By David Russell
Welcome back to the Union blog. In this addition, we will begin to examine early sources and evidence that point to whether Jesus is a myth or a man. In the last article, we talked about some of those sources including Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Josephus. These sources are considered “hostile” sources because they discuss Christianity in an opposition sort of way.
One of the biggest arguments mythicist put forth is that there is no actual independent evidence for Jesus actually existing. So, in this article, we are going to examine the independent evidence of Pliny the Younger coupled with what the mythicist have to say about him. Let’s dive in.
Pliny the Younger, is considered the earliest Pagan to mention “Christ” and Christians.
“Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo(61 – c. 113), better known as Pliny the Younger(/ˈplɪni/), was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him” (Wikipedia)
In the early second century Pliny wrote to emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians. The letter reads:
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
The mythicist claim a few things about this letter ranging from interpolation, forgery, Christ as a title (not referring to an actual person), and early Christians having a “hand me down kind of faith.” But does this best explain the data? Most historians hold to a method to best explain whether or not something is historical. These criteria are: 1. Explanatory scope. 2. Explanatory power. 3. Plausibility. 4. Not adhoc. 5. In accordance with accepted belief. 6. Out strips competing hypotheses.
With this in mind, let’s examine the mythicist claims. There are ten books containing letters from Pliny, most historians think they are authentic. Pliny was a prolific writer and had a wide range of styles. However, there has been debate about interpolations about book ten, the one containing the letter above. Over the years, the debates have always ruled in opposition to interpolation. Recently though, this debate has resurfaced. In 2016, a stylometric analysis done by Enrico Tuccinardi, raised this question yet again. What it told us was the same, that there where stylistic differences in book ten and the conclusion he suggests is interpolation.
But in examining critiques of his method, I have found that his method of stylometric analysis is in its infancy and should be taken with caution. This is not to say his conclusion is false, but it is to say, that we have to examine other lines of evidence to see if it holds up.
In my research, I still have confidence in its authenticity and here’s why:
1. Pliny lived in a time where the educational system trained and valued the ability to vary your writing style and imitate that of another’s. This you found all through out book ten in different Latin styles, forms, and topics. It is also known that Pliny edited his own letters before publication. (Information gleaned from Fredrico Gamberini and Larry Hurtado)
2. We have six folios of Pliny’s letters from the fifth century surviving today in the Pierpont Morgan Museum in New York. Which curiously contain, according to Roger Pearse “one of the indices (to Book 3) which are a special feature of the Ten-Book tradition”
3. Tertullian references the letter which provides a truly early source. Not to mention we have Trajan reply.
4. Finally on interpolations Hurtado says it best. “Further, if there are interpolations in a given text (not an impossibility by any means), it is crucial that they be specified (which Tuccinardi says that he can’t do). This is usually done by identifying anachronisms, or other irregularities that raise our suspicions about this or that bit of a text.” So, we don’t even know if there are any? Or which are interpolations. So there is no actual evidence.
All this leads me to believe that this is not an interpolation. As far as a forgery, this to has been debunked over the years by some of the aforementioned evidence in regards to interpolation. But more so, we see that Pliny describes the first and early second century well. He recorded in detail the eruption of Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. Recent radiometric dating confirms Pliny’s date and scientist say his description of the volcano plume, matches the type Vesuvius was.
So, to examine the rest of the claims let’s move on to what Pliny has to say about the Christians. One section here, is critical in establishing my point. The mention of singing hymns to Christ as to a god.
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god,”
Does this mesh to the notions that Christians has a hand me down faith? Maybe, but it’s early enough to say, due to the distinction of Christ as to a god, to postulate that the hymn was sung to an actual person. These early Christians believed that Christ was an actual man. We also see them worshiping him as deity.
To the last point, is it plausible that this mention is just a title of a mythic deity? That this name could apply to any messianic figure or mythological spirit being? This claim we will cover, in another cumulative case, as we examine the rest of our sources. But for now, we can claim that this reference matches with what we know about early Christianity. It is not unfamiliar to to refer to a person by their title. This is evident in history with people like Cesar or Genghis Khan. By this time, Jesus was known as Christ even in the epistles. The name stuck. To claim it’s some mystery guy would be as bad as saying each gospel was talking about another man named Jesus because it was a common name. We can also say, that this is in reference to a man. Christ is a direct play on the Jewish Messiah and no matter what the mythicist thinks, all Jews believed that the messiah would be an actual man.
In conclusion, I think we are well beyond reason to say that Pliny is a good independent source. Although a kind of sad letter, it’s one that we can rely on. We can see early persecution and martyrdom and that Jesus was considered divine. In our next addition, we will cover Tacitus and his Annals. Until then, God bless you all.