Peaky Blindness

flickr CC
flickr CC

In the course of our recent Netflix binging my wife and I started watching Peaky Blinders.  This is a BBC television series set in post-WWI Birmingham, England, and is centered around the activities of a street gang for which the series is named.  What the gang actually looked like is debated but the name is said to originate in the style of cap and a practice of sewing in razor blades to create an improvised weapon.  It’s an intriguing story and the core conflict in the first season is between the leader of the gang and a police detective who intends to stamp the thing out, by any means necessary.

But as of the fifth episode we are done.  The issue for us was the simulated sex.  I wrote about this last year after reading about interviews with actresses Dakota Johnson (here) and Rosamund Pike (here), following the release of movies referenced in the interviews.

It is one thing to set up or imply an affair and it is possible to argue as a matter of taste about the specifics of how this is depicted.  But the problem with physically simulating the sex itself is that calling it mere acting places the issue in a hair-splitting and artificial frame.  This framing comes from what happens on a film set being a fairly mechanical process; a good bit is about tricks involving camera angles, pillows, and strategic cover-ups that are intended to protect the dignity of the participants*.  Or so the argument goes and some of the production might be merely that.  But two partially (or mostly) naked people making out in direct physical contact IS sex, and artificially isolating the process from actual arousal and coitus doesn’t make it anything else.  We’ve just gotten so used to this over the last several decades that we can no longer see it for what it is.

At some point this contact places the performers inside of boundaries that ought to be crossed only in healthy relationships between consenting adults.  And what I would like to suggest is that the relational wreckage strewn throughout the film business at least in part attests to the results of treating those boundaries like they don’t exist.  At a cultural level we can quibble over what such healthy relationships might actually entail, and no, you can’t draw a straight line between cause and effect.  But the functional context is an industry that simply ignores the matter to turn a profit.  This seems like the textbook definition of exploitation and we’re just blind to that.

So let’s reset the production with appropriate strategic angles and coverings, and make it a stage play.  Oh, and bring a phone with a decent camera.

Can you see it now?


*Shooting Film and TV Sex Scenes: What Really Goes On

Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

Harvard historian Karen L. King ignited a controversy at a 2012 conference in Rome when she presented a papyrus fragment which appeared to refer to Jesus’ wife.   An article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic details a subsequent investigation into the fragment’s provenance:

“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.”  Source: Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

An interview with the  Boston Globe  echoed the Atlantic article.  King has acknowledged that material given to her in support of the fragment’s provenance appears to have been fabricated.  And King’s source has denied forging the papyrus or any knowledge regarding its authenticity.

It is possible that the fragment might be an old fraud.   But King clearly believes she has been lied to (see follow up Atlantic column), so this seems unlikely.

The article is quite long but well worth reading.  It lays out the anatomy of what increasingly appears to be an elaborate deception.  In fairness King never ruled out the possibility of fabrication.  But I am not an academic so I really don’t understand why the document was presented publicly in the first place, given the very large blank space where the provenance ought to have been.  The scholarship is summarized by the Harvard Divinity School here.

The most effective deceptions are indirect. The perpetrator presents a fragmentary context buttressed primarily by misdirection and a few strategic lies.  The core falsehood is misstated, as if the con artist doesn’t actually believe it, and is trusting the mark to help sort the matter out.  It helps if the deception fits into something the mark really wants to believe.  Then the mark is allowed to fill the very substantial blanks with whatever facts and opinions may happen to fit.

And even otherwise knowledgeable people get sucked in.

The Wrong End of the Telescope

contributed to Flickr by Charles Nadeau

I am really wondering how there could be such a thing as explicitly “Christian” economics.  I bumped into this question in a blog where the writer, Roger Olson, surveyed major strains of economic thought in the context of distributive justice and gave examples of prominent Christian proponents.  But what especially caught my eye was this assertion:

Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.[1]

This idea has some resonance.  The modern church in our materialistic culture pretty much ignores John’s question highlighting the discontinuity between indifference to need and the love of God [2].  But I don’t think you can get at this by adopting the lens of a societal-level political idea.  Thinking about the organization of society and looking from this to the behavior of the Church is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Contributed to Flickr by Charles Nadeau. Creative Commons
Charles Nadeau – Flickr C.C.

Christians should think about organization, economics and politics.  But the problem is that broad concepts necessarily spawn structures and mechanisms to implement them.  But the process of organization grows the structures into institutions.  Institutions leverage our influence and can accomplish a lot of good.  But the under-girding organization also create routines that channel thinking in terms of resource allocation and who reports to whom.  Which means using the wrong end of the telescope can result in the conflation of Christian practice with functional processes and societal norms.

This happens because the systems of organization used will inevitably tend to reinforce certain personal traits and behaviors at the expense of others. Some of these will be negative and the flavor will vary with the nature of the system. And sooner or later one or more of the negative traits will inevitably come to serve the self-interest of the leadership. Once this happens the processes for advancement and retention will start to advantage people with those negative traits.

Which, for example, is why authoritarian systems accumulate sycophants, and part of why corporate systems become fodder for Dilbert cartoons.  As organizational growth weakens mechanisms that hold people accountable, a feedback loop forms that favors the selection of leaders who benefit in some way from their subordinates’ misbehavior. This reinforcing effect is the same, whether the system is used by a government, a business, or a church.

To be clear, we need organization.  Forming institutions increase the reach of what groups of people can accomplish.  But the ethics of the individuals in the institutions are the key.  It is the only way to fight the tendency for organization to aggregate human vice and frailty.  Otherwise, before we know it, the organizational forms in the institutions we’ve created allow the broader culture to colonize our faith.

The tendency of organization to aggregate our weaknesses suggests that creating explicitly Christian economics might be impossible in principle.  My suspicion is that we might be better served by concentrating on the Christian ethic governing our personal behavior.  This ethic ought to inform both how we treat others both inside and outside the church, also ought to inform how we interact with whatever economic system we happen to find ourselves in,  including whatever systemic evils it might bring.  It is the other end of the telescope.

New Testament writers seem zeroed in on this personal ethic, as is apparent in Paul’s letter to Philemon:

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…

…perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…(Philemon 10-15, Revised Standard Version)

Some Protestant pastors and theologians in the 19th century clearly used the wrong end of the telescope in relation to this passage.  They started from the standpoint of their culture and as a result stood the text on its head, and turned it into the “Pauline Mandate” for slavery.[3]  The intellectual gymnastics used to achieve this are baffling,  but the results are a clear image of what results from the conflation of social and economic norms with what Christians ought to do.

It is impossible to know why Onesimus was with Paul.  A traditional interpretation is that he was a runaway.  But the lack of any reference by Paul to the customary harsh treatment of escaped slaves  argues against that.  It is more probable that he was sent for some now unknown reason.  Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were viewed as tools and the owner clearly didn’t think much of this particular one.  Paul’s use of “beloved brother,” however, says absolutely nothing about the formal relationship of master and slave.  It is wholly focused on personal behavior, to the probable discomfort of Philemon.  We have no record of how Philemon actually responded, but the preservation of the personal letter argues in favor of some fundamental changes.

Such changes make us uncomfortable.  It is actually easier to think about Christianity in the context of big ideas of the broader culture.  We would much rather blame whatever system we are in, rather than engage our personal behavior within it.


[1] Olson favors “justice as fairness,” as articulated by John Rawls. Roger E Olson

Rawls was an American political and ethical philosopher, whose major work was A Theory of Justice (1971), a defense of egalitarian liberalism which contained arguments later revised in Political Liberalism (1993). A decent overview of his thought is available here:

His thought was highly influential and I’ve found it attractive. But his fairness theory is in part dependent on an idea about free, equal, reasonable citizens who can agree to cooperate at the expense of their own interests. My reservations about this, however, originate in a career that involved significant contact with the public. I have met very few people whose real-world behavior suggests they might be able to act in a way that supports Rawls’ ideals. Most folks just don’t seem to have that much give in them when in conflict over their interests.

[2] “…if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  I John 3:17

[3] Larry R Morrison.  The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830.  Journal of Religious Thought; Fall 80 / Winter 81, Vol. 37 Issue 2, pp 16-29.  Retrieved from

New Evidence on When Bible Was Written: Ancient Shopping Lists – The New York Times

Researchers from the University of Tel Aviv have found the following:

An analysis of handwriting on ancient pottery suggests that literacy may have been more widespread than previously known in the Holy Land around 600 B.C.

Source: New Evidence on When Bible Was Written: Ancient Shopping Lists – The New York Times

Analysis of writing on pottery shards at the site of a small fort (at at the time remote) showed at least six different hands in the lettering.

The does appear to show that a basic level of literacy was available in the culture to support the composition of Biblical texts before the deportation to Babylon.

War in Heaven

There is an odd bit of gangland slang that was popularized in the late 1980s where bystanders hit by stray bullets were referred to as “mushrooms.” They “popped up” in the line of fire.  At the time the actual incidence appeared to be relatively low[*] but there was justifiable public outrage over the apparent disregard for the innocent.

Callousness was an obvious dominant factor in the shooter’s mental framework.  But the bystanders didn’t just wink in out of nowhere.  They were already standing where the shooters were spraying their bullets.  Which suggests the slang might point to a more broadly applicable feature of conflict.  It might be very difficult for the combatants to recognize who else their wrath might injure besides the intended targets.

One of the things that I was taught during a prior career in law enforcement was that, in an armed confrontation, the officer “tunnels in” on whatever is perceived as the immediate physical threat.  This results from the flood of “fight or flight” hormones dumped into the bloodstream.  It is a normal physiological response which prioritizes energy and focus toward the immediate danger.  It is hard-wired and was appropriate when the threat was a large predator on the savanna.  But the response is not appropriate when the confrontation involves firearms and innocent civilians.  So officers are trained (at least in theory) to think about their surroundings in spite of the adrenaline dump, and this includes maintaining a conscious awareness about whoever else might be standing in the line of fire.

This physiological response to threat is also not appropriate in our personal relationships.  Conflicts are inevitable.  But they also cause stress.  Some stress is helpful if handled properly and it pushes us to seek resolution or accommodation.  But chronic, destructive, or otherwise mishandled conflict is another matter.

Most of us deal with conflict using whatever strategies we absorbed growing up, coupled with whatever our personalities tend toward.  And when things get out of hand the escalating stress levels are likely to lessen our awareness of another’s welfare, making it easy to cross lines and start doing harm.  If this happens we will probably lose track of the bystanders.

Severely dysfunctional parents might be an example at the extremes.  Over the years I’ve had quite a few casual chance conversations with acquaintances who were separating from a spouse.  The welfare of the kids seldom came up.  If children were mentioned at all, it was usually in the context of legal wrangles over money, property, visitation and custody.  The rest of the conversation was all about the intolerable behavior of this other person.

It seems that once the parents are tunneled in on warfare with each other they no longer see their children.  It’s not that the parents intend harm.  But somewhere during the course of the chronic personal warfare and the divorce they lost track of the kids.

To be clear, some divorces are inevitable and most parents do consider their children.  But when they cease to seek the welfare of each other the stress levels rise, and one or both parents risk not being able to see the bystanders.  Particularly if malice has taken hold, or if one of the participants happens to be toying with trading up to a more interesting bed-mate.  The effect on the children is at this point is no longer a matter of conscious thought.  Conflict metastasizes into open warfare and what ought to be a bit of heaven turns into something else entirely.

What happens in families is probably true of most social groups.  Churches are unlikely to be any different.  I’ve attended a church of one type or another for as long as I can remember.  And a common features of group conflicts seems to be that at least some of participants appeared completely insensitive to the effects of the conflict on those not directly involved.  They seemed unable to grasp the damage from the relational shrapnel scattered by their warfare.  The nature of the conflict appeared irrelevant; it seemed not to matter whether the conflict was doctrinal, leadership, over programs, or just driven by personality.  The broader effects of the conflict seem beyond the range of conscious thought.

Christians ought to be better at this.  Conflict is inevitable.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  But if the welfare of our fellow combatants is not part of our thinking we are apt to mishandle the dispute.  We either escalate, or dig in and nurse grudges, turning what ought to be a bit of heaven into something else.  The rising stress levels that result will make it hard to pay attention to those not involved, particularly the young and the weak.

And heaven becomes a free fire zone with bystanders in the way.


[*] Lawrence W. Sherman, Leslie Steele, Deborah Laufersweiler, Nancy Hoffer, Sherry A. Julian. Stray bullets and “Mushrooms”: Random shootings of bystanders in four cities, 1977-1988 Journal of Quantitative Criminology, December 1989, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 297-316

The Universe Looks Mighty Lonely (and we don’t like it).

We like the idea that someone else is out there.  Someone intelligible to us.  The crowded, fictive universes of Star Wars and Star Trek are fun to imagine.  They are also easy to imagine, possibly in part be because of the influence of the mediocrity principle, which has been rattling about in modern cosmology for some time.  A simple way to think about mediocrity is that if you are on a walk and pick up a random rock, it is apt to be of a common type[1].   For extra-terrestrial life this means that because we happen to be here, complex life is likely to exist on lots of other earth-like planets.

Not so fast.  A recent Discover Magazine article suggests something different:

A model of the universe predicts the universe holds some 700 quintillion planets, but none like Earth.

Source: Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place – Discover Magazine

The idea that our particular type of world might be rare is not new.  As Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee suggested over a decade ago,[2] there really is quite a laundry list of things that have to happen to make a place suitable for complex life.  Microorganisms can live in some really nasty places (including possibly the oceans of Saturn’s icy moons).  But not much else.

And if we do share the cosmos with someone else they might be too far away to ever know about.  It is really hard to grasp just how far away celestial objects actually are.  The roughly ten thousand years of human history (settlement and agriculture) is a statistical blip when distances are measured in thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of light years.  By the time an electromagnetic signal from another civilization is received and responded to our own may be long dead.

So far we have not heard from anyone, which was commented on in an Atlantic Monthly article about SETI in 1988.  Nothing has changed since then.  SETI has been listening to silence for quite a few years now.  It’s as if we are the only flea on an elephant.  How is that possible?

This idea that we might actually be alone really bothers us.  Having killed off  belief in God and the immaterial (or at least made it irrelevant) we seem to feel compelled to populate our empty spaces with something.  Granted, most of the sci-fi is just good fun — Guardians of the Galaxy was a hoot.  But in the last couple decades it seems like there has been rather a lot of it.

And it’s been apocalyptic.  The blockbusters all seem to be about someone or some thing trying to end everything and someone else trying to prevent it.  And one side  (or both)  having extraordinary abilities.  The perseverance of ordinary people against long odds no longer speaks to us.  We want heroes and demi-gods, and we them to ride in and save us from being alone in an anxious world saturated with bad news.

And then some scientist comes along and tells us that no one will be coming.  That we really are the only flea on the elephant.

Looking into the vastness of the cosmos by ourselves unsettles us.  It gnaws away inside us in a way that has been spoken of before by the writer of Ecclesiastes:

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end (Ecc. 3:11 NASB).

The Hebrew word translated as “eternity” seems to have the sense of darkness or obscurity[3].  This gnawing inside appears to have been bothering us for a very long time.



[1] The Mediocrity Principle is essentially that the chance selection of an item is more likely to come from more numerous classes than from less numerous ones.  The caveat is that the selection must actually be random.

[2] Peter D Ward and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2000. Print.

[3] I don’t claim to read Hebrew.  This is what I’ve teased out of an interlinear which also referred to it as “eon.”  It has also been translated as “ignorance” (NET).  I would welcome comment from someone knowledgeable.



Artificial Intelligence Is Just That – Artificial

And since we’re on the subject of trolls:

Microsoft’s teen chat bot Tay spewed racist comments on Twitter so the company shut her down after less than a day.

Source: After racist tweets, Microsoft muzzles teen chat bot Tay – CNN Money

“Tay” was apparently supposed to be a natural language learning AI.  Microsoft blame its failure on trolls who appear to have rapidly figured out how to manipulate it.  Apparently this AI was as dumb as a post and inherently incapable of identifying the manipulation.

In this case the trolls may have performed a useful service.  They’ve demonstrated that language and intelligence does not neatly reduce to algorithms, regardless of what Google and Microsoft engineers might believe.    Google does better in this regard as demonstrated by the recent defeat in March of a South Korean Go grand master by AlphaGo.  The AI replicates a player’s intuitive pattern recognition.

But Artificial Intelligence is still about algorithms. The question is what happens when the algorithms encounter something novel?  Patterns work well at the scales of large numbers. The problem is what happens at the small scales of individual human unpredictability, where novelty is most likely?

Google’s AI will prove to be extremely useful.  Their models may very well get us to levels of predictive automation that fundamentally change the way our technologies work, our automobiles being the most obvious example. But until the AI can move straight from winning at Go to learning to navigate a wholly unfamiliar situation, it will still be all about algorithms and the constraints they impose.  It will still be artificial.

Artificial Intelligence seems to be a bit like artificial sweetener or hydrogenated vegetable oil.  Something that is very useful in food production but only sort of tastes real.





An Unsmiling Concentration on Self

People have been debating cosmological and theological points for thousands of years (sometimes violently) but the Internet has introduced something new.  It has made it possible to argue in an extended way without face-to-face interaction, and to do so anonymously.  In the past pamphleteers and book authors sometimes published under pseudonyms because of the personal threat that their work might bring.  The Internet has now made anonymity commonplace.  In so doing it has mostly removed any real consequences for abusive behavior.

We all probably have co-workers, acquaintances, and occasionally relatives (hopefully distant) who appear to lack any apparent sensitivity to other people – they habitually interrupt conversations, respond without listening, and demean people with whom they disagree.  But there are limits to the bad behavior.  I am less likely to insult you if what I say is going to result in social ostracism or in a fist to my nose.

The Internet has removed the threat of the fist.

At the extreme is the full-on internet troll.  A study on trolling recently appeared in Discover Magazine:

– Discover Magazine

A scientific analysis of internet trolls finds that yes, they’re actually sadistic psychopaths:   Why do internet trolls do what they do? Here, scientists used online surveys to learn more about trolling personalities.

The referenced study concluded that, “…cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.”[1]  What struck me when reading the study was a bar graph showing the high correlation to narcissism.  This seems to me to be a necessary precursor, and probably a more significant element.  One would hardly engage in sadistic behavior without it.

The correlation brings to mind a quote from the original preface to The Screwtape Letters.  CS Lewis remarks in it the literary representation of “…the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell.”[2]

But the fundamental problem with the study’s conclusion is the conspicuous absence of any definition of what “everyday sadism” might be in actual everyday life.  It might be a bit different from what is seen online.  My intuition is that most trolls probably lack the testicular fortitude to actually serve their crap up in person, particularly when the recipient might serve up some real blow-back.  This probably applies to a whole range of misbehavior that falls far short of full-on trolling, which brings us full circle to the discussion of the effect of the lessening of personal consequences.

Of course everyday life might not look like much at all.   There may be far less perceived need for direct social contact when interest groups of similar mind can huddle online.  In everyday life we have far less control over our interactions with people, which can force us to adjust our behavior in order to get along with them.  This is not the case online.  Regardless of who we alienate (consciously or not) we can always find someone else to connect with.  Relationships become completely disposable.

Which means that, in addition to removing the threat of the fist, the Internet has also mitigated the threat of ostracism.

There probably aren’t very many people that start out in troll mode — I suspect we get there by degrees.   It might start as our insistence on the last comment in a heated discussion on a topic about which we have strong opinions.  It slips into derision and name-calling.  We soon cease to think of the correspondent as a person whom we would never have the guts to abuse in public.   Because all we see is a screen persona it is easy to lose track of the actual human being on the other side of the interaction.

I am not a believer in Karma (in any metaphysical sense) but I do think there are ways to enmesh ourselves in Hell on this side of the grave.  The bad behavior eventually comes back at us — fewer and fewer people find anything attractive about our company, either in person or online.  And we are well on our way to that unsmiling concentration on self Lewis was talking about.

You would think behavior in “Christian” social media venues would be better but it is often not.  We simply ignore Jesus’ rather direct comments on derision (Matt 5:22).  And we risk becoming like Ebeneezer Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who forged link by link the chains that bound him.

"Scrooge" (1951)
“Scrooge” (1951)




[1] Erin E. Buckelsa, Paul D. Trapnellb, and Delroy L. Paulhusc.  “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” Personality and Individual Differences 67 (2014) p. 97–102.

[2] C. S. LEWIS.   The Screwtape Letters, Omnibus Edition,  MacMillan, 1962.   Retrieved from



A Little Less Greek

On a recent foray into a used book store I stumbled over an excellent flyover of Roman history.  During my reading I was intrigued by the settlement of a political conflict in the Roman republic of the fourth and fifth centuries BC.  During that period a power struggle ensued between the hereditary aristocracy and the commoners.  Compromises during the period ended the contest in the early third century with a relatively stable power-sharing arrangement.  The aristocracy of birth was diluted with an aristocracy of political office and wealth, and the political offices were divvied up between the classes.

The author, Donald Dudley, highlights the results in Rome by contrasting them with the conflicts in Greek city-states:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Roman sources stress that the entire contest over some five generations was carried out with no bloodshed and with the minimum of violence. It is common to pay tribute to the political good sense of a society in which this could be done. Credit where it is due must not be withheld. But once again the factor of enlightened self-interest can be invoked. Rome lived in a world of enemies, and each of the parties in this internal political dispute needed the other. The patricians needed the numbers and courage of the common people to defend the state in war, the plebs needed the leadership and experience of the patricians. It is true that, in the insensate fury of the class struggle, Greek city-states were only too apt to forget an enemy at the gates. But in the Roman Republic, as yet, there was a readiness for compromise and common sense. Furthermore, where the Greeks were fatally apt to conduct their political disputes in terms of principles (and in the spirit which later made martyrs and heresiarchs), at Rome political disputes arose over practical issues.**”

There might be something in this for the modern world.

The current polarization in US politics produces entertaining media theater.  Unfortunately the stage show seems to favor shouted one-dimensional answers and celebrities with out-sized personalities.  There appears to be little appreciation for the practical and difficult discussions of complex issues appear completely frozen out.  If ideas cannot be reduced to sound bites and Twitter posts they are knocked flat in the gale of personal invective, cynical populist rhetoric, and simplistic expressions of principle.  Demagogues and ideologues.  The whole thing seems very Greek.

On the other hand the founding document for the US political environment seems very Roman.  The US Constitution appears to be a very practical exercise in spreading power. It encodes a recognition of what happens when too much of it is concentrated in one place and requires broad consensus to get anything significant done.

Unfortunately the framers appear to have not recognized the limits of their practical problem solving.  The three-fifths compromise in Article One was morally bankrupt and baked in the mechanisms of its own dissolution.  This attempt to reconcile political power arrangements with the treatment of people as property was eventually paid for with 600,000 casualties in the American Civil War.

There is a balance to be found somewhere in between the practical thinking of the US founding fathers and the very loud chaos of the current media circus.  But at the moment the balance could a bit more Roman and a little less Greek.


**Donald R Dudley.  The Romans: 850 B.C.-A.D. 337.  Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 1-56619-456-3.  P40

Abusing Tacitus

Alexamenos Graffito

Lots of people throw around quotations attributed to ancient authors.  Last year I read the Annals and Histories by Tacitus.  Since then I’ve found writers who seem to have reason to beat up on him.  But not everyone who refers to ancient authors actually reads the works they use and abuse.  The early Christian writer Tertullian may be a case in point.

Alexamenos Graffito
Wikimedia Commons

In Apology 16 and Ad Nationes 1.11 he attacks a pagan derision against Christians having to do with the worship of a donkey’s head.  He takes Tacitus to task as the originator of the insult, a possible example of which is visible in an ancient scrawl known as the Alexamenos Graffito. This was found inside the excavation of a former Roman boarding school for imperial page boys. It appears to depict a victim of crucifixion with a donkey’s head, as well as an inscription that could be read as “Alexamenos worships his god.”  According to Tertullian, Tacitus was the first to convey the insult.

Modern writers have been attacking Tacitus as well, particularly the veracity of a  section in Annals 15 having to do the Great Fire of Rome in the summer of 64 CE.  Tacitus describes the fire and an unconfirmed rumor that the emperor Nero was responsible, and also describes Nero’s brutal scapegoating of Christians in an attempt to dispel the rumor.  Tacitus also had uncomplimentary things to say about the scapegoats themselves, describing them as “…hated for their abominations…(Annals 15.44).”

An example of an attack on this section may be found in an academic paper by Raphael Lataster, published in the Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.  It is incorporated into a broader attack on the historicity of Jesus Christ.  He writes:

“It is the phrase referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage and its context) could also be a later Christian interpolation. While some scholars could argue that this passage must be genuine because it does not portray Christians and Christ in a totally positive manner, there are reasons to have doubts over the authenticity or legitimacy of this passage. It is interesting that the name Jesus is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only reference to Jesus. It is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ. Given that Jesus is not specified, there may also be a small possibility that this could refer to another Christ or messiah-figure. Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14 CE to 66 CE, no other mention is made of Jesus Christ.(78) This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quote Tacitus in the 3rd century.(79)”[1]

This is speculation entangled in arguments from silence.

It is hardly surprising that there is no mention of Jesus or his execution in the extant portions of the Annals.  Why would the execution of yet another obscure Jew in Palestine be noticed in Rome?  Roman governors recorded what they did and sent reports home.  But as Pliny’s letters to Trajan suggest, the reporting was likely to contain a fair bit of self-promotion and flattery.  If Pilate’s messaging to Rome said anything at all about Jesus it would have been a very brief bit that cast any relevant events in the best possible light.  And it would vanish into a hand-curated archive along with all the other provincial reporting.

Rome is the center of the universe for Tacitus.  Jesus wouldn’t even be a blip on the first century Roman radar except for Nero’s pogrom. Which means information about Jesus possibly filtered into Roman thinking via the Christians themselves, including whatever names they used.  But Tacitus did not appear to view the report of the execution by Pilate as controversial as it is not accompanied by qualifiers that appear elsewhere in his writings.

And what other “messiah-figure” could the passage possibly be talking about?  One of the Vestal Virgins?  This claim makes no sense in the context of Roman history.  And the flow of the passage referencing the fire appears consistent with the rest of Tacitus’ writing.  The bar for tagging this section as a forgery seems quite high.

But I digress.  The asserted quotations by Origen and Tertullian are the focus of my interest.  It would have been helpful to have references.  I am unable to locate anything in Origen’s writing naming Tacitus which likely reflects my ignorance of his work. But Tertullian does specifically name him, and refers to the Histories.  Time to read what Tacitus actually wrote.

In Histories 5 he includes an ethnographic survey of the Jews in the context of the their revolt from Roman rule starting in 66 CE.  Tacitus notes his reference to other writers and relates variant accounts of the origins of the Jews. In referencing what is presumably the Exodus, Tacitus states that the Jews followed a herd of wild asses to water and later, “…in their holy place…consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance…(Histories 5.3).”   This is presumably the focus of Tertullian’s ire.  But later in the section Tacitus relates the following:

“…the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”

In this context a characterization of the Jews as worshiping an animal might be more than what Tacitus intended to say (this would need to be confirmed by someone with a command of Latin).  But what is extremely odd is that Tertullian did not cite this additional bit. In both Apology and Ad Nationes Tacitus is accused of self-contradictory falsehood, by elsewhere describing Pompeii’s failure to find an image when he entered the temple after capturing Jerusalem.  Tertullian also does not mention Tacitus’ explicit dependence on other writers.  Contrary to what Tertullian states, Tacitus is not the origin of the story about the donkeys.

Tertullian’s actual references are of more significance. Ad Nationes incorrectly attributes Tacitus’ comment to Book 4 of the Histories and contradicts the correct reference to Book 5 in Apology. The obvious question is how does Tertullian make a mistake like this if he is working directly from source material? It’s not like ancient writers could be overwhelmed with the results of too many citations.  Contrary to what Lastaster presents, it appears that in this instance Tertullian does not appear to “…actually quote Tacitus…”

There is a very good possibility that Tertullian was not working directly from a primary source.  It is possible he may have been working from fragmentary copies, or possibly his memory of having read the texts at some point.  But given the high  divergence from the actual writings, it is far more likely he is using material transmitted by way of an intermediary — someone else’s oral or written references to to Tacitus’ works.  Tertullian demonstrates at least some familiarity. Tertullian refers to Tacitus in Ad Nationes 2.12, in what appears to be a sweeping but somewhat offhand reference in the context of an argument about the human origins of pagan divinities.  But that is not the same as actually reading from complete copies of the Histories and Annals.  One could just as easily argue that a social media posting referencing Sun Tzu demonstrates a direct reading of The Art of War.

Any argument that depends on the direct access of one ancient writer to another is potentially problematic in the media context of the ancient world. It encapsulates gratuitous assumptions about the diffusion of documents over time and distance.  This was an era of manuscripts laboriously copied by hand[2], as well as arduous travel powered by animals, sail, and human feet.  Diffusion over time is possibly not at issue, as Tertullian was born roughly a century later than Tacitus, but he lived across the Mediterranean in North Africa.  It’s not like he could walk into a local bookseller and order a scroll.

Absent actual evidence of quotation there would seem to be a need to demonstrate a reasonable availability of the primary source material.  Without this any errors or omissions by Tertullian become no more than probable artifacts of manuscript transmission in the ancient world.

Ancient writers are not wholly silent on the events treated by Tacitus. Paulus Orosius refers to the fire and a Neronian persecution. The History against the Pagans 7.7 on Nero summarizes the events but does not link them.  Sulpitius Severus, however, is explicit about Nero’s attempt to scapegoat Christians for the fire in Sacred History 2.29.  The material is unattributed, and backstopped with an interpretation of The Apocalypse of John. It is possible that Severus is using an independent source, but the language appears very similar to that of Tacitus, minus the pejorative characterization of Christians.  Unlike Tertullian, Severus appears to have been working directly from what Tacitus wrote, and not been forced to rely on memory or someone else’s references.

Tertullian could be excused for working with what he had.  Modern writers have no such out.


[1]Raphael Lataster, “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 6, no. 1 (2015) PP 84-85.

The footnotes in the quotation refer to the following works:
(78) Bart D Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. p. 54.
(79) Earl Doherty. Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2009. pp. 596-600.  The proprietor of the publisher appears to be the author.  Self-publication is common (like this blog) however the book is not identified as such in the paper’s bibliography.  This seems rather odd for a peer-reviewed journal.

[2] Update April 11, 2014: the bar to manuscript diffusion was even a bit higher than I thought.  There is the matter of the very high cost of the physical media which would definitely slow transmission over time and distance.  See a very interesting discussion of the cost here: