Friday, December 11, 2015

Islam Sam and the Tacitus Slam

From the November 2012 E-Block.


In keeping with our efforts to stay up to date with materials on the Christ myth, I'm presenting here an analysis of a response to my article on Tacitus by an Islamic apologist, who created the response for his blog. As is my usual policy, I will not link to or name this blog, considering the poor quality of the arguments -- and because, although the critique was written in 2012, the Islamic apologist (who I will hereafter call “Sam”) still does not refer to me by my correct name (5 years after the fact).

Hereafter, my original article material is in bold; Sam's replies are in italics, and my replies to Sam are in normal print.

Here you have a document 1100 years after the event is alleged to have happened. And it is to be taken at face value?

Sam apparently reads very little professional historical literature, and did not consider my arguments as a whole before he wrote this reactionary sentence. For one thing, I don't take the reference at "face value", which is why I provided numerous arguments and data for it after this paragraph. Relatedly, professional historians, and Taciteans, do the same and the 1100 year gap doesn't disturb them in the least.

Imagine a Muslim who brings a body of hadith (collections and sayings of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) put into writing) and no document of hadith predates 11 centuries after Muhammed (pbuh) would you be skeptical?

Although the victimization role may play well to Sam's readers, this means nothing unless he actually finds that someone -- and I in particular -- do the same. I have not, in the least, because I have never studied Islam in depth. That said, Sam would have the same burden as Taciteans do, to explain why the 1100 year gap is of relatively no moment.

Sam sermonizes a bit about this strawman he has erected, then finally gets back to some substance:

[Holding] says that it is unlikely that this is Christian forgery. Why? because here we wish to use the principal of embarrassment but since we are coming up with likely scenarios, how about this one. What about introducing a principle of lessor embarrassment to save one from a greater embarrassment?

What about it? Unfortunately, Sam does not explain what "greater embarrassment" we might have been spared if not for this allegedly "lesser" one. He merely leaves the option open for his readers to fantasize about in the hope that they will simply imagine that one actually even exists. As it is, given that crucifixion was the most shameful form of execution in the time of Tacitus, there is no "greater" embarrassment that could be contrived.

“Indeed, the Tacitus polemic against Christianity is so strong that it was one of two things Tacitus was condemned for in the sixteenth century - the other being that he wrote in bad Latin - [Dor.Tac, 149], and it is even said that Spinoza liked Tacitus because of his anti-Jewish and anti-Christian bias. [Momig.CFou, 126]

My comment: This does not help matters at all. Of what relevance is sixteenth century critique of Tacitus a man who lived circa 50 C.E ?

The relevance -- which Sam, being unschooled in such matters, would hardly know -- is that the 16th century was the height of the Renaissance, when scholars had the greatest leisure and resources to discuss such questions in depth for the first time. It is also relevant because it is during this era that many argue that the alleged forgery of the passage about Jesus was performed (until, that is, earlier manuscripts were found). I'll add, as well, that the time marker in no way implies that Tacitus' anti-Christian attitude would not have been clear to earlier readers in any century.

No church father, however, would have willingly quoted such a negative reference to Jesus and the Christians; moreover, indications are that Tacitus wrote for a very limited audience of his peers. The Annals may not have gotten into the Church's hands at an early date.

Maybe so but than again one does wonder why no church father would have made use of such a widely known quote in polemic against those who asserted that Jesus was a myth. Example: Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, represents the Jew Trypho as saying, "ye follow an empty rumour and make a Christ for yourselves." "If he was born and lived somewhere he is entirely unknown." So this question is not readily answered.

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Sam is making the standard error in his use of Trypho, who is not saying Jesus was a myth; rather, Trypho is saying Christians wrongly assigned the title of "Christ" to someone. Sam apparently failed to search my materials completely.

So: The idea that this passage is an interpolation is no more credible than the idea held in the 19th century that Tacitus' entire works are fifteenth-century forgeries.

There is a logical flaw in the above assertion. A person may embellish in some respects and yet be right in others no need to cast aspersions upon everything.

Here it is hard to see what Sam's point is, as his commentary is not even coherent, and it is not even clear how he thinks it relates to my summary statement.

The Tacitus literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus, and it is singularly unfortunate that many writers in this subject area have failed to appreciate this!

I myself am fond of the words accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness, but I did note one word missing: infallibility.

Sam is doing no more than arbitrarily raising the bar of evidence to stratospheric heights for his own convenience. The fact is that Taciteans do not require Tacitus to be "infallible." Given Tacitus' reliability, it is the burden of doubters like Sam to explain why Annals 15.44 must be treated as an exception to Tacitus' widely known and recognized record of reliability.

However, this does not mean that Tacitus accepted Pliny's information on Jesus, or on any topic, uncritically. Annals 15.53 indicates that Tacitus did collect some information from Pliny - and that he disputed it, and even considered it wholly absurd. Simply because Pliny was Tacitus' friend and confidant does not mean that he believed everything that Pliny told him.

So if Pliny had information that Tacitus finds “wholly absurd” or incredible is Tacitus free from the same kind of critique?

I do not know where Sam gets such an idea, but it seems that this is more pep talk than scholarly argumentation. At the same time, there is nothing "absurd" or "incredible" about Annals 15.44; a man with followers, who ends up crucified, and who manifests no absurdities. So, it is hard to know why Sam thinks he can apply such a critique.

Sam quotes several of my comments from Taciteans about Tacitus being reliable, and then my summary of where Tacitus may have gotten his information about Jesus. He then says:

I don't know about you people but my eternal salvation and truth does not rely upon 'could have' 'may have' and 'suggestions'.

Nor does mine. The qualified language is only about the nature of Tacitus' sources for Annals 15.44, and the same sort of qualified language would adhere to the majority of the content in the Annals. Unlike Sam, however, professional historians do not run around like headless chickens thinking that this is a problem. Nor do they think, because of it, that the facts of history are open to question. Sam is simply engaging in rootless hyperbole of unjustified uncertainty, under the outlandish implied premise that only 100% certainty, beyond all possible doubt, is acceptable.

After more sermonizing on the same lines, we return to:

Should this issue of bias be cause for concern? Not really, for two reasons. First, in spite of his bias, Tacitus is still sufficiently trustworthy. Second, there is no indication that Tacitus' bias had any effect on the Jesus reference. Indeed, if it would have had any influence, it would be the opposite of the sort required in order to devalue the reference! Let's look at some further relevant data:

I am amazed how easily brushed aside is the issue of Tacitus and his alleged bias. Amazing! And besides the fact we don't know where he got his sources from. Possibly a bias source!

Sam isn't paying attention here. The issue here is not about any biased sources used by Tacitus, but Tacitus' own bias, and what role it may have played on his report of Jesus. Sam also ignores the most critical point, which is the burden he, as a critic, has to explain; namely, what specific effect Tacitus' bias would have had on compromising Annals 15.44.

In other words, even when Tacitus was expressing bias, his inner scruples were such that he still would not report an inaccuracy.
Wow so much embellishment of Tacitus and his grand moral character. Again 
an amazing assumption.

Amazing enough indeed, that it is an evaluation I took directly from professional Tacitean scholars, something Sam doesn't mention. After this, Sam sermonizes some more about needing 100% certainty (he even uses the figure of 100%!); however, if that is what he wants, we then need to ask how it is that he knows Muhammed was not a space alien!

Some points I made about how Tacitus' bias would have, if anything, led him to denigrate Jesus, are quoted. Then it is said:

Since we are throwing out speculation of what Tacitus did and did not do, here is another speculation because of his bias he reported what ever he heard without further scrutiny. He did not report that there was confusion as to what happened to Jesus. He did not report that no one knew what actually happened.

Here again it is hard to know Sam’s point, especially since Sam's English is rather deficient. I gather he is saying that Tacitus' bias kept him from reporting these things, but the bias Tacitus held against Christians would have, if anything, led him to say the very things Sam lists. Yet, these are not found in Tacitus.

And if we are going to use the 'principle of embarrassment' argument than Christians should follow it through logically. That Tacitus relied upon information that was hostile to Christianity namely that Jesus died thus proving him to be a false messiah according to the Jews and a rebel according to the Romans.

Again, Sam seems to have allowed mastery of English to evade him, so it is hard to see the point. This is indeed the view we suppose Tacitus held, and it is one he would have held even had Jesus risen from the dead.

I mean after all doesn't the Bible itself say, “We preach Christ crucified unto the Jews a stumbling block and unto the Greeks foolishness” 1 Corinthians 1:23.

Yes it does. And that is precisely why a cultured Roman like Tacitus would dismiss, out of hand, reports of Jesus having risen from the dead. That said, none of this has any bearing at all on Annals 15.44, which only reports that which Tacitus, as a cultured Roman, would find perfectly acceptable and just.

[Holding] than gives us a quote from an Atheist that he feels gives help to his cause. The quote from an Atheist actually back fires. To what extent allegedly did Tacitus employ his malicious wit concerning the unnamed source of Jesus alleged death on the cross?

This is in reference to what I quoted from Carrier, regarding the procurator/prefect issue, and once again, the point is lost in Sam's lack of compositional competence. There is no connection between Tacitus' wit and his sources, and no chain of logic, to speak of, that can make one in the way Sam is relating.

“This is a far better point than we may realize: Being that Tacitus' readers were - like he had been - members of the Senate and holders of political office [Dor.Tac, 64], we must suppose that this "error" escaped not only Tacitus' attention, but their’s as well. We may as well suggest that a United States Senate historian's error, of the same rank, would pass without comment.”

At this point Sam seems to be losing his cool, where all he can do is to repeat his prior points (e.g., 1100 year gap) and obsessively focus on my use of the word "suppose" as though it reflected some uncertainty in my views. In reality, it reflects a reductio ad absurdum that someone in his position is forced to explain. Clearly, Sam lacks the capabilities to do so.

I am quoted extensively regarding Tacitus' reliability, and the burden of critics to prove that Annals 15.44 is an exception. Sam says:

But isn't it interested that when Tacitus implies that he is mentioning a rumor he doesn't do so in connection to his bias against Jews? So if he doesn't mention rumors in connection with Jews and [Holding] admits his bias towards them than why would he mention rumors in connection with Christians? Think about it!

Perhaps I will think about it, when we can call in a linguist who can identify it and tell us what it is. As it is, it doesn't even come close to representing (and therefore answering) anything I actually said, much less does Sam explain how he can devalue Annals 15.44 with this discovery.

It has been my observation that there seems to be very little in the way of quality apologetics from Muslims. This is a clear example of why.

1 comment:

  1. don't Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet like Muhammad??

    Why the heck would a Muslim defend the Christ myth? Muslims hate Paul, believing him to be a corrupter of revelation and criticize his epistles, but defending the christ myth seems mind-boggling.

    Also, tertullian might have mentioned the passage in Tacitus when he mentions that non-Christians sometimes refer to Christians as "chrestians".