Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 2: Pliny’s Letter

2. Pliny the Younger

The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.  (Horace, The Art of Poetry)

Ehrman goes to great lengths to introduce us to the sources which, in his opinion, reliably attest to the existence of a historical Jesus. To quote Horace, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” Before the curtain finally opens and reveals a considerable number of Jesus witnesses to the curious gaze of the reader, a series of preliminaries and fundamental methodological considerations must be made. What we learn in the relevant chapters about the value and worthlessness of historical sources is indeed informative, but will have little new to offer to all those who have attended a historical proseminar once in their lives. Be that as it may, Ehrman advocates good and healthy principles, such as that multiple testimonies please the heart of the historian, or that “disinterested” and independent sources deserve preference over others, etc. (p. 41) – one only wished that he himself would also give them due consideration in the later sections. In a section on sources that we do not have, he also admits that we do not have authentic illustrations of Jesus, nor scriptures written by himself, nor eyewitness accounts (p. 49).

[3] Hurtado 2007, pp. 2-3: “If correctly dated to about 200, the Aberkio inscription (found in Hierapolis) remains perhaps our oldest identifiable Christian inscription. Although in some older publications one finds certain references to the catacombs and catacomb art of the second century, it is now generally accepted among experts that these too should probably be dated to sometime in the third century”.

[4] Theißen, Merz 1997, p. 160f. All that can be said about it is that it is possibly the site visited by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria sometime between 381-384 AD, which has been given as the house of Peter since Constantinian times. Everything else is conjecture and belongs at best in a travel guide, but not in a serious scientific work.

Vridar note: see [3] Hurtado 2006 and [4] Theissen & Merz 1998

This is all well and good but could be further elaborated when applied to specific cases, which Ehrman certainly does not feel is necessary. Ehrman could have taken the trouble to make clear to the reader the full extent of the difficulties in which the defenders of Jesus’ historicity find themselves when they refer to external witnesses. For example, it is correct that no authentic images of Jesus have been handed down. But far more interesting is that the type of Jesus in the portraits we possess almost completely resembles the portraits of other late antique healers, so that archaeologists even today find it difficult to distinguish Jesus from, for example, Attis or Orpheus. With regard to the question of possible models for the Christian Saviour, this should not be an unimportant observation. As I already mentioned in my book Falsche Zeugen: Außerchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand (only in German; False Witnesses. Non-Christian Testimonies Tested, 2011 (Alibri)”, I have already shown that from the 1st to the middle of the 2nd century no archaeological evidence for the existence of Christianity can be found at all. For Graydon F. Snyder, the Christian faith as a cultural-historical phenomenon only dates from around 180 AD according to the archaeologists. Even that reference to Roman catacombs and catacomb art, with which one used to love to argue in former times, is no longer possible. The archaeologists, Larry W. Hurtado points out, who formerly dated the whole of Christian catacomb art with confidence to the 2nd century, now suspect it probably only originated in the third century [3]. Speculations about a supposed “House of Peter” are based on dubious speculations and are only significant in so far as they contribute, not significantly, to the revival and promotion of the tourism industry in the “Holy Land”. [4]

John Remsburg

Moreover, it’s a pity that Ehrman goes far too little into detail when asked about the “sources we don’t have”. For example, there is no reference to the so-called Remsburg List, which can impressively demonstrate to anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the position of the mythicists how ignorance about the man from Nazareth and the Christian community reaches deep into the second century. Even if it can be objected that the ancient sources also keep silent about many other people, it makes a difference about whom they keep silent. After all, according to the Gospels, the effect that Jesus had during his brief activity in Galilee and Jerusalem was so overwhelming that even non-Christian contemporaries who were religiously open-minded, such as Philo or Plutarch, could hardly overlook it. There is constant talk of the “great crowd” that accompanies Jesus in his ministry and witnesses his miracles and healings, whose fame spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:28) and beyond (Matthew 4:24). The New Testament scholar Gert Theißen reckons with “miracle stories … outside the followers of Jesus” and with “popular shifting and enrichment” of the miracle stories, thus assuming that a special Jesus tradition had formed in the population. Should nothing at all – apart from the Christian tradition itself – have survived?

But Ehrman now thinks that this is not the right way to approach the question. Before one can ask whether Jesus did miracles, one must “decide” whether he existed at all (p. 43).

But how can this question be “decided”? Based on which criteria? The problem is that Jesus is portrayed in all the ancient testimonies as a divine miracle worker or as a (semi-) divine being. That applies – with one exception (Tacitus) – also to the few non-Christian testimonies.That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.

For the rest, it all depends on what is meant by “miracles”. Those “miracles” to which Jesus owes his fame according to Christian sources, and which are said to have led whole nations to seek him out, are first and foremost healing miracles or healings. Even if we do not know how they came about, we need not question the existence of such a phenomenon any more than we do the existence of other ancient miracle healers. But Ehrman does not even do this much; for example, he states on p. 269 that Jesus “developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.” Shouldn’t we ask then, why the person responsible for such sensational healings was not given any attention by pagan authors? The question is valid but obviously doesn’t give Ehrman any comfort. That’s why the smart professor uses a common scientific trick: He who cannot answer questions declares them methodically illegitimate.This information seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman is withholding it from us does seem a little manipulative.

Photius records for us what the Galilean historian of the second half of the first century did not mention.

Finally, Ehrman also refers to Justus of Tiberias, although he calls him “Justin of Tiberius” (p. 50), a Jewish historian living and working in the second half of the first century, who, like Josephus, wrote a history of the Jewish people in the first century after Christ. Ehrman mentions that his books “did not survive”. Whether this refers to the work of later Christian censors and book burners, he leaves open. However, he fails to address the crucial point. Although the writings of the historian from the immediate neighbourhood of Jesus’ supposed residence have indeed been lost, we know at least from a paper of the Christian Patriarch Photius from Constantinople (9th century) what was not in it: “He does not mention the coming of Christ, nor his deeds, nor the miracles he performed. This information does seems not unimportant to us. That Ehrman withholds it from his readers does come across as a little manipulative. Indeed, it would not seem easy for advocates of the existence of a historical Jesus to explain why a first-century Jewish historian from Galilee forgot the famous man from the neighboring city in his writings.

The number of non-Christian witnesses who, according to Ehrman, should prove the existence of Jesus is very small. Usually New Testament scholars cite a canon of six texts at this point:

  1. the twofold testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Ant 20,200 and Ant 18,63-64, so-called Testimonium Flavianum),
  2. the testimony of the Roman historian Tacitus on the burning of Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians (Ann 15:44;),
  3. the report of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger in a letter to the Emperor Trajan and his reply (ep 10,96-97;)
  4. two passages from the work of the Roman historian Sueton (Suet. Claud. 25,4; Suet. Nero 16,2)
  5. a letter of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion to his son Serapion, which was only recently brought into play, and which is said to have been written sometime after 72 AD,
  6. and an ominous passage from the lost historical work of Thallus (after 50 AD), which has only been preserved in excerpts in Julius Africanus and Georgius Synkellos.

In Ehrman’s case, the already very small number is reduced even further to the four witnesses Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, although only Josephus and Tacitus, and possibly Pliny, are of significance. This decision, which Ehrman does not discuss further, is very wise, since not many can be impressed by the excluded two guarantors anyway because of their questionable dating.

Anyone who thought that Ehrman would enter into a conversation with the radical deniers of a historical Jesus and discuss in detail the handwritten tradition, origin and earliest testimony of his four sources or even shine with new points of view will be disappointed. His statements merely repeat what has been known for decades anyway, and contain nothing that has not long since been considered or refuted by the radical deniers of Jesus since Arthur Drews. The authenticity of the sources is loudly claimed but not proven. What remains is, at least as the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus shows, that Jesus lived and was executed by the Roman governor of Judea. “That, at least, is a start.” (p. 56)

Of course, it could also be a grandiose false start, as there is a chance that the four horses that Ehrman has harnessed in front of his triumphal chariot will be exhausted on the next climb. Ehrman neglected to vet his witnesses.

For example, there is the so-called Christian Letter of the younger Pliny, which is said to have been written at the beginning of the first decade of the 2nd century AD, and of which Ehrman claims that it is a completely independent proof of the historical existence of Jesus (p. 52). The questions connected with this letter and the reply letter of Emperor Trajan are not even touched upon. Ehrman erroneously speaks of the letter “number ten” – i.e. he seems not even to know that it is letter No. 96 in the 10th book of Pliny’s correspondence. To mention only some of the problems and questions that I discuss in detail in my book “False Witnesses”:

Why does the governor write a question to the emperor about the proceedings against the Christians at all? Did Ehrman ask himself why a lawyer like Pliny, who was so well-informed, needed such imperial tutoring? After all, it must be remembered that we are not dealing with a beginner, but with an experienced administrative official. The jurist Pliny was at times even a member of the imperial cabinet, so he was at the highest level of the Roman state! How is it possible that he nevertheless did not know under what charge the Christians were to be placed and what punishments were intended for them? Especially since he proudly claims of himself elsewhere: “Often I spoke in court, often I was a judge myself, often I took part in the deliberations” (ep 1,20). The unbiased reader has rather the impression of the “caricature of an official” in front of him, “who is incapable of making decisions independently” (F. F. Bruce). The philologist Ludwig Schaedel once posed the justified question: “How can one imagine that the governor of Bithynia was allowed… to approach the throne with questions that would have demonstrated his utter unsuitability for a higher administrative post?”

Folly and error also appear in the other letters: In letter 75, the absent-minded governor expects the emperor to decide on the use of an inheritance without specifying the amount of the inheritance! Even stranger is only that the emperor does not inquire about it in his reply letter, ep 76! – Why does the lawyer Pliny have to be told by “more experienced people” that his masseur, the Egyptian Harpocras, must first be granted Alexandrian citizenship before he can be granted full Roman citizenship (ep 10,6)?

But back to the “Letter to the Christians”: What was the nature of the investigations of which Pliny had heard, who presided over them and where did they take place? Surely not in Bithynia, because otherwise it would be difficult to explain the governor’s complete ignorance of the course of the trial.

And why does Pliny react so late? If the situation has become so difficult because of the large number of Christians, as he claims, why does he not address the problem in his earlier letters, i.e. immediately after he took office as governor? Or did the governor not notice it when he took office a year earlier? Very unlikely. In view of the dimension of the problem, it could have been the occasion for a lively exchange between Rome and Bithynia; instead, the topic is only mentioned once in the entire correspondence. Pliny only makes use of his ius referendi when the greatest danger has already passed. The trend is downward. The success is great. But why then a letter at all at that stage? And a message of success should have been formulated differently.

Why didn’t Pliny first discuss the problem with his predecessor in office, the friendly Maximus Quaestor, to whom he addresses ep 8, 24? How is it possible that Christianity was so widespread in Bithynia around 112 that the pagan temples were no longer visited? According to the first Epistle of Peter, written in the first half of the 2nd century, the “strangers of the diaspora” (1 Peter 1:1) lived here.

Since when could Christians be forced to curse Christ alongside the imperial sacrifice? Maledictio is a Jewish custom (Iust. Dial. C. Tryph. 93,4;108,3) – but here we are dealing with a Roman legal procedure. Such a measure is completely unknown in Roman law, and in general incompatible with the spirit of Roman jurisprudence.

[5] Cf. Salzmann 1994, p. 140f.

Vridar note: Salzmann cites p. 166f of Fourrier who points out that the phrase in Pliny’s account, secum invecum, in the context of chant or song points us to the fixed liturgy alternating between two groups — an antiphonal chant not known until the time of Saint Augustine.

Fourrier, F. 1964. “La Lettre de Pline à Trajan Sur Les Chrétiens (X, 97).” Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale 31: 161–74. http://www.jstor.com/stable/26187695

The chant of the Christians, the “Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem” can, strictly speaking, only be understood as an antiphonal chant because of the secum invicem.[5] There is a problem: an antiphonal chant has not yet been proven at all at such an early time.

The real problem of the origin of the collection is that the letters could not be edited by Pliny himself, since he died in 113. Who then published them? Was a confidential correspondence between emperor and governor allowed to be made public at all without an imperial imprimatur? Where is the corresponding reference?

What about the authenticity of the 10th book of correspondence between Pliny and Trajan? The entire correspondence between Pliny and the Emperor contains 124 letters. Of these, only the last 109 letters are said to refer to the correspondence in Bithynia; 61 of them were written by Pliny, 48 by Trajan. The period of Pliny’s governorship in Bithynia lasted about 18 months due to his early death. Many letters in such a short time! Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the conditions for transporting letters did not correspond to those of today and that the governor certainly had to wait several weeks for replies from the emperor, who lived in Rome some 2,000 km away. In view of their length, many letters have the character of short telegrams. It is difficult to see in them letters which, especially in view of their sometimes completely meaningless content, were laboriously transported by land and sea for days and weeks.

In letter 100 Pliny speaks of the “vows taken in the previous years” (vota, domine, priorum annorum nuncupata), which he claims to have taken for the emperor with his servants and inhabitants of the province. Curiosly, Pliny has only been one year in Bithynia at this time?If you don’t know any problems, the world is all right for you!

These and many other problems need to be clarified when examining the question of the external testimony of the 10th book of correspondence which Ehrman, of course, pays little attention to, not to say completely ignores. Without going into further details, which are dealt with in detail in False Witnesses, we may note: the collection of letters seems to have come to the light of public attention for the first time through the discovery of the monk, theologian, antiquarian and architect Fra Giocondo (around the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries). Its authenticity was controversial from the beginning! The allusions that can be found in the literature of the Church Fathers after Tertullian, in reality, all go back to a passage in Tertullian. The passage in his apology was not a reference to the Epistle of Pliny, as is often assumed, but probably – as so often – an imaginative invention of the Church Father. As is well known, he knows a number of other questionable documents. For example, he claimed that Pilate, who was “himself already a Christian in his innermost being, had reported about Christ to the then Emperor Tiberius”. The scripture mentioned by Tertullian probably refers to the Acta Pilati, but its existence is disputed and, if it should have existed, it was certainly not authentic. Also, the “Christian Letter” of Tertullian was, if it should have existed, an equally imaginative Apocryphon.

In other words: Obviously the text of Tertullian in the Apologeticum served the later forger (Fra Giocondo?) as a prompt and inspiration for the writing of the so-called “Christian letter”. This suspicion can be further substantiated by a closer comparison of the text of Pliny with the passage in Tertullian’s Apologeticum.

Anyone who has taken a closer look at the problems of Pliny’s Letters to Christians can guess that Ehrman’s great self-confidence is obviously based simply on ignorance of the problems! If you don’t know any problems, the world is all right for you! Let him have it – only he should not denigrate critics who have dealt with it a little more than he has.

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