In the 10+ years since I first wrote this essay, two things of relevance have happened:
- I have published my book Shattering the Christ Myth in defense of Jesus' historicity;
- G. A. Wells has abandoned the idea that Jesus did not exist (see here).
In spite of the second point, the Secular Web continues to host Wells' material on this subject, so we will maintain this essay as well.
In reply to my material now here, G. A. Wells has entitled his response, "A Reply to J. P. Holding's 'Shattering' of My Views on Jesus and an Examination of the Early Pagan and Jewish References to Jesus" (emphasis added).
Indeed? I was unaware that Wells had managed to achieve sole possession of the views in question; at the very least, Earl Doherty might have a word to say about that, as might Acharya S, Hayyim ben Yehoshua, and a minute host of others, past and present.
Of course there is no denying that Wells is the most prolific author in this field; he has managed to get various publishers to print and sell his theories at least half a dozen times, although with each new book he had virtually nothing new to say, as even his own readers admit. But such copious production by no means entitles Wells to sole claim upon the issue.
Of course, Wells may protest that he only means that they are his views, but not exclusively, but let us note that I certainly did not deal with Wells exclusively in my work, and I am certain that Wells knows that others like Doherty hold views that are similar or much the same which they have arrived at independently (or sufficiently independently) of Wells himself, so that there is no reason to title the response with a possessive at all.
I would maintain that regardless of intent, the title reveals a generous (to put it lightly) self-understanding, that sort which is characteristic of Christ-mythers: a snideness and arrogance which causes the Christ-myther to portray themselves (please excuse the inexactness of the metaphor) as an Athanasius standing contra mundum before those unable to appreciate their genius.
I maintain this, further, because it becomes quite clear in the text of Wells' reply to me. His response, like his books, is completed with psychological tactics, with subtle guesses about motivations, and also, with arguments presented uncritically and by authority.
On this last matter, the Greeks had a name for Paul in Athens, which applies as well to Wells: They called them spermologos, "seed-pickers," pseudo-philosophers who picked up snatches of ideas and assembled them into what (to the otherwise unknowing) seemed like new ideas, even though their own view of the broader picture from which those ideas emerged was tenuous at best.
It remains that in spite of at least seven books, Wells has barely skimmed the surface of available New Testament and secular-historical scholarship; he lifts quotes from authorities without any sort of critical evaluation, although he may well invent, with no regard for context or history, some explanation in his defense that is utterly inadequate, Otherwise, he will ignore what is said. Actual, analytical arguments from Wells are a rarity.
the first fifth of Wells' reply has nothing to do with my essay at all; rather, it is on a related subject:
Holding states, correctly, that documentation about Jesus, Christian and other, is far more extensive than what is available for other ancient personages, whose existence nobody queries. The problem, however, is not that the evidence concerning Jesus in the century from A.D. 50 to 150 is sparse, but that its witness to him is not uniform; for a considerable body of Christian literature is extant which is either earlier than the gospels, or at any rate earlier than the time when they had become generally known, and which signally fails to confirm what they say of Jesus and represents him quite differently. Only from the time when the gospels had become available do we find other extant Christian documents beginning to portray him as they do.
Following this Wells takes a moment to plug his books in which he discussed this subject (actually, he plugs his books, a la Nietzsche, in several places).
It is no surprise that Wells takes up a fifth of his reply with this diversion. My article was clearly concerned only with the secular references to Jesus; at the time I was not addressing the NT evidence. But it is a standard tactic for those whose position is weak to begin by offering a related digression that is off the specific topic at issue. Indeed, the longer the digression, one might say, the weaker the position: the extended digression fosters the impression that there is some vast area left unaddressed by the original writer that refutes in entirety what is actually being argued.
I am not addressing the NT evidence in that essay, and Wells knows this. He apparently does not know, on the other hand, that I have addressed these issues in responses to Earl Doherty, and in other articles on my page. As I have shown, to say that the witness to Jesus in Christian literature is "not uniform" is simply false; it is also to engage a broad generalization that falsely sets an anachronstically pre-defined standard "uniformity" as the guide for determining the worth of the witness, and sets an assumption that the critic's perception of the degree of uniformity required is the proper source for the standard.
To say that the witnesses to Jesus represent him "quite differently" is, in this context, to assume that the witnesses are incompatible rather than complimentary; it is to reduce to two dimensions the complexity of a historical figure who, by nature, would be irreducibly complex.
We have dealt with this sort of issue in other essays, including things like dates and authorship of the Gospels, literary dependence among the Gospels and the Q thesis, and the lack of mention of specific details in non-gospel NT documents; like Wells I will merely offer a referral and leave it at that. Let the impression not be given, nevertheless, that I have somehow ignored these issues. I did address them later than the secular references, because of the constraints of the original project responding to the Secular Web, but I had been far from ignoring them, whatever Wells may wish to imply with this digression.
As a digression of my own, consider the sentence:
The early documents are not restricted to the Pauline letters, the earliest of them all, dating from the 50s, but include numerous other epistles by other authors, although my critics are wont to pretend that my whole case is built on the discrepancy between Paul and the evangelists.
Perhaps indeed Wells' critics are wont to "pretend" this, but I have not--and this being the case, what is the purpose of this interlude? I am not guilty of this pretension; it has no place, other than perhaps as a footnote, in a response to me; why is it placed in the middle of the essay?
Since it is not made clear that I have not made this mistake, it is clear that Wells is simply attempting to get readers to believe that I am, or would be, guilty of this mistake. There is no other practical reason to highlight this point as Wells has done. I would suggest that this reflect a need to constantly defend even on fronts not engaged by the enemy, in order to remind the reader of one's own "expertise".
Also, in my essay I noted the comments of a hardened skeptic (who has no reason to favor the Christian view) and an Emeritus Professor of History, Morton Smith, who severely criticized Wells on methodological grounds. Against this, Wells notes that Smith took the tack of dismissing the highly-divine Jesus of Paul as a distortion that was based upon Paul's ignorance of Jesus, notes that he has criticized Smith's position in one of his books, and says, "Holding sets (Smith) up against me, mentioning, however, only his dismissive comments on my work, not any arguments."
Irrelevant: The point was that Smith, as a highly trained and distinguished historian, found the whole of Wells' work to be the work of one unscholarly and not worthy of attention. I am not at this point in my essay addressing Christ-myth arguments; I am making a point about the consensus of those trained in the field versus one who has no training at all in the field.
Is it possible that Wells knows more than all of these? Hardly so. The stand of trained consensus is not, as I make clear, a proof, but a weighting factor; beyond that, the arguments exist, but that was not the subject of concern here.
The fact that so many trained in the field of history stand against Wells, who has no expertise in the field, should serve as a warning to us, and I say no more than this. I do not "set" Smith, Harvey, or anyone "against" like this Wells for the purpose of addressing arguments. That is a straw man of Wells' own manufacture. I argued no such thing -- yet note how Wells has arranged his words so that he can tar me with the broad brush of the argument, yet has also arranged the words in such a way as to maintain plausible deniability in replying that he is not accusing me of arguing this way.
Wells writes of his newer view of a Jewish background to the Jesus story, versus an earlier view of his that looked for sources in pagan religions (in the manner of today's Acharya S), and says:
Now that I have allowed this in my two most recent relevant books...it will not do to dub me a "mythicist" tout court. Moreover, my revised standpoint obviates the criticism (gleefully endorsed by Holding) which J. D. G Dunn levelled at me in 1985.
Wells is to be commended for revising his stance, although it is perhaps no reason for commendation to give up a stance that was rapidly making you look less scholarly when you were already on the outskirts of scholarly respect in the first place.
But note the addition of the adverb "gleefully". I introduced the quote from Dunn with the words, "Dunn provides an anecdote similar to the one above regarding Shakespeare. Referring to Wells' thesis, he writes:" -- and that was it.
I sound quite gleeful, do I not? In fact, this is one of several places where Wells describes my mood or thought based only upon presumption, and it is also a tactic he uses freely in his books. Wells has no idea what my mood, or the mood of any critic of his, is, at any given point. If Wells can portray me as "gleeful" in offering this quote--if he can involve, however illicitly, my supposed emotions on an issue--then he can give his readers the impression that I lack objectivity. But I dare any person to explain to me how the reference to Dunn is presented in a "gleeful" fashion.
Eventually Wells finally gets around to the topic at hand, the secular references to Jesus. He begins by once again with psychology, saying, "My critics commonly ascribe to me the view that the sparsity of early references of this kind is in itself sufficient evidence that no historical Jesus ever existed. This is not, and never has been, my position."
I do not say that it is (it is a position that is held by others), and therefore, this remark has no place in a response to me outside of perhaps a footnote. Wells does not make it clear that I do not ascribe this position to him; therefore his purpose is once again to implicitly ascribe a false position to me while maintaining deniability.
Wells goes on to say, "My concern has been to counter the widespread belief that these non-Christian references establish beyond reasonable doubt the existence of a Jesus who lived and died as in the gospels and make any further discussion of the matter unnecessary." That indeed is where the discussion lies, and we now proceed to details.
There is no discussion of Glenn Miller's article on Thallus. I therefore only note that Miller's work answers each of Wells' arguments on this point, which consist in the main of uncritically quoting various authorities who happen to have agreed with his point of view. The sole point derived from my essay has to do with the objection that Seneca and Pliny the Elder ought to have mentioned the darkness at the Crucifixion. Wells writes extensively, and I will quote him piecemeal for clarity:
Holding, who upholds the accuracy of the gospels, takes the three-hour darkness as historical, and is incensed with those who "parrot" Gibbon's remarks on it at the end of chapter 15 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Again, this is little more than psychology. How does Wells know that I am "incensed"? The description serves well to instill within his readers the perception that I am upset beyond possible objectivity, and therefore must be somehow mutilating the evidence or incapable of making a fair and rational judgment. But if antyhing, I merely find great amusement in those who do simply "parrot" Gibbon (or any source) rather than reading the primary sources themselves.
Our Research Assistant Punkish adds: Gibbon has a footnote here. He says, "A distinct chapter in Pliny is designated for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar", which "had already been celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age". This is of interest because Pliny's chapter does not list any, save the Caesar bit; it literally has the terms "extraordinary nature and unusual duration" and then goes on to speak of Caesar...and it's more like a paragraph than a chapter ref Nat Hist ii:30. Gibbon also says: "This response does not do justice to the fact that a prolonged darkness over much of the Earth, if historical, must have been experienced by many who could have known nothing of its supposed supernatural cause." Had Wells bothered with the footnote ...which conjectures the restricted usage of the term 'ge' to Judea, according to Origen (commentary on Matthew), and also notes several writers of his day who did the same thing.
The passage well illustrates the irony which has so often infuriated Gibbon's clerical readers. This darkness, he said, "happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects or received the earliest intelligence of the prodigy" which is said to involve "the whole Earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire".
Note again, of course, the psychology at work: The clerical readers are "infuriated" and are therefore afflicted with emotion; by extension they are not objective. I could easily psychologically analyze every work of Wells and distinguish places where he is visibly distressed, or deliriously happy, and so on--and do so with as much authority as Wells does here.
Beyond that, let it be noted what the verse in question indicates. Luke 23:44 says (parallel in Matthew and Mark), "And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour." "Earth" is the Greek word ge, and while it is used often in the sense of the globe, it is also used in the limited sense of a region of the globe or a specific country. Did the Gospels intend a global darkness, or did they intend ge in the sense of the local land?
The balance favors the latter, for all other phenomena they describe as attending the crucifixion is local, and of course they could not have possibly known whether the darkness covered the whole of the earth from their local perspective unless they went out later and asked--and if they are fibbing on that point, then they have left a gap in their records that would be all too easy for skeptics to disprove, and would be forced to endlessly defend the record on this point to prospective converts in the Hellenistic world, leaving literary footprints and engendering damaging gossip (a very important point in a collectivist society) that would exist unto this day.
But we find no such footprints: Thus the data indicates that to whatever the lengths the darkness went, criterions of criticism were satisfied, just as Miller indicates. (This is important, for Wells insists that this darkness was "over much of the Earth," and there is no justification at all for taking this broader meaning from ge in this context.)
"Each of these philosophers", he continues, "in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter in Pliny is designated for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar", which "had already been celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age".
This concludes Wells' quote of Gibbon. I include it in entirety here because Wells somehow thinks it significant to note that "of course" I did not quote Gibbon, suggesting to his readers that I did not offer the quote because it worked against me. In fact, I represented the essence of the quote fairly when I noted the nature of the objection under discussion: "This darkness was not recorded by the two greatest contemporary scientists of the time, Seneca and Pliny the Elder. These writers attempted to record all known contemporary geological and astronomical phenomenon, which makes their omission of this event a serious deterrent to regarding it as historical." I reported the spirit, if not the letter, of Gibbon's comment, although Wells does not quote this, for if he did, it would spoil his efforts.
Beyond that, quoting Gibbon is no substitute for offering and analyzing the source material from Seneca and Pliny themselves. Readers should be allowed for themselves to decide if these men really, as Gibbon claims, "recorded all the great phenomena of nature" and would have recorded the incident in question.
...Holding can only reply that neither Seneca nor Pliny intended their listings to be exhaustive, and that Pliny in any case "would not have recorded this event unless he had been there himself", for, as "a skeptic and rationalist of the highest order", he would have ignored reports of miracles.
Wells' argument goes on to make the presumption that the darkness was global, and as we have seen, this is an assumption without justification. My points, therefore, that the listings were not exhaustive, and my remarks about Pliny's skepticism, remain standing. These comments do nothing to refute the details of my presentation.
We next turn to Wells' response on the testimony of Pliny the Younger. Wells says:
That we learn from his report "the ethical grounding of Jesus' teachings", as Holding claims, is not true. He did indeed find that these Christians asserted that they abided by certain ethical principles, but it is not said whence these were derived.
This is splitting hairs. It is "not said whence these were derived"? Where does Wells believe they were derived from? Pliny understands Christianity to be a society devoted to the worship of Christ; can Wells offer an example of a religious organization that ultimately derived its ethical grounding from one other than the one they worshipped or followed?
The premise I have stated follows logically from Pliny's words. Merely suggesting without basis some idea that these ethical principles were derived (directly or ultimately) from a source other than the being that the Christians worshipped is a contrivance with no socio-religious parallel.
Moreover, neither Pliny, nor Suetonius, nor Tacitus make any mention of 'Jesus', but speak only of Christ.
I have already answered this point, noting that "it is more plausible to recognize that Tacitus [and other historians of the day] would use the name with which (their) readers would be most familiar." Wells offers no answer to this point at all. (I have since added more on this point; see here for details.)
To infer, as Holding does, that Pliny's phrase "to Christ as to a god" points to someone who, "in Roman eyes", was both a "known" and a "supposedly mortal" person is quite arbitrary.
Simply calling my argument names ("quite arbitrary") is not an answer. Noet that what I actually say is that "The phrase ['as (or 'as if') a god'] here would indicate that someone who would not ordinarily be perceived as a god (in Roman eyes) was here being accorded the status of deity, and this points to someone who was (again, in Roman eyes) a known, supposedly mortal person." Pliny would not make the point that Christ was worshipped "as if a god" unless Christ was for some reason not, from his perspective, a being who would not be taken as a god.
It is like saying, "They talk to that man as to a spoiled child." The man is not a spoiled child, yet he is treated as one, because his actions are perceived to be those of a spoiled child; indeed such comments, while possible to be made as a clinical observation, usually carry the connotation that the treatment is for some reason inappropriate. Likewise, Pliny's observation indicates that Christ is not (from his perspective) a real god.
This leads to the question of why Pliny phrases his words as he does. Christ-mythers might say that it is because Christ never existed as a person on earth, but was just a spiritual being inhabiting a spiritual realm. But if that were the case, then Pliny's statement is curiously worded. He notes that this identification of Christ as a god is part of their "guilt" or "error". How would Pliny know that the Christians were in error about Christ's identity as a god? If Christ was only a nebulous spirit-world being, then Pliny has no rational grounds for doubting his classification as a deity. (That Christ might not have been an all-powerful, supreme deity would not reduce his potential classification as a deity in this context: not all of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were omnipotent.)
If he disbelieved in the god Christ, then Pliny would have said, "they worship their god, Christ". When Pliny says Christ is worshipped "as if a god" he must have some concrete reason for believing that Christ could not have qualified for a god. This, as I say, points to a human Christ; what else it might point to is something Wells would have to argue for, and not merely speculatively. But the burden of proof is upon Wells to provide a sensible alternative in context. The Greco-Roman dichotomy between the earthly and the divine makes my explanation most plausible; no other explanation is available.
Pliny had written, as governor of a distant province, to his emperor, Trajan, asking whether he was right to leave Christians unmolested provided they were prepared to conform to Roman religious rites and to forswear Christianity. His statement that, on interrogating suspects, he "discovered" this religion to be no more than "a perverse and extravagant superstition" shows that he had no prior knowledge of it.
Here Wells once again takes material from its social context and derives anachronistic conclusions. Pliny notes that he discovered no more than this not because he had no prior knowledge of Christianity, but that he was looking for something more than a religious gathering. Various aspects of Christian worship, as Wells goes on to note, happened to parallel the behaviors of covert political and religious groups of the day. Pliny was looking for a subversive group trying to overthrow the emperor, but he "discovered" only a superstition: In other words, he speaks of "discovery" not in the sense of finding something new and unfamiliar to him, but in the sense of seeking out something covert and political, and not finding it; of finding A when he was looking for B.
Wells is using the association of the word "discovery" with newness to imply something that Pliny never intended to say. Pliny's words no more imply that he knew nothing about Christianity previously than a parent's statement that they "discovered" their child smoking behind the barn (when they thought they were out playing baseball) indicates that they previously knew nothing about cigarettes.
He had, he declares, never before taken part in investigation of Christians, and had no idea how they should be dealt with. This ignorance does not suit Holding, who finds it "very plausible" to suggest that "he had learnt about Jesus" -- whom Pliny never mentions -- "and the Christians at an earlier time, in his position as state priest". J. J. Walsh, in a recent article, gives a truer picture, saying: "Pliny evidently knew next to nothing not only about the sect but about his own government's policy towards the sect" (quoted in JL, p. 43).
Once again, Wells draws improper conclusions by making the data say what he wants it to say. Yes, Pliny says he had never taken part in an investigation of Christians, but what he says, exactly, is: "(I) do not know the nature of or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, or the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name."
Wells takes this to mean that Pliny must not have known anything about Christianity, when all it says is that Pliny knew nothing about the precise legal procedures for dealing with Christians, which is not the same thing as knowing about the Christian religion.
In addition, Walsh (who is not a historian) is simply quoted uncritically for effect. In fact there are no grounds for saying that Pliny "knew next to nothing" about the sect: as I have argued, but Wells does not answer: "Clearly Pliny shows that he knows HOW TO DISTINGUISH who is a Christian and who is not - which would be impossible unless he had some previous idea what it was that they believed. There is a limitation to this, of course: We are not told when or where Pliny learned all of this; he COULD have just found out about all of this from his underlings a week before writing to Trajan. But a very plausible suggestion is that he had learned about Jesus and the Christians at an earlier time in his position as a state priest." Beyond this we see again that same argument about no mention of Jesus, only Christ, which I have already dealt with. My case for Pliny as being, on the balance, a decisive source for the historicity of Jesus, remains unchallenged by actual data.
Holding finds it unlikely that some of these Christians would have been willing to die for their faith if Jesus had not existed. Of course it is not in question that they believed Christ to have existed, as god or man or perhaps as both. But readiness to die for beliefs testifies to the strength with which they are held, not to their accuracy.
I have already answered this point. As I noted, "We are, indeed, talking about people, as it is said, who think that what they are dying for is the truth and although it is fashionable in skeptical circles to assume ancient people were gullible or ignorant, the fact is that the early Christians most assuredly would have been in a position to know - with the same moral certitude that we have - whether Jesus actually existed or not. Just as much as we living in modern times, ancient people kept records, wrote things down, and tracked information faithfully . They had libraries, which contained histories from earlier times. The governments of that time kept records. So did religious authorities."
For Wells to say that "(c)lose inquiry into the evidence supporting them is not necessarily involved. Such fanaticism has been shown by orthodox Jews and by Christian heretics as much as by orthodox Christians," is merely generalizing and verges on bigotry. Wells must assume that all people of this age were infected with a remarkable lassitude that kept them from looking before they leapt. Considering the findings of Meeks and Stark that early Christianity had an unusually significant percentage of converts from the upper-level, literate, and educated classes, it is impossible to accept Wells' implicit assumption that all Christians or potential converts were so "fanatic" as to not have looked into the basis for the Christian faith. What would be the basis for this fanaticism in the first place, especially within a social context that ostracized exclusivist religious beliefs like Christianity? (See more now here.)
Concerning Suetonius, neither I nor Wells have a great deal to say. Wells' only response to me is:
Holding declares that the only way to devalue what Suetonius says is to allege that it has nothing to do with Jesus or with Christians at all. This is not so. We can couple accepting it as a reference to 'Christ' with recognition of the disparity between the earliest extant Christian literature and the gospels concerning the manner in which Jesus is regarded.
This "disparity," however, as I have made clear in other essays, is a product of the imagination.
We now move to my favorite cite in the lot, concerning Tacitus.
Tacitus wrote about the same time as Pliny, and tells that Christianity originated in Judea. (He regarded it as a subversive foreign cult which did not deserve the tolerance Rome showed to many religions.) This statement, says Holding, "mitigates" -- he means 'militates' -- against ideas that it was "designed piecemeal from pagan religious ideas". If this is directed against me, I must reply that I have long insisted that Christianity originated from Judaism.
Was I talking to Wells here? No, I wasn't. In fact, this is addressed to various others inside and outside the Christ-myth camp: Acharya S, Burton Mack, and a number of everyday adherents I have encountered over the years. Wells needs to realize that I am concerned with the broader picture of educating readers on a variety of topics; I am not obsessed with Wells Wells Wells at all hours of the day and on every paragraph of my page.
Wells notes his three reasons for dismissing Tacitus' testimony as merely a repeat of Christian statements; I have answered each of these points: the alleged procurator/prefect mixup; the use of "Christus," and Tacitus' supposed willingness to rely on Christians without confirmation. Wells only addresses the latter point to any extent, but you would never know from him that I address the first two points.
Holding is visibly disconcerted by R. T. France's acceptance of my case here as "entirely convincing". (When I once described France's scholarship as "conservative", he protested, on the -- perfectly true -- ground that it is less so than that of numerous others.)
Once again, I have to wonder how it is that Wells finds himself privy to my personal moods. It is true that I found France's uncritical acceptance of Wells' points on Tacitus inappropriate, especially since France did not even consult a single reputable historian on the subject. But to say that I was "visibly disconcerted" is to claim a sixth sense that Wells certainly does not have.
Holding believes that the negative tone of Tacitus' remarks shows that his information did not come from Christians. What, then, of Pliny's comments? He, at about the same time, gleaned knowledge of Christians from interrogations, yet from this basis called their religion "a perverse and extravagant superstition".
What, indeed? This fits right in with my conjecture that he first learned about Christianity as a state priest. We have already shown that there is no evidence that Pliny gleaned his information for the first time about Christianity from Christians or that if he did, he accepted what they said uncritically.
In any case, what is important in Tacitus' testimony is not its denigration of Christianity, but the statement that Christ died by sentence of a Roman governor. To say that this could not have come from second-century Christians is absurd. And Tacitus will have been glad to repeat their admission that their founder was sentenced as a criminal.
Once again, Wells is merely assuming for the sake of his thesis that an ancient person was uncritical and never did research. But I have shown that Tacitus was not this kind of person; he reports a number of rumors that he would "have been glad to repeat" as fact about people he did not like, yet it is clear that he has not done this, but has taken care to check out the facts. We will say more about this shortly.
Holding would like to believe that it was from imperial archives in Rome that Tacitus learnt of the death of Christ by sentence of Pilate. But can we really believe that the crucifixion of any obscure person in the provinces who was not even a Roman citizen was dutifully recorded in the archives of the capital? Josephus tells that Varus crucified 2,000 after the death of Herod, and that Felix, governor of Judea from A.D. 52, crucified "innumerable" offenders. Other governors behaved no better. Can we expect particulars of their victims to have been documented in a form for permanency, or indeed at all?
Wells has again added emotional intent ("would like to believe") where I have only asked whether certain objections eliminate the possibility of a consultation of the archives. In fact, as I make clear (but Wells does not quote) "there is no way to tell" how Tacitus got his information.
As far as recording the crucifixion of an obscure person who was not a citizen, though, why should we not accept this possibility? Simply listing the number of people crucified is no argument; what is the point of the argument? That the work of documenting such things was too difficult for ancient people to tackle? How many "particulars" does Wells think had to be recorded? Bureaucracy is a timeless universal, and the volatile Judean situation, along with (possibly) Pilate's tenuous grip on power after the death of Sejanus, his previous errors which brought down the displeasure of Rome, and the obvious manipulations of the Jewish priesthood, make it quite plausible to suppose that Pilate, like any good bureaucrat, covered himself with detailed documentation.
Who can rule this possibility out? Only someone who is beholden to a theory and searching for unlikely and undocumented reasons to dismiss normal human behavior.
Whether Pilate sentenced Jesus or not, we cannot expect records about it to have been deposited in Rome when nothing is known even about the fate of Pilate himself subsequent to his arrival there to answer charges of having committed one atrocity too many. He was sent there by the legate of Syria, following complaints from Samaritans, and at that point he simply "disappears from authentic history" (art. in The Oxford Classical Dictionary). Josephus, even though writing his history in Rome, and before the end of the first century, does not follow Pilate's fortunes further.
These assertions are of no relevance. Wells knows well enough (or maybe he doesn't?) that the verities of time and tide have destroyed almost all records of all kinds from the first century; he implies by his verbiage that our lack of knowledge of Pilate's fate is due to the non-existence of any reference in known records, when in fact, we do not have any official records left at all, and therefore no basis for argumentation. Nor does Josephus' lack of further mention mean anything. As Wells himself has said, Tacitus cannot be expected to give the life history of every character he mentions, and neither can Josephus be expected to do this.
For Holding, Tacitus is a thoroughly reliable historian, meticulous over detail. Opinion on this is more divided than he suggests. Ronald Martin's 1981 book on Tacitus reports that some have declared him unreliable, while others ascribe to him the scrupulousness of a modern historian.
"Some" have declared him unreliable? Who? Fabia, the 19th-century writer whom Wells uses uncritically? (Note that Wells has not a word in response to what I have said about him on this point.) Will we be given a chance to critically examine the statements made by these "some"? I have provided over a dozen quotes from premier Taciteans who regard Tacitus as a thoroughly reliable historian; their objections concern his reportage of rumors (though as rumors, not as fact: a practice which nevertheless offends the sensibilities of a modern professional historian) and very seldom have to do with mistakes of fact.
Martin considers something midway between these two extremes to be the most plausible view (p. 11). However, thoroughness would not have been needed in the present case; for Tacitus had no motive for ferreting out archive or other material about the superstitious perversity he here mentions. His purpose went no further than to give his educated readers some indication of what it consisted. He clearly felt he could not expect them to know this already, so little impact had Christianity made upon educated Romans.
We are only given the page number out of Martin's book, not a specific quote--I daresay that Wells does not wish the reader to place any such quote in opposition to those I offer from Syme, Momigliano, and others so that they can make up their own minds. Other than that, I have made clear that there are a number of reasons why Tacitus would ferret out material for his histories, and on this subject in particular. He is not to be compared with a fictional French historian who says that the Brahmins worship one named Brahma; aside from the geographic and cultural anachronisms involved, if the French historian had the characteristics of Tacitus, he would have found out whether Brahma existed as a person before making such a statement.
Again, all Wells is doing is telling us, with no evidential bases--indeed, as always, counter to what evidence does exist--what he thinks Tacitus' "purpose" was and what Tacitus "clearly felt." On the contrary, every scrap of evidence suggests that Tacitus would have been thorough, regardless of what "need" Wells chooses to suppose upon him.
I have noted that Tacitus' integrity as a historian was one reason for him to do legwork; Wells does not address this point. But I do give two other reasons that Wells does deal with. After taking some time to uncritically refer to authorities who happened to have agreed with some point he has made about Tacitus getting information from Pliny (a point I have already covered, but Wells says nothing about), he writes:
Holding nevertheless tries hard to find reasons for supposing that Tacitus investigated Christianity thoroughly. Dio Cassius records that ca. A.D. 95 Domitian executed Flavius Clemens and exiled his wife, both related to the imperial family, for "atheism" and for "drifting into Jewish ways". For Holding, this probably means that they were Christians, and that Tacitus would have been alarmed to find "some of Rome's highest-placed people" turning to this new religion. The Canadian theologian S. G. Wilson considers that "most likely Dio's notice should be taken at its face value, that is, Clemens and his wife were Jewish sympathizers, not Christians" (Related Strangers. Jews and Christians 70-170 C.E., 1995, p. 12).
S. G. Wilson, of course, is a theologian, not a historian, so unlike my own source on this point, Benko (who is a historian), he does not seem to understand the point that Judiasm was a recognized religion, so that it is impossible that it would be referred to that way, as Cassius describes: Being a Jewish sympathizer was not a crime, unless it went into political aspects, and on that account, the crime would be sedition, not being carried away by customs. Wells does not mention this point about Judaism as a recognized religion; he merely short-changes my argument by way of summary and then sets a quote by an authority against me without any critical evaluation.
As a second reason for investigating Christianity, Tacitus had, according to Holding, some interest in persons who claimed to be resurrected from the dead. The only example specified is his interest in someone who claimed to be a resurrected Nero. Tacitus does say, in his Histories (I. 2), that such an impostor was well received in Parthia. There was a belief that Nero would return at the head of Parthian armies to regain his throne. The instability of the eastern border of the Empire, the so-called 'Eastern Question', exercised the Romans over a prolonged period; and it is not surprising that Tacitus gave it detailed attention.
First, Wells is failing to tell all again by saying that the example I give is the "only example specified". I point out generally that Tacitus offered two similar stories; Wells does not indicate this, so he is clearly trying to foster the impression that I found this one story in Tacitus, and drew over-broad conclusions from it.
Second, it is not just "persons" who were raised from the dead, but "pretenders," impostors. The category is much more narrow than Wells would like us to think.
Finally, all Wells does here is give additional reasons for Tacitus to have reported this specified incident. This does not give us the reason for Tacitus' detailed attention to the means whereby this pretender did his work. If Tacitus were only concerned with the "Eastern Question" he would simply, at most, have reported the appearance of the false Nero without any detailed background on how he conducted his appearance: The political aspects of the incident, indeed, hardly made it worthy of attention, since the impostor's effort was a dismal failure. Wells has not refuted my contention of a "special interest" by Tacitus; he has only made an unsuccessful attempt to obscure it.
A third possible motive to set Tacitus studying Christianity was, says Holding "the accusations of Nero concerning the fire". Tacitus was writing about the burning of Rome in Nero's time and the belief that the fire was started by order of the Emperor himself...It is the Emperor, not the Christians, to whom his interest is here directed. He wanted to paint Nero as black as possible, and to show that his behaviour toward these admittedly contemptible persons had been unreasonably severe and had brought him just opprobrium. Hence he adds that "there arose a sentiment of pity" for the victims (criminals though they were), "due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state, but to the ferocity of a single man". There is nothing here to motivate any scrutiny of Christian doctrines.
This, too, is wrong: I have made the point that Tacitus, as a careful historian, would find enough reasons to look into the Christian movement: That Nero fastened his attention on the Christians would be enough for Tacitus to ask questions of motive and means, just as he does consistently throughout his work. He would want to find out: "Why the Christians? What is special about them so that it draws the ire of Nero?" One might claim that there is no reason to suppose that Tacitus would get this interested, but there is no reason to suppose he ought to have been interested in the various geographical, biographical, and historical backgrounds he offers throughout his works, either, unless we recognize, as I have noted, his concern to be a good historian.
The work of Tacitus, not a predetermined thesis, determines what his interests might have been, and Tacitus was clearly one who liked giving background information, and our modern evaluation indicates that he did it accurately. Of course Nero is his prime interest here, but that is beside the point: The origin of the movement is a secondary interest, but we have no reason to suppose that this means that Tacitus took any less care in his work. At the same time, he is not making any attempt, and there was no need, to scrutinize "Christian doctrines"...the mere existence of a founder is not a doctrine.
Holding obviously finds it convenient to assume that, because Tacitus took considerable care over what he said, in various contexts, about Nero, he will have given Christ the same amount of critical attention. This expectation is absurd. Nero is the subject of Books 13, 14, 15 and 16 of the Annals, whereas Christ is dismissed in a single sentence.
Here Wells is making the standard error of confusing quantity will quality. The assumption I make is perfectly valid: I am looking at Tacitus' quality of work, and that indicates that Tacitus took care in what he reported. That it took only a single sentence to refer to Christ is irrelevant. If that is all that Tacitus needed to explain the background, then that is all he needed: On the other hand, since he is ostensibly writing a history of Rome, we would obviously expect him to write profusely about Nero--and again, let us remind Wells of his own words from p. 186 of Jesus of the Early Christians: "Tacitus cannot be expected to give the life history of every incidental character he mentions".
Finally Wells offers his standard tactic of quoting authorities for support who disagree with his thesis. He cites J. P, Meier, E. P. Sanders, and Walsh as all saying that Tacitus' report reflects only Christian belief; neither Meier nor Sanders (and from the evidence, Walsh himself) engage in any detailed, critical analysis of the cite by Tacitus. Meier, indeed, devotes very little space to Tacitus is his magisterial Marginal Jew. These cites of authority do nothing to counter the details of my presentation.
On the subject of Lucian, Wells says nothing relevant in response to my analysis of Lucian as a critical and reliable source. All that Wells can do is repeat implications that ancient people were apathetic when it came to learning about Jesus, as he says, "there is no reason for expecting such arguments to have existed at the time, whether or not the crucifixion is historical."
Of course there are reasons: It is called intelligent discourse, about a relevant issue of the day: One may as well say that there was no reason to expect arguments about the background of David Koresh. Wells' claim that "pagans will have had little by way of open conflict with earliest Christianity, and surely not enough exposure to it for their writers to take note of it before the gospels had become available" is far off base, and arbitrarily sets the requirement that there be conflict, where mere interaction would have sufficed, and is also anachronistic in terms of the requirement that the gospels needed to be available; we are talking about a pre-literate society here, and there was no stricture that said that writings had to be available in order for interaction and/or conflict to begin...oral exchange of information would have been sufficient, and at any rate, as we have noted, even earliest Christianity drew an unusual number from the literate class.
Again, all that Wells can do is assign apathy to the ancient world: "Subsequent opponents, Jewish and pagan alike, will have gathered from these gospels that Jesus was a teacher and wonder-worker of a kind perfectly familiar in both the Jewish and pagan world. As he could thus be assigned to a familiar category, there was no reason to query his historicity."
No reason? What about the claim that he rose from the dead? This, and the wonders worked, provide reason for investigation, and of course, if one is investigating the works of Houdini, then one naturally will run across evidence that he did not exist if that is what was the case. A person investigating the works of Christ would inevitably run into holes in the record if the reference was to a non-existent personage. That Jesus fit into a standard image (also highly debatable) does not mean that no one ever questioned whether he deserved to be placed in the category.
Wells next notes that "it is clear from what Arnobius recorded of them in the fourth century that, like most people today, pagans assessed Jesus from the gospels, from which they gathered that Christians were foolish enough to worship a being who was born as a man, lived as an ordinary magician, and died the kind of death which would have shamed the lowest of mankind. Here was substance enough for rejecting him, and it is unrealistic to expect them to have further pursued investigations into what was for them obvious rubbish."
By the fourth century, of course, this would be unrealistic: by then the question would be settled on the matter of historicity for all reasonable persons, and there would at any rate be a certain realization that it was too late to investigate the question properly. This point is irrelevant to what might have happened in the first and second century when the evidence would still be fresh enough to investigate, and when echoes and records of any investigations would remain current.
Beyond that, there is nothing "unrealistic" about this supposition. If the pagans thought it "obvious rubbish" then why did any convert at all? (No doubt fanaticism was the main reason.)
"The historicity even of pagan deities long went unquestioned, by pagan and Christian writers alike. Nobody today would argue that there must have been a historical Osiris because these writers believed him to have been king of Egypt."
Of course, these pagan deities were all, even in that day, ancient characters whose names had been bandied about for a millennium or more; this is quite different from the matter of a claimed historical personage connected with recent history.
"And even if some ancient writer had expressly denied Jesus' historicity, it is most unlikely that the church would have allowed such a statement to survive."
Well, there's the last straw: All the evidence would have been or was destroyed anyway. It is amazing that the Church preserved, even if unwittingly, all manner of scandalous criticism against itself and its founder, yet did not happen to preserve this one. An amazing coincidence, indeed, but the Christ-myth thrives upon the supposition of coincidence and unlikely events.
Finally, we get to Josephus. Aside from yet again using the already-defeated "Christ, not Jesus" argument, Wells begins by saying:
Holding himself allows that (interpolations have occurred), yet nevertheless finds it significant that the passage is included in all the extant manuscripts. He does not disclose that the earliest of these (for this part of the Antiquities) dates from the eleventh century, and hence may derive from an interpolated copy.
Though I do not say anything about the 11th century, or any century, I do say that "Some will assert as a counter that there was still sufficient time for an interpolation to occur and not enough textual evidence to prove that it didn't, but this amounts to an admission that the textual data, as it stands, favors authenticity. Anything beyond that in these terms is speculation and question-begging."
And this, indeed, is all that Wells does: He can only make special stresses upon the transmission of the works of Josephus as Christian hands. The majority of my points showing why a total interpolation is unlikely are not answered. Instead, Wells moves first to the "it wasn't quoted earlier than Eusebius" argument, declaring that "Christians would have found the disputed passage very useful as evidence of what had been conceded by an orthodox Jew," although he gives no evidence that any church writer encountered any objection that would have been answerable by citing this passage from Josephus.
Wells then cites the note of Feldman that Jerome, who "knows Josephus so well, cites from him ninety times, and admires him so much that he refers to him as a second Livy", cites this passage "only once". From this Wells concludes that "It seems, then, that, even after the time of Eusebius, some further considerable time elapsed before all or most copies of the Antiquities came to include the passage."
The evidence supports no such supposition: Jerome quoted it once, and once was enough for his purposes, and considering the length of the works of Josephus, that he quoted it once out of 90 quotes is more than sufficient. Why should he have quoted it two, three, or more times?
There is no grounds here for supposing that any time lapse existed of the sort Wells desires, and I challenge him to present a logical train of thought demonstrating this point. There is no logical connection between the amount of times one writer quotes something and its presence in manuscript copies; that is a question that can only be settled by the mss. evidence itself and by related textual-critical principles, and as we have noted, that evidence is unanimous in favor of at least partial authenticity.
Wells goes on:
Feldman adds: in the passage in Josephus' The Jewish War parallel to the one in the Antiquities about Pilate, there is no mention of Jesus, despite the fact that the account of Pilate in the War is almost as full as the version in the Antiquities. This, he says, "corroborates our suspicion that there was either no passage about Jesus in the original text of the Antiquities or that it had a different form". He also notes that Justus of Tiberias, the great contemporary and rival as historian of Josephus, "apparently made no mention of Jesus" (quoted in JM, pp. 204 f.). Not surprisingly, Holding mentions none of all this.
I mention none of this because it is irrelevant. The lack of a reference in the War does not mean a thing unless Wells, or Feldman, or whomever, can show that all parallel time periods recorded in the Antiquities and the War always contained exactly the same material and never omitted any portions. Since no one has shown this (and they will not be able to), the argument Wells derives from Feldman is meaningless.
The arguments about the silence of Justus (and of Philo) are also; unless we have the works of Justus (and we do not), there is no basis for judging whether he should have mentioned Jesus or not, and Philo wrote his works before the Christian movement became historically significant. (Beyond that are reasons given my Meier, and reported by me, for not expecting references to Jesus; Wells neither addresses not refutes these points.)
I have also already explained Wells' error in understanding of the work of Justin Martyr, and he provides no answer to me, though he is clearly aware of what I have said.
Further relevant is that the point in the narrative where the disputed passage occurs is exactly where one would expect a Christian interpolation to be made, namely where Josephus has occasion to make some mention of Pilate. Steve Mason has noted how remarkable it is that "the Gospel authors unanimously and without equivocation know that the Roman governor at the time of Jesus' death was Pontius Pilate", even though they are much vaguer about the Jewish leaders whom they represent as the chief culprits in his condemnation.
Of course, if Jesus were actually crucified under Pilate, this is also where we would expect a mention of it. As far as being "vaguer" about Jewish leaders, it is far from clear what Wells means by this. Perhaps the "vagueness" is due to the spread of power, influence, and activity among several Jewish leaders, whereas Pilate stood alone as the Roman authority?
But Wells says, "far from appreciating" this link to Pilate, "Holding supposes that a Christian interpolator would have connected Jesus with John the Baptist. Josephus does notoriously fail to make any mention of Jesus in what he says about the Baptist -- an omission rectified by interpolations in the Old Russian translation of one of his works."
The Old Russian translation is itself an 11th-century work, with roots that cannot possibly have stretched back further than the 8th century; of what relevance is it in this context? It proves nothing -- Wells is once again trying to establish by some sort of associational guilt that the interpolations in the much later Slavonic Josephus prove that there are interpolations in the Greek Josephus, while again keeping his statements so vague as to maintain plausible deniability.
Beyond that, Wells has not answered the point about a connection to John, only pointed to an irrelevancy. I have already pointed out that there is no reason to suppose that Josephus would have connected the two: Their association, even according to the Gospels, was too brief to have been noted by a secular historian as significant; only in a religious context [that, for example, of a Christian interpolator] would an association have been made.
Holding appeals to Mason's statement that Christian copyists were "quite conservative" in transmitting texts. I noted against this in JL (pp. 51 f.) that this seems to overlook these considerable interpolations (which Mason agrees to be such) in the Old Russian version of Josephus' The Jewish War.
Wells does not tell his readers that the Old Russian version, as I have noted above, is a late, and a unique, product; and again, this is again a "guilt by association" argument. Beyond that, Wells still does not deal with basic textual-critical issues, and leaves unaddressed a number of other points I made.
Since today we are accustomed to printed copies of a book which are all identical, it is all too often forgotten that, in the ancient world, where books were copied by hand, every individual copy was a newly created scribal artifact which could be as faithful or as deviant as the scribe or his patron chose.
Wells has neither presented nor evaluated evidence for ancient variations in scribal reproduction; he has presented no evidence that such deviations ever went beyond the range of normal and unintentional scribal error; he has conducted no textual-critical studies to prove that this point has relevance; he has shown no evidence that intentionally deviant scribes existed and that their work went by without being condemned or even noticed for what it was; he has not shown that such deviant works could at any rate survive the textual-transmission history and be recognized as authentic...all he has done is offer vague generalizations in the hopes of hitting a psychological target with his readership.
Holding also supposes that a Christian interpolator would not have called Jesus' miracles "surprising works". But even Charlesworth, to whom he here appeals, allows that the Greek here can mean 'wonderful works', and that this is how an early Christian would understand such an expression (cf. JM, p. 207). At Lk. 5:26 Jesus' audience, impressed by a miracle he has wrought, declares "We have seen marvellous things (paradoxa) today" -- the same word as is used in the passage in Josephus.
Charlesworth may "allow" this, but I "allowed" it as well, saying: "The difference in translation is owed to the Greek word paradoxos, which can mean strange, surprising, or wonderful. Christian translators would naturally assume that Josephus meant the latter, where he more likely meant the second or first."
That said, such an unequivocal word would indeed not be used by a Christian interpolator: Note that Luke 5:26 does not come from the mouths of Christians. Paradoxos carries the connotation of something not in accord with expectations; Jesus' audience of course did not expect a healing miracle or such audacious claims from the mouth of Jesus. But a Christian interpolator would not write as though Jesus' miracles were somehow out of accord with expectations. Indeed, the bottom line is that it does not matter whether paradoxos has a positive or negative connotation; it is simply far too equivocal to come from a Christian hand, except (as in the case of Luke 5:26, the only NT occurrence of the word) in the mouth of an unbeliever or a prospective convert. A Christian would describe Jesus' works as "mighty" (dunamis -- Matt. 11:21; Mark 6:2; Luke 10:13) or as "good" (kalos -- John 10:32).
Of course, Wells may simply argue that a Christian interpolator would choose an unlikely or unusual word in order to maintain the similitude of a genuine work of Josephus: But at that point one may rightly wonder whether the theory is not taking precedence over facts.
Next Wells defends the "out of context" argumentt. Wells says that this "has been widely admitted as a powerful argument," although he provides no statistics showing just how widely this is "admitted." In response to my note that Josephus was a patchwork writer given to digressions, Wells writes:
(Holding) does not disclose that H. St. John Thackeray -- who has been called "the 'former prince' of Josephan scholars", as Holding himself records -- allowed in 1929 that the objection "carries great weight" and was "powerfully advocated " by Norden (another close student of Josephus), who regarded it as conclusive.
Wells once again may wish to influence his readers by seeming to turn Thackery against me, but in fact, as I note (but Wells does not disclose) it was Thackery himself who noted that Josephus was a patchwork writer, and also changed from his view of "total interpolation" to a view of partial interpolation along the lines of the majority view. That Norden "powerully advocated" the position is an interesting insight into Norden's personal life, but it does nothing to answer the argument as a whole.
Holding deals with this whole issue by writing as if Josephus' prime concern in this section of his narrative were to detail the misdeeds of Pilate, so that the mention of his condemnation of Jesus would not be an irrelevancy. But Josephus' actual concern here is to list upheavals which have brought misfortune to the Jews. He mentions Pilate as responsible for some of these upheavals, but includes others in which Pilate was not involved, as Holding's own summary of this section shows.
Actually, I say nothing about "dealing with the misdeeds of Pilate"; I say merely that Pilate has a role in the events in question, whether directly or indirectly. Beyond that, Wells is simply creating an artificial category--"upheavals which have brought misfortune to the Jews"--and then arguing that the passage does not fit into this category. If we arbitrarily decide what the category is, then we of course are free to decide in advance whether a given passage "fits" the context or not. Wells' argument is completely artificial. The only criteria that decides the context is the events themselves, and here, the general category "notable events in Pilate's reign" is all that the evidence will afford.
Wells further tries to draw the support of Mason, who says that "Josephus is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here [in the disputed passage]. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit. He says only that those who denounced Jesus were 'the leading men among us'. So unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson."
Mason is right: There is no explicit lesson, and beyond that, no evidence that Josephus is universally concerned with drawing an explicit moral lesson from every passage. One may derive quite easily, however, an implicit lesson (as Mason's comment allows) about the rashness of the Jewish leaders in condemning a man who was a relatively harmless moral teacher and miracle worker when there were much more serious things they should have been concerned with.
There was no need for Josephus to beat his readers about the head and neck saying, "Lesson, lesson, watch out for the lesson." This point provides no evidence that the passage is out of context.
"Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of 'another outrage' that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time, there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage" (quoted in JL, p. 50. For France's attempt to brush this objection aside, see JM, pp. 202 f.). Thus the words "another outrage" follow on naturally from the outrages listed before the intervening disputed passage.
Do they? But if Josephus is a patchwork writer, then it is quite easy to see that he could put extra lines between the previous "outrage" and the next one; or else, why not the implicit outrage in the senseless condemnation of a harmless teacher, especially when there were far worse people afoot? The bottom line is that Wells has done nothing to answer the basic point about the nature of Josephus' work.
Wells claims that "by following Charlesworth uncritically...Holding wrongly includes Rudolf Augstein with those who have denied Jesus' historicity." I would be inclined to believe Charlesworth over Wells any day, but even if this is an error, Wells has far many more of his own that he refuses to acknowledge.
Wells next tackles the shorter reference in Josephus: "Holding recognizes that some scholars regard the phrase as interpolated, for reasons which I have given in JL, pp. 52-55." Let it be pointed out that I noted no such thing as Wells says. I have found only 4 scholars who maintained that the small passage is an interpolation, and none of them were later than the 1920s and they were not Josephan scholars. Beyond that, Wells says:
Certainly, the use of the term 'Christ' (Messiah) without explanation in both passages is not to be expected of Josephus who takes considerable care not to call anyone Christ or Messiah, as the term had overtones of revolution and independence, of which, as a lackey of the Roman royal house, he strongly disapproved.
Wells says that Josephus "takes considerable care" not to call anyone Christ--how does he know? Who else would he have called this name, and how does Wells know that Josephus was avoiding the term rather than simply not having anyone he thought it worth applying it to, or who claimed to be Christ in the first place?
Of course, in this case, we maintain that Josephus was very careful, and that is why he added "so-called"--just to point out that Jesus was called Christ, and thereby distinguish him from the dozens of other Jesuses in the neighborhood, without committing to actually calling him that.
But Wells will have none of this. In response to our extended material on this subject by Glenn Miller, Wells only writes:
Also, it is not true that the phrase 'him called so-and-so' is either invariably dismissive in Josephus' usage (so that it would mean 'so-called', 'alleged' and so could not here be from a Christian hand), nor that 'him called Christ' is an unchristian usage an interpolator would have avoided. (On the contrary, the phrase occurs, as a designation of Jesus, both in the NT and in Justin Martyr's Apology, 1, 30.)
We do not say that the phrase is "invariably dismissive"; we say it is invariably either non-committal or slightly disparaging in Joesphus, and Wells provides not a single quote from Josephus that shows otherwise. Other than that, Miller has already addressed the use of the phrase in the NT, and that covers the cite from Justin as well. Wells answers none of this.
Finally, Wells has this to say about a place where I described as "senseless" Wells' statement that the Josephan passages would be "too late to be of decisive importance". "What I actually wrote," Wells says, was: "Even if Josephus did make some (perhaps uncomplimentary, or at best neutral) reference to Jesus that has been reworked in the longer passage into the present eulogy by a Christian hand, the date of the work in which both passages occur (A.D. 93) makes it too late to be of decisive importance for the historicity of Jesus; for at least some of the gospel accounts, placing Jesus in Pilate's Palestine, were in written form by then, and Josephus could, like Tacitus, have taken his information from what Christians were by then saying. This would be quite in accordance with his largely uncritical attitude to his sources in this late work where -- as is noted in the new English edition of Schürer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ -- they are often employed 'not only negligently, but also - at least where it is possible to check them -- with great freedom and arbitrariness', with only 'occasional' evidence of any critical attitude towards them" (JL, pp. 55 f.)."
I am well aware of the context of Wells' statement, and it remains senseless. He is doing no more than denigrating Josephus by accusing him of uncritically accepting Christian reports at their word; we would have to ignore a great deal of ancient history if we followed this chain of reasoning.
That Wells has found a source that decries Josephus as employing sources negligently means nothing as it stands--what kind of sources did Josephus treat this way, how rampant is this negligence, and is this the consensus of Josephan scholarship as a whole or only the conclusion of Schürer's book (which, incidentally, was first written in 1897)? Simply lifting a quote out of one book isn't going to do the job here, especially since every source I have consulted has reached generally the opposite conclusion about the reliability of Josephus.
Wells closes with these words:
His final dismissal of my views as "the result of a fallen and sinful human nature, and nothing more" is just childish. His case is not improved by his accusations of "outright misrepresentation to get round the evidence", of ignoring "a great deal" of it, and of treating what is left "most unfairly". My readers will surely find that such charges recoil on his own performance.
I have no doubt that Wells' readers -- who, based on the letters I have received, are in the main unable to detect a flaw in anything Wells does in error, no matter how obvious -- will find such a thing. Nevertheless, my charges stand unrebutted. Wells employs misrepresentation constantly by means of his psychoanalysis; he has ignored over 80 percent of the material in my essay, and treated the rest without fairness, often going as far as misreporting what was actually said.
And as far as childishness goes, let it be asked: Who, but a child, appeals to the emotional state of others in debate? Who, but a child, appeals to authority when losing an argument, and clings possessively to what is actually common property? The Christ-myth is the province of the irrational; it is a theory that appeals to those looking for reasons to not accept truth. Wells will have to do much better than he has here to prove otherwise and earn the respect of the true student of history.
I was alerted to Wells' brief response to the above, and it is hardly surprising that Wells avoids detailed reply. He objects mightily to "the abusive and vituperative material that dominates these responses" and says that "(o)ne cannot expect to find much in such writing that is worthy of serious attention..."
I rather suspect that Wells has declined response here because someone is firmly and decisively calling him down for his tactics and poor scholarship. Previous writers either have ignored Wells, or else (like Ian Wilson and J. P. Meier) dismiss him in a single sentence. Wells is not accustomed to being dealt a detailed argument and is ill-prepared to defend himself.
Wells does deign to address what I sat about Pliny. He first observes that the principles specified as followed by the Christians ("not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded") are mostly "already in the Decalogue and so is not even specifically Christian. That such behaviour was believed to be required by the Christian god does not make it teaching of a historical Jesus of Nazareth."
Oh really? Did these Gentile Christians adhere to the Decalogue? So was someone teaching them Jewish principles? Why not the rest of the Law as well? And why not the law from the Decalogue about meeting on the Sabbath (which they were obviously NOT following)?
As I said, of course, this point is not really germane to a Jesus on earth anyway, since one could do as Doherty does and say that a spiritual Christ taught these principles; but whether they are in the OT or not is beside the point. The leader of the Christian group either had to teach these things himself, or endorse them, or Christians would not have followed them.
I challenged Wells to "offer an example of a religious organization that ultimately derived its ethical grounding from one other than the one they worshipped," but the sound of silence (apologies to Earl Doherty) is rather deafening.
Other than this, Wells argues that Pliny just accepted what was from the Christians (or maybe the Gospels) uncritically. I showed here that Pliny was a knowledgeable source; he deserves the benefit of the doubt -- not gratuitous assumptions that he was disinterested and apathetic.
[Pliny] does not suggest that, before reaching his province as governor, he knew enough of Christianity to distinguish Christians from non-Christians. He did not himself recognize the persons brought before him to be Christians, but questioned them only because other people had denounced them as Christians...
How was Pliny going to recognize someone as a Christian until he questioned them? I have made the point that Pliny knows how to distinguish Christian from non-Christian because he knows what they believe -- and unless they run around with huge and unmanageable posters, you don't find out what people believe until you talk to them.
To put it bluntly: Wells is flailing about for answers here. Quoting a vague passage from Frend doesn't do the job -- he's wrong, too. "Eclessiastical historian" does not equal "capable critical thinker".
In response to my paragraph:
This leads to the question of why Pliny phrases his words as he does. Christ-mythers might say that it is because Christ never existed as a person on earth, but was just a spiritual being inhabiting a nether-realm. But if that were the case, then Pliny's statement is curiously worded. He notes that this identification of Christ as a god is part of their "guilt" or "error". How would Pliny know that the Christians were in error about Christ's identity as a god? If Christ was only a nebulous spirit-world being, then Pliny has no rational grounds for doubting his classification as a deity. (That Christ might not have been an all-powerful, supreme deity would not reduce his potential classification as a deity in this context: not all of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were omnipotent!) If he disbelieved in the god Christ, then Pliny would have said, "they worship their god, Christ". When Pliny says Christ is worshipped "as to a god" he must have some concrete reason for believing that Christ could not have qualified for a god. This, as I say, points to a human Christ; what else it might point to is something Wells could no doubt speculate wildly upon for the sake of upholding "his" thesis. But the burden of proof is upon Wells to provide a sensible alternative in context. The Greco-Roman dichotomy between the earthly and the divine makes my explanation most plausible; I openly dare Wells to find a better explanation based on more than his personal and anachronistic opinions.
Some of those who claimed to have already relinquished their faith told Pliny that theirs had been a religious cult, "the whole of whose guilt" consisted in meeting before daybreak on a certain fixed day to sing "a hymn to Christ as a god". What they thereby meant to affirm was that this was all perfectly harmless and not to be held against them as 'guilt' at all, Holding, however, maintains that Pliny himself "notes that this identification of Christ as a god is part of their 'guilt' or 'error'", and so he must have already believed that Christ was merely human and not a god at all. But it was the persons under interrogation, not the governor, who volunteered the information that Christians worshipped Christ as a god. All that Pliny's response shows is that he regarded this Christ as a fanciful addition to the traditional gods of Rome whom (as we know from other of his writings) he respected. As we saw, his inquiries convinced him that Christianity was "an extravagant superstition". This does not commit him to the view that Christ had been a historical personage.
So then? Why did Pliny think that Christ was a "fanciful addition"? He could only think so if he had some reason to think so, which is exactly my point, and which Wells has failed to answer. Once again, my challenge to find a more plausible explanation simply goes unanswered.
Finally, Wells simply reiterates his previous generalized statements to the effect that fanatics are unable to investigate their own faith, adding little more than further generalizations: "Sometimes it is the most intelligent persons whose thinking goes furthest astray, since intelligent people are well equipped to answer objections to their faiths." It is not ever considered that that might mean they aren't actually astray.
There's no speculation to it: By his very efforts, Wells shows a blatant disrespect not for just religious believers, but especially for them, and for everyone else as well who refuses to acknowledge his counter-conensus claims. But how ironic that by 2003, and through this editing in May 2009, Wells has denied what he formerly held true, and so, by his own reckoning, has now joined the ranks of those he would formerly have supposed to be too blind, biased, or what have you, to accept the Christ-myth thesis.
Yes, the irony is...ironic.
Update 9/21: Wells died in 2017.