Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Earl Doherty on Tacitus

While scouting around the sites of old opponents lately, I discovered that Earl Doherty had finally emerged from a hiatus to respond to some readers. One in particular, Krystian, asked about a point I had made about the external attestation for Tacitus’ Annals being no better (in fact, worse) than that of the Gospels.

There’s not much of substance in Doherty’s response. While he admits my argument “can have some validity in general principle,” he merely hearkens back to his standard hobby horse of the allegedly pervasive and problematic “silence” about the Gospels in the works of Christian writers, which he supposes to be “not as eyebrow-raising” as the lack of quotes of Tacitus. But as usual, this is merely a case of Doherty imposing his own manufactured incredulity upon the matter. We have answered his claims on this issue years ago (see link below) and he has yet to refute it. Indeed, he has patently ignored it and our other responses for that entire time. (One of the most critical points is the fact that the New Testament world was a “high context” society – which utterly annihilates Doherty’s entire “silence” premise.)

For some reason, Doherty then decides to take a diversion in which he promotes his idiosyncratic notions about Annals 15:44 (Tacitus’ reference to Jesus), which he argues – against all reputable scholarship, including Tacitean scholarship – to be an interpolation. These, too, are all points we have answered, though to be fair, this was done in the January-February 2010 issue of the E-Block, which would not be immediately accessible to him. However, to show readers that Doherty is merely blowing his usual smoke, we will extract from that article to address one of Doherty’s points in reply to Krystian:

This silence for three centuries (at least) on the part of Christian commentators about the content we now find in Annals 15:44 is often explained away by suggesting that the works of Tacitus, or any other Roman historian, would not have been common reading material among Christians. But Tertullian, Jerome and others show knowledge of other works by Tacitus, yet in discussions of the Christian history of martyrdom, no appeal is ever made to Tacitus’ account of the dramatic and horrifying Neronian persecution. It is hard to believe, regardless of regular Christian reading material, that an account of such a dramatic event in Christian history, indeed the elimination of a vast portion of the Christian community in the capital of the empire, would have remained for centuries under the radar of every extant commentator.

Here is my reply to the same point as made by Doherty in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man:


It is sometimes objected that this passage is not quoted by Christian writers. To this we replied that 1) it is a negative reference that no church writer would have found useful; 2) it contained common knowledge that no opponent of the church would have disputed, so that there was no purpose in quoting it; 3) the works of Tacitus were not readily accessible, having been written for a limited audience of his peers. Amazingly, Doherty spends most of his time here defending the absurd fringe position that the reference is an interpolation!

Doherty's initial comment on this indicates a sore lack of perspective; answering the question, "Why should this have been quoted by a church writer?" his answer is that it should have been because "it would constitute a reference to Jesus by a pagan writers, of which there were precious few in the first couple of centuries." In essence, Doherty expects church writers to have anticipated his modern objections that there were not enough references!

Beyond this, Doherty also thinks church writers ought to have quoted Tacitus because early Christians were "fixated on the problem of persecution..." [596] He does not quantify this statement with anything demonstrating this "fixation," nor explain what particular use Annals 15.44 would have had in terms of this alleged "fixation". This is merely an argument pulled out of thin air, with not an ounce of substantiation.

Doherty then performs a survey of church writers, as he wonders why the Neronian persecution, and Tacitus' reference to it, are not referenced. In the process he does not ever deal with points 1 or 3 above. Tertullian, for example, clearly and in detail references a Neronian persecution and even suggests that his reader check "your records" for a record of it. Doherty cannot understand why Tacitus specifically is not referenced, but this is simply arbitrarily raising the bar of evidence for the sake of his thesis. He also notes that Tertuallian ascribes a different motive to Nero than Tacitus does, but this is irrelevant, as Tertullian is hardly obliged to fail to express his own opinions on the matter for Doherty's sake.

Doherty then objects that Tertullian has just previously been making much of Pliny's letter to Trajan and the injustices of Roman policy, so, he wonders, why didn't Tacitus get the same treatment? It apparently does not occur to Doherty that there is a vast difference between Tacitus as a reporter on events with which he was not personally involved, and Pliny as an implementer of imperial policy. All Tertullian would have from Nero is the actions of an irrational madman -- which has nothing to do with imperial policy, in his day or any other day.

There is no need to go further and treat each of Doherty's comments on other writers, for his comments simply amount to low-context demands that each writer mention details to a specific level of Doherty's personal satisfaction. We need note only one point which indicates Doherty's serious lack of perspective. Noting that Suetonius does not report as many details about the Neronian perseuction as Tacitus [611], Doherty compares this to a historian of World War 2 only mentioning the persecution of Jews, without mentioning the means (death camps, etc). It is hard to believe that Doherty is seriously comparing the localized, brief Neronian persecution with the persecution of Jews under Nazi Germany. It also escapes him that unlike modern historians, Suetonius was hardly someone who would be sympathetic to the victims.


Doherty makes a number of other absurd arguments in his chapter on Tacitus; for example, in response to the point that Tacitus, Josephus, and Philo all call Pilate a “procurator,” which indicates that it was a legitimate title for him, Doherty has the audacity to suggest that Tacitus, Josephus, and Philo were simply ignorant! We can only suppose that Doherty resorts to such contrivances knowing full well that a “Jesus didn’t exist” theory is best maintained by ignoring or re-interpreting evidence until it suits your purposes.

Our reply to Doherty on early church writers is here.

To receive the Jan.-Feb. 2010 E-Block, see here. There was also a portion on Doherty in the December 2009 E-Block.


  1. An excellent work on this topic is Antiqua Mater, By Edwin Johnson, available as a PDF download here;

    Always happy to meet and talk to others that are interested in the study of early Christianity. And welcome emails from folks that are interested in ongoing discussions.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  2. Hey there

    Can you sum up what Johnson says about Tacitus in this regard? Could be interesting!