Friday, February 18, 2011

Debating the Idiots, Part 1

A couple of years back I engaged in a debate with Frank Zindler on on the subject of the existence of Jesus. Zindler left fairly quickly, and I left shortly thereafter, though for reasons not apparent: For reasons still not clear to me, I was never able to post my answers directly on the site, and had to ask staff there to do it for me. Whether it was because of browser issues or something else was never determined, but I decided it was unfair to burden the staff there any further.

But anyway, now that I have the Forge to fill, I figure this will be a good place to check back on some of the comments that have been left over the past two years, and get back up to speed.

In particular, there was an opponent styled “spin” on there who made some particularly ridiculous arguments, and for our first entry in this series, let’s look at one of his treatments of Tacitus. You’ll need to follow the full debate from the start at the link below, going to the section indicated, to get the full context.

There is no pleasing Mr Holding. He refuses to consult the original text, preferring to rely on appeals to authority. When one supplies even one reference for him to read, specifically on the issue of how Tacitus indirectly develops his criticism of his subjects, Mr Holding denies the value of secondary sources. No, wait, that's not correct: he doesn't really mind appeals to secondary sources. He simply claims that I haven't read mine, so that he doesn't need to either. He has dug his hole of appeal to authority and now he is trying to claw his way out with a no-holds-barred "it's not me appealing to authority, it's you" argument, while finishing his argument with "not one such authority thinks that Tacitus did not author the full text of Annals 15.44". One cannot take this gormlessness seriously.

Indeed one cannot. Nothing spin offers here described anything I did at all. I consulted both text and authorities. I never said I did not need to read a secondary source, either, but it became quite clear that spin had not previously read his – Ryberg – for it said nothing contrary to what I actually said.

Ryberg, in the article I cited, deals with Tacitus' technique, saying "It is by various devices of his style that Tacitus was able to make good his claim of writing, in the accepted historical tradition, sine ira et studio [=impartially], and yet to leave etched on the reader's mind an ineradicable impression of tyranny and oppression..." She is dealing with what Tacitus says about Tiberius, but the technique reflects the author rather than the subject. Tacitus avoids "direct accusations of crime": he "stops short of a direct charge, and yet spares the emperor nothing of the burden of guilt." (Ryberg, op.cit. p.384.)

It is hard to see what spin was trying to prove here, since I never disputed any of this and it plays no part in my case for Tacitus as a reliable reference for Jesus. This is how spin…er, spun it as though it were:

A grasp of how Tacitus proceeded is essential to understanding the passage we are considering. Mr Holding would like readers to believe that the fanciful description of the persecution of christians tacked onto the end of the historian's masterful attack on Nero -- a description that takes the reader's mind off Nero while still dealing with the fire he has indicted Nero for --, was actually written by Tacitus. Unwilling to accept that Tacitus knew what he was doing in his proceeding against Nero, Mr Holding has no problem with one of the most highly reputed orators of his time fumbling his finish. Even Mr Holding likes a big finish: "In any event, not one such authority thinks that Tacitus did not author the full text of Annals 15.44." This is little league acknowledging the big league of course, but it's a big finish for Mr Holding (no bars held).

But as I pointed out even before this, there’s nothing in Annals 15.44 to validate the description of the side note about Jesus as something that would “take the reader’s mind” off Nero – the only way that could happen is if the reader were exceptionally afflicted with attention deficit disorder, which may perhaps explain a number of spin’s postings. This is especially the case since Tacitus returns to the subject of what Nero was doing immediately, and then a mere sentence or so later turns to the topic of how badly the Roman economy was doing. So did Tacitus “fumble” with that subject change and cause the reader for “get their mind off” Nero?

As it is, there is no warrant to describe Tacitus as “fumbling his finish.” It might be added that in ancient writing, there were no paragraph spaces, lines, or other breaks, so reader concentration would hardly be broken by such things in the first place: To read a text required much greater concentration, and indeed, reading aloud was necessary to keep on pace.

Mr Holding has difficulties with my referring to the lusty descriptions of the treatment of the christian martyrs as "salacious materials", being torn apart by dogs or lighting up the night sky, stuff that mightn't be expected from the taciturn Tacitus but juice for Suetonius, or, better, for martyr-story hungry christians. I take this as a complaint about my use of "salacious" and I thank Mr Holding for his efforts at improving my writing technique.

Well, whatever that’s supposed to mean, though I gather it is supposed to suggest that Tacitus never reported anything spin would call “salacious” which in turn supports the idea that Annals 15.44 is a Christian forgery. This argument is obviously untrue even in Annals 15 just a few lines after the reference to Christus:

At the close of the year people talked much about prodigies, presaging impending evils. Never were lightning flashes more frequent, and a comet too appeared, for which Nero always made propitiation with noble blood. Human and other births with two heads were exposed to public view, or were discovered in those sacrifices in which it is usual to immolate victims in a pregnant condition. And in the district of Placentia, close to the road, a calf was born with its head attached to its leg. Then followed an explanation of the diviners, that another head was preparing for the world, which however would be neither mighty nor hidden, as its growth had been checked in the womb, and it had been born by the wayside.

So apparently, while a two headed monstrosity and human sacrifice wasn’t too salacious for Tacitus, being torn apart by dogs was. Makes sense to me.

Ryberg describes Tacitus as stopping short of a direct criminal charges, but here in 15.44 Mr Holding accepts that he does make a charge: "a false accusation by Nero against Christians". If we are to trust Ryberg's analysis, this is out of character for Tacitus.

Um, last I checked, though, making a false accusation isn’t a criminal charge, especially when the one making the accusation is an emperor who can accuse whoever he bloody well pleases. So there’s nothing “out of character for Tacitus” by this reckoning.
So there you have it. You can see the kind of quality opposition I had over there, can’t you?

The comments are located here; for this one, look for the section, "Tacitus: A Reliable Reference to Jesus."


  1. Hmm. Hadn't heard of him before this. Looks like a bit of a whack job.

  2. He posts at FRDB. See this thread, for example:

    Would you consider going over there and showing him up?

  3. Can't do that, no...I have an agreement only to post at TheologyWeb.

    I noted that the thread also had Stephen Huller, Earl Doherty, and Doug Shaver in it. Talk about a can of nuts.

  4. Since you posted at OV, I assumed you weren't confined to TWeb. Okay.

  5. I don't consider OV a forum of that sort since my participation there was limited to a specific topic and time period. TWeb and FRDB are more open and varied.