Comparing the Writings of Tacitus with the Gospels

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Tacitus

Conservative Christian apologists will often argue that the authorship of the Gospels should be examined no differently than the writings of other authors from Antiquity, in particular, the writings attributed to Tacitus.  Like the Gospels, no where in the writings of Tacitus does the author identify himself by name.  Conservative Christian apologists argue that if we accept the traditional authorship of Tacitus for these writings, then we should be consistent and accept the traditional authorship of the Gospels.  The problem with this logic is:  the evidence says otherwise.  Read below.

Excerpt from an article by Matthew Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in Classics:

Coming from my academic background in Classics, I have the advantage of critically studying not only the Gospels of the New Testament, but also other Greek and Latin works from the same period. In assessing the evidence for the Gospels versus other ancient texts, it is clear to me that the majority opinion in the scholarly community is correct in its assessment that the traditional authorial attributions are spurious. To illustrate this, I will compare the evidence for the Gospels’ authors with that of a secular work, namely Tacitus’ Histories. Through looking at some of the same criteria that we can use to evaluate the authorial attributions of ancient texts, I will show why scholars have many good reasons to doubt the authors of the Gospels, while being confident in the authorship of a more solid tradition, such as what we have for a historical author like Tacitus.

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How do we determine the authors of ancient texts?

There is no single “one-size-fits-all” methodology that can be used for every single ancient text. We literally have thousands of different texts that have come down to us from antiquity, and each has its own unique textual-critical situation. There are some general guidelines that can be applied broadly across all traditions, however, from which more specific guidelines can further be derived when assessing a particular tradition.

Scholars generally look for both internal and external evidence when determining the author of an ancient text.

The internal evidence consists of whatever evidence we have within a given text. This can include the author identifying himself, mentioning persons and events that he witnessed, or using a particular writing style that we know to be used by a specific person, etc. The external evidence consists of whatever evidence we have outside a given text. This can include another author quoting the work, a later critic proposing a possible authorial attribution, or what we know about the biography of the person to whom the work is attributed, etc.

For the canonical Gospels there are a number of both internal and external reasons why scholars doubt their traditional authors—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I shall begin by summarizing the problems with the internal evidence

Internal Evidence

To begin with, the Gospels are all internally anonymous in that none of their authors names himself within the text. This is unlike many other ancient literary works in which the author’s name is included within the body of the text (most often in the prologue), such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (1:1), which states at the beginning: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, as they fought against each other.” The historians Herodotus (1:1), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.8.4), and Josephus (BJ 1.3) all likewise include their names in prologues. Sometimes an author’s name can also appear later in the text. In his Life of Otho (10.1), for example, the biographer Suetonius Tranquillus refers to “my father, Suetonius Laetus,” which thus identifies his own family name.

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Herodotus

It should be noted that the Gospels’ internal anonymity also stands in contrast with most of the other books in the New Testament,

which provide the names of their authors (or, at least, their putative authors) within the text itself. As Armin Baum (“The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books,” p. 121) explains:

While most New Testament letters bear the names of their (purported) authors (James, Jude, Paul, Peter, or at least “the Elder”) the authors of the historical books [the Gospels and Acts] do not reveal their names. The superscriptions that include personal names (“Gospel according to Matthew” etc.) are clearly secondary.

Two exceptions are the Book of Hebrews and 1 John, which are anonymous texts, later attributed to the apostle Paul and John the son of Zebedee, respectively. Modern scholars, however, also doubt both of these later attributions. As the Oxford Annotated Bible (p. 2103) explains about the authorship of Hebrews:

Despite the traditional attribution to Paul … [t]here is not sufficient evidence to identify any person named in the New Testament as the author; thus it is held to be anonymous.

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Gaius Suetonius Tranquilus

And about the authorship of 1 John (p. 2137):

The anonymous voice of 1 John was identified with the author of the Fourth Gospel by the end of the second century CE … Since the Gospel was attributed to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, early Christians concluded that he had composed 1 John near the end of his long life … Modern scholars have a more complex view of the development of the Johannine community and its writings. The opening verses of 1 John employ a first person plural “we” … That “we” probably refers to a circle of teachers faithful to the apostolic testimony of the Beloved Disciple and evangelist. A prominent member of that group composed this introduction.

As such, it is not unusual for scholars to doubt the traditional authorship of the Gospels, considering that the authorial attributions of the other anonymous books in the New Testament are also in considerable dispute.

The internal anonymity of the Gospels is even acknowledged by many apologists and conservative scholars, such as Craig Blomberg, who states in The Case for Christ (p. 22): “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” So, immediately one type of evidence that we lack for the Gospels is their authors identifying themselves within the body of the text. This need not be an immediate death blow, however, since ancient authors did not always name themselves within the bodies of their texts.

I have specifically chosen to compare the Gospels’ authorial traditions with that of Tacitus’ Histories, since Tacitus likewise does not name himself within his historical works.

If the author does not name himself within the text, there are other types of evidence that can be looked at.

First, even if the body of a text does not name its author, there is often still a name and title affixed to a text in our surviving manuscript traditions. These titles normally identify the traditional author. The standard naming convention for ancient literary works was to place the author’s name in the genitive case (indicating personal possession), followed by the title of the work. Classical scholar Clarence Mendell in Tacitus: The Man And His Work (pp. 295-296) notes that our earliest manuscript copies of both Tacitus’ Annals and Histories identify Tacitus as the author by placing his name in the genitive (Corneli Taciti), followed by the manuscript titles.[1] For the Histories (as well as books 11-16 of the Annals), in particular, Mendell (p. 345) also notes that many of the later manuscripts have the title Cor. Taciti Libri (“The Books of Cornelius Tacitus”). This naming convention is important, since it specifically identifies Tacitus as the author of the work. An attribution may still be doubted for any number of reasons, but it is important that there at least be a clear attribution.

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Pliny the Younger

Here, we already have a problem with the traditional authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscripts of the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατα, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled ευαγγελιον κατα Μαθθαιον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship. Instead, the titles operate more as placeholder names, where the Gospels have been “handed down” by church traditions affixed to names of figures in the early church, rather than the author being clearly identified.[2] In the case of Tacitus, none of our surviving titles or references says that the Annals or Histories were written “according to Tacitus” or “handed down from Tacitus.” Instead, we have a clear attribution to Tacitus in one case, and only ambivalent attributions in the titles of the Gospels.[3]

Furthermore, it is not even clear that the Gospels’ abnormal titles were originally placed in the first manuscript copies. We do not have the autograph manuscript (i.e., the first manuscript written) of any literary work from antiquity, but for the Gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we possess have grammatical variations in their title conventions. This divergence in form suggests that, unlike the body of the text (which mostly remains consistent in transmission), the Gospels’ manuscript titles were not a fixed or original feature of the text itself.[4] As textual criticism expert Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pp. 249-250) points out:

Because our surviving Greek manuscripts provide such a wide variety of (different) titles for the Gospels, textual scholars have long realized that their familiar names do not go back to a single ‘original’ title, but were added by later scribes.

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Dionysius of Helicarnassus

The specific wording of the Gospel titles also suggests that the portion bearing their names was a later addition. The κατα (“according to”) preposition supplements the word ευαγγελιον (“gospel”). This word for “gospel” was implicitly connected with Jesus, meaning that the full title was το ευαγγελιον Ιησου Χριστου (“The Gospel of Jesus Christ”), with the additional preposition κατα (“according to”) used to distinguish specific gospels by their individual names. Before there were multiple gospels written, however, this addition would have been unnecessary. In fact, many scholars argue that the opening line of the Gospel of Mark (1:1) probably functioned as the original title of the text:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…

This original title of Mark can be compared with those of other ancient texts in which the opening lines served as titles. Herodotus’ Histories (1.1), for example, begins with the following line which probably served as the title of the text:

This is the exposition of the history of Herodotus…

A major difference between the Gospel of Mark and Herodotus’ Histories, however, is that opening line of Mark does not name the text’s author, but instead attributes the gospel to Jesus Christ. This title became insufficient, however, when there were multiple “gospels of Jesus” in circulation, and so, the additional κατα (“according to”) formula was used to distinguish specific gospels by their individual names. This circumstance, however, suggests that the names themselves were a later addition, as there would have been no need for such a distinction before multiple gospels were in circulation.

So, in addition to the problem that the Gospel titles do not even explicitly claim authors, we likewise have strong reason to suspect that these named titles were not even affixed to the first manuscript copies. This absence is important, since (as will be discussed under the “External Evidence” section below) the first church fathers who alluded to or quoted passages from the Gospels, for nearly a century after their composition, did so anonymously. Since these sources do not refer to the Gospels by their traditional names, this adds further evidence that the titles bearing those names were not added until a later period (probably in the latter half of the 2nd century CE), after these church fathers were writing.[5]And, if the manuscript titles were added later, and the Gospels themselves were quoted without names, this means that there is no evidence that the Gospels were referred to by their traditional names during the earliest period of their circulation. Instead, the Gospels would have more likely circulated anonymously.

As discussed above, Tacitus’ name is not affixed to his Histories using an “according to” formula (which in Latin would have been secundum Tacitum). Instead, Tacitus’ name was attached to the title in the genitive (“The Histories of Tacitus”). This kind of construction is not likely as a secondary addition, since the name Tacitus is not being used to distinguish multiple versions of a text, but is rather being used to indicate Tacitus’ personal possession of the work itself. That being said, there are substantial variations between the titles of Tacitus’ earliest manuscript copies. As Mendell (p. 345) explains, “the manuscript tradition of the Major Works [the Annals and Histories] is not consistent in the matter of title.” These variations report different names for the historical works that are attached to Tacitus’ name. The manuscripts of the Histories, for example, can also include the terms res gestaehistoria Augustae, and acta diurna within the titles, in addition to historiae.

These title variations appear much later than those of the Gospels (which appear only a couple centuries after their composition), however, since we do not possess manuscripts of Tacitus’ historical works until several centuries after he composed, during the medieval period. (For an explanation of why the survival of fewer and later manuscript copies has no bearing upon the historical value of Tacitus versus the Gospels, see here.) Due to the negligence among medieval scribes in preserving manuscript copies of old Pagan literary works, both Tacitus’ Annals and Histories also contain large portions of missing material. Since these are far later copies, with large lacunas in the manuscripts, the title variations may have crept in later in the tradition.[6]

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Thucydides

Nevertheless, Mendell (p. 345) notes that we have strong contemporary evidence to suggest that the title “Historiae” was originally associated with Tacitus’ Histories:

Pliny clearly referred to the work in which Tacitus was engaged as Historiae: Auguror nec me fallit augurium Historias tuas immortales futuras [“I predict, and my prediction does not deceive me, that your Histories will be immortal”] (Ep7.33.1). It is not clear whether the term was a specific one or simply referred to the general category of historical writing. The material to which Pliny refers, the eruption of Vesuvius, would have been in the Histories. Tertullian (Apologeticus Adversus Gentes 16, and Ad nationes 1.11 cites the Histories, using the term as a title: in quinta Historiarum [“Tacitus in the fifth book of his Histories“]. It should be noted that this reference is to the ‘separate’ tradition, not to the thirty-book tradition, so that Historiae are the Histories as we name them now.

The evidence for the original title of the Histories is not fully conclusive, but what is noteworthy is that Pliny the Younger (a contemporary) writes directly to Tacitus and says that he is writing a “Historiae,” and Tertullian, the next author to explicitly cite passages in the Histories, refers to the work by that title.

For the purposes of authorship, however, the name of the work itself need not fully concern us. The evidence is certain in the case of Tacitus that the earliest manuscript tradition of his Histories clearly identifies him as the personal author. This manuscript tradition, though late in the process of textual transition, is corroborated by Pliny (a contemporary of Tacitus), who states that Tacitus himself was authoring a historical work about the same period and events covered in the Histories. This evidence is important, because it shows that Tacitus was known as the author of this historical work from the beginning of its transmission. And, although Pliny was writing while the work was still being composed (and thus does not cite passages from the text), the first source to cite passages from the Histories after it was published, Tertullian, clearly refers to Tacitus as the known author of the text. In Tacitus’ case, therefore, we have a clear claim to authorship, which dates back to the beginning of the tradition.

In the case of the Gospels, the first church fathers who allude to or quote the texts for nearly a century after their composition do so anonymously.

Since the Gospels’ manuscript titles were likewise probably later additions (most likely after the mid-2nd century CE), this means that there is no evidence that the Gospels were referred to by their traditional names from the beginning of the tradition. Instead, these names only appear later in the tradition, which is the evidence to be expected if the Gospels first circulated anonymously, and were only given their authorial attributions in a subsequent period. Likewise, even when the later titles were added, the attributions were listed only as “according to” the names affixed to each text, which still entails considerable ambiguity about their authors.[7]

Beyond the titles, we can look within the body of a text to see if the author himself reveals any clues either directly or indirectly about his identity. For Tacitus, while the author does not explicitly name himself, he does discuss his relation to the events that he is describing in the Histories (1:1):

I myself was not acquainted with Galba, Otho, or Vitellius, either by profit or injury. I would not deny that my rank was first elevated by Vespasian, then raised by Titus, and still further increased by Domitian; but to those who profess unaltered truth, it is requisite to speak neither with partisanship nor prejudice.[8]

Here, while he does not name himself, the author of the Histories reveals himself to be a Roman politician during the Flavian Dynasty, which he specifies to be the period that he will write about. This matches the biographical information that we have of Tacitus outside of the Histories. For example, we know outside the text that Tacitus was writing a historical work about the Flavian period, since we have letters from Pliny the Younger (6.16; 6.20) written to Tacitus, where he responds to Tacitus’ request for information about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (which Tacitus also alludes to Histories 1.2). Pliny’s letters also refer to Tacitus’ career as a statesman, such as when he gave the funeral oration for the Roman general Verginius Rufus (2.1). So we know from outside the Histories that Tacitus was a Roman politician writing a history about the Flavian era. This outside information is corroborated exactly by the evidence within the text. Thus, we have good reason to suspect that the author of the Histories is Tacitus, as the internal evidence strongly coincides with this tradition.

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This kind of first person interjection from the author, described above, where Tacitus mentions his own relation to events within the narrative, stands in stark contrast with the anonymous style of narration in the Gospels. Although Tacitus does not overtly name himself in his historical works, he still uses the first person to discuss biographical details about himself. The gospels Matthew and Mark, in contrast, do not even use the first person, spoken by the author, anywhere in the text! Instead, both narratives are told in the third person, from an external narrator. This style of narration casts doubt on whether either author is relating personal experiences. As Irene de Jong (Narratology & Classics: A Practical Guide, p. 17) explains:

It is an important principle of narratology that the narrator cannot automatically be equated with the author; rather, it is a creation of the author, like the characters.

The narrators of both Matthew and Mark describe the events in their texts from an outside point of view. This is a subtle aspect of both texts, but it is a very important consideration for why scholars describe them as “anonymous.” Neither narrative is an overt recollection of personal experiences, but rather focuses solely on the subject—Jesus Christ—with the author fading into the background, making it unclear whether the author has any personal relation to events set within the narrative at all.

The author of Luke-Acts only uses the first person singular in the prologues of his works (Luke 1:3Acts1:1), without describing any biographical details about himself, and it is doubtful that the use of the first person plural, scattered throughout the “we” passages in Acts (16:10-1720:5-1521:1-1827:1-28:16), reflects the personal experiences of the author (discussed further by William Campbell under the “External Evidence” section below). John is thus the only gospel to include any kind of eyewitness construction, through the mention of an anonymous “beloved disciple” (John 21:24); however, modern scholars doubt that this “beloved disciple” was the actual author of John (see endnotes 31 and 32below), and the character’s complete anonymity fails to explicitly connect it with the experiences of any known figure within the narrative.

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Tacitus

Another piece of internal evidence that scholars look at is the linguistic rigor and complexity of a text. Based on the writing itself, we can tell that a certain level of education was required to author it. On this point, it is worth noting that Tacitus, as an educated Roman politician, would have had all of the literary, rhetorical, and compositional training needed to author a complex work of prose, such as his Histories. That is to say, from what we know of the Tacitus’ background, he belonged to the demographic of people whom we would expect to write complex Latin Histories.

As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose. According the estimates of William Harris in his classic study Ancient Literacy (p. 22), “The likely overall illiteracy of the Roman Empire under the principate is almost certain to have been above 90%.” Of the remaining tenth, only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels.[9]

Immediately, the language and style of the Gospel of John contradicts the traditional attribution of the text to John the son of Zebedee. We know from internal evidence, based on its complex Greek composition, that the author of this gospel had advanced literacy and training in the Greek language. Yet, from what we know of the biography of John the son of Zebedee, it would rather improbable that he could author such a text. John was a poor, rural peasant from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic. In an ancient world where literary training was largely restricted to a small fraction of rich, educated elite, we have little reason to suspect that an Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant could author a complex Greek gospel. Furthermore, in Acts 4:13, John is even explicitly identified as being αγραμματος (“illiterate”), which shows that even evidence within the New Testament itself would not identify such a figure as an author.[10]

Likewise, the internal evidence of the Gospel of Matthew contradicts the traditional attribution to Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. While tax collectors had basic training in accounting, the Gospel of Matthew is written in a complex narrative of Greek prose that shows extensive familiarity with Jewish scripture and teachings. However, tax collectors were regarded by educated Jews as a sinful, “pro-Roman” class (as noted by J. R. Donahue in “Tax Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification“), who were alienated from their religious community, as is evidenced by the Pharisees accusations against Jesus in Mark 2:15-17Matthew 9:10-13, and Luke 5:29-31 for associating “with tax collectors and sinners” (μετα των τελωνων και αμαρτωλων). Regarding the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, scholar Barbara Reid (The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 5-6) explains, “The author had extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and a keen concern for Jewish observance and the role of the Law … It is doubtful that a tax collector would have the kind of religious and literary education needed to produce this Gospel.” For a further analysis of why Matthew the tax collector would have probably lacked the religious and literary education needed to author the gospel attributed to his name, see my essay “Matthew the τελωνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel.”

We have no such problem, however, in the case of Tacitus.

As an educated Roman senator, who belonged to a small social class of people known to author Latin Histories, Tacitus is the exact sort of person that we would expect to author a work like the Histories, whereas we would have no strong reason to believe that an illiterate peasant, like John, or a mere tax collector, like Matthew, would have been able to author the Greek gospels that are attributed to them.[11]

Furthermore, the sources used within a text can often betray clues about its author. In the case of the Gospels, we know that they are all interdependent upon each other for their information.[12] Matthewborrows from as much as 80% of the verses in the Gospel of Mark, and Luke borrows from 65%. And while John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier gospels, its author was still probably aware of the earlier narratives (as shown by scholar Louis Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel).

Once more for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the traditional authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark. Why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow from as much as 80% of the material of Mark, a non-eyewitness? As the Oxford Annotated Bible (p. 1746) concludes, “[T]he fact that the evangelist was so reliant upon Mark and a collection of Jesus’ sayings (“Q”) seems to point to a later, unknown, author.”

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvias, August 24, 79 CE

 

 

 

End of excerpt.

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