Daily Archives: January 6, 2012

Pilate The Procurator, And Why Tacitus’ "Annals" Is Not Independent Evidence For Jesus’ Historicity

Richard Carrier posted his M.Phil thesis paper in which he argues that Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria. In doing so, he also points out that Pontius Pilate was also a procurator, which was something that Tacitus purposefully points out to both demean Christians and demean Pilate.

Here is Tacitus’ Annals 15.44 where he describes Jesus:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin** suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Some people argue that this is an interpolation because Tacitus mistakenly refers to Pilate as a procurator. But in fact, Pilate held both titles simultaneously since they weren’t necessarily separate titles.

Here is Dr. Carrier’s take on it:

Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she [the deaconesses] would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).

In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor


One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even plebs or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.

Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to make paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.

So there you have it. Though, the entire post is worth reading to get some insight into Roman politics and its class system.

**note: the -ianus suffix, as in Christianus, ported over to Greek as Χριστιανος :: Christianos, where we get the word Christian, means “belonging to Christ[us]”

Comments Off on Pilate The Procurator, And Why Tacitus’ "Annals" Is Not Independent Evidence For Jesus’ Historicity

Posted by on January 6, 2012 in early Christianity, historicity, historiography, history


When Dreams Betray You

I just thought I would draw attention to a recent post by John W. Loftus, and a comment that I and another person made. Loftus posted an email he received from someone who converted back to Christianity after having a dream (of course, the person doesn’t think it was a dream).

This is a comment from “wholething”:

Theists often tell us we are not allowed to question their “personal experiences”. But why do so many of them sound like waking dreams?

I once heard someone throw open the back door and was walking down the hallway to my bedroom. I couldn’t move and became really scared as I recognized that I was in a waking dream state and tried to force my way out of it to confront the intruder, all the while thinking what a rotten time to be having a waking dream when an intruder was in the house.

As he approached my bed, I was finally able to turn my head voluntarily and then throw the blanket at him. I was about to start punching him through the blanket.

The blanket fell to the floor. He wasn’t under the bed, either.

I felt very shook up. I searched around the house. Eventually I noticed that the back door was still closed though I had heard it open and slam against the wall. This was the empirical evidence that made me realize that the intruder was really a part of my waking dream.

We often have dreams that seem real and they may be scary. When we wake up, we find we are in bed which proves to us that it was just a dream. But what if we dream we are in bed when God talks to us, or an angel, or a deceased relative, or a space alien transports us to his ship and back to our bed? How do you disconfirm that it was real?

A friend told me he was in bed when he heard a car crash into his living room. He even felt the bed shake. He immediately called the police. Then he went to investigate the damage but nothing had happened. The police told him they get calls like that alot. (my emphasis)

The moral is: Don’t believe everything the brain tells you when you are asleep.

Please pay attention to that second to last sentence. Police told him they get calls like that a lot. This means that there are lots of people who have very real experiences of home invasions and/or cars crashing into their houses when the person thinks they are awake — real enough that they call the police once they get out of bed — yet the experiences weren’t real.

Imagine if these people never went through the trouble of double checking whether their doors were open and/or there was an actual car in their houses after calling the police and then becoming indignant with the police once the cops arrived and told them there was no evidence. That is the situation we have with people who experience god during the period between sleep and consciousness and don’t do any double checking to see if the experience was real or not. How could you even check that? God isn’t supposed to be tested!

And then this is what I wrote:

This person seems to think that a hallucination doesn’t have physiological affects on the body. They do (if hallucinations didn’t have an affect on the body, then they can’t be hallucinations, since hallucinations usually cause an emotional reaction in the person; which is a phsyiological response). It also seems this person hasn’t done any reading on the various sorts of sleep disorders out there.

What he wrote seems to be an almost textbook case of “old hag” syndrome. I’ve had it a lot. It seems like a very real event that happening to you. You feel half asleep and half awake and you feel a presence — a very, very powerful or foreboding presence (either you’re being watched by aliens or some unbelievably powerful supernatural entity) — and your heart starts to race and then you wake up.

I’ve had exactly what this person has had before, especially the heart racing after you “wake up” feeling. It’ scary, and if I hadn’t read up about sleep disorders, or taken an undergraduate course on psychology, then I’d definitely still be a Christian of some sort since I still get ‘em time to time.

These sorts of things are caused by stress and/or irregular sleep cycles. From what I’ve read, most cases of alien abductions are due to old hag syndrome (and, obvoiously, not from actual aliens). Most people, unfortunately, aren’t humble enough to concede that their own — uninformed — interpretation of their experience might not be the correct interpretation of their experience. When this is pointed out, they react like we’re saying the experience didn’t actually happen. No, the experience did happen, but your interpretation of what caused it is probably incorrect.

Basically, if this person’s experience is “true”, then so are alien abductions, since those “encounters” are just as real as his “encounter” with “god”.

Right now I’m in the middle of writing my own “deconversion story” and experiences like this play a pretty significant role in my teenage years.

Of course, another commenter made a good observation:

John, not sure you’d seen this, but there was a rescent story about a young man who died from a heart condition. Before he died he made a video talking about his heart condition that went viral after his death.

However one of the odd things was that before he died he had at least one heart attack where his heart had stopped for some time. But what was interesting during this was that he saw a rapper named Kid Cudi

What was funny, and I can’t seem to locate where I saw the interview. But one of the recent interviews with the parents. The mother was kind of joking about not sure why he did not see Jesus when he was dead. But she kind of laughed it off.

The point of my story, is just to reemphasize that experience cannot be trusted, when it comes to visions and feelings we have when we are not quite ourselves.

Is god really only able to manipulate our lives when we are not quite in control of our faculties? IE Sleep, halucigens [sic], meditation, prayer

Why is it that the gods can only communicate with us convincingly when we aren’t in our right state of mind? Why is it that we only get veridical experiences of the gods when we are somewhere between sleep and not-quite-not-asleep? Is Jesus a fan of The Sixth Sense?

You really shouldn’t trust your experiences either during sleep or immediately after waking up; or any other time you’re put under a lot of stress.

Or think about it this way. What is the prior probability of your brain being imperfect, compared to the prior probability of the existence of the supernatural?


Posted by on January 6, 2012 in cognitive science

NeuroLogica Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

NT Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion


Understand your mind with the science of psychology -


Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science

Maximum Entropy

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Skepticism, Properly Applied

Criticism is not uncivil

Download PDF

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Research Digest

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Disrupting Dinner Parties

Feminism is for everyone!

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

The New Oxonian

Religion and Culture for the Intellectually Impatient

The Musings of Thomas Verenna

A Biblioblog about imitation, the Biblical Narratives, and the figure of Jesus

The Syncretic Soubrette

Snarky musings from an everyday woman