Sunday, November 4, 2007

Does Tacitus Justify Belief that Jesus was Crucified?

As I explained in my previous post, I just don't see how the writings of Josephus can be used to justify belief that Jesus was crucified. The evidence provided by Tacitus is a little better. But good enough? I don't think so.

Writing in 116 Tacitus tells us that Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. He explains that Christians follow "Christus" who "suffered the extreme penalty" under Pilate, and that the sect was in check for a moment, then broke out and became more popular.

If Tacitus' source for this information is reliable, then we have pretty good evidence that there was a founder of the Christian religion that was executed. But where did he get this information? Is he merely repeating what a Christian has told him, several decades after the supposed time of Christ? Or is he repeating information that he obtained from official Roman records, independently of simple converts? He doesn't say, so we're left in the dark.

One plausible answer is that he found out about Christians from his good friend Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking him how he should handle these people that call themselves Christians around 100 CE. He tells Trajan how he's going about dealing with them, and wants to be sure that he is acting appropriately. He tells Trajan that he asks them if they are Christians. He threatens them and tells them they need to worship the state gods. If they refuse, he has them executed, but if they relent he releases them. He says that he really didn't know what it was these Christians believed, so he brought in a couple and had them tortured so that they would tell him their beliefs. In this way he obtained information about Christianity.

Trajan replies to Pliny and tells him that he's acting appropriately. He says that he shouldn't bother seeking them out to punish them, but if they are brought before him and refuse to offer supplication to the state gods, they need to be punished. But if they recant, let them go free, even if they are known to be Christians.

Pliny the Younger is a very well connected guy, so if he is ignorant of what Christianity is in the year 100 CE you have to conclude that it is somewhat insignificant. He had to bring in Christians himself to find out. So what did these Christians tell him? The way mystery religions often operate is they tell outsiders the "outsider" story. Only initiates are given the secret, true information.

Did Pliny get true information, and convey that to Tacitus? Possibly. It's also possible he got information from gullible converts that received the information from second, third, and fourth hand sources. Or he may have received the "outsider" story from these adherents to the new Christian mystery religion. It's possible that Tacitus didn't even get this information from Pliny, but got it from a reliable source. Or he may have interrogated some Christians himself, and again got the outsider story. There's really just no way to know. And so unfortunately we just can't form confident conclusions about Jesus crucifixion from this type of data.

Habermas and Licona also appeal to Mara bar Serapion and Lucian. We're getting very late with these texts. I again don't see how firm conclusions can be drawn from these sources.


DagoodS said...

Do Habermas or Licona even address the problems of Tacitus (lack of confirmation, use of title, rather than name, even that is mis-spelled, lack of Pliny knowing Christianity) or do they perform the standard of act of name-dropping Tacitus and Josephus without presenting the difficulties?

Jon said...

Name drop all the way. Very little details are offered. The same is true for Josephus. Even the Christian argument that it is rife with insertions isn't mentioned, let alone that the whole thing could be forgery.

DagoodS said...

That type of name-dropping is disconcerting to me. If they are writing to convince a skeptic, they would never avoid the controversies, as they would look uninformed. Any one of us is familiar with the problems of Josephus and Tactitus—basic Skeptic 101.

Therefore, they are not writing to skeptics. But why write to those who are already convinced? To what credit is it to write to a person who believes Jesus was crucified, buried and physically resurrected and manage to persuade them Jesus was crucified, buried and physically resurrected? In fact, they do a bit of disservice (in my opinion) for two reasons:

1) Some day some naïve Christian who is questioning his/her beliefs, and unknowingly is taking the first steps of deconversion comes across their book, and they look disingenuous by not addressing these real concerns. It does not push a deconvert back toward belief!

2) Some Christian will someday be faced by a skeptic, and when they bring up these points, will be completely unable to respond to even a semi-informed non-believer.

Why should Christianity so fear the truth? Better to say, “Here is one side; here is the other. This is why we think Christianity proposes the better solution between the two claims.”

Jon said...

This book is definitely not about presenting two sides fairly and arguing about why the Christian side is more reasonable. This book is about winning souls.

For an example of the tone of the book, at one point they actually say something like "Suppose your company has an outing at the ball park and you meet Tom, who you know is a skeptic and a logical person. Here is how you might start something with him." This is a handbook for refuting the lay skeptic you meet at your work lunchroom.

In their defense they do make it clear who their audience is. But even still, they should confess the weaknesses in their own position and at least try to address them. They do this sometimes but not always, as is the case with Tacitus and Josephus.