Home > Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus > Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (4)

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (4)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Forgery in Tacitus

This issue concerns the authenticity of a comment by Tacitus (Roman historian), about Christians. In his response to Ehrman’s book, Carrier wrote the following:

Richard Carrier: Ehrman says “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55).

Carrier truncates Ehrman’s sentence, so we should check to see what Ehrman actually said in his book (emphasis mine):

Bart Ehrman: Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him—they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important—but were inserted into his writings (interpolated) by Christians who copied them, producing the manuscripts of Tacitus we have today. (We have no originals, only later copies.) I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think this, and it seems highly unlikely. The mythicists certainly have a reason for arguing this: they do not want to think there are any references to Jesus in our early sources outside the New Testament, and so when they find any such reference, they claim the reference was not original but was inserted by Christians.

Carrier omitted a key word at the end of Ehrman’s sentence, ‘this’. The word ‘this’ in that sentence referred specifically to the claim that ‘this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him‘, and that instead it was ‘inserted into his writings (interpolated) by Christians‘.

This is very different to what Carrier claims Erhman said. Ehrman was not saying he did not know of any trained Classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think that ‘the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery’ (Carrier’s representation of Ehrman’s words).

Carrier then went on to address this misrepresentation of what Erhman had said, rather than what Erhman had actually written:

Richard Carrier: Now, I agree with Ehrman that it’s “highly unlikely” this passage wasn’t what Tacitus wrote; but the fact that he doesn’t know of the many classical scholars who have questioned it suggests he didn’t check. See Herbert W. Benario, “Recent Work on Tacitus (1964–68),” The Classical World 63.8 (April 1970), pp. 253-66 [and in 80.2 (Nov.–Dec. 1986)], who identifies no less than six classical scholars who have questioned its authenticity, three arguing it’s an outright interpolation and three arguing it has been altered or tampered with [correction: he names five scholars, one of them arguing in part for both–ed.]. This is important, because part of Ehrman’s argument is that mythicists are defying all established scholarship in suggesting this is an interpolation, so the fact that there is a lot of established scholarship supporting them undermines Ehrman’s argument and makes him look irresponsible.

Note here that Carrier is addressing the idea that Ehrman ‘doesn’t know of the many classical scholars who have questioned’ the passage, just as he had claimed previously Ehrman said he didn’t know any classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think ‘the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery’. Ehrman did not make either of those statements, yet Carrier’s response is written as if he had; Carrier is objecting to an imaginary statement.

Furthermore, Carrier’s own response shows evidence of weakness when scrutinized. Carrier makes three key claims here: that there are ‘many classical scholars who have questioned it’, that Herbert Benario identifies ‘no less than six classical scholars who have questioned its authenticity, three arguing it’s an outright interpolation and three arguing it has been altered or tampered with’ (he later edited his post to say ‘correction: he names five scholars, one of them arguing in part for both–ed.’), and that Mythicists have ‘a lot of established scholarship supporting them’ in ‘suggesting this is an interpolation’.

However, the evidence cited by Carrier does not substantiate his claims. Instead of ‘many classical scholars’ and ‘a lot of established scholarship’, Carrier cites a scholar writing 40 years ago, who lists only five classical scholars who have questioned the authenticity of this passage.

Ehrman’s reply to Carrier on this point provided information which Carrier had not supplied. According to James Rives (whom Ehrman consulted), one of the scholars Carrier cited (Saumagne), believed the reference to Christians was not a forgery by a third party interpolater; rather, he believed Tacitus had written the reference in another part of his works, and that the text had been transposed to its current position. Rives also says that another scholar cited by Carrier (Koestermann), ‘doesn’t say anything about the reference to Christ not having been written by Tacitus himself’.

Out of the original list of six scholars to whom Carrier made reference, if Rives is correct we are left with four scholars suggesting the passage is an interpolation, and two scholars misrepresented by Carrier. At best we are left with three ‘arguing it’s an outright interpolation’, one arguing it has been ‘altered or tampered with’, and one ‘arguing in part for both’, even if we are to accept Carrier’s assessment uncritically.

Readers may consider for themselves whether four or five scholars cited in an article written 40 years ago is evidence that there are ‘many classical scholars who have questioned it’, and that Mythicists have ‘a lot of established scholarship supporting them’ in ‘suggesting this is an interpolation’.

  1. Vincent Guilbaud
    April 13, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Don’t get your point.
    There is no difference between:
    “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think”
    – “the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery”
    and
    – “this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him”

    • Jonathan Burke
      April 13, 2014 at 11:43 pm

      As I have pointed out, you are reading the false representation of what Erhman wrote. He did not write “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery”.

      “Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him—they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important—but were inserted into his writings (interpolated) by Christians.”

      Ehrman said he did not know any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think this reference was not written by Tacitus, but was inserted into his writings (interpolated), by Christians. And Carrier couldn’t find any who said this either. So he cited a scholar writing 40 years ago, who listed only five classical scholars who have questioned the authenticity of this passage (none of whom are alive now). Out of the original list of six scholars to whom Carrier made reference, if Rives is correct we are left with four scholars from 40 years ago (now dead), suggesting the passage is an interpolation, and two scholars who didn’t; they were misrepresented by Carrier. At best (if Carrier is correct), we are left with three scholars from decades ago (no longer living), ‘arguing it’s an outright interpolation’, one scholar from decades ago (no longer living), arguing it has been ‘altered or tampered with’, and one scholar from decades ago (no longer living), ‘arguing in part for both’, even if we are to accept Carrier’s assessment uncritically. Either way, we find that Carrier, like Ehrman, does not know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a Christian interpolation.

  2. Vincent Guilbaud
    April 14, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Not sure you understood my question which is again:
    What is the difference between this passage from Tacitus:
    – is a forgery
    – was not actually written by him.
    ??????????????????????????????

    • Jonathan Burke
      April 14, 2014 at 12:50 am

      I did understand your question. I have demonstrated that it doesn’t relate to anything I wrote. Perhaps you meant to post this on another blog.

  3. Vincent Guilbaud
    April 14, 2014 at 1:38 am

    “I have demonstrated that it doesn’t relate to anything I wrote.”

    Are you kidding me?

    “THIS IS VERY DIFFERENT to what Carrier claims Erhman said.
    Ehrman was not saying he did not know of any trained Classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think that ‘the passage about Christians in Tacitus is a forgery’ (Carrier’s representation of Ehrman’s words).”

    • Jonathan Burke
      April 14, 2014 at 2:02 am

      No I am not kidding. I did not say there’s a difference between saying ‘is a forgery’ and ‘was not actually written by him’. I said there’s a difference between saying ‘is a forgery’ and ‘was not written by him… was interpolated by Christian scribes’. Again you removed the very part of Ehrman’s sentence which Carrier also excluded, even after I brought your attention to it twice.

      The first statement simply says it’s a forgery, without identifying the source of the forgery; it could have been anyone. Erhman may know of trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who believe it’s a forgery by someone.The second statement confines the source of the forgery specifically to Christian scribes. Ehrman didn’t know any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who believe it was interpolated by Christian scribes.

  4. Vincent Guilbaud
    April 14, 2014 at 3:48 am

    In the context of Christian interpolations,
    for which Ehrmann has written extensively in previous books:
    A – is a forgery
    B – and was not actually written by him but inserted by Christians
    are basically the same thing.

    If not, it is impossible Ehrmann would have not precised:
    I don’t know of any scholar who claim B … BUT I know several who claim A,
    since what is MATTER OF DEBATE here is NOT:
    – WHO CHANGED THE TEXT,
    – but IF THE TEXT HAS BEEN CHANGED.

    (Not mentioned that these handful of scholars also think it must have been Christians.)

  1. May 20, 2012 at 1:57 am
  2. July 27, 2012 at 12:11 pm
  3. August 2, 2014 at 5:57 pm

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