Posts Tagged ‘history’

Did Jesus exist?

In recent years the historical existence of Jesus has been disputed by atheists and extreme skeptics. Such challenges have typically originated online, consisting of non-professional commentary from individuals with no relevant qualifications (with only very rare exceptions). The overwhelming scholarly consensus of professional historians considers the historical existence of Jesus to be conclusively established. This article surveys the historical sources typically cited as evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Historical evidence

There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ life; that is, none written during the time that he was alive. Even the gospels were written long after his death. The apostle Paul is in fact the earliest witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The following are sources outside the New Testament, commonly cited as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus. They are not all of equal value, and some of them do not contribute very useful historical data.

  1. Thallos (Greek historian), c. 55 CE.[1]

The Christian historian Georgius Syncellus quotes a passage from 3rd century Christian historian Julius Africanus, who in turn quotes Thallos  referring to an eclipse.[2] Although Thallos treats the eclipse as a natural event, Africanus argues he is wrong, and that this was an act of God which took place at the crucifixion of Jesus.[3] The uncertainty of who Thallos was, what he wrote, and the lack of a direct reference to Jesus, means this source does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[4]

  1. Josephus (Jewish historian), c. 90s CE.

Josephus is considered the most important historical witness to the life of Jesus outside the New Testament, not only because he is the earliest but also because his work ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (written during the 90s), contains two references to Jesus. The first reference is lengthy, and much of it looks like it was written by a Christian rather than a Jewish historian such as Josephus; see the words marked here in bold.

‘Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,b those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day,c as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.’[5]

It is certain that this reference contains a lot of material which is obviously not authentic, having been added by later Christians scribes when copying Josephus’ work.[6] [7] [8] Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that once these Christian additions are removed, there is still a genuine historical reference to Jesus in the text, which was written by Josephus. Here is an example of what the original text is typically understood to have looked like.

‘At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.’[9]

Very importantly, a 10th century Christian manuscript written in Arabic quotes this section of Josephus in a way which shows the writer (Agapius of Mabbug), had access to a text which did not suffer from the Christian additions of the oldest available Greek text.

‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.’[10]

This text was only published academically in 1971, [11] long after scholars had suggested a neutral ‘reconstructed’ version of the quotation from Josephus, with the most obvious Christian additions removed. The fact that this Arabic text is very similar to the reconstructed text, and is independent of the corrupted Greek version, strengthens the considerably the case that Josephus contains an authentic reference to the life and death of Jesus. This is acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of current scholars.[12] [13] [14]

The second reference to Jesus in Josephus contains a reference to James, called by Josephus ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’.[15] This reference has been far less disputed, since the mention of Jesus is incidental and since he is referred to as Jesus ‘who was called Christ’, indicating that the writer himself did not believe Jesus was the Christ.[16] [17]

  1. Pliny the Younger (Roman senator), c. 111-113 CE.

While he was the governor of Pontus-Bythinia from c. 111-113 CE, Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.[18] However, Pliny’s letters tell us only about the beliefs and practices of the Christians in his day; he does not refer to Jesus specifically, and does not provide any independent information on Jesus as a historical figure.[19] Like Thallos, Pliny does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.[20]

  1. Tacitus (Roman historian), c. 116 CE.

In his historical work ‘Annals’ (written around 116 CE), Tacitus refers explicitly to Jesus as the founder of Christianity, and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate.[21]  Arguments that this passage was not written by Tacitus, and was inserted by later Christians, have failed to convince mainstream scholarship.[22] This remains one of the earliest historical references to Jesus, and to his crucifixion under Pilate.

  1. Suetonius (Roman historian), c. 120 CE.

In his work ‘Lives of the Caesars’ (c. 120 CE), Suetonius refers to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius, which Suetonius says was ‘since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chestus’.[23] The vast majority of scholars consider this passage to be genuine,[24] and the word ‘Chrestus’ was a common mistaken spelling of ‘Christus’ (meaning ‘Christ’ in Latin).[25] 

Nevertheless, this passage speaks of Jews making disturbances in Rome as a result of ‘Chrestus’, which does not seem to be a reference to Jesus (who was never in Rome). Although Suetonius refers elsewhere to Christians (whom he calls ‘Christiani’), he does not do so in this passage; consequently, this reference in Suetonius is of little use in establishing the historicity of Jesus.[26] [27] [28]

  1. Mara bar Serapion (Syrian writer), c. 73-150 CE.

An non-Christian Syrian writer named Serapion, in a letter to his son (the date of which is still uncertain and debated), refers to a ‘wise king of the Jews’, for whose death God held the Jews responsible, punishing them by exiling them from Judea and scattering them throughout the earth.[29] The only surviving copy of this letter is dated to the seventh century, and Serapion does not name Jesus, but the context suggests he is the ‘wise king’ referred to.[30] [31] This provides some evidence for the historicity of Jesus.


As a result of these sources, Jesus’ existence is considered well established by professional historiography, and the idea that he did not exist is typically not taken seriously.

‘The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.’ [32]

Although details of the life of Jesus are still hotly disputed, there is still a very broad agreement on the key events of his life. The following statements are are all agreed on by the overwhelming consensus of peer reviewed professional scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, from those as conservative as Witherington, Blomberg and Habemas, through those less conservative such as Theissen,[33] and Sanders,[34] to those as skeptical as Ehrman (agnostic),[35] Vermès (Jew),[36] [37] [38]and Lüdemann (atheist).[39] [40]

  1. Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, during the reign of Herod the Great.
  2. He had a father (biological or not), called Joseph.
  3. He was baptized in Galilee.
  4. He became an intinerant teacher.
  5. He proclaimed the kingdom of God.
  6. He conducted a healing ministry which involved certain genuine acts of healing.
  7. He taught a subversive and counter-cultural socio-religious ethic expressed in wisdom sayings and parables; Mark 2:19; 3:27; 4:21; 10:25; 12:17, Matthew 5:38-48; 6:9-23; 7:7-8; 11:7-8; 18:12-14; 18:23-25; 20:1-15, Luke 6:20-21; 6:41-42; 9:58; 9:59-60; 10:30-35; 11:24-26; 12:22-31; 13:6-9; 13:20-21; 14:16-24; 15:11-32; 16:1-8a; 17:33; 18:1-8; 20:46 are all considered authentic sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar.
  8. He associated and identified with social outcasts.
  9. He criticized the established Jewish religious elite.
  10. He was arrested and crucified during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, for being a public nuisance and social threat.
  11. He died at around 30 years of age.


[1] Also spelled ‘Thallas’ or ‘Thallus’.

[2] ‘Around 55 C.E., a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of his book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–ca. 240), a Christian writer, in his History of the World (ca. 220).2 This book likewise was lost, but one of its citations of Thallos was taken up by the Byzantine historian Georgius Syncellus in his Chronicle (ca. 800).’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 20 (2000).

[3] ‘This fragment of Thallos used by Julius Africanus comes in a section in which Julius deals with the portents during the crucifixion of Jesus. Julius argues that Thallos was “wrong” (ἀλογώς) to argue that this was only a solar eclipse, because at full moon a solar eclipse is impossible, and the Passover always falls at full moon. Julius counters that the eclipse was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus. But it is more likely that Julius, who had access to the context of this quotation in Thallos and who (to judge from other fragments) was generally a careful user of his sources, was correct in reading it as a hostile reference to Jesus’ death. The context in Julius shows that he is refuting Thallos’ argument that the darkness is not religiously significant.’, ibid., pp. 20-21.

[4]The question of identity aside, the value of this fragment is slight. At best all that it shows is that someone in the first century had learned of the tradition of the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and then attempted to explain it in natural terms.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 455 (1998).

[5] Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 18.63-64, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[6] ‘The clause “if indeed it is right to call him a man” suggests that Jesus was more than human. This looks like a Christian scribe’s correction of the christological implications of calling Jesus only “a wise man.”’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 91 (2000).

[7] ‘The crux of this problem is the curt sentence “He was the Christ” (ὁ Χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν). Leaving aside the issue of how intelligible this statement would have been to Josephus’s Gentile audience,43 this sentence looks like a confession of Jesus as Messiah.’, ibid., p. 91.

[8] ‘The entire sentence, “For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and myriad other things about him” is filled with Christian content.’, ibid, p. 92.

[9] Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person’, p. 61 (1991).

[10] Brown, ‘The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 and 2: From Gethsemane to the Grave,  a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels’, p. 375 (1994).

[11] A 12th century Syriac text by Michael the Syrian, published at the same time, is very similar to the text of Agapius.

[12] ‘Hence the most that can be claimed is that Josephus here made some reference to Jesus, which has been retouched by a Christian hand. This is the view argued by Meier as by most scholars today, particularly since S. Pines drew attention to a less obviously Christian version of the  ‘Testimonium’ which is quoted in Arabic translation in a tenth-century Christian work.’, Wells, ‘The Jesus Legend’, p. 28 (1996).

[13]Most scholars today consider the passage authentic, but think it has been extensively altered to reflect core Christian beliefs (italic type in the quotation above indicates those parts of the Testimonium that are usually considered obvious additions by a Christian hand).’, Neufeld, ‘Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament’, p. 40 (2007).

[14]Most scholars are confident that Josephus wrote something like this because the later mention of the Christ in the James citation from Antiquities 20.200 assumes a previous mention of this figure.’, Bock, ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods’, p. 55 (2002).

[15] ‘Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions];’, Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 20.200, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).

[16]That, indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage — the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged — about James, who is termed (A XX, 200) the brother of “the aforementioned Christ.”’, Feldman, ‘Inroduction’, in  Feldman & Hata (eds.), ‘Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity’, p. 56 (1987).

[17]The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.25 The passage fits its context well. As for its content, a Christian interpolator would have used laudatory language to describe James and especially Jesus, calling him “the Lord” or something similar. At least, as in the passage to be considered next, he would have used the term “Christ” in an absolute way. Josephus’s words “called Christ” are neutral and descriptive, intended neither to confess nor deny Jesus as the “Christ.” Thus Josephus distinguishes this Jesus from the many others he mentions who had this common name.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, pp. 83-84 (2000).

[18] ‘Because he has not been present at such trials before his appointment to Bithynia (to judge from what follows), Pliny has several questions: How should Christians be punished? What are the grounds for investigation, and how far should investigation be pressed? Are any distinctions to be made for age, or for renouncing Christianity? Are Christians to be punished just for being Christians, “for the mere name of Christian,” even though they may not be guilty of “crimes associated with the name”?’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 24 (2000).

[19]Pliny does not deal explicitly with the “historical Jesus.” If he has learned anything in his investigations and interrogations about Jesus, he does not relate it to the emperor.’, ibid., p. 28.

[20] ‘None of these features, of course, add to our knowledge of the Jesus of history.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 459 (1998).

[21] ‘The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate’, Tacitus quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 41 (2000).

[22]The textual integrity of this section has on occasion been doubted. The text has some significant problems, as attested by the standard critical editions.59 These and other difficulties in interpreting the text have also led to a few claims that all of it, or key portions of it, has been interpolated by later hands.60 But there are good reasons for concluding with the vast majority of scholars that this passage is fundamentally sound, despite difficulties which result in no small measure from Tacitus’s own compressed style. The overall style and content of this chapter are typically Tacitean. The passage fits well in its context and is the necessary conclusion to the entire discussion of the burning of Rome. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle 2.29 attests to much of it in the early fifth century, so most suggested interpolations would have to have come in the second through fourth centuries.’, ibid., pp. 42-43.

[23] Suetonius quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 30 (2000).

[24] ‘We conclude with the overwhelming majority of modern scholarship that this sentence is genuine.’, ibid., p. 31.

[25] ‘“Christus” was often confused with “Chrestus” by non-Christians, and sometimes even by Christians.’, ibid., p. 34.

[26] ‘Although Suetonius did view Christ as an historical person capable of fomenting unrest,55 his glaring mistakes should caution us against placing too much weight on his evidence for Jesus or his significance for early Christianity.’, ibid., p  39.

[27] ‘The “Jews” may really refer to Christians, who in the first century were viewed as no more than a sect within Judaism itself; or the designation may refer to Jews who quarreled with Christians (along the lines of what we find in Acts). Of the two, the latter interpretation is the more probable.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 457 (1998).

[28] ‘The confusion involved is hardly the work of artifice or contrivance, but certainly weakens the historical value of the text.’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, volume 1, p.  142 (2003).

[29] ‘What advantage did the Athenians gain by murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered in sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing]93 their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time? God justly repaid the wisdom of these three men: the Athenians died of famine; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every nation.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 54 (2000).

[30] ‘The text contains no specific Christian ideas — except for the expression “the wise king of the Jews,” which may refer to Jesus127 — and therefore is presumably of pagan authorship.’, Possekel, ‘Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian’, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, volume 580, number 102, p. 29 (1999).

[31] ‘The value of this curious comment lies in the apparent fact that by the end of the first century Jesus was regarded in at least some non-Christian circles as the Jews’ “wise king.”’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 456 (1998).

[32] Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 14 (2000).

[33]  Thiessen & Merz, ‘The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide’, pp. 569, 571-572 (1998).

[34] ‘Sanders offered a more concise sketch in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). – Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; – he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; – he was baptized by John the Baptist; – he called disciples; – he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); – he preached “the kingdom of God”; – about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; – he created a disturbance in the Temple area; – he had a final meal with the disciples; – he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; – he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.’, Broadhead, ‘Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity’, pp. 64-65 (2010).

[35] Ehrman, ‘Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (1999).

[36] Vermès, ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism’, pp. 11-12 (1984).

[37] ‘Why, then, was Jesus crucified? In Vermes’s subsequent volume, ‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew’, he succinctly summarizes his conclusion: “The arrest and execution of Jesus were due, not direclty to his words and deeds, but to their possible insurrectionary consequences feared by the nervous authorities in charge of law and order in that powder-keg of first-century Jerusalem… He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (caused a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before Passover)” (x).’, Keck, ‘Who is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense’, p. 41 (2001).

[38] ‘”The Synoptists are unanimous in presenting him as an exorcist, healer and teacher. They also emphasize that the deepest impression made by Jesus on his contemporaries resulted from his mastery over devils and disease, and the magnetic power of his preaching.”’, Vermes, quoted by Scott, ‘New Options in An Old Quest’, in Greenspoon et al. (eds.), ‘The Historical Jesus Through Catholic and Jewish Eyes’, pp. 7-8 (2000).

[39] Lüdemann, ‘The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did’, pp. 77, 83, 96-97 (1999), and ‘Jesus After Two Thousand Years: what he really said and did’, pp. 689-690 (2001).

[40] ‘Lüdemann even concludes that ‘the activity of Jesus in driving out demons is one of the most certain historical facts about his life’ (Jesus 13).’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, p. 677 (2003).


Godfrey on historiography 1: Polybius & Livy

March 11, 2013 28 comments

Classicist and historian Michael Grant is known for his popularization of Greek and Roman history. Neil Godfrey has criticized one of Grant’s works in particular, ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (1992), in two articles (here and here), accusing Grant of ‘talking through his hat‘, ‘unprofessional nonsense‘, and  ‘imaginative fantasies‘. This article will focus on one of Godfrey’s objections to Grant, specifically Grant’s comparison of the gospels to the historical works of the Greek historian Polybius and and the Roman historian Livy.

Godfrey’s objection

Godfrey quotes the following statement from ‘Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels’ (page 200), in which Grant states that discrepancies between historical accounts of an event do not mean that the event they are both describing never actually took place. Citing the differences in the gospel accounts, Grant cites discrepancies in the histories of Polybius and Livy when describing the same events.

Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event every took place just because pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend around Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious.

Godfrey objects to this comparison on the following grounds.

Of course no-one disputes events if Livy and Polybius describe them differently. Firstly, look at the different ways Livy and Polybius describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The facts are not in dispute. One does not say Hannibal crossed the Alps after he invaded Italy and another before; one does not say he crossed with his army while another says the army crossed without him. These would be the sorts of differences we would expect if Livy’s and Polybius’s accounts are comparable to what we find in the Gospels. Rather, most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal: the patriotic Livy hates him while Polybius, a Greek historian, is more neutral. Yes, the Gospels also contain different attitudes towards the disciples, towards Jews and Romans. But they also contain much more significant contradictions that really do undermine their credibility as accounts ultimately derived from singular noteworthy events.

Godfrey links to the site of John D Clare, a professional historian. The specific page to which Godfrey links, provides an English translation of both Polybius and Livy’s account of the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal, crossing the European Alps during his invasion of Italy. Godfrey offers this page in support of his claim although Polybius and Livy describe Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps differently, ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘, and none of the differences are equivalent to the differences found between the gospel descriptions of certain events.

Clare’s page contains a large number of detailed notes on the historical accounts of Polybius and Livy. It is unclear whether Godfrey has read these notes, which provide a useful way of comparing Godfrey’s assessment of these historical sources, with the assessment of a professional historian. Unlike Godfrey, Clare notes  a large number of substantive discrepancies between Polybius and Livy, as well as a number of historical ambiguities which are impossible to settle given the lack of information given by either historian, or by their misuse of their sources.

The historical sources for Hannibal

Polybius was contemporary with Hannibal, whereas Livy was writing over 100 years after Hannibal had died. These two historians are relied on as providing the most detailed historical accounts, having drawn from earlier sources (Polybius knew eyewitnesses of the war with Hannibal); Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos, and Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, are two additional sources on the life of Hannibal, though Nepos was writing over 200 years after Hannibal had died, and Arrian was writing around 100 years after Nepos.

Yet despite the wealth of historical sources for Hannibal, and the close proximity of his earliest biographers, considerable uncertainty remains about his early life, character, and motivation.

The true character of Hannibal eludes us. None of our sources provide the equivalent of the anecdotes told about the childhood and family life of the important Greek and Roman politicians of the era, many of whom were the subject of detailed biographies. We can say a good deal about what Hannibal did during his career, and often understand how he did it, but we can say virtually nothing with any certainty about what sort of man he was. As with so much else about Carthage and its leaders, there are so many things that we simply do not know, that even our sources probably did not understand. Was Hannibal for instance a Hellenized aristocrat who dreamed of copying and surpassing the great expeditions of Alexander or Pyrrhus, or did he remain very much the Punic nobleman with a very different set of beliefs and ambitions? Much as we try to understand Hannibal, he will always remain an enigma.’[1]

As we shall see, there is also considerable uncertainty about his famous crossing of the Alps. Historian Dexter Hoyos notes that reconstruction of any topic concerning the history of the Punic Wars itself is contentious, specifically due to the discrepancies and contradictions between the available sources.

‘Predictably, there are enough discrepancies and sometimes contradictions between accounts to make the task of establishing a reasonably true picture of any topic a contentious one.’[2]

Polybius & Livy as historians

Both Polybius and Livy have their strengths and weaknesses as historians of the life of Hannibal, but Godfrey does not mention any of their weaknesses in his description of them; instead he assures us that ‘Their works find independent support in other sources’.

We know who Polybius and Livy were, when they were born, where they lived, whom they knew and met, their political and social status, where they traveled, and why they wrote their respective histories of Rome. That is, we understand their interests and reasons for writing, and their interest and ability in writing a generally factual history. Their works find independent support in other sources.

Polybius is considered the better historian of Hannibal, given that he was a contemporary and was able to consult eyewitness accounts. Yet although Polybius identifies his two Roman sources for his description of the First Punic War, he casts doubt on their reliability.[3] When describing the Second Punic War, Polybius rarely mentions his sources, and typically does not identify them by name.[4] Historians identify Polybius’ Roman sources for the Second Punic War by a process of informed guesswork.

In his entire description of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (book 3, chapters 49-56), Polybius does not name or even cite a single identifiable source, and his account contains almost no geographically identifiable place names. Hoyos has noted that Polybius ‘can be vague or simply wrong at times: as in his narrative, almost place-name free, of Hannibal’s passage over the Alps and his implausible account of Scipo’s early political career’.[5] Nevertheless, Polybius is generally considered the most reliable historian on the Punic Wars, and one of the best historians of ancient Rome.

John Clare’s assessment of Livy is highly critical, citing Livy’s inability to reconcile contradictions between his sources, failing to identify biases in his sources, carelessness in copying or translating sources, misdating events, and his ignorance of geographical, military, and political details he is attempting to record.[6] Historians have noted in particular Livy’s poor handling of his sources;[7] although he made some attempt to determine which of his conflicting sources were most reliable, his method of doing so was inadequate and his conclusions unreliable.[8]

Discrepancies between Polybius & Livy

Unlike professional historians, Godfrey does not inform readers of the significant discrepancies between the accounts of Polybius and Livy in their description of the Punic Wars. Polybius describes how the first peace treaty between Rome and Carthage was ratified, whereas Livy claims it was rejected; yet forgetting what he said earlier, later in Livy’s history he assumes the treaty was ratified after all.[9] Likewise, the description Livy gives of the Battle of Zama, is ‘bizarrely at odds with Polybius”.[10]

Since Godfrey has pointed to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps as an example of agreement between Polybius and Livy (acknowledging differences between their accounts but claiming  ‘most of the differences are perceptions of the character of Hannibal‘), this section of their works will be examined, to see if Godfrey’s claim withstands scrutiny.

Discrepancy 1: encouraging or berating the troops?

At the beginning of their descriptions of Hannibal crossing of the Alps, Polybius claims Hannibal gave a speech encouraging his men ‘by reminding them of their achievements in the past’, whilst Livy claims he ‘called his troops together and harangued them with a mixture of withering scorn and general encouragement’, accusing them of cowardice.

Clare notes that there is a discrepancy between Polybius and Livy as to the timing of the event; ‘in Polybius, Hannibal was trying to encourage his men after the defeat by Scipio’s scouting party; Livy makes it a Hortatio speech before the ascent of the Alps‘. This is a significant discrepancy; it is impossible for both historians to be correct. Clare concludes ‘Given the fact that the army was still only at the Rhone, hundreds of miles from the Alps, one has to question Livy’s account’.

Clare also notes that Livy has written Hannibal’s speech in ‘a form of oration called a Horatio (= Exhortation)’, noting ‘this was a Greek form of oration’. Noting ‘there are other examples in Livy and throughout Greek literature’ of this oratorical form, Clare asks his reader ‘does the fact that this speech follows this form PROVE that Livy made it up?’. Clare’s question is rhetorical, his point being that just because a historical source records a speech in a particular well used literary form, does not mean the speech itself never took place or that the content is fictional; this is how professional historians treat historical accounts which use literary forms.

Discrepancy 2: a prayer to the gods?

Polybius says that after Hannibal’s speech to his troops he offered ‘a prayer to the gods’, but Livy does not mention this. Clare notes ‘This act – a standard example of Virtus Romana – is deliberately omitted by Livy; what different impression to Polybius’s impression of Hannibal was Livy thereby trying to create?’. Typical of Clare’s professional method, discrepancies between Polybius and Livy are not treated as indications that an event did not take place.

When an event is present in one account but not in another, Clare harmonizes the accounts by proposing one of the historians lacked a source available to the other, or that one of the historians deliberately omitted the event for personal reasons. When both historians give differing accounts of the same event, Clare concludes that they are using different, independent sources, rather than concluding that the event did not take place.

Discrepancy 3: where is the Iskaras?

Identifying a geographical location apparently known as ‘the Island’, both Polybius and Livy refer to it as the place where two rivers meet’; the Rhone, and the ‘Iskaras’ (Polybius), or ‘Sara’ (Livy). This is the first of a number of significant geographical discrepancies in the accounts of Polybius and Livy. Clare notes that historians still cannot agree on the identity of this river, and consequently cannot agree on the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps, despite all the details given by Polybius and Livy.

“Firstly, the river given in your set-text as the ‘Isère’ is actually in Polybius ‘Iskaras’ – since the 16th century historians have identified this as the Isère, but the British historian De Beer (1969) did not agree; he identified it as the Aigues (a river MUCH further south). Historians disagree about the route taken by Hannibal over the Alps. The suggestion that Hannibal turned east up the Isère would favour a route which took him over the Col du Mont Cenis or the Col de Clapier. The account in Livy, who states that Hannibal turned east up the Druentia (Durance), would suggest a southerly route over Mount Genèvre or the Col de la Traversette. We will never be sure.”

This is an irreconcilable discrepancy between the geography of the Alps, and the geographical descriptions given by Polybius and Livy; the river is not identifiable with any certainty. Either Hannibal went east up the Isère or east up the Durentia, but it is not possible to be certain and his route over the Alps remains unknown.

Discrepancy 4: mediator or partisan?

Polybius and Livy both describe Hannibal encountering two brothers disputing the leadership of their tribe. Polybius says Hannibal favoured one of them, ad ‘united with him therefore to attack and expel the other’, whereas Livy on the contrary says Hannibal acted as a peaceful arbitrator between the two. Clare concludes the discrepancy is the result of the historians using different sources.

“Although this story is paralleled in Livy, there are significant differences which suggest that Livy did NOT take the story from Polybius.”

“Where Livy says that Hannibal was invited to arbitrate, Polybius just states that he supported the elder brother; another sign that Livy here was following an alternative source to Polybius.”

Discrepancy 5: Allobroges or not?

Livy says the two brothers belonged to the Allobroges, a tribal group in Gaul; Clare notes that Polybius ‘infers the opposite’.

“Where Livy states that the brothers were Allobroges, Polybius does not do so, and rather infers the opposite, since here he has the brother protecting Hannibal against the Allobroges. This shows that Livy did not base his account here on Polybius. Given that the Allobroges later attacked Hannibal, you have to say that Polybous sounds the more convincing account here.”

Again, Clare understands this as an indication of different sources used by Polybius and Livy, rather than dismissing the event as fictional.

Discrepancy 6: allies or enemies?

Clare notes Polybius and Livy differ completely in their description of Hannibal’s experience with the naive tribes during his initial advance through the Alps, and again proposes two alternative sources as the origin of the contradiction.

“Notice, yet again, how Polybius and Livy reverse the role of the Gauls and the Allobroges. Polybius has Hannibal escorted by ‘Barbarians’ safely through the Allobroges; Livy has Hannibal helped by Allobroges and unmolested by ‘the local Gallic inhabitants‘. It shows that Livy was using a different source to Polybius here.”

Discrepancy 7: the enemy slipped away, or the attacks were renewed?

Polybius claims that the day after after an initial attack on Hannibal’s force, the local enemies ‘slipped away’, leaving Hannibal’s army uncontested.

“53.6. The next day the enemy slipped away and Hannibal was able to rejoin the cavalry and the baggage train and lead them to the highest points of the Alpine passes.”

In contrast, Livy says the enemies remained and continued their attacks the next day, though with reduced force; Livy specifically mentions further losses to Hannibal’s army at this time, completely contradicting Polybius.

“35.1. However, on the next day, the barbarian attacks grew less intense and the two parts of his army were reunited. They cleared the pass successfully, but with some losses, mainly of baggage animals rather than soldiers. 35.2. The numbers of tribesmen was now considerably reduced, though their attacks continued, sometimes on the vanguard, sometimes on the rear.”

It is not possible for both of these descriptions to be correct; either the enemy ‘slipped away’ the next day, or they continued to attack the next day and Hannibal’s army sustained further losses.

Discrepancy 8: the sight of Italy?

Polybius and Livy both claim that after nine days of travel Hannibal came to a vantage point from which he could look down on Italy, and encouraged his troops with their close proximity to their goal.

“54.2. So he called them all together and tried to boost their morale. He had only one source of encouragement, and that was the sight of Italy, clearly spread out below. It lies so close up under these mountains that anyone gazing on both together would imagine that the Alps towered above Italy like an acropolis above its city.” (Polybius)

“35.8. Fully aware of this, Hannibal rode out ahead and found a vantage point with a panoramic view across the whole landscape below. Here he ordered the army to halt and pointed out to them the view of Italy and the plains of the Po valley spread out at the foot of the Alps,” (Livy)

Clare points out that this is completely irreconcilable with the accounts given by Polybius and Livy themselves; it is geographically impossible for Hannibal to have seen such a view if he was in the position they claimed; either he could see the view because he was not in the position they claimed, or they were simply making use of a dramatic story about the event.

 “This is a wonderful story, which both Livy and Polybius tell … the only problem being that such a view exists ONLY on the Mont Cenis or the Col-de-Clapier passes. So either Hannibal used one of those two routes, or both Polybius and Livy were retailing a myth that was just too good not to use!

Discrepancy 9: five months to reach Italy?

Both Polybius and Livy claim Hannibal took five months to reach Italy, fifteen days of which were spent crossing the Alps. However, this is irreconcilable with their clam that Hannibal left Carthage in early spring.

“Polybius and Livy agree on five months (they perhaps took the figure from a primary source – presumably Silenus/Sosylus). But an arrival in early November would imply a departure in June, which contradicts utterly the statement in both Polybius and Livy that Hannibal set off in ‘early spring’ – Livy emphasises ‘right at the beginning of spring’ (i.e. early March in Spain). Yet a departure in early spring would put Hannibal over the Alps in August. There is clearly an error somewhere.”

Here the discrepancy is internal; both Polybius and Livy agree with each other but contradict their own accounts. It is notable that when faced with Polybius and Livy using a figure which contradicts their own accounts  Clare actually suggest the figure was taken from a primary source which neither historian cites, rather than dismissing the figure itself.

Discrepancy 10: fifteen days to cross the Alps?

Both Polybius and Livy say Hannibal took fifteen days to cross the Alps. However, Clare notes that their own accounts of the number of days Hannibal spent in the crossing, add up to 18 or 19; they contradict themselves.

“Amusingly, when you add up the days in both Polybius’s and Livy’s accounts they come to 18 or 19! Both of them appear to have accepted a figure – presumably from Silenus/Sosylus – without checking it!”

Again Clare reconciles the history by treating the figure as accurate and the historians as inaccurate, suggesting the figure of fifteen days is correct and that it derives from a primary source.

Discrepancy 11: how many men?

Livy notes the historical sources available to him are ‘hopelessly at variance’ with regard to how many soldiers Hannibal accompanied Hannibal into Italy.

“38.2 The authorities are hopelessly at variance as to the number of the troops with which Hannibal entered Italy. The highest estimate assigns him 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry; the lowest puts his strength at 20,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry.  38.3 L. Cincius Alimentus tells us that he was taken prisoner by Hannibal, and I should be most inclined to accept his authority if he had not confused the numbers by adding in the Gauls and Ligurians; if these are included there were 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry.  38.4 It is, however, more probable that these joined Hannibal in Italy, and some authorities actually assert this.  38.5 Cincius also states that he had heard Hannibal say that subsequently to his passage of the Rhone he lost 36,000 men and a vast number of horse and other animals.”

Livy again contradicts Polybius, and Clare notes Livy has made the wrong choice.

“This section illustrates Livy’s poor handling of numbers. Although he acknowledges the great variation of numbers, he seems to be prepared to accept Cincius’s hearsay, despite being aware of significant problems with his calculations. And although he actually quotes Polybius’s numbers (without crediting him)he utterly ignores the greater authority of Polybius’s source (the column at Lacinium).”

Although Livy claims L. Cincinius Alimentus as a reliable eyewitness source (having been taken prisoner by Hannibal), Clare notes that this is not true; Alimentus was not an eyewitness to these events.

“A Roman annalist from the time of the Second Punic War, who really did spend years as a prisoner of Hannibal, and whose account of that time was praised by Polybius for its lack of bias. HOWEVER, although he was captured early in the war, he was NOT a prisoner when Hannibal crossed the Alps, and was not an eyewitness.”

Discrepancy 12: living off the land?

The accounts Polybius and Livy give of how Hannibal’s army sustained itself once in Italy, are completely contradictory on three points. Firstly, Polybius claims Hannibal’s army gathered plenty of supplies, while Livy claims the opposite.

“Polybius emphasizes the abundance of supplies gathered by the Punic army, but again Livy claims the opposite. He even alleges that Campania was inadequate to support Hannibal’s army, which was therefore threatened with hunger. Most importantly, the Roman troops successfully hindered Hannibal’s food supply.”[11]

Secondly, Polybius and Livy give different accounts of how the Romans responded at this time.

“Quite revealing is the following difference in Polybius’ and Livy’s accounts. While Polybius has Flaminius’ officers advise their commander to hold back and be on his guard against the superior numbers of Hannibal’s cavalry, Livy has the officers tell Flaminius to use his cavalry and light-armed troops to keep the enemy’s forces in check (Pol. 2.82.4; Livy 22.3.9).”[12]

Thirdly, Livy claims Hannibal’s supplies were exhausted by spring, unlike Polybius.

“Finally, Livy claims that in the spring of 216 Hannibal’s stores were exhausted and that he contemplated withdrawing into Gaul (22.23.3). Polybius, who noted that Hannibal’s army had been able to prepare their winter quarters near Gerunium unhindered, says nothing of the sort.”[13]

Professional treatments of the sources

Despite the numerous sources used by Polybius and Livy (some of them primary sources, and eyewitnesses), professional historians are still unable to reconstruct precise details of Hannibal’s journey across the Alps; the sources are too contradictory. Focusing only on twelve of the most glaring discrepancies, from Polybius and Livy we learn the following.

1. Hannibal started by encouraging his troops, or perhaps he started by berating them.

2. He then gave a prayer to the gods, or perhaps he didn’t.

3. A key point of his travel took place at a river with a disputed name, which is geographically unidentifiable.

4. His path through the Alps took him over the Col du Mont Cenis, or perhaps the Col de Clapier, or perhaps Mount Genèvre, or perhaps the Col de la Traversette;  his route is impossible to reconstruct with certainty, and historians still debate it.

5. He acted as mediator to two brothers, or perhaps he fought and defeated one of them as a partisan supporter of the other.

6. He was allied with the Gauls and fought the Allobroges, or perhaps he was allied with the Allobroges and fought with the Gauls.

7. After an initial attack on his forces the enemy slipped away the next day, or perhaps the next day they resumed fighting with reduced intensity but still inflicted further losses.

8. After nine days of travel he came to a vantage point at which he could see all of Italy, or perhaps he didn’t.

9. He arrived in Italy after five months, having started in early spring or perhaps not starting in early spring (or perhaps not taking five months at all).

10. He took 15 days to cross the Alps, or perhaps 18 days, or perhaps 19 days.

11. He arrived in Italy with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, or 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, or any number in between.

12. When he arrived in Italy his army was able to sustain itself easily by living off the land, or perhaps it wasn’t and it actually ran out of food.

Professional historians address the discrepancies between Polybius and Livy in a variety of ways. Some of those methods involve attributing the contradiction to differing sources, or to an accurate source which both Polybius and Livy cited but did not realise they were contradicting, or to the deliberate suppression of information by one of the historians for their own agenda, or to translation error (typically to Livy mistranslating a Greek source), or to a chronological re-organization of the events for purposes of dramatization.

Occasionally the discrepancies are explained by mismanagement of sources by Polybius or Livy (more commonly the latter), and various mathematical calculations are made in order to maintain the credibility of certain dates and time periods described by Polybius and Livy, whilst reconciling their inconsistencies and contradictions.

Professional historians do not dismiss Livy’s record as inaccurate or unreliable on account of his credulous citation of supernatural events, nor do they dismiss as unhistorical events which are described using common Greek and Roman literary conventions used in fictional works. They seek harmonization where possible, even to the extent of attributing information to primary sources uncited by either Polybius or Livy.


[1] Goldsworthy, ‘The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 254-146 BC’, pp. 157-158 (2004).

[2] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[3] ‘Meanwhile, for the First Punic War Polybius’ two principal sources were Q. Fabius Pictor (FGrH 809) and Philinus of Agbrigentum (FGrH 174). He found both to be deficient in historical method.’, Muneo, ‘Principal Literary Sources for the Punic Wars (apart from Polybius)’, in Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[4] ‘Polybius also mentions some other Greek sources, many of whom seem to have been pro-Carthaginian. Most such are left unnamed.’, ibid.

[5] Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[6] ‘1. Instead of synthesising all his sources, Livy uses first one, then another, almost fact-for-fact (this theory, is named Nissen’s Law after its inventor, the 19th century German classicist Heinrich Nissen); this methodology leads to all kinds of confusion as Livy repeats events, contradicts himself or, worse, tries to cover up errors he realises he has made earlier. 2. Where he is aware of contradictions in his sources, he often simply gives both; sometimes he says which he prefers, but he seems to use no methodology to evaluate his sources (as Polybius did) – he simply chooses the figure in the middle, or chooses the figure which suits his biases.  3. He seems to have failed to take account of the biases in the sources he was using – e.g. when criticising or praising Roman generals. 4. Carelessness in copying sources – historians have found evidence of mis-copying and mistranslations. He frequently gets dates wrong. 5. ‘Blind patriotism’ towards the Romans, and biases for (e.g. the Scipio family) and against (e.g. the Claudians) certain noble families … which sometimes leads him to distort or blatantly falsify the truth. 6. He often gets his geography wrong … which again sometimes leads to whole stories being repeated. 7. He was woefully ignorant in military matters, yet sometimes chose to contradict Polybius! He tried to simplify battles for his general audience, but made mistakes in doing so because he did not fully understand what was going on. Most of his battles simply recount an orthodox clash of infantry centre and cavalry wings and are describe in traditional/formulaic terms of shouting and slaughter … which Livy then livens up with peripheral details and anecdotes. 8. He had no experience of politics, so ‘the Senate’ occasionally turns up in a stereotyped manner to decide this or enact that, and ‘the People’ react in predictable ways to events; you get no satisfactory analysis of the workings of public opinion or politics from Livy.’, Clare, ‘Hannibal_Livy.doc‘.

[7] ‘Apart from the rare outburst such as 2.21.3-4,  6.1.1-3, and 8.40 where the historian seems to call into question the overall framework and evidentiary basis of Roman history, Livy invariably accepts rather uncritically the fictitiously detailed narratives of his sources, and erects his own probabilistic conclusions upon their unstable foundations.’, Forsythe, ‘Livy and Early Rome: A Study in Historical Method and Judgment’, Historia Einzelschriften 132, pp. 53-54 (1999).

[8] ‘A careful examination of the relevant data clearly demonstrates that Livy’s use of historical probability is in general quite inadequate for the difficult task of critically analyzing the historical traditions of early Rome. On the few occasions on which it is correctly employed, it never goes beyond the application of common sense. Far more frequently, however, Livy erects his conclusions upon dubious premises.’, ibid., pp. 53-54.

[9] ‘Reporting how Scipio Africanus’ first peace treaty with Carthage, in 203, was received by the Senate at Rome, Livy supplies participants with plenty of oratory while insisting that the treaty was rejected, a striking contrast to Polybius’ evidence of ratification – which Livy himself soon afterwards assumes to have happened.’, Hoyos (ed.), ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World, p. 2 (2011).

[10] ‘His account of the climactic battle of Zama, in turn, is bizarrely at odds with Polybius’ which he seems not to understand fully (a Livian hazard also found elsewhere in his work); though it is not as bizarre as that of Appian, who like the epic poet Silius was determined to insert a hand-to-hand joust between the two great generals.’, ibid., p. 2.

[11] Erdkamp, Manpower and Food Supply in the First and Second Punic Wars’, in Hoyos, ‘A Companion to the Punic Wars’, Blackwell Companion of the Ancient World (2011).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Godfrey on Nazareth: defending Rene Salm against the archaeologists

March 3, 2013 33 comments

Skeptical blogger Tim O’Neill has criticized claims by piano teacher Rene Salm that the town of Nazareth did not exist at the time when Jesus is typically understood to have lived. In turn, Neil Godfrey (I previously wrote ‘librarian Neil Godfrey’, but Neil objected to this), has described O’Neill’s criticism as ‘ignorant anti-rationalist nonsense‘, and written a response to O’Neill. This article examines Godfrey’s response to O’Neill.

The literature under discussion

In 2007 the article ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report‘ was published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. This article is also known as the ‘Nazarath Village Farm Report’. In 2008 the Bulletin published Rene Salm’s ‘A Response to ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report’, which criticized the report of Pfann, Voss, and Rapuano.

Salm’s article was accompanied by the article ‘Nazareth Village Farm: A Reply to Salm’ by Ken Dark, ‘On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm’ by Pfann and Rapuano, and a review by Ken Dark of Salm’s book ‘The Myth ofNazareth. The Invented Town of Jesus. Scholar’s Edition’ (2008). Also published in the same edition of the Bulletin was ‘The Nazareth Village Farm Project Pottery (1997–2002): Amendment’, by Rapuano, in which he re-presented the diagrams in the original article, correcting three cases in which diagrams had been misnumbered in the original article. However, Rapuano did not withdraw or alter any of the conclusions he had made in the original report.

Godfrey’s claims: “the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers”

Godfrey’s response to O’Neill opens with this claim.

What Tim O’Neill has done in his attacks on René Salm earlier this year over his claims that there was no village of Nazareth at the time of Jesus is defend the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers.

On what basis does Godfrey make this claim? In his criticism of Salm, O’Neill makes the following statement.

Okay, then let’s actually look at the evidence of archaeologists, then consider the armchair objections of the piano teacher from Oregon named Rene Salm and let objective sceptics decide who is more likely to be correct.

It is O’Neill’s view that professional archaeologists are more likely to be correct in their assessment of archaeological evidence, than a piano teacher.In his criticism of O’Neill, Godfrey mischaracterizes this as “defending the right of academics to make pronouncements of breakthroughs and new discoveries and then say, “Nope, you can’t examine all the details of the data for yourself. I’m a professional! How dare you question my judgements!”“. In fact O’Neill never says anything like this.

Godfrey’s claims: “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”

Godfrey claims that only one of the authors of the Nazareth Village Farm report “is a trained archaeologist”.

The Nazareth Village Farm report was the work of three persons. Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist who, however, customarily works in Judea far to the south.

There is only one archaeologist (Rapuano) whose evidence Salm questions. Later O’Neill will refer to all three authors of the report as “three qualified archaeologists” — unaware, it seems, that only one of the authors has qualifications in archaeology!

One of the authors, Ross Voss, is an archaeologist with “Thirty eight years of archaeological excavation experience“. The other author is Stephen Pfann, whose academic title is “Researcher/Archaeologist University of the Holy Land“. When presented with these facts, Godfrey explained what he had meant.

I made it very clear that there are three archaeologists who wrote the report but that only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology. The other two are not qualified. They have experience, yes, but not qualifications.

This is not what Godfrey said originally. His original claim was that the article was authored by “three persons”, not “three archaeologists”, and he originally said “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”, not “only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology”.

Godfrey further claimed that the experience of the other two authors did not qualify them as archaeologists, and described them as “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true“.

That is exactly the point being addressed by Salm in his SBL paper, isn’t it. Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true and calling themselves archaeologists because they do it all the time — “field experience”. That’s yours and O’Neill’s definition of “qualified archaeologists”???? You are a bunch of clowns!

Godfrey was asked the following questions.

* Could I be clear however on the fact that you are now saying you believe all three authors are archaeologists?

* On what basis did you make your claim that they are not qualified simply because they ‘have experience, yes, but not qualifications’?

Can you provide any evidence that the scholarly community considers either Pfann or Voss to be ‘unqualified’? Do you consider them insufficiently qualified to comment and publish on the subject? If so, please provide your evidence.

Godfrey did not answer. He was also asked these questions.

Does the scholarly community only accept as qualified, those with formal qualifications in archaeology? Does the scholarly community not accept as qualified, those with no formal qualifications in archaeology but decades of field experience, and/or formal teaching positions in the field?

Again Godfrey did not answer, nor did he provide any evidence for his claim that Pfann and Ross are “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true”.

Godfrey’s claims: “he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”

Godfrey writes (O’Neill’s quoted words in italics):

O’Neill then demonstrates that, though he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote, he does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates.

I recalled that [Salm] had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there. I was wrong – Salm is much more intransigent than that.

In this quotation from O’Neill, he does not say or demonstrate that he “only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”; he corrects a previous recollection he had. Nor does this statement demonstrate that O’Neill “does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates”.

Godfrey then claims O’Neill has misunderstood the site of the Nazareth Farm.

He says here that the recently excavated house (of Jesus’ time!) was “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth. And this is from one who is trying to make fun of someone he wants to portray as “an armchair hobbyist”. A simple web search will inform O’Neill that that house is not “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at all. Look on Google maps to see for yourself. For convenience, here is a snapshot from Google Maps where I have pinpointed the approximate areas of the sites under discussion. (Go to “32°42’04.28″ N 35°17’33.78″ E” in Google Maps to explore the area yourself.)  O’Neill has confused the NVF (where no house was excavated) with Yardena Alexandre’s excavation in the immediate area of the Church of the Annunciation.

But O’Neill said no such thing. He said “I recalled that had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there‘” To what does “there” refer? It refers to Nazareth, which is precisely where the recently excavated “Jesus-era house” is located, near the Church of the Annunciation.

Godfrey’s claims: “fabricated fancy”

O’Neill made the observation that “Reading Salm on this subject reminds me of the days, many years ago, when I actually used to bother reading Creationist material so I could debate Creationists”.

Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus, bears many similarities to Creationist classics like Duane Gish’s Evolution? The Fossils Say No!. You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field. You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt. You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud. You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons. And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good. The resemblance is uncanny.

Godfrey responded that “O’Neill’s assertion that Salm’s book has an uncanny resemblance to creationist literature is fabricated fancy. It is a falsehood”, making the following critique of O’Neill’s assertion.

Creationists dispute the interpretation of all the scientists and the science itself. Salm in fact is quoting the archaeological reports and defending published scholarly findings against popular press releases that have overtaken the imaginations of the likes of even Bart Ehrman. Creationists do not publish in scientific journals and prompt amendments to scientific reports. Salm has done exactly that. Salm is not disputing the science or the findings. He is, in fact, sifting the actual data reported and evaluating it against incautious claims and conclusions and pointing to the self-confessed religious and financial biases of some of those responsible for the archaeological reports and popular press releases. He is holding religiously motivated scholars to account for making announcements that go way beyond the actual data published in their reports.

Godfrey’s response here does not address any of the points O’Neill actually raised. Instead of addressing the points of similarity between Creationists and Salm identified by O’Neill, Godfrey lists a series of points of difference. But O’Neill never disputed these points of difference; he identified points of similarity, points which Godfrey never addresses. Here are the similarities O’Neill raised.

1. “You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field.”
2. “You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt.”
3. “You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud.”
4. “You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons.”
5. “And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good.”

Godfrey did not address any of these five points raised by O’Neill. This fact was pointed out to Godfrey in discussion; he did not respond.

Godfrey’s claims: “Tim’s mind”

Godfrey quotes the following statement from O’Neill.

Rapuano expresses himself with the usual caution required of a professional archaeologist, while at the same time giving his trained assessment of their dating provenance.

Godfrey then claims to know that O’Neill actually meant something completely different to what he wrote.

This translates in Tim’s mind into:

When Rapuano says a fragment “could possibly” be from the Hellenistic or early Roman eras, then unless you treat the Hellenistic to early Roman periods as an established fact for that fragment you are being “ludicrous”.

Godfrey’s claim to know O’Neill’s mind in this way is unpersuasive, especially unaccompanied by any evidence. In reality, O’Neill never makes any such statement, or any statement like it.

Godfrey’s claims: “he has had to depart from the standard reference”

Godfrey represents Salm’s argument thus.

What Salm argues is that where Rapuano provides external support for his assessment the fragments can as well be dated to after 70 CE (the fall of Jerusalem) as before it.

He then claims Rapuano “attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently”.

Rapuano clearly did not dismiss this criticism as easily as O’Neill did, since he attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently. New parallel comparisons are introduced to support some of the claims, but to do so he has had to depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating and resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources. He has also turned to Fernandez who, Salm shows in his book, consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale. Tim O’Neill does not question any of this. Rapuano has spoken: pottery “may be”, “could be” Hellenistic or Early Roman (compare Fernandez!), so O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman.

There are several problems with this paragraph of Godfrey’s. Firstly, Godfrey provides no evidence that any such “deficiency” actually existed, still less that Rapuano “attempted to correct” it; no evidence is provided for Salm’s assertion. Secondly, Godfrey provides no evidence for the claim that in introducing “New parallel comparisons” Rapuano had to “depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating” or that Rapuano had to “resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources”.

Thirdly, Godfrey repeats (without substantiation), Salm’s claim that Fernandez (a source cited by Rapuano), “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”.  Although Godfrey gives the impression Rapauno is relying significantly on Fernandez, in fact Rapuano only cites Fernandez with regard to ten artefacts out of a total of 77,[1] and only on five of those occasions is Fernandez the only source cited.[2]

Six out of the ten date ranges cited from Fernandez start within the first century,[3] but in only three of those cases does Fernandez give a date range which ends inside the first century.[4] On two occasions the date range given by Fernandez is within the same range given by another source,[5] [6] and on one occasion the date range given by Fernandez is later than the date given by another source.[7] There is certainly no evidence here that Fernandez “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”.

Finally, Godfrey provides no evidence for his claim that O’Neill “O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman”. O’Neill never says any such thing, or anything like it.

Godfrey’s claims: “a misreading of much of Salm’s original article”

Godfrey objects to Ken Dark’s review of Salm’s critique of the Nazareth Farm Report as ‘a misreading of much of Salm’s original article’, but does not provide evidence for this claim. He represents Dark as saying “Now it’s your job to ignore those words of caution and defer to his other words as dogma! And no, you can’t examine the evidence more closely for yourself”, but does not provide any evidence for this either. Dark does not actually say any such thing.

Godfrey’s claims: “absence of evidence is evidence”

Returning to O’Neill’s response, Godfrey makes the following claim.

O’Neill then repeats Bart Ehrman’s argument that absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves. (He makes up an imaginative scenario to account for this — a very poor city gradually grew richer and richer till there were rich people’s tombs there.)

O’Neill did not argue that “absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves”. What O’Neill says is this.

As I note above, settlements established enough to sustain families who can have rock-cut kokhim built for them don’t pop up out of nothing. They grow from smaller, poorer, earlier settlements. So the kokhim on their own imply a smaller, poorer, earlier settlement on the site. And that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate, both by their nature (low status items, roughly made), their distribution and their number. We know there was a larger, richer town there later, the evidence indicates that clearly too.

This is not an argument based on the absence of evidence, it is an argument based on evidence, specifically “rock-cut kokhim” (a tomb cut out of the rock). O’Neill’s argument is that the presence of these tombs is evidence that there were families wealthy enough to sustain them. Additionally he points out that such wealthy families “don’t pop up out of nothing”, but are the result of “smaller, poorer, earlier settlements” developing. He does not basis this on the absence of evidence either, but states specifically “that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate”. O’Neill’s argument is based firmly on the archaeological record.

Godfrey’s claims: “Presumably O’Neill concludes”

Godfrey makes another assertion about O’Neill’s argument, without actually quoting O’Neill.

O’Neill then claims that the abundance of springs in the region is evidence that it must have been settled. People would loved to have set up home around springs. Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ.

Turning to what O’Neill actually wrote, we find that it is not what Godfrey claimed.

Zvi Gal’s Lower Galilee in the Iron Age (Eisenbrauns, 1992) notes that the site would have been attractive precisely because of its abundance of springs:The area around the city (of Nazareth) consists of limestone formation. There are several springs within this small Nazareth valley. The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods.(Z. Gal, p. 15)

It can be seen that O’Neill does not present an argument he has made himself. On the contrary, he quotes archaeologist Zvi Gal saying “The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods”. Godfrey’s claim that “Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ” is completely baseless; O’Neill never said anything like this.

Godfrey’s claims: “O’Neill uncritically parrots”

Godfrey misrepresents O’Neill again in his next paragraph.

Finally, O’Neill uncritically parrots the popular press reports of Yardenna Alexandre claiming that archaeologists have uncovered tombs in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. He needs to read a bit more widely, including Salm’s book (that he claims to have read). He would know of a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen. He would know (does Alexandre know?) the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem.

Leaving aside the fact that O’Neill was not actually parroting a news report (he did not quote from any news report at all, but from a report by the Israeli Antiquities Authority), Godfrey does not say why he uses the phrase “uncritically parrots” to describe O’Neill citing an event which has actually taken place; the popular press did report what Yardenna Alexandre said. Citing an event which has actually taken place by referring to news reports which describe the event taking place, is not uncritical parroting; it is simply mentioning an event which has happened, and citing the source which reported the event happening.

The news report to which Godfrey linked opens with the words “Archaeologists in Israel say they have discovered the remains of a home from the time of Jesus in the heart of Nazareth”, and contains a statement from Yardenne Alexandre saying “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period”.

In criticism of Alexandre’s statement, Godfrey cites what he claims is “a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen“. This work is actually a volume in the series Vorderasien (‘Western Asia”); the title translated into English is “Palestine in Greek and Roman Times”. It is also entirely in German.

It is unclear whether or not Godfrey has ever actually read this work, or whether or not he can even read German. He provides no evidence for his claim that this work “has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years”, nor does he provide any evidence for what he says is “the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem”. Although he implies such evidence is in the German book he cites, he is not explicit on this point.

Although he seems to want to give the impression that “Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit” contains “persuasive evidence” that the tombs did not appear in Galilee as early as in Jerusalem, and that this has become an influential position, he does not actually explain precisely what he does mean, nor does he present any evidence for his statements. It is possible he has borrowed information from another source which he does not identify, and either cited it uncritically without verification, or used it to make an argument of his own. He certainly does not present any evidence that this book published in 1990 disproves Alexandre’s statement that “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth”.

Godfrey’s claims: “How it works”

At the end of his article Godfrey claims ” the authors of the Nazareth Farm Report do not yield sufficient information for anyone to assess their conclusions critically”. He presents no evidence for this claim. He also says “to say someone is a lunatic for not deferring to the authority of a researcher until that researcher makes the evidence available for checking is simply trying to intimidate and shut down questioning through intellectual bullying”, but never identifies anyone who has actually ever said such a thing.

Godfrey concludes thus.

Oh yes, there are about ten pottery fragments that Rapuano’s amended report that to the time of “Jesus” (Hellenistic to first century CE). Salm points out that Rapuano uses early, inapplicable Judean parallels for these. No doubt when Rapuano publishes a more detailed book explaining the data in detail people who like to understand the evidence (who are not satisfied simply to defer to academic authority without any thought that they should demonstrate accountability) will be keen to study the details of these ten fragments.

Godfrey gives the impression that it was only in Rapuano’s “amended report” that he cited any pottery fragments dating to “the time of “Jesus””. However, the original Nazareth Farm Report says clearly that in Area A-2 “many potsherds with the typical ribbing of the Early to Late Roman Period were found” (page 28). Salm made note of this in his reply (page 97), specifically because he wished to challenge the Early Roman Period dating (which overlaps with the time of Jesus).

Godfrey has overlooked Salm’s own count of eleven fragments in the original Nazareth Farm Report which are presented as dating to the time of Jesus; “the totality of the NVFR evidence for a pre-70CE Nazareth rests on eleven small pottery sherds” (page 101). If Godfrey had read Rapuano’s amendment (I asked him if he had read it, but he did not reply), he would have seen Raupano “explaining the data in detail”, just as he requires.


[1] Once on pages 114, 116, twice on page 118, once on pages 120 and 121, three times on 122, once on page 123.

[2] Once on pages 118, 120, 121, twice on page 122.

[3] Pages 114, 116, 118, 120, 121, 122.

[4] Pages 114, 120, 121.

[5] “Diez-Fernandez T 1.3 dated 45 BCE – 48 CE; Stepanski Romana 2002: 112, Fig. 7:11, dated mid 1st cent. BCE to mid 1st cent. CE”, page 114.

[6] “Meyers, Kraabel and Strange 1976: 220-222, jars Form T1 Pl. 7.20:15, dated 3rd cent. to early 5th cent. CE; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T 1.7:77 dated 212-240 CE”, page 118.

[7] “possibly Stepanski Romana 2002:111, Fig. 6:16, dated end of 1st cent. to mid first 3rd. cent. CE, possibly Meyers Kraabel and Strange 1976: 205-207, Fig. 18, 4th-early 5th; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T.21.3 (175-300 CE)”, page 123.

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (9)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Carrier defends Murdock on the canon

In his book (p. 24), Ehrman made the following response to a claim by DM Murdock (writing under the pseudonym ‘Archarya S’), concerning the canon of the New Testament (Murdock’s claim is in quotation marks, “” and Ehrman’s comments follow in square brackets, []):

Bart Ehrman: ―”It took well over a thousand years to canonize the New Testament,” and ―”many councils” were needed to differentiate the inspired from the spurious books (31). [Actually, the first author to list our canon of the New Testament was the church father Athanasius in the year 367; the comment about ―many councils‖ is simply made up.]

Carrier objected to Ehrman’s statement, charging him with error:

Richard Carrier: (1) Ehrman’s statement that there weren’t “many councils” to decide the NT canon is, read literally, false. There were in fact several councils ruling on the canon, and indeed the canon was never truly settled until the 16th century. Someone who tutored under Metzger, who extensively documented these facts, should know that. I can only assume he meant to say that the canon proposed by Athanasius in 367 (in a letter, not a council ruling) was repeatedly affirmed by every subsequent council convened to decide on the canon (although the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it). Acharya’s own characterization of the matter might also be accused of being misleading. But Ehrman’s wording is going to seriously mislead and misinform the public even more, not only as to the actual history of the canon, but also as to Acharya’s knowledge of the facts.

Carrier’s claim that ‘the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it’ is a non sequitur; the conclusion does not follow logically from the premise. He fails to take into account the fact that church councils often re-affirmed the decisions of previous councils regardless of whether the points affirmed were under challenge. He provides no evidence for his claim, and the facts are to the contrary.

When challenged on this point by a respondent on his blog, Carrier gave a response including the the following claim:

Richard Carrier: Your facts also don’t quite agree with what is stated in Metzger’s Formation of the New Testament Canon. You might want to do more homework on this.

This response appears authoritative on the surface, but on closer inspection it is transparently a bluff. Carrier makes a vague reference to Metzger (a recognized scholar on the history of the New Testament text), but fails to actually address any of the points raised by the respondent, and does not cite or quote any specific statements by Metzger relevant to the point under discussion. The reality is that Carrier has no answer to the challenge raised by his respondent, and is hoping that a casual reference to Metzger will convince them that they are wrong. This attempt at evasion is not the response of someone confident in a knowledge of the facts.

Additionally, Carrier’s reference to the work ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ is problematic, since he attributes this work to Metzger. There is a book entitled ‘The Formation of the New Testament Canon: an ecumenical approach’ (1983), by Farmer and Farkasfalvy, and another book by entitled ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ (1965), by Robert Grant, but Metzger did not make any contributions to either book. Carrier did not provide any details which would help identify specifically the work to which he was referring.

Metzger’s own work on the formation of the New Testament canon is entitled ‘The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance’ (1997), and when we examine what Metzger actually says in that book, we find nothing supportive of Carrier’s claims. Metzger does not say that numerous councils were held to decide on the canon. On the contrary, he notes that the canon suggested by Athanasius was promoted by Augustine in three provincial synods, all of which re-affirmed the canon of Athanasius.

Bruce Metzger: It was Augustine who, in three provincial synods, cast his weight for the twenty-seven books which we know as the Christian Scriptures. These synods were held, one of them in Hippo in A.D. 393, one in Carthage in 397, and the last of them again in Carthage in 419. The opening words of the statute on the canon are straightforward and forthright: ‘Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of the divine Scriptures.’ Then there follows an enumeration of the canonical Scriptures. The order of the New Testament books is Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, James, Jude, the Revelation of John. The only difference to be noted in the reiteration of the statute is that, in the synods of 393 and 397, the phrase runs, ‘Thirteen Epistles of Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, by the same’, whereas the statute of 419 reads, ‘Fourteen Epistles of Paul’. (See Appendix IV. 12 below.)

Twenty-seven books, no more, and no less, is henceforth the watchword throughout the Latin Church.

None of the councils cited here by Metzger were held to determine the canon, they simply re-affirmed the canon as they addressed other issues. The 393 CE synod of Hippo was a general annual synod, the 397 CE synod of Carthage was a general synod addressing issues from the transfer of clerics between churches to the reconciliation of repentant actors (it states explicitly that it is simply confirming the canon already received), and the 419 CE synod of Carthage was held specifically to address appeals to Rome.

Metztger notes that this did not settle the issue of the canon once and for all in every Christian community, and does note that differences over the canon continued to be raised occasionally.

Bruce Metzger: Yet it would be a mistake to represent the question of the canon as finally settled in all Christian communities by the beginning of the fifth century.

Bruce Metzger: Thus, despite the influence of Jerome and Augustine and the pronouncements of three provincial synods, more than once in the following centuries we come upon evidence of divergences in the canon, either by way of addition or subtraction.

Nevertheless, Metzger provides no support for Carrier’s defense of Murdock’s claim that there were ‘many councils’ held to decide the New Testament canon.

Godfrey and Ehrman: the historical Jesus (2)

June 30, 2012 2 comments

Ehrman’s representation of Wells

Neil Godfrey charges Ehrman with misrepresenting the views of Wells so completely that it is not possible that Ehrman has even read the pages of Wells’ work that he cites.

Neil Godfrey: Bart Ehrman has indignantly declared he read all of the books he discusses in his book Did Jesus Exist? How, then, could he possibly have confused the mythicist argument of Wells with that of Doherty. The two are opposed to each other. But Ehrman appears to have picked up a garbled account and attributed half of Doherty’s argument to Wells!

Neil Godfrey: Ehrman is writing outright disinformation about Wells’ argument. Ehrman cannot possibly have read the pages in Wells’ book that he cites.

Godfrey’s claim is directed very specifically towards this paragraph by Ehrman.

Bart Ehrman: Instead, Wells contends, Paul understood Jesus to have been a supernatural being who lived in utter obscurity some 150 years or so earlier, who was crucified not by the Romans but by the demonic forces in the world.

Let’s put this paragraph of Ehrman’s next to Wells’ own words, as quoted by Godfrey himself.

* Ehrman: ‘Wells contends Paul understood Jesus to have been a supernatural being
* Wells: ‘Paul believed in a supernatural Jesus

* Ehrman: ‘who lived in utter obscurity
* Wells: ‘he was convinced that Jesus lived an obscure life on earth’

* Ehrman: ‘who was crucified not by the Romans but by the demonic forces in the world.’
* Wells: ‘who assumed human flesh and was crucified on earth at the instigation of supernatural powers

Godfrey claims that Ehrman ‘is writing outright disinformation about Wells’ argument”, and ‘cannot possibly have read the pages in Wells’ book that he cites’. Readers may decide for themselves if the evidence supports Godfrey’s claims.

Godfrey and Ehrman: the historical Jesus (1)

Erhman’s citation of Doherty

Neil Godfrey (owner of Vridar, a blog promoting the Mytherist view of Jesus), claims Ehrman made a ‘hostile error‘ in stating that Earl Doherty ‘speaks of a single ancient view of the universe’ in his book ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’ (2009):

Neil Godfrey: Either way, Ehrman has clearly done nothing better than skim Doherty’s book(s) and demonstrated he has not read the arguments he claims to be reviewing. Otherwise there is no way he could have made such a hostile error as to claim Doherty speaks of a single ancient view of the universe.

Contrast Godfrey’s claim with the following statements made by Doherty in his book.

1. ‘So much of the ancient view of things was determined by myth because that was essentially all they had.”, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 11 (2009).

2. ‘Part Four, “A World of Myth and Savior Gods” (chapters 10 to 14), enters the multi-layered universe of the ancients. It will examine their view that a vast unseen dimension lay above the earth, where all sorts of supernatural proceedings took place among gods and spirits.’, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 14 (2009).

3. ‘Ancient philosophy as a whole, its view of the universe and of God, was the product of purely intellectual contemplation.’, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 83 (2009).

4. ‘We will address the specific point about “being in the flesh” in a separate chapter to follow. But the question of heavenly trees and ground gets to the heart of the present matter, as an expression of modern literality and the inability to comprehend the ancient mind’s view of the universe.’, Doherty, ‘Jesus – Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus’, p. 150 (2009).

Godfrey claims it is a ‘hostile error’ to claim Doherty speaks of a single ancient view of the universe. Yet there are four clear statements in Doherty’s book in which he does exactly that; ‘the ancient view [singular] of things’ (p. 11), their view [singular] that’ (p. 14), ‘view [singular] of the universe’ (p. 83), ‘the ancient mind’s view [singular] of the universe’ (p. 150).

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (7)

May 25, 2012 3 comments

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Pilate: prefect, procurator, or both?

Carrier claims Ehrman was wrong to say Roman historian Tacitus committed an error by referring to Pontius Pilate as a procurator, instead of a prefect”:

Richard Carrier: This betrays ignorance of the fact that provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators, and from his treatment of the scandal of this fact throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact here (see my discussion in Herod the Procurator, particularly the section “So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?”). In other words, Pontius Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect. And the recent literature on the subject confirms this, as would any consultation with an expert in Tacitus or Roman imperial administration.

In Carrier’s paper (to which he linked), there is a single brief section covering a few pages (pages 33-36), in which he discusses whether procurators could be appointed prefects simultaneously. This does not address directly the question of whether or not Pilate was a prefect who was also appointed procurator.

Responding to Ehrman, Carrier claimed ‘The view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted (most conclusively by the work of Fergus Millar’. Reading Carrier’s paper, we find reference to two papers by Millar, one published in 1964, the other published in 1965. Did Millar indeed refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, as Carrier claims?

One commentator has examined Carrier’s claim by reading Millar’s work. He concludes that Carrier has misread Millar:

In Millar 1964, he says plainly on p. 181:

“It is clear that such procurators [sc. governing small provinces], originally called praefecti, exercised a criminal and civil jurisdiction in their areas, which was equivalent to that of senatorial governors, except in that it was only in special cases that they possessed the ius gladii.” (Millar 1964: 181).

He is clear that procurators who were governors of minor provinces were originally called prefects (praefecti in Latin), and Millar (1964: 181, n. 9) cites A. H. M. Jones’s Studies in Roman Government and Law (Oxford, 1960), and does not engage in any refutation of this idea. The rest of the article is an interpretation of Tacitus, Annales 12.60, and Millar argues that it refers to Claudius’s granting of increased jurisdictional power to those procurators who managed imperial properties, a different type of procurator from the type who governed small provinces.

In addition, Millar (1965) simply adds more evidence to the case that Tacitus, Annales 12.60 refers to the authority of procurators of imperial properties: there is no refutation of the view that Claudius changed the official titles of the minor equestrian or freedmen provincial governors from prefect to procurator.

Not only does Carrier fail to demonstrate that Millar refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, he has failed to realise that Millar never says anything against the view. On the contrary, Millar states specifically that the procurators to which he refers were ‘originally called praefecti‘, and attributes the change of authority to Claudius, the very opposite of what Carrier says.

Carrier’s statement that ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted’ rests on his citation of a single author writing over 50 years ago (Millar), who did not say what Carrier claims; in fact Millar said the opposite.

When this evidence from Millar’s own work was presented to Carrier on his blog, he gave the following enigmatic reply:

Richard Carrier: Millar 1965, pp. 364-65: “The legal evidence shows clearly that procurators never had a recognised right to exercise criminal jurisdiction.”

See also P. A. Brunt, “Procuratorial Jurisdiction,” Latomus 25.3 (July-September 1966): 461-89, with my analysis in Herod, pp. 34-35 (and in context, pp. 29-36.

This fails completely to address any of the points raised; it certainly presents no evidence that Millar conclusively refuted the ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator’.

In response to Carrier, Ehrman commented that he had subsequently consulted a scholar of Roman history who indicated that Carrier was wrong, quoting ‘Prosopography of the Roman Empire‘ as evidence (‘PP’ in the following quotation refers to ‘Pontius Pilate’):

PP could just as well have had the title procurator, but evidently he didn’t … PIR (ed. 2, 1998) P 815 sums it up neatly: “praeses Iudaeae ordinis equestris usque ad Claudii tempora non procurator, sed praefectus fuit….” [This comes from the Prosopographia Imperii Romani (i.e., The Prosopography of the Roman Empire); I translate the Latin as follows: “Up until the time of Claudius [i.e., 41-54 CE], the provincial governor of Judea, a man of the equestrian order, was not a procurator but a prefect.

Carrier replied with the assertion that this source was outdated:

Richard Carrier: …contrary to what Ehrman’s quotation might seem to suggest, the PIR his colleague translates the Latin of on this point is a modern source, not an ancient one, and thus represents an outdated scholarly assumption and not what anyone in antiquity actually said…

The commentator I quoted previously corrects Carrier on this point:

The most recent edition of Prosopographia Imperii Romani saec. I. II. III. (2nd edn. part 6; eds. Leiva Petersen and Klaus Wachtel; De Gruyter, Berlin, 1998), revised in the 1990s, is quite clear that Pilate carried the title praefectus (PIR [2nd ed.] part. 6, no. 815, p. 348), on the basis of the Pilate inscription (see Année Epigraphique 1963 no. 104).

This source is not “outdated,” but represents the opinion of scholars from the 1990s, who had updated an earlier edition of the work.

Indeed, scholarly works written as recently as 2008 say either Tacitus made a mistake, or he was speaking proleptically.[1] [2] [3] [4] As the commentator quoted previously notes, this does not appear to be an outdated view ‘long since refuted’ as Carrier claimed:

In short, I see no evidence at all that the “view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted.”

Rather, the view that, from the reign of Claudius, the equestrian governors who were called prefects (or praefecti in Latin) were now called procurators appears to be the common opinion: it is held by Syme (1962: 92), Jones (1960: 124), Weaver (1972: 267-268), Garnsey and Saller (1987: 23), B. Levick (Levick 2001: 48) in her biography of the emperor Claudius, and Schäfer (2003: 105).

In his paper, Carrier makes the argument that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake, but that Pilate was a procurator as well as a prefect. In support, Carrier cites Philo and Josephus referring to Pilate as a procurator (neither of them refer to him as a prefect).

However, standard scholarship on the subject understands Philo, Josephus, and Tacitus as adopting the new terminology established during the reign of Claudius after 41 CE, since all of them were writing after this date and since the only epigraphical evidence for Pilate (dated no later than 36 CE, before Claudius), identifies him as a prefect, but not as a procurator.[5] [6]

Carrier does not mention any of this scholarship. Nor does he cite any scholars saying that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake and wasn’t writing proleptically, except for himself.


[1] ‘Certain minor imperial provinces had equestrian governors, who were known first as prefects but from the time of Claudius as procurators (e.g., Pontius Pilate in Judaea; 15.44.3). Claudius evidently assigned certain judicial functions too to procurators, but T.’s report is unclear (12.60).’, Woodman, ‘The Annals’, pp. 359-360 (2004).

[2] ‘Pilate was appointed under Tiberius, and an inscription from Caesarea mentions his activities in regard to a Tiberieion (or imperial cult sanctuary to Tiberius). The text also gives his correct title as praefectus rather than procurator.’, Galinsky, ‘The Cambridge Companion To The Age Of Augustus’, p. 378 (2005).

[3] ‘Since Coponius was apparently dispatched as a prefect (praefectus, eparxos), Josephus’ nomenclature here seems incorrect, though the same problem is found in Tacitus (e.g. Ann. 15.44 on Pilate).’, Mason & Chapman, ‘Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Judean war’, p. 80 (2008).

[4] ‘Pilate actually held the lesser rank of prefect in Judea, something that Tacitus, who had access to the official records at Rome’s Tabularium and frequently quoted from them in his Annals, should have known.’, Dando-Collins, ‘The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City’, p. 8 (2010).

[5] ‘However, a fragment of a Latin inscription found in Caesarea gives Pilate the title “prefect”. This supports the deduction made from other evidence, most of it epigraphic, that up to the reign of Claudius, though the terminology was still fluid, the normal title for an equestrian provincial governor was “prefect”, and “procurator” must now be reserved for the governors of Judaea after 44.’, Smallwood, ‘The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian : A Study in Political Relations’, p. 145 (2001).

[6] ‘This change in title under Claudius goes a long way in explaining the confusion of the principal literary texts here. Philo, Josephus, the NT and Tacitus refer to various governors as eparxos (praefectus), epitropos (procurator), and hegemwn (governor), apparently indiscriminately.’, Bond, ‘Pontius Pilate In History And Interpretation’, p. 12 (2004).