Monday, September 23, 2013

Raphael Lataster the Scholarship Disaster, Part 1

Yet another fringe fundy atheist has emerged from the fetid swamp that is Jesus-mythicism; Raphael Lataster (aka the Scholarship Disaster) has seed-picked a collection of poor arguments from the field (ranging from Doherty to Price to the dollar bin at the Pic and Save) and put them into a collection titled There Was No Jesus There is No God that is guaranteed to be a best seller among Skeptics who don’t realize it’s nothing  new. In that sense, it is sort of like foolish Christians who keep buying the last garbage from Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Max Lucado, in spite of the fact that you could switch the covers on them and no one would be the wiser.

Because it is nothing new, it will be sufficient to address samples from particular topics. The first, for today, will be the testimony of Tacitus. Not surprisingly, Lataster’s text is essentially bare of reference to qualified Tacitean scholars, and he opts for the desperate ploy that Annals 15.44 is interpolated. Here are his specific arguments, and our replies to them as they have appeared in the prior incarnations we have addressed.

The earliest extra-Biblical or non-Biblical references (such as passages among the works of Josephus and Tacitus) appear decades after the supposed events.

The only answer needed: So what? The bulk of history Tacitus records is that of events decades before he wrote. In spite of this, I have yet to see a single Tacitean scholar – whether Syme or Benario or Mellor or any other – think that this has sort of bearing on the accuracy of Tacitius’ reports. Nor does anyone seem to think it has any bearing on such things as histories of the Civil War written today. The obvious answer to that is that “it was written decades later” is an utter irrelevancy. Such factors as competence as a historian, or access to reliable source material, erase any such issues. Tacitean historians have apparently decided that Tacitus’ reliability as a historian makes the decades-span a moot point. Yet one must ask why it is that amateur Skeptics like Lataster continue to resurrect this canard again and again and again. (The obvious answer is that they have no better arguments to speak of, and continue to be able to fool gullible everyday Skeptics who have never done any serious study in history.)

It is the phrase in the middle of this passage, referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage) could also be a later Christian interpolation. 

“Could be” of course requires some support. The manuscript tradition, while admittedly sparse, is unanimous that 15.44 belongs in the text. I have also yet to find any Tacitean that thinks it is interpolated. This has been the province of lunatic freethinkers and fringe authors. If an interpolation is to be suggested, the grounds must be good ones, as the tests suggested by William Walker tell us. So what reasons does “the Disaster” offer?

It is interesting that the name ‘Jesus’, ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only supposed reference to Jesus.   It is unlikely that a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as ‘Christ’ (a term of religious significance to Christians), rather than the more secular ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. A Christian scribe however, would have no issue in calling him ‘Christ’. Given that ‘Jesus’ is not specified, there is also the possibility that this refers to another ‘Christ’ or messiah-figure

This is not “interesting” or “unlikely” at all. This is the old “he calls him Christus” canard, which has been answered repeatedly:

Like the above objection, this is not considered at all problematic by any Tacitean or other historian. Rather than find some deficiency in Tacitus because of this, it is more plausible to recognize that Tacitus would use the name with which his readers would be most familiar - and that would not necessarily be the name that Jesus was executed under. Furthermore, simply referring to “Jesus” would not explain how it is that Jesus’ followers were named Christians. Van Voorst further makes the point that Tacitus is actually issuing a subtle corrective here: The text of the oldest manuscript of the Annals, and most likely reading, spells “Christians” with an e (“Chrestians”). In naming “Christ,” Tacitus “…is correcting, in a way typical of his style of economy, the misunderstanding of the ‘crowd’ (vulgus) by stating that the ‘founder of this name’ Christus, not the common name given by the crowd, Chrestus...he calls atten- tion by his somewhat unusual phrase to the nomen of the movement in order to link it directly— and correctly — to the name of Christ.”

It should be further added that the New Testament itself tended towards the direction of using “Christ” as though it were a proper name, and that Tacitus may be reflecting this.

Other than that, I am not sure why “the Disaster” things Tacitus ought to have referred to “Jesus son of Joseph” or “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Does he think this reflects normal Tacitean usage? How many times does Tacitus introduce people by their parentage or their location? Within Annals 15, no one is introduced as the “son of”  someone else.  Figures like Memmius Regulus and Verginius Rufus (15.23),  Lucius Lucollus (15.27), Gaius Laecanius and Marcus Licinius (15.33)., and even Pilate himself, and not introduced by way of their fathers or of their hometowns. (Though I might add, Tacitus has already introduced Jesus’ location as Judaea, which would be more than sufficient  to inform his audience about what sort of person Jesus would be.)

The idea that Tacitus may here refer here to some other “Christ figure” is fairly stupid. This figure 1) founded a movement 2) that reached to Rome, and 3) whose followers were called “Christians” and was 4) crucified 5) under Pilate. It seems rather peculiar that Lataster wants to invent an otherwise unattested figure that meets all five of these criteria while also denying the existence of a figure that is otherwise attested in the New Testament and elsewhere. By that reckoning he’d have even less evidence for “Christus 2” than for Jesus Christ, yet accept the former as real while saying the latter didn’t exist.

Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14CE to 66CE, no other mention is made of ‘Jesus Christ’.

That’s nice. So likewise dozens of other figures are never mentioned again by Tacitus, some of whom would have been more important and honorable in his eyes than Jesus.  Has Lataster ensured that every procurator and prefect Tacitus refers to between 14 and 66 gets at least two mentions, for example?

This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quotes Tacitus in the third century.  

Yet another tired canard, which has been answered repeatedly:

No church father, however, would have willingly quoted such a negative reference to Jesus and the Christians. There is also nothing in the passage that would not have been common, agreed-upon knowledge to church authors or their opponents.

Latatser needs to explain in what content and for what purpose any church father would have quoted this passage. The great flaw in such reasoning is the assumption that it contained information that answered or supported whatever Tertullian or Origen were addressing. So, what then? Does Lataster know of someone in that time who doubted that Jesus 1) founded a movement 2) that reached to Rome, and 3) whose followers were called “Christians” and was 4) crucified 5) under Pilate? Or does he simply mindlessly expect someone like Origen to gratuitously quote the passage just to satisfy his arbitrary desires to see it in print?

 Tacitus, born after Jesus’ death (and perhaps after Paul started writing his epistles), could not have been an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. He could well be repeating what a Christian believer is claiming. Many scholars dismiss this passage as Christian hearsay. 

The “eyewitness” bit is the same objection as the “decades later” objection we dealt with above. As for the “repeating” and “hearsay” bit, this is why I offered this material:

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust  what they say?

Absolutely! The Tacitean literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus:

Syme, who was regarded as one of the foremost Tacitean scholars, says “the prime quality of Cornelius Tacitus is distrust. It was needed if a man were to write about the Caesars.” He adds that Tacitus “was no stranger to industrious investigation” and his “diligence was exemplary.”

Chilver indicates, “for Tacitus scepticism was inescapable is not to be doubted.

Martin, though noting difficulties about discerning Tacitus’ exact sources, says that“[i]t is clear, then, that Tacitus read widely and that the idea that he was an uncritical follower of a single source is quite untenable.”

Grant, while charging Tacitus with bias, error, and “unfair selectivity” in various areas (especially associated with the Emperor Tiberius), nevertheless agrees that Tacitus “was careful to contrast what had been handed down orally with the literary tradition.” Elsewhere he notes that “[t]here is no doubt that (Tacitus) took a great deal of care in selecting his material.”

Dudley notes that despite problems in discerning what sources Tacitus used, “it may be said with some confidence that the view that Tacitus followed a single authority no longer commands support.”

Mellor observes that although he made use of other sources, including friends like Pliny, Tacitus “does not slavishly follow, as some of his Roman predecessors did, the vagaries of his sources.” He adds: “If research is the consultation and evaluation of sources, there can be little doubt that Tacitus engaged in serious research though it is not often apparent in the smooth flow of his narrative.” Tacitus “consulted both obscure and obvious sources,” and “distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian.”

Benario tells us that Tacitus “…chose judiciously among his sources, totally dependent upon none, and very often, at crucial points, ignored the consensus of his predecessors to impose his own viewpoint and his own judgment.”

Wellesley remarks that investigation “very seldom shows (Tacitus) to be false to fact” and that archaeology has shown that “only once or twice is Tacitus found guilty of  a small slip.” He adds: “When the sources differ and the truth is hard to decipher, (Tacitus) takes refuge in ambiguous language or the balance of alternative and some- times spiteful variants,” rather than doing original research to determine which option is the truth. We may note that there is no such ambiguous language in the Christus cite.

Ash  notes  external  evidence  that Tacitus  “was  actively  engaged”  in  “meticulous research” and internal evidence that Tacitus “investigated the facts painstakingly.

Finally, Momigliano, while pointing out that Tacitus was of course “not a researcher in the modern sense,” nevertheless says that he was “a writer whose reliability cannot be seriously questioned.” He cites only one possible major error by Tacitus, but puts it down to him relying on a trusted predecessor rather than official records.

We therefore conclude that there is every reason to trust Tacitus as reliable. However, there are objections that have been raised by various sources in this regard.

Lataster refers to “many scholars” who “dismiss this passage” as hearsay. Unfortunately, he does not name any, nor give a reference to any, save for Ehrman earlier in the text (whose conclusion in that regard he also cites as self-contradictory), and did not find any scholar who made such a dismissal in my survey of the literature.

There is also some question over Tacitus’ reliability as historian, particularly when he calls the prefect Pontius Pilate a procurator, although he could possibly have been both.

Lataster is forced to swallow this one with that latter caveat, being that Richard Carrier has allowed for that possibility. Either way, it is a stale canard, rendered deceased both by the testimonies of Tacitus’ reliability we noted above, and by these points:

We should first consider the difference between these two titles. A procurator was a financial administrator who acted as the emperors personal agent. A prefect was a military official. In a minor province of the Empire like Judaea, there was probably not much difference between the two roles, and the same person would very likely hold both offices simultaneously.

Critics assume that because there is an inscription that describes Pilate as a “prefect” in Caesarea, that therefore this was his sole title. But other literary evidence shows that Pilate likewise held the title of procurator. The Jewish historian Josephus calls Pilate a “procurator” in Antiquities 18.3.1. In practical terms, “both the procurators and prefects in Judaea had the
power to execute criminals who were not Roman citizens” This is a “difference” that is no difference at all.

But even if Pilate did not hold the title of procurator in his day, Tacitus may have had any number of other reasons to use that term in place of “prefect.” Tacitus may have simply been using a term with which his readers would be most familiar. Alternatively, he may have been deliberately anachronizing. Kraus and Woodman  note that Tacitus often uses “archaizing, rare, or obsolete vocabulary” and also “avoids, varies, or ‘misuses’ technical terms.” They do not cite the prefect/procurator issue specifically, but it is possible that a “misuse” of “procurator” would simply reflect Tacitus’ normal practice.

In any event, being that Tacitus’ readers were - like he had been - members of the Senate and holders of political office, we must suppose that this “error” escaped not only Tacitus’ attention, but theirs as well. We may as well suggest that a United States Senate historians error of the same rank would pass without comment. All of the above, therefore - along with the fact that this is not cited by Tactiean scholars as a problem - shows that there is certainly no grounds for charging Tacitus with error, or degrading the reference to Jesus because of the alleged procurator/prefect mixup.

Continuing with the Disaster Area:

Also of interest is that this supposed reference to the death of Jesus is made in Book 15 (covering CE62-65), rather than in Book 5 (covering CE29-31). Though Tacitus supposedly claims the death of Christ happened during the reign of Tiberius, Tacitus makes no mention of Jesus in the books he wrote covering the reign of Tiberius; he only makes this one passing comment among the books covering the reign of Nero, which is quite odd. 

No, it isn’t odd at all, not unless Lataster has established that every procurator, every religious leader, every teacher, that Tacitus mentions, gets at least two mentions, and always in their proper chronological place. I might also add that this objection assumes that Tacitus viewed Jesus in the same reverent and respectful light that modern people do. Quite the contrary. As a disgracefully shamed and crucified figure, a passing comment like this one is quite intelligible. Indeed, has Christians not been connected to the fire at Rome, and been useful to Tacitus as an example of Nero’s cruelty, it is likely he would not have mentioned Jesus at all.

  Furthermore, most of Book 5 and the beginning of Book 6 (covering CE32-37) of the Annals is lost.[ 102] The Annals is suspiciously missing information from 29CE to 32CE, a highly relevant timeframe for those that believe in Jesus! Professor of Classics Robert Drews theorises that the only plausible explanation for this gap is “pious fraud”; that the embarrassment of Tacitus making no mention of Jesus’ crucifixion (or associated events such as the darkness covering the world or the appearances of resurrected saints, as well as the resurrection, of course) led to Christian scribes destroying this portion of the text (and perhaps later fabricating the Book 15 reference).

Drews’ rather silly claim has been answered by Van Voorst, who notes that the “usual scribal practice is to interpolate, not excise” and also that other portions of Tacitus are lost as well. From the Annals, we are missing books 7 through 10. From the Histories, we are missing much of what comprised 12 or 14 total books.  One is justified in wondering why Lataster did not share this information with his readers.

That’s all on Tacitus from “the Disaster Area”. We’ll see what other travesties we can dig out later.

Link: Nick Peters also comments.


  1. I look forward to seeing if he shows up here to complain that you didn't read the book right and bring out all the "awesome" points, to which we'll then be told you should be more humble.

  2. The following is a review I wrote recently of 'There was no Jesus, there is no God' on the Amazon website.

    As a lifelong, practising Christian, I am always interested in reading any new arguments the atheist camp comes up with. It is therefore almost disappointing to see that in There was no Jesus, there is no God, Raphael Lataster introduces nothing new, throughout his wearyingly lengthy and patronising attempt to instruct the reader in historical research method to his facile and almost childishly reasoned conclusions. Despite Lataster’s claims to the contrary, this book simply represents one more of the monotonous series of bids to ‘prove’ the folly and irrationality of faith in the spiritual that we have seen in recent years; as such, it belongs in the dustbin with Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is not great. It is shot through with the arrogance of the ‘evangelical’ atheist, who seems to think that if only Christians, blinded as they are with superstition, could have the wit to appreciate the intellectual force of his arguments, they would instantly set aside their most dearly held and in many cases lifelong convictions, and throw a lifetime’s experience of the love of God back in His face. The true disciple of Christ will find nothing here to disturb his faith and may read it without any such fear. Having dealt, I feel not particularly convincingly, with both the ‘Biblical’ and ‘Historical’ Jesus, there is a third Jesus with whom Lataster does not and I believe, in fact cannot deal, and that is the Living Jesus Who touches and changes lives, bringing into them His love, healing and peace every day; the Jesus Whose reality is known in the hearts of His followers and which no amount of spurious ‘academic’ reasoning can refute. It is to this Jesus only that the Christian ultimately looks and to Whom the atheist might also look for the ‘extraordinary evidence’ of the Divine reality upon which he insists if he really wants to find it. Unfortunately for him, this Jesus is not to be found among the pages of history. To concede a point to Lataster, it is fair to say that He probably is no more likely to be truly discovered behind the unyielding ramparts of the iron fortress of Biblical fundamentalism; any more than the answers to the great questions about why our universe bothers to exist are ever likely to be found through the outpourings of missionary atheists.

    It is not Lataster’s atheism that I find offensive; it is the fact that in this book he asks me to accept his manipulation of his historical sources, his inaccuracies, his interminable ‘possibilities’ and ‘probabilities’ and his frequently clumsy and intemperate language as a work of serious scholarship. Sadly he does himself the further disservice of referring to the (in matters of faith) remarkably ill-informed Richard Dawkins and to other writers of equally dubious credentials such as Christopher Hitchens of unlamented memory and the Rt. Rev John Spong; the latter somehow feeling able to continue for many years holding the office of an Anglican bishop while openly ridiculing the faith of those of his brethren who maintain their traditional beliefs.

    The atheists who read There was no Jesus, there is no God will find much to affirm their existing prejudices and misconceptions. To my fellow Christians, I would say: do not be afraid to read this book; at only 99p from Kindle it will provide you with some inexpensive and harmless entertainment. You might, however, prefer to give your money to one of the many charitable organisations whose founders’ lifelong foolishness in their discipleship of the Good Shepherd has inspired them to great acts of devotion to the cause of improving the lot of mankind.