Jesus’ shrill words? Do they just give meaning to suffering, or are they also warnings? It is in situations of mortal danger rather than post-mortem situations that shrill warnings resound with more meaning. It is not necessary to be quite so shrill after a house has burned down as it is before it burns down. So the tone of it could be suggestive of a pre-70AD date as much as, if not more than, a post-70AD date. The shrill tone would be relevant to the atmosphere during the war of 66-70AD or even of the pre-66AD tension leading towards the war, just as much as, if not more than, the atmosphere after the war was over.

It is simple enough to read the verses as a fraught warning recorded in the tense atmosphere of the 60s of the first century with Christians having experienced decades of rejection and difficulty, and Jerusalem’s elite being problematic, a warning with a shrill tone that asks its audience to listen before it is too late.

On that basis, a good argument can be made that this warning was published to be heard while Jerusalem and its temple were still standing and its leaders were deaf to apocalyptic warnings.

A point oft-made but worth reiterating is that Luke makes a big deal of waiting for the temple to fall, but then does not capitalise on it. Writing post-70AD, an author at least might try to score the point about Jesus being right about trouble for Jerusalem by saying “and this came to pass when…” or else at least describe it with some meaningful detail to an audience who would be in the know as to what happened in 70AD: e.g. that the siege began during Passover, or that Jews committed atrocities against each other during it, or that it was preceded by a purge in Galilee. But Luke doesn’t do that. He doesn’t score the point. This is difficult for late-daters to explain away. If a gospel were post-70AD, you would expect it to either capitalise on the point or more or less just avoid the issue or prediction/fulfilment altogether. Notably, the one biblical gospel almost universally agreed to be post-70AD by a couple of decades – John’s Gospel – more or less just avoids the issue altogether. It shows virtually no explicit interest at all in the fall of Jerusalem and the temple – no prediction. So talking about the fall of Jerusalem was not intrinsically a feature of gospel-writing post-70AD. It would however seem intrinsic to pre-70AD gospel writing to make the point that they were waiting for the fall of Jerusalem.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Tacitus was a distinguished writer, born in the 50s of the first century AD, perhaps in northern Italy. Born about two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, he is valuable to us not as an eyewitness of Jesus, but as a historian far closer to the time and place of Jesus than we are. And we are talking about him here because in one of the books of history he wrote, he mentions Christ. He is what historians call a 'secondary source' on the subject of Jesus, and a useful one. 

Tacitus also provides our first explicit historical evidence of an event of which he was a contemporary - the persecutions of Christians under Emperor Nero in his own native country. This is  all in his Annals 15:44, written in Latin, published late in his life, around 116AD. I had to study this passage as part of my Latin degree (at a secular university, I would add), not much to my enjoyment as Tacitus is not an easy read in the original Latin. I will give him only in English translation here, a standard academic translation, you may be pleased to know.
Tacitus was well placed to get information for a few reasons: he had close ties to the Roman government; early in the second century, he was also an official of the Roman government in Asia. Tacitus had a special interest too: he wrote a long history of the Roman war with the Jews in Israel. This means Tacitus had spent time studying Roman records about what had happened in Palestine (as the Romans came to call the place) and talking to people who knew about it. He had access to official documents in Rome. He was a servant of the power of which the Christians were victims.
What was his attitude to Jews and Christians? Disdainful. In particular, we will see him calling the Jesus movement a nasty ‘superstitio’, with derogatory comments about Christians dripping from his pen.

Before tackling arguments about this, let’s see what the text of the passage by this Roman historian actually says. Tacitus paints a vivid picture, set in Rome in the 60s of the first century. This was after the great fire of Rome in the days of the Roman Emperor Nero. History has not been kind to Nero’s reputation. Tacitus tells us some of his problems. Here’s the situation:
First, your city burns down. What do you do? You make sure it never happens again. But how? You rebuild better than before and, for good measure, you appeal to your gods. At least, that’s how it was for the Romans in the first century.
Tacitus describes how Rome was rebuilt after the great fire with new better fire precautions. Normal earthly precautions. But in ancient Rome’s worldview, you also needed divine help to keep a city safe. So Tacitus moves on from describing the sensible fire precautions like this:
“Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom.  The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina.  Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess.  And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women.”
That is all very exotic sounding. All this superstitious ritual activity was done in the hope that it would safeguard the city from future threat of fire. It was like a deal with the Roman gods. It was expected that the Emperor should be seen to be playing his part in keeping their gods happy so there would be no more such disasters. Nero would want to be seen to be securing the future safety of the city of Rome, by both earthly and divine means. He had done his bit. Now the city was safe again. But for Nero, there was another problem that would not go away, one thing that all the superstitious ritual was no use for. Tacitus continues by switching from what the ritual was good for, to what it was not good for:
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.”
Tacitus means an order given by Emperor Nero to burn down his city. It had all been his fault, sinister rumours were saying, this fiery destruction. A safe city is not enough for Nero; he needs his reputation saved too. This needed a different solution. Placating the gods would do for stopping fires. But what do you do about a reputation in tatters? For this he has the time-honoured solution beloved of politicians. Find a scapegoat. Find someone else to blame, someone the populace hate, someone who would be capable of terrible things in the public’s imagination. Nero’s scapegoat was… you guessed it… the Christians in Rome. Tacitus continues – and here begin the references we are so interested in:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace.”
Tacitus’ point is that it is precisely because rumours of Nero’s guilt have stuck to him that he diverted attention onto a scapegoat. So now Tacitus has mentioned Chrestians. (Footnote 2 below deals with them being named as such.) Tacitus indicates that Nero knew of the Christians as a distinct group, and therefore Tacitus reports of them as such. He doesn't here try to explain any distinction between Christians and other Jews. He just refers to Christians because Nero fastened on them. In short, Nero knew of them as a distinct group, and as a consequence Tacitus did too. 

The poplace's view of Christians is ill-informed. Their perception of 'abominations', coupled with Tacitus' perjorative words 'hideous and shameful' is in sharp contrast to the words of a Roman official who actually interrogated Christians and reported that Christians would "bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so." It seems that the real life of a Christian was unknown to Tacitus and the populace. 

Next Tacitus gives his readers a few historical footnotes, so to speak. He makes some clear statements about the man after whom the Christians were named:
“Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,
Tacitus is very restrained in what he says here. He does not stray beyond saying what the Romans did to Christ, and where and when. That he suffered the 'penalty' indicates that his execution was for some perceived offence. That's all that is said here. (This is quite unlike, say, Tacitus' writing on the origins of the Jews which is not at all restrained and includes all manner of tosh. On Christ, Tacitus limits himself to saying what the Romans did.) Note that Tacitus states that Christ was killed under the Roman official Pilate, a simple factual past event. (I needed to point out the obvious there, if only because some mythicist hyper-sceptics today claim that Tacitus mentions the event of Christ's death only as a 'Christian belief'. Tacitus says nothing of the kind. He states that this death happened only as a simple fact.)

Broken down, the passage is interesting for being unlike ancient Christian formulations. It mentions 'Christ', but unlike Christian creeds omits 'Jesus'. Also entirely absent is the typical Christian formulation that Jesus died, was buried and was raised. Also unlike Christian creeds, Tacitus includes the detail that the death was 'during the reign of Tiberius'. This is not found in any standard Christian formulation to my knowledge. Only one biblical gospel even names Emperor Tiberius (the Gospel of Luke) and it does so only in a different context. Unlike Tacitus, Christian creeds also don't refer to Pilate's job title (here it is 'procurator') but rather Christians usually name him as Pontius Pilate. So if Tacitus was relying on a source, it was a source that uses non-Christian formulations. The dissimialrity with Christian-style formulations about the death of Christ, as found in ancient Christian texts, suggests that what we read in Tacitus is uniquely Roman. It is not a version of a Christian belief statement.

Tacitus only mentions 'Christ' to give an explanation for the word 'Chrestians' and to give a context to the origins of the movement. Where did Tacitus get the word 'Christ' from? Perhaps it was just general knowledge that Christians were so called because they spoke of Christ (Acts 11:23-36). The simple question, "Why are they called Christians?" would have delivered this answer to him. He was interested in the origins of the word, but seemingly not in the realities of Christian lives. The one word 'Christus' does not tell us that the source of the rest of the passage is a Christian source, as that would fail to explain why the formulation of the rest of the passage on the death of Christ is dissimilar to Christian texts and seems uniquely Roman, and it would also fail to explain why Tacitus is as ignorant as the populace of what Christians actually do.

Lastly, it may be worth noting that what Tacitus says about Christ points to Christ being a human man but does not point to Jesus being divine, about which Tacitus shows no awareness. Again, this suggests that Tacitus had no knowledge of what any Christians celebrated in their gatherings, in sharp contrast to his friend Pliny who knew rather more.

Now Tacitus talks about the Christians again:
and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
Tacitus clearly regards Christians as toxic. He couldn’t write a nastier poison pen letter if he tried. Here he has given us useful information: that the Christian movement started in Judea, was checked for a moment after Christ died, but then got going again in Judea. And then spread to Rome where the Christians were disliked.

The Latin word 'superstitio' is a generic word, and means that the Christians didn't conform to what Romans would consider proper religion. It doesn't mean 'superstition' in the way that we might use it - the Romans using it were not implying particular content such as 'throwing salt over your shoulder' - they were implying a lack of Roman content. Here this generic word basically means that the Christians' religious attitude lacked approved Roman behaviour. Although Tacitus evidences no particular knowledge, this word signals aberrations such as, perhaps, not frequenting Roman temples, not making animal sacrifices, not burning incense to honour the emperor, etc. That is what would be 'mischievous' about it.

Tacitus may have been disinterested in the content of Christian practices. Rome's interest in Christians in the second century was their refusal to conform. Rome's interest was not in the life of Christ. The refusal to take part in rituals of emperor worship was enough for Christianity to be branded a 'superstitio'. We can't assume that Tacitus cared to look any further into the things that Christians do - he was not a heresiologist.

Tacitus tells us how Nero’s scapegoat tactic was implemented:
“Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”
It is unclear what they may have admitted guilt to. Tacitus says it was guilt ‘not so much of the crime of firing the city’. Basically, “hatred of mankind” was attributed to Christians – and those admitting to being Christians paid the price for it. ‘Hatred of mankind’ needs explanation. It is well known to historians that early Christians were regarded in a bad light because they avoided pagan religious activities around which so much of Rome’s business and social life was based. This was regarded as anti-social, separatism, a ‘hatred of mankind’. In summary, Christians are painted in a very bad light here. No-one has a good word for them it seems. It may not seem to us much to be arrested for, but this was a time of injustice.

Tacitus says there was a multitude of Christians in Rome: he is our only witness to it being so many; while there are no witnesses who say their number was small. We do at least have corroboration that there was a church in Rome, and we know this first-hand from Paul who, in the 50s of the first century, had already known of the existence of a church there for some years (Romans 15:23 etc.).  

Tacitus next describes the grim fate of Nero’s scapegoats:
“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”
So Tacitus tells us how gruesome it got. And Nero made sure everyone noticed that punishment was being carried out, even seen from his own garden.  He wanted it to seem as if everyone could now trust that the real culprits for the fire must be these Christians, so deserving of their punishment.
This is an appropriate place for us to answer a suggestion by mythicist hyper-sceptics who claim that this passage was not written by Tacitus but by later Christian editors. Some of them claim that this is an example of Christian martyrdom literature. That is nonsense. If it were a text written by Christians, it would have Christian touches such as the martyrs seeing heaven open, or speaking to a heavenly Jesus, and with such Christ-like virtue whilst dying that it causes onlookers to marvel at the specialness of their faith. (These stories generally show literary borrowing from the likes of the account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts.) That sort of pious detail. But there is nothing of the kind in this passage, which rules out that mythicist suggestion. We know what early Christian martyrology texts look like, and Tacitus lacks their key features. So Annals 15:44 was not written by any Christian.
Tacitus tells us what happens so often when the state attacks the marginalised in society. It backfires. It didn’t quite have the effect Nero wanted. Tacitus explains how the Christians were then regarded with pity, and Nero with more disapproval:
“Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
Tacitus reveals that as much as Nero tried to stage-manage events, his reputation just suffered more. And so that, then, is Tacitus’ account of the persecution of Christians in Rome.
Tacitus has told us quite a bit there: that the movement started in Judea before Christ's death, and it arose again after his death, a death under Pilate during Tiberius' reign; it also says that the movement spread to Rome.

It is worth reiterating that Tacitus is restrained in his treatment of Christians inasmuch as he tells no fanciful stories of their exploits. Unlike the tosh he wrote about the origins of the Jews, Tacitus indicates only that their movement came from Judea, revived despite the death of Christ, and he tells that they admitted guilt to something in Rome. That's all. Everything else Tacitus says about them is what the Romans did to them, and what a nasty impression the Romans had of them. That's all. As with what Tacitus said of Christ, he is restrained. He makes no great claims of anything about the origins or actions of the Christians. Their is no fanciful elaboration, nor any obvious knowledge of Christian practices. He seems uninterested in any actual stories about them except what relates to Nero and Rome.

There’s nothing favourable about Tacitus’ poisonous treatment of Christians. To recap part of the argument against interpolation, Tacitus’ words are obviously not written by Christians, poisonous hostile words calling Christians and their religion a ‘disease’, a ‘pernicious superstition’, a people ‘loathed for their vices’ who have ‘hatred for the human race’. And Tacitus implictly links all this back to their following Christ, but the real force behind his words is surely that the Christians were not bowing to the emperor, and so these Christians have to be described in very sinister terms. This is just not the sort of publicity which Christians want Christ’s name to be associated with. Tacitus wrote all these words, none of it was written by Christians. Naysayers who say otherwise are just being tendentious.

Now an important question is about the source of Tacitus’ information about Christ and Christians. In examining this, I have to keep in mind what Tacitus actually wrote. In regard to Christ, Tacitus says only what the Romans did to him; and although Tacitus knows him as Christ which is what Christians called him, this tells us nothing about the source of the rest of what Tacitus tells us about Christ, since this is dissimilar to ancient Christian formulations. In regard to Christians, Tacitus echoes popular hysteria about Christians rather than convey any analysis or real details about what Christians actually do.

I will briefly touch on the weaknesses of three common suggestions for who might be the source of the information on Christ especially (and Christians too): Josephus, Pliny and Christians.


We need to be clear which information we mean. As to Christ, it consists only of what Romans did to him: the who, where, when, what. As to Christians, it consists only of the vague reference which we can infer is to fantasies entertained by the Roman populace about Christian practices being in bad taste, and the Christians' alienation from the populace. We can surmise from this that Tacitus and his sources in the general populace, who thought in this perjorative way, had not really got to know any actual Christians personally. This is worth amplifying. Just as Tacitus does not seem to have consulted any Jews about the origins of the Jewish people (which is obvious in that he recycled tosh about the Jews), so also he does not seem to have had personal contact with Christians (which is obvious in that he has no apparent knowledge of what Christians actually do, unlike his friend Pliny). Tacitus therefore had only non-Christian sources, which could say only what the Romans did to Christ and what their own perjorative perception of Christians as an alienated group was. It is very different from the more measured and expansive account, containing actual details, given by someone who actually did meet Christians - Pliny. (See Footnote 3 below.) It is worth noting that despite this rather obvious obstacle, some sceptics persist with their belief that Tacitus' information source about Christ was Christians, which assumption depends in turn on the inbuilt assumption that Christians were talking about Christ being executed under Pilate in the reign of Tiberius and on the further assumption that there was an unknown chain of transmission to get news of that to Tacitus, and it depends on the further inbuilt assumption that Tacitus never bothered to check that from his own sources: a string of assumptions, which ignores the problem that Tacitus seems to have had no knowledge of what Christians actually do, which somewhat undermines the theory.

Some mythicists accept, as you will have gathered, that Tacitus was the writer (not an interpolator). They usually persist with the claim that Tacitus could only have got this information from Christians as a Christian 'belief'. Tacitus says nothing of the kind. He merely states what the Romans did to Christ as fact, without qualifying it as a 'belief'. And there is another particular problem for the mythicist suggestion: why on earth would Tacitus trust people he despised as an information source for histories that he was devoted to writing well, and why then state it all as fact as he does without any disclaimers? And if he had a Christian source, why does he not report anything more than what Romans did to Christ? Anyway, he wouldn’t just regard Christians - as people he despised - as a good touchstone for information and then just write it without any disclaimer. There is no evidence that he had listened to any Christians or read any gospels or any other Christian literature. He could find things out for himself. He preferred Roman sources.


Some suggest that Tacitus got his information indirectly from Christians via his friend and fellow Roman official Pliny. But there are problems with such a suggestion. The first is that there is no indication that they compared notes on this, only that they wrote about different groups of Christians. Their separate writings reveal two completely separate sets of data. Tacitus speaks of the movement's origins and recent events in Rome, on which Pliny says nothing. Pliny basically details the day to day ritual practices of Christians (in Asia Minor), on which Tacitus says nothing. There is  no overlap of data. Pliny knows what Christians actually do, but Tacitus seems ill-informed about that by comparison, merely echoing the popular hysteria about the Christians being up to something awful. This sharply contrasts with Pliny's dispassionately conveyed informed and detailed knowledge. In any case, it is on the more unlikely side that they compared notes on this particular issue as it forms a very small part of their writings indeed, which fits with the fact that their writings betray no sharing of information on this. (The most you could say was comparable would be their derogatory comments about Christians holding to a bad superstition, but Tacitus and Pliny would say that, as they were currying favour with an imperial audience, and of course describing any religion that refuses to bow to the emperor as a bad superstition was an appropriate thing for them to say. It no more shows writers pinching off each other than would be the case if two civil servants described ISIS as religious extremists.) For the record, Pliny's information is in Footnote 3 below.


Josephus has also been suggested as a source, but we can more or less rule out that Tacitus used Josephus as a source given that Tacitus had nothing but tosh to say about the origins of the Jews, a subject on which Josephus could have enlightened him. 

Official sources
Once we rule out those three suggestions as weak, there are less complicated explanations available for Tacitus’ knowledge, as said above (uncomplicated is better usually).
  • He spent time out east, so was probably informed of this new Jewish group there, and he would have had some access to the Roman Empire’s records because of his official position. 
  • For fact-checking, he undoubtedly had the Acta Diurna (for events in and around Rome) and Acta Senatus (records of the Roman Senate) to refer to (if only we had them too!), but possibly not access to the jealously guarded Imperial library. If the Acta Diurna included notices of events in the wider empire, then a library copy of the Acts Diurna could have been Tacitus' source for his comments on what the Romans did to Jesus, but it is difficult to say that these would have included the detail that some people called him the Christ, which is one thing that probably needed an additional source. Anyway, Rome's Acta Diurna have not survived and so there would be no way to evidence any of this. 
  • He also consulted other authors (for example on the fire of Rome, see Annals 15.38). He was a keen researcher. He wrote lengthy histories about the Jewish War which means he had significant sources about what went on in first century Judea.
  • If he had had access to records relating to the trial of Paul before Nero's court (which was due to happen about 62AD, just a couple of years before Nero's fire and persecution of Christians) it would have been useful, but that is not possible for us to evidence.

 Tacitus never says he had any Christian source, never mentions Josephus and does not give the impression of being interested in Jewish statements of belief, and his relationship with Pliny evidences no contact in this matter.

Tacitus can generally be trusted as a historian of what to him was modern history of his day. He was normally a rigorous historian on events from his own century, even on small details. To give you some idea, he even sees fit to correct information from his friend Pliny on occasion (see Annals 15.53). There is no basis for saying that Tacitus has got his facts wrong in this account, if the question should arise. In fact, the passage is well trusted by secular academics. No-one holding a classics seat, or a history seat, teaching at an accredited secular university says that this passage is fake as far as I am aware. If we were to try to say that all the experts were wrong, we would need a very convincing explanation for why we thought they were wrong. There is no good reason to overthrow this academic consensus on this useful passage in Tacitus. The fact that he  is a hostile independent historian makes his treatment of this subject more clearly useful for corroborating what Christians say about their movement having started in Judea with Christ who died there under Pontius Pilate.   

This might not seem to add up to very much, but here's a thing: if there were no mention of Christ in Tacitus, sceptics would be quick to jump on this and assert with much alarm and fuss firstly that there ought to be such a mention if Christ existed, and secondly that it follows (as if it did) that the absence of such a mention is a smoking gun telling us that Jesus Christ probably never existed. As it happens there is such a mention, which means that Tacitus cannot be used by sceptics to raise an objection on that basis. 

We can usefully put Tacitus’ information alongside other independent author, Josephus, who lived in the first century. In material normally accepted by secular historians as authentic, they tell us this:
  • A man called John the Baptist lived in an area under Herod’s jurisdiction (Josephus)
  • John told Jews to live good lives and baptised them (Josephus)
  • Herod feared John would trigger a revolution, and so he had John arrested and killed (Josephus)
  • It was in Judea that people began following Christ, some time before his death. (Tacitus)
  • Jesus was a teacher who brought many Jews over to his way of thinking (Josephus)
  • Some senior Jews complained to the Roman Governor Pilate about Jesus (Josephus)
  • Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified (Josephus)
  • The death penalty for Jesus given by Pontius Pilate happened during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Tacitus)
  • The Jesus movement was only stopped for a moment, and broke out afresh in Judea (Tacitus)
  • So despite Jesus’ death, his followers carried on regardless for decades on end (Josephus)
  • In the 60s, James the brother of Jesus – the Jesus who was called Christ - was stoned to death, and others too, because some Jewish leaders did not like his attitude to the Jewish law (Josephus)
  • By the 60s, Jesus’ followers had also spread to Rome, where some people called them Chrestians, but really they were named after Christ (Tacitus)

Footnote 1
For those who like to know these things:
  • the earliest extant use of this Tacitus passage by another writer is by Sulpicius Severus, a contemporary of St Augustine, who lived about 363-425AD, in his Chronicles 2.29. 1-4a
  • Nero persecuting Christians after the fire is also mentioned in the second century by Tacitus' friend Suetonius in his Nero 16.2
  • The earliest explicit Christian mention of Nero in particular persecuting Christians (albeit, a different episode) was, like Tacitus, published in the second century, and can be found in the Acts of Paul X.II
  • It is widely thought by scholars that there is an earlier coded Christian allusion to Nero persecuting Christians in the Book of Revelation chapter 13 where the number 666 is numerologically connected with Nero's name.

Footnote 2
In Latin, the terms Chrestians and Christians were used almost interchangeably at times in the early centuries, a by-product of how the Romans treated the word in their own language. Of particular historical interest is that the term 'Christian' appears here to be attached to the believers in Rome as early as the 60s of the first century. The term did not originate with the Jerusalem believers who first formed the church, and there is no evidence that the Jerusalem church ever called itself by that name. The evidence is that the name was coined in Antioch by outsiders as a nickname for the believers, and that the name had reached as far as Caesarea (Acts 26:28) where it seems to be what Paul was already known by, as far as Roman authorities there were concerned, when Paul was on his journey that would lead him, under arrest, to trial in Rome. This is around 60AD. If any weight is given to this, then it is plausible that the term 'Christian' was in use in Rome by 64AD, where Tacitus (a young contemporary of the events of 64AD) puts it. (Of course, at the time when Tacitus was calling them Christians, his friend Pliny was doing so too.)
Footnote 3

The evidence on Pliny’s side is in Pliny’s correspondence with Emperor Trajan. To summarise it these were Christians in Pliny’s district of Bithynia et Pontus (Turkey to you and me) and they included “many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes” in the cities, villages and farms. The Christians were not frequenting the Roman temples, and with such impact that the temples “had been almost deserted”.  Some people were denounced to Pliny as Christians. Those who, under interrogation, refused to curse Christ, were assumed to be real Christians. Some of these were executed for refusing to renounce their faith after three opportunities to do so. Some others were Roman citizens and were therefore transferred to Rome instead.

The information Pliny obtained from the Christians under interrogation about their practices was that “they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.” Except they stopped doing the latter after an official Roman edict forbidding “political associations”. Two Christian female slaves, called deaconesses, spoke in more detail, but what they said to Pliny was, to his mind, just “depraved, excessive superstition, and Pliny does not bother to reveal the content of this. Persecution by Pliny resulted in many people abandoning the Christian groups and returning to Roman religious ways.

Links to this series are below.
Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction 

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive? 

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

Extra: Did Josephus mention Jesus and was that quoted by Origen?

You are here - What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus? 

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus? 

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus? 

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was? 

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus? 

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?