Herod the Procurator

Herod the Great (you know, that guy in the Bible who killed all those babies, but didn’t really) was a procurator. (WTF is a procurator? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.) In fact, Herod wasn’t just any procurator. He was the chief procurator of the entire Roman province of Syria. Holy crap! That’s amazing! Er…or totally, fantastically irrelevant and boring. One or the other, I’m sure. (Right?)


The Backstory…

Who cares? Hardly anyone really. Why am I writing about this? Well, to be honest, because I had to at some point, and now is as good a time as any (more on that later). But kind of, also, because it’s really interesting to ancient history geeks. And, strangely, Christian apologists. Why? Because they can argue from “Herod was the procurator of Syria” to “Luke and Matthew don’t contradict each other on the year of Christ’s birth, contrary to what all you mean atheist harpies keep saying.” Yeah. It takes some twists and turns. But they make a good effort to get from A to B. Strangely, this point also connects to the debate over the existence of Jesus. No shit. Lotta twists and cul-de-sacs, but A gets to B on that one, too.

Even given that context (“Ooo! Christian apologetics? Now it’s getting interesting!”), this is one of the most jaw-droppingly uninteresting bits of trivia you’ve probably come across on FtB in months. Or ever. I mean, there are mighty battles being fought elsewhere here over very important issues. Sexism, slander, dumbassery, political murder, bad science, the Republican primaries, soda mice. (Among all of which you will learn that a new spell has been added to the Harry Potter lexicon: wave your wand and utter the words Rebecca Watson and a hoard of nitwitted sexist trolls are summoned; unfortunately they immediately attack the spellcaster so it’s kind of a shit spell really.)

But here’s the backstory. For my Master of Philosophy at Columbia University (aka M.Phil., a graduate degree between M.A. and Ph.D., sort of like what everyone else calls ABD) I completed a thesis in preparation for working up a prospectus for my dissertation. That thesis was never published, mainly because, though it is more thorough and meticulous than anything on its topic, someone I’d never heard of beat me to publication with their own paper arguing the same thesis (albeit a lot less comprehensively and in a more wishy washy way, but nevertheless, journals won’t publish my work now because “it’s already been done,” as one editor directly told me). It’s a mind-numbingly boring thesis. But I worked really hard on it and I’m sure someone will find it useful someday. So I updated it (even citing and incorporating that other paper, as well as all the revisions asked for by my peer reviewers) and published it on my website for anyone crazy enough to read it: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria? (PDF)

It does have one interesting vibe to it. If you read it all through (you have to be kind of a little crazy to do that, but that can be in a good way; why, hey, it’s “only” 36 pages long), one thing you will learn, especially if you are not a professional historian, is how incredibly complicated doing history really is, and why expertise and training is so important for it. My thesis details all the actual steps that are involved in coming to a conclusion on any question (even one so seemingly simple as “Was Herod the Great really the procurator of Roman Syria?”), showing you all the sorts of things you have to know about and research, the process of reasoning and analysis you have to go through, and all that jazz. Usually you just see the end result, maybe a paragraph summary, and don’t see all the messy, crazy shit that went on to produce that paragraph. Now you get to see Oz working the controls. Batshit crazy controls.

You’ll also learn (especially if you read the most boring part) how translations, even by total bona fide experts, can screw up the original meaning of a text, and how beholden laymen are to what are really often very subjective translations hiding all manner of assumptions and agendas of the translator. Not just the Bible has this problem; all ancient books do. You’ll also learn a bit about how determining what the original text said from existing manuscripts is no simple matter, either. And you’ll learn some stuff about various languages, Roman provincial administration, and how Herod the Great and Emperor Augustus were such party buds I’d bet a sawbuck they high-fived over a shared a hooker or two. (Not literally, of course; sure, everyone knows double-teaming hookers was invented in 1891 B.C., but the high-five is a 20th century invention; so, whatever the ancient Roman equivalent was. Yeah, I’d risk a tenner on that. Stranger shit has supposedly happened. Story is, emperor-to-be Titus banged two hookers over an open Torah scroll on the sacred sacrificial altar of the Jewish Temple just to flip the bird at the nutty superstitious Jews he’d just wasted several years of his life putting down a rebellion of. I remember the first thing I thought when I read that, “I hope those girls were paid well.” Probably. Everyone says Titus was a real mensch. Anyway…)


So Back to the Christian Thing…

Okay, quick summary:

Matthew says Jesus was born a year or so before Herod the Great died, which was 4 B.C.; Luke says Jesus was born when the Roman senator Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the first ever Roman census of Judea, which was 6 A.D.; the contradiction (a ten year miss, even) proves the New Testament is, uhem, errant (oh, and BTW, notice that neither says it was 1 A.D.; and in fact that date is entirely impossible on either of their accounts…oops); “Oh, shit!” Christians say to themselves (probably not out loud, because that might anger their storm god); Christian apologists scramble for some way to fix this fiasco; they come up with a wild pile of bullshit; if you rummage around in that shit pile (like I did), you’ll find this gem:

“Well, see, Quirinius must have been governor of Syria twice somehow (even though no one ever was a governor of the same province twice and we have zero evidence Quirinius was or even could have been), and there must have been some other, earlier census of Judea, conducted by Herod (even though that is illogical and impossible on every known fact of the matter), and since the evidence says other guys were governing Syria at the time, not only was Quirinius twice governor, but he must have been co-governor with someone else (even though no such thing as a co-governorship of a province existed in the Roman administrative system and in fact it would have been illogical and absurd).”

When mean atheists like me point out the parenthetical points (put in italics above), Christians scramble for damage control, generally by making shit up or pretending at being historians, doing some embarrassingly incompetent amateur hatchet job with “facts” they tweeze out of modern translations of ancient books (unlike Muslims, who everywhere insist on Arabic fluency and thus actually know how to read their scripture, most Christians never actually learn Greek and generally couldn’t give a shit what the actual words in their inspired scriptures are) and/or antiquated, long-superseded scholarship (because when Christians can’t find what they want in up-to-date scholarship they dig around for something written in the 19th century, back in those golden days before that Darwin dickwad ruined everything; because surely any history done then must be superior and more reliable than any done now…and they’re, like, totally right).

Case in point: Josephus (and an occasional stone inscription) repeatedly says there were two governors of Syria. So there! Except he doesn’t (nor do any inscriptions). Ah, those pesky translations. You see, what Josephus (and every other source from then) says is that every Syrian governor had a lieutenant, and they often hung out and did shit together. “But that’s the same thing, right?” Uh, no. Because ancient Roman society didn’t work like our modern American “classless” society. Technically we do have classes (lower, middle, and upper) demarcated by access to wealth, but in classical times classes were official matters of law, and one couldn’t cross from one to the other just by getting rich. You had to be officially recognized as of that class; and it took some hoodow to make that happen. And in the meantime, your career options were limited by what class you were in.


Intro to Roman Social History

It breaks down like this: the unwashed masses (actually, the Roman masses were often very well washed) were just “ordinary people” and couldn’t hold any significant political or military office (didn’t even qualify; couldn’t even buy their way in…unless they bought their way into a higher social order); next in rank were the equestrians (literally “horsemen,” so sometimes called “knights”; the term originally designated someone rich enough to buy and keep a horse, although that was an antiquated notion by then…even the poorest Roman equestrian could buy and keep a small shitload of horses), who (unlike those below them) qualified for appointed administrative positions and could serve as something like NCOs in the military (or perhaps more analogously, low ranking officers, depending on what point of comparison you start with), but couldn’t run for elected office and couldn’t be a staff officer…unless they were at least 30 years old and met the multi-million-dollar entry requirement for the next class: the senators. To enter the senatorial class you had to prove you had millions of dollars in property and then (to be elligible to hold any office) you had to get elected to the entry-level position of quaestor (“treasurer”; yep, the bottom-ranking gig even then), which got you permanently into the Roman Senate, and from there you could run for higher offices (but always by ranks, i.e. you couldn’t skip straight to Lord of All I Survey, you had to serve as quaestor, then praetor, then consul, and your social rank would always be based on how high you’d gotten, e.g. a consular senator outranked a praetorian senator, big time). Of course, kids of senators were automatically of the senatorial class, although they still had to get elected (or, if we set aside the Doublespeak, given the real nature of politics under the emperors, appointed) to a quaestorship to enter the Senate itself (and yes, that meant daughters could be of senatorial rank, but sadly, as they could never hold any office, they never became Senators).

Okay. So? Well, because of the Roman constitution at the time, no one could govern a province who was not a consular senator. This is because the provinces were officially governed by the emperor (who had consular rank) or the senatorial consuls, and “governors” were just their stand-ins, but in an official government capacity, which meant they had to be of the same rank. Thus a praetorian senator was not of sufficient rank to govern a province and thus could not act in any other governor’s stead. You had to appoint a senator who had served as a consul at some prior time and thus achieved consular rank. (There were a handful of weird provinces, called senatorial provinces, that didn’t precisely fall under this rule, but Syria wasn’t one of them so they’re irrelevant for our purposes; one of the constitutionally relevant differences, BTW, was that senatorial provinces usually never had legions in them.)

Notice that not even lower ranking senators could govern a province, much less lowly equestrians, who couldn’t even hold a real political office at all, much less govern a province. They weren’t even senators. It would have been scandalously offensive (and indeed risked outright assassination or civil war) if an emperor were to openly flout the constitution and insult every upper class senatorial man in the empire by appointing a lowly equestrian to govern a province (case in point: Caligula is said to have almost appointed his horse, and they promptly killed him…and tried to damn his memory–literally: the senate proposed [and may have eventually passed] an official decree of damnatio memoriae; yeah, they had those). And certainly such a remarkable curiosity would make every history book of the time, as the weirdest thing to happen since someone discovered water could be turned into a white powder. Conversely, no senator (much less of mighty consular rank) would disgrace himself or his whole family’s honor by ever deigning to lower himself to work in an equestrian post. That would be more unbelievable than a U.S. President becoming a fry cook at McDonald’s.

Now, governors of imperial provinces, who were always consular senators, and officially were high-ranking military officers, commanders of legions, obviously had a whole chain of command working under them, of lower ranking senatorial line and staff officers, as well as equestrian field officers and NCOs and bureaucrats. Thus, a governor could divide up his provincial command and appoint lower ranking officers to take care of business there, principally taking charge of any troops and enforcing the law. These were typically equestrians (because Roman paranoia prevented entrusting major provincial and troop commands to senators, who might have ambitions; whereas equestrians were generally locked in their low status and thus no threat, and in fact for that reason typically more loyal). These officers were called “prefects,” literally “guys placed in front,” in other words “dudes in charge.” Prefects were always equestrians; senatorial officers had other ranks (namely, quaestor or praetor).

Now that you have all that background (and notice how there is no way a layman is likely to know any of this; there’s a reason you need a Ph.D. to draw correct conclusions about the ancient world), you can get the punchline: Whenever we see mentions of governors and their lieutenants (as in Josephus, for example), it’s always a consular senator and his equestrian prefect. Men who are not even of the same social class. You might already see where this is going. Quirinius is well established to have been a consular senator as of 12 B.C. We know all the consular governors of Syria from 12 to 3 B.C. He therefore cannot have been any of their “lieutenants,” because those lieutenants were always prefects of the equestrian class, and he was way the hell higher ranking than an equestrian, in fact he held the highest possible social rank in the whole Roman empire: a consular senator. So much for the co-governor idea.


Intro to Christian Logic

Okay. Now that you are as bored as you possibly can be, it gets even more boring. Enter Herod the Procurator. The Christian’s logic goes like this (and I’ve had versions of this argument sent to me in email over the years by a half dozen D-list Christian apologists). Pontius Pilate was the “governor” of Judea. Pontius Pilate was a procurator. Therefore a “procurator” is a “governor.” Herod the Great was the Procurator of Syria. Therefore, Herod the Great (a foreigner) was the “governor” of Syria. Therefore the Romans played fast and loose with their constitution when it came to provincial government. Therefore they could well have had double governors or something. In fact when Herod was “governor” of Syria, we know another consular senator was governor of Syria, so bingo, there we have it, there were two governors of Syria!

This is all so fucked up it makes me want to cry. Okay. First. Judea was not a province. Thus Pilate was not “the [provincial] governor” of Judea. The governor of Syria was. Judea was then a district of the Roman province of Syria. Pilate was just the prefect assigned to govern that district. By the governor of Syria. And as you’d expect, Pilate was of equestrian rank. Thus no argument can proceed by analogy from the government of Judea to the government of Syria. Second. A procurator is not a prefect. To identify Pilate as “governor of Judea” is to identify him as a prefect, not a procurator. A procurator is not an administrative or military office. It’s a private occupation. It means “business manager” (literally, “one given care of stuff,” e.g. an agent, a manager, etc.). Thus in no sense does procurator ever mean “governor.” Thus in no sense at all was Herod the Great ever “the governor of Syria.” So, no playing fast and loose here. The Romans stuck to their constitution, or as near as could pass as plausible (in an Orwellian sense, if one examines how the emperors invented the entire office of emperor without actually, literally changing the constitution, which never mentioned any such office per se, by cleverly exploiting various loopholes in that constitution, but that’s a whole other story, not relevant here).

So despite trying to rescue the big gaping historical error in the Gospels, the attempt to get from “Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria” to “the Bible is inerrant” is built on a pile of the hack mistakes of presumptuous Christian apologists who don’t know their Roman social history for shit. What does any of this long boring digression have to do with my thesis paper on Herod the Procurator? Well, among other things (like analyzing the evidence for Herod being a procurator of Syria at all), I document in it all the evidence and scholarship laying out the distinction between prefects and procurators. Which has another use, for those following the “did Jesus really exist?” debate…


So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?

A prominent defender of the thesis that Jesus is a mythical person (more now in the agnostic camp, but still) is G.A. Wells. And one argument he made, against the authenticity of a passage attesting to the existence of Jesus in the Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 117 A.D.), is that Tacitus there calls Pilate a “procurator” when in fact we know, from logic (given the above) and an actual stone inscription cut at Pilate’s own direction, that Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator, which isn’t even a government office. “Surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake (so the passage is a forgery) or “surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake if he was working from government documents (so he must be relying on an unreliable source, like a Gospel-reading Christian informant). Therefore the information is bogus. Therefore (given various other conclusions) Jesus didn’t exist. Now, like many an unsound argument, the primary conclusion is true (Tacitus is almost certainly relying on a Gospel-reading Christian informant, and not any kind of government records), but the argument for it is not.

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 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 (Egypt never had a senatorial governor, its governorship was always officially held by the emperor himself, who never shared it, because Egypt was the breadbasket of the empire at the time and thus any senator allowed to govern it would be tempted to do the obvious…and they wouldn’t have that uppity, smartypants Cleopatra gumming up their game, either). It was actually commonplace for prefects to also be procurators. Why? Well, I explain in my thesis (for those who only care about this topic, you can skip directly to the section on “The Procurator in the Time of Augustus,” starting on page 29, but also hyperlinked in the table of contents on page 2 of Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?).

Procurators were private agents. So, for example, if you were some rich guy and owned lands in several provinces, you obviously couldn’t personally oversee their management, so you would hire someone as your procurator to go act as landlord for you. Pretty much any business, or property, or account of money that you had somewhere needed someone to manage it on your behalf. That someone was a procurator. The wealthy elite had armies of them in their employ. And the emperor was the wealthiest man in the Western hemisphere. Another little known fact is that the emperors often compelled their vanquished opponents to sign treaties not with the Roman people (SPQR) but with the emperor himself and his private family estate. Annual tribute was then owed not to the Roman government, but directly to the Roman emperor’s family estate. And in such cases lands seized were not the public property of Rome, but the private property of the emperor, taken as spoils (or as bribes, or simply bought outright, and just as often inherited, from people wanting to get their surviving family on the emperor’s good side). This meant the emperor had tons of lands he needed to manage privately (not officially as a Roman statesman) and tons of cash that had to be collected every year and held in his name and managed at a profit, or delivered to him across regions and seas. And that meant the emperor had to employ thousands of procurators to act as his business managers for all this.

Well, who would make the best procurator? Or rather, the best chief procurator, who would look over and keep in line all the other procurators who were actually managing the individual landholdings, and collections, and stashes of banked cash? Why, who best to hire for that job than the chief of police? The very guy who governs the district and has charge of the courts and the law and cohorts of infantry and cavalry to enforce his will. Brilliant, eh? And so it was. Every prefect of Judea was also the emperor’s privately hired business manager, who ensured all the imperial procurators in their district behaved and did their jobs, and everyone who owed the emperor money (or had the temerity to sue him) was dealt with. In our modern democracy this would be perfectly appalling. It would be obvious corruption if the President hired the Secretary of the Interior to manage all of his private lands, and the Secretary of Commerce to run all of his private companies and businesses, and hired Superior Court Judges to manage the very private estates they passed judgments on in court (imagine suing someone and finding out that the judge deciding the case is the property manager of the very estate you are suing!). But the Roman empire had no such moral notions, and no laws on the books against it. To them it was just convenient.

But there were complaints. Although not necessarily of the kind you’d expect. 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 commoners 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 the 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 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.

Okay. Right. Here we are now. Anyone who has actually read this blog post all the way to this point (I commend you, sir and/or ma’am!) will now be able to guess the conclusion of my thesis: Herod the Great was appointed by his good buddy Augustus to be his principal business manager in Syria. Wow. Amazing, right? That conclusion is going to haunt you for days. Life changing stuff. Just simply life changing. And so that you will have it with you always, I have now posted my old M.Phil. thesis on Herod the Syrian procurator, which has sections on all this stuff (so if you want to cite evidence and scholarship at anyone in defense of these points, like about Pilate being both procurator and prefect, that’s the paper for you), and other stuff besides (as I babbled on about in the earlier half of this blog).

Enjoy. Or not. Anyway, it’s there now if you need it.



  1. Dean Buchanan says

    Error 404 – Page Not Found

    You had me going there for a minute. I was going to rethink everything, EVERYTHING, I tell ya.
    Now back to finding someone to manage my extensive real estate holdings…

  2. _Arthur says

    Most instructive.

    Is it correct that, at some point of the Roman Empire, the consulship was so meaningless (as a post, not as a Title) that Rome had 10 consuls in a single month ?

    • says

      Arthur: Is it correct that, at some point of the Roman Empire, the consulship was so meaningless (as a post, not as a Title) that Rome had 10 consuls in a single month?

      Yes, sort of. Because the empire had so many provinces, and it was policy not to have the same guy govern the same province more than once, nor (usually) for more than three years, the empire needed a buttload of consular senators all the time, and with two made every year (the ordinary constitutional count) that wasn’t enough. So a new kind of consul, called a suffect consul, was “invented” (not really, but sort of: the constitution already allowed for additional consuls in the event of the death or incapacity of the two primaries, and “being busy” could sort of be interpreted as qualifying; this is one of those “loopholes” I was talking about). So the prestigious “eponymous consuls” (the two real ones after whom the year would be named; often one of these was the emperor) were supplemented with a number (sometimes a dozen) of “suffect consuls” in order to pad out the ranks of the consular class. I’m not sure if there was a “ten in one month” occasion, but it’s not implausible (I could check, but it’s not important; likewise it’s possible, whether we have evidence of it or not, that the senate properly passed legislation making this not just a loophole but straight up law).

      However, ironically, this didn’t mean the consulship was meaningless, but kind of the opposite: it had become so important and in demand that they needed tons more of them (in fact, it was the proconsulship that became more important: governing provinces, as an ex-consul, on behalf of the reigning consul). However, in a sense, yes, this dilutes the significance of being a consul, but the Romans kept the prestige of the original two every year with the eponymous consulship.

      However, in a more important sense, the consulship had been greatly diminished by the imperial power structure. Under the Republic the highest post there was was consul, and the two there always were had equal rank and could sometimes veto each other’s decisions, thus creating a kind of check and balance, and of course consuls were elected by the people and thus a democratic office. But starting with Augustus, consuls were no longer “in charge.” The emperor was. How he swung that without rewriting the constitution requires a bit of explaining, but in short it was brilliant.

      Basically it worked like this: also under the constitution was an elected office called “Tribune of the Plebs” (I’ll go all British and call it the TP) and that person could veto the action of any magistrate (including the consuls). Checks and balances again. Technically there was a biological limitation: tribunes had to come from plebeian stock rather than patrician stock, and certain magistracies had to be filled by the latter, a distinction of biological inheritance that had once divided the rich from the poor and the aristocracy from the peasantry, but the whole distinction had become increasingly irrelevant and obviously pedantic even before the fall of the Republic, and the senate effectively eliminated it by various legislation. Thus Augustus got himself elected TP (technically, elected to the powers of TP). Thus he could tell the consuls what to do by threatening to veto anything they did otherwise. Added to this, the emperor would start his reign by also getting elected eponymous consul (if he had not been once already), and then the Senate passed legislation granting him imperium proconsulare maius (greater proconsular power), after which the title “emperor” comes (imperator, holder of imperium) ever after, which gave him the effective authority of a permanent consul (whether he was literally appointed consul in any subsequent year or not; technically he had power to act only on behalf of the eponymous consuls, whoever those actually were in any given year, which is what proconsul means, “for the consul,” but because he was also tribune, the consuls couldn’t actually tell him what to do; nice Catch-22 that), and in particular, the Senate made him consul over all the provinces that were of military importance (as had been the practice under the Republic, each consul was assigned an imperium over a specific geographical area; one of the significances of Caesar crossing the Rubicon was that he was crossing the geographical border out of his imperium as assigned by the Senate), which was practically all of them. In other words, basically, the whole Roman Empire (the total Imperium Romanum). With those two constitutional offices (TP and proconsul over the whole imperium of Rome) you get an emperor. They accumulated other powers and dinked over time with the laws and what they could get away with regardless of the laws, but these two were the main ones.

      Clever, eh? All perfectly constitutional. But totally not at all what the Founding Fathers intended.:-)

  3. says

    Wow. That was genuinely awesome. I may not ever use this information in my life, ever, but I still enjoyed reading it.

    One question: my understanding is that most Muslim’s can’t read the Quran, because even those that speak Arabic generally speak a different kind of Arabic than the Quran is written in. Kind of like me trying to read Beowulf.

    So when you say that Muslims are actually able to read their holy book, were you just assuming, or is that what you have been told by someone actually knowledgeable?

    • says

      Chris Hallquist: Regarding the problem of Arabic dialects, you’re right, I don’t know enough about that. I know Muslims require converts to be able to read and recite the Koran in Arabic, but whether they preserve (or care to preserve) the original sense, I don’t know. I doubt they are totally negligent in this. If you were required to read and memorize and base your life and civilization on reading Beowulf as-is, and all your family and ancestors and whole society likewise, since the beginning, it’s very unlikely you would have a hard time understanding it. The analogy thus doesn’t hold. “You trying to read Beowulf” is just not comparable.

      However, it’s entirely plausible that what modern Muslims say the original meant is not in fact what it meant, i.e. I doubt Muslims in general are such erudite scholars that they fully grasp the original context and nuances of classical Arabic. They don’t even seem to have any interest in studying that, at least objectively the way we study classical philology. So in that sense you would be right. Assuming my suspicion about this is correct.

    • Florian Blaschke says

      I’m nowhere near an expert on Arabic or Koran studies (though one of my profs is an Arabist), but as far as I know, the main problem with Koran studies is actually different. The Arabic dialects aren’t the problem. Standard Arabic, which is based on Classical Arabic, is the normal written language, and it is also spoken on TV and the like, comparable to a scenario in which Latin had remained the standard (written and spoken) language of the Romance world, but in a Neo-Latin form enriched with various neologisms for modern concepts, and slightly modified and modernised otherwise as well, partly under the influence of the Romance dialects. (In particular, Standard Modern Arabic, as it is properly called, has many regional pronunciation variants, influenced by the respective regional dialects. None of which, of course, reflecting the original pronunciation. This is all very familiar from the Latin regional pronunciation traditions in Europe.) So at least in theory, everybody in the Muslim-majority Arabic world is able to understand the Koran, or at least the language seems intelligible enough, if more or less old-fashioned (though probably less so than the King James Version or Shakespeare). The real problem is that the oldest available versions of the text lack vocalisation (indications of short vowels, especially), and – if I remember correctly – the dots on the consonant symbols which distinguish many of them from each other, too, which means the Koran is a tangle of ambiguity. And that’s the main point of serious Koran studies. There is a traditional vocalisation, a kind of Textus Receptus, which is generally held to reflect the original text by the vast majority of the population, including fundamentalists, but the scholars know better than to trust this tradition. And that’s why no Koran quotation is ever to be trusted, even in the original Arabic (much less a translation, of course): it’s always ultimately an interpretation of an incredibly ambiguous text. (Of course, don’t trust me too much either, at least no more than Wikipedia; I may have misconceptions here, or simply misremember stuff!)

  4. felicis says

    Very interesting – I (long ago) took a semester course in Roman history, and have always been fascinated by the subject. I did read all the way through to the end, and will probably read your link as well.

  5. CJO says

    Clever, eh? All perfectly constitutional.

    Too clever by half. Since it was all a cynical manipulation propped up initially by the personal qualities of Augustus and the precarious situation (for the republic) in which he took supreme power without making provision for it, no formal process for succession was ever established. Also, it totally fucked up elite social relations, in ways that Tacitus’s sniping only begins to articulate. The combination of the two (no formal succession; the resentment and envy –the dreaded invidia— of the traditional aristocracy) is what, as I have come to understand it, set the stage for the constant civil strife of later centuries.

    Thanks for the rundown on this. I appreciate the brief on social history, a lot of which I did know, despite being a layman, but it’s always nice to see it articulated by an expert for greater confidence in the fruits of my own learning. What I hadn’t gotten until now was the essentially private role of procurators and how that could be combined with or added to the public role of prefect. Good stuff, and not boring at all –you shouldn’t disclaim so much.

    • says

      CJO: Too clever by half. … no formal process for succession was ever established. … [and that and the rest] set the stage for the constant civil strife of later centuries.

      You’re spot on.

      This is exactly what doomed the empire to fall (eventually). I’m sure it all seemed like a good idea at the time. But failing to map out the actual consequences over the ensuing two centuries was the biggest mistake he made. There just wasn’t any reliable system of peaceful succession, and by stretching the constitution into a mockery of itself, it, too, became increasingly meaningless (and thus powerless to remedy any of the risks attending the inevitable crises of power and justice that always arise).

      The Senate came close to remedying this failure, several times (after Nero, then Domitian, then Commodus, then sometime in the third century), but failure of nerve got the better of them every time. It made the empire so volatile it’s failure was a statistical inevitability. Eventually someone was going to roll snake eyes and bring the whole thing down (and that finally happened in the third century: I discuss that, and cite the scholarship on it, in Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 435-40). A better plan would not have had them rolling dice every time to begin with. But this is the usual error of fascists: it was assumed (given what had happened the previous century) that “the people” couldn’t be counted on to vote wisely, therefore they needed someone to “decide for them” who would rule, and in such a way that they would go along with this. But that’s always a doomed plan. The chaos of democracy is (ironically, perhaps) always more stable. But this can only be seen in the long view. Up close it often doesn’t seem that way. And so it didn’t to Augustus and his supporters.

  6. says


    Out of curiosity, how much weight to historicists tend to put on the Tacitus passage? I take it that they focus primarily on what we can glean from the epistles and Gospels, and then secondarily to Tacitus and Josephus, and then lastly to the other extra-Biblical references.

    If you’re right about the Tacitus passage here (and if you’re right about the two Josephus passages in what you write elsewhere), then that looks like it would be quite a blow to your opposition in the historical Jesus debate.

    • says

      Landon Hedrick: How much weight to historicists tend to put on the Tacitus passage?

      Without any way to poll them, I can’t say. My general impression is that most don’t really think about it, and haven’t spent any time actually reading or studying the passage. So even if they had an opinion, it would be badly formed and thus not reliable.

      All that matters to me is that the standard principle in history is that if dependence is a reasonable possibility and there is no evidence for independence, we cannot treat an item of evidence as independent; and evidence that is not independent adds zero weight to a case. And here we not only have that, but an obvious, reasonable, and highly probable transmission history from Christian deaconess, to Pliny, to Tacitus. We can’t “prove” it (we don’t have a transcript or audio recording of either the interrogation or all the conversations Pliny and Tacitus would have had when hanging out together) but we don’t need to, when the transmission is inherently likely (in fact, of all possibilities, the most likely), and there is no evidence of any other.

      And yes, my work demolishing the Josephus passages (which will be published in JECS later this year) and the Thallus reference (which will be published in JGRChJ later this year), plus this argument (for Tacitus), does pretty much kick the props out from any decent extra-biblical case for Jesus, but that alone wouldn’t entail he didn’t exist (many a historical person could be attested only in Christian sources, for example; and likewise, many a historical person is attested nowhere at all). There are still the feeble threads of Suetonius (and the “Chrestus” passage) or Lucian (writing late in the 2nd century and obviously relying on Christians as his source), etc. But the best there supposedly was were Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus. And they just don’t hold up as reliable evidence at all. That much is true.

  7. says

    My impression is that Muslims can be weird about this. Some learn to recite the Quran without learning any Arabic at all, which I guess would be comparable to a Catholic knowing the Latin mass or Latin chants or whatever without actually having studied Latin.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    So howcum a big-deal, multiple-degreed, sho’nuff professional historicator like yrself, especially in this forum, uses “A.D.” instead of “C.E.” for dates?

    • says

      Ohhh…why do I use A.D. instead of C.E.? Because C.E. is fucking stupid in every conceivable way.

      I actually said so in my Columbia Dissertation (only in academicspeak; yes, you can indeed translate “fucking stupid” into a disguised academic language). Unfortunately, Prometheus Books’ editorial standards require C.E. / B.C.E. so everything I’ve done with them has been converted thereto (in case you are wondering why I use that in my books with them; it’s because they force me to).

      I have been considering doing a blog on this sometime. (Since I’m sure your first question is “why” I think it’s “fucking stupid.”) So let’s wait for that.

    • Florian Blaschke says

      It’s been a long time since the comment I’m replying too, but I’m still interested in this. Personally, I use AD by force of habit, and don’t see anything wrong with it really, but I can’t see what could be so wrong with CE, either (especially when interpreted as “Christian Era”).

  9. eeeeee says

    What do you think about Hitchens idea, that some sort of person must have existed, because who would make up a “Nazarene” Jesus if in the end you have to pretend his birth to have taken place in Bethlehem?

    • says

      eeeeee: What do you think about Hitchens idea, that some sort of person must have existed, because who would make up a “Nazarene” Jesus if in the end you have to pretend his birth to have taken place in Bethlehem?

      Read Proving History, pp. 142-45.

      (Yes, you will have to wait until April before it’s available. Sorry.:o)

  10. says

    This is great stuff!

    I used to be a constant lurker, some 10 years or so ago, on a forum where you were active in the discussion. (II? I’m not sure any more. It’s been a long time.) Then I eased out, trying to free my life from all the old echoes of Christianity.

    Just as I was thinking it was safe to get involved again, you appeared on FtB, so here I am, and maybe no longer just lurking. And this is the kind of information that keeps me reading.

    Off to read all 36 pages of the pdf, now.

    • says

      I’m actually encouraged by everyone who told me they did not find this long post on obscure trivia boring. It’s good to know there is a large enough base out there that it’s worthwhile continuing to post these kinds of things on occasion. I know I won’t please everyone all the time, but I can spread the love around.

    • Florian Blaschke says

      Ah, then I’d like to add my voice to the list of all those who are intrigued by this detail, especially seeing how the whole power structure contains the seeds of the fall of Rome.

  11. David Whitehouse says

    And to think I was going to go in to some Carrier blog withdrawal whilst the new year was brought in and hangovers tempered.

    “This is all so fucked up it makes me want to cry.”

    For my money, best line of the article.

    Well done, my man. Also, perhaps dial down a notch on apologizing for being boring. It borders on insulting those of us who eat this stuff up.

    • says

      David Whitehouse: Also, perhaps dial down a notch on apologizing for being boring. It borders on insulting those of us who eat this stuff up.

      But most of my readers aren’t you (or me). Let’s not be narcissistic. :-)

  12. helenaconstantine says

    I see that you claim on the linked document to be a PhD. In what, if you never completed your degree in Philosophy?

    I happen to be a PhD in Classics, and I can only say that if you had gone ahead, you would have been encouraged by your directors to change the emphasis of your work.

    Herod was a client king. He was not and could not have been a provincial governor for the reasons you point out in the blog post. Neither would he have a prefect, procurator or anything else on the govenor’s staff. The idea is really quite fantastic.

    Procurator was a more more general term than prefect, but its use is not limited in the way you describe.

    Your confusion between the orders and the various ranks (praetorian, consular) is profound, as is your belief that plebeian in the first century was an order below equestrian (how do you account for the fact that Agrippa was a plebeian, and that from the mid-Republic on, the constitution required one of the consuls to be a plebeian?).

    In one place you think that Tacitus’ only source of information about Pilate was Pliny (who was not his friend in any modern sense but merely once supplied some information to him about his uncle)–and your statement was so broad it could be read to mean that Tacitus depended upon Pliny for his knowledge about provincial administration–but in another place you admit he had this knowledge on his own account. that contradiction really jumped out at me.

    What is the work that you believed beat you into print? Are you sure you weren’t discouraged from publishing by the editor, not because you were duplicating another study, but because you didn’t have a finished mss.?

    Now, it is well known that Josesphus exaggerates the importnace of everything jewish in the ROman world,so I was keen to look up the refernces to Dio and the Res Getae that support your contentions about Herd’s position.

    Here are the texts from Dio that supposedly corroborate Josephus in naming Herod as Procurator of Syria:

    “Augustus, now, after transacting what business he had in Greece, sailed to Samos, where he passed the winter; and in the spring of the year when Marcus Apuleius and Publius Silius were consuls, he went on into Asia, and settled everything there and in Bithynia.”

    “He reduced the people of Cyzicus to slavery because during a factious quarrel they had flogged and put to death some Romans. And when he reached Syria, he took the same action in the case of the people of Tyre and Sidon on account of their factious quarrelling.”

    “To Herod he entrusted the tetrarchy of a certain Zenodorus, and to one Mithridates, though still a mere boy, he gave Commagene, inasmuch as its king had put the boy’s father to death.”

    All the Res G. has to say is “After I returned to the city from Syria.”

    This kind of padding doesn’t make things look too good for you. And its clear that your purpose in writing is more less to create filler, which doesn’t encourage me to read the whole text.

    • says

      helenaconstantine: Herod was a client king. He was not and could not have been a provincial governor for the reasons you point out in the blog post. Neither would he have a prefect, procurator or anything else on the govenor’s staff. The idea is really quite fantastic.

      And yet many bona fide, published scholars (and translators) were suggesting such a thing (or something wafflingly close). And thus the guy who scooped me got his paper published in a peer reviewed journal correcting their error. Thus experts in the field deemed the argument worth publishing.

      Of course, had I pursued a dissertation from this paper (which is not a prospectus, but a self-contained thesis; I was only considering journal publication), it’s main focus would have been on teasing out all the evidence of the powers of procurators vs. prefects, on which there is a lot of debate. But I found that had already been done, too (in German; that text, which is massively definitive, I cite in my thesis).

      Your confusion between the orders and the various ranks (praetorian, consular) is profound, as is your belief that plebeian in the first century was an order below equestrian (how do you account for the fact that Agrippa was a plebeian, and that from the mid-Republic on, the constitution required one of the consuls to be a plebeian?).

      Yes, technically, plebeian is a kind of gens and not an ordo. But no one in the patrician class was in any order lower than eques, thus in effect all sub-equites were plebeians. But you are right, it doesn’t work the other way around (some higher order people were plebeians; hence my point that that distinction became increasingly mooted). So I have emended the blog to avoid confusing anyone on that point.

      In one place you think that Tacitus’ only source of information about Pilate was Pliny (who was not his friend in any modern sense but merely once supplied some information to him about his uncle)–and your statement was so broad it could be read to mean that Tacitus depended upon Pliny for his knowledge about provincial administration–but in another place you admit he had this knowledge on his own account. that contradiction really jumped out at me.

      No, I quite clearly say Tacitus had Pliny as a source on Christians; for administration, I quite clearly say Tacitus knew all about that from his own personal experience. And yes, they were friends. They exchanged many letters (not just the ones in which Tacitus asks for information to add to his history: 6.16; 6.20, and this was a quite personal question; 7.33), worked side-by-side in the Senate (Letters 2.11.2), and on political campaigns in which they were on intimate terms (6.9), they had several intimate friends in common (4.15.1, 1.6, 7.20.6), Pliny admired Tacitus’s oratorical skills (2.1.6) and writing (9.23.2) and talked them up to everyone, Pliny indicates he often hung out with Tacitus, was always keen to be informed of his well-being, and trusted him with personal favors that he normally discussed with him “in person” and which he clearly would never ask some random distant acquaintance (4.13), Pliny wrote Tacitus letters about events in his personal life and giving him advice (1.6) and seeks and trusts his advice in turn (1.20), he sent intimate but admiring letters to him (e.g. 9.14), they shared and discussed each other’s poetry (9.10) and Tacitus asked him to read advanced drafts of his histories and mark them up with advice and criticism and Pliny asked the same of Tacitus (7.20, 8.7), and Pliny outright calls Tacitus his friend (6.16.22) and says “the tale will everywhere be told of the harmony, frankness, and loyalty of our lifelong friendship” (7.20.2) and “our love should be still the warmer” because of all their friends and work in common (7.20.7). That sounds like a friend in a modern sense to me (or as near to as Roman culture had an analog).

      What is the work that you believed beat you into print? Are you sure you weren’t discouraged from publishing by the editor, not because you were duplicating another study, but because you didn’t have a finished mss.?

      Actually I did have a finished manuscript and it passed peer review–but for the fact that the conclusion had already been published. As to the paper in question, it’s cited in my thesis.

      Here are the texts from Dio that supposedly corroborate Josephus in naming Herod as Procurator of Syria…

      Since I never say Dio does that, you clearly aren’t very good at reading.

  13. says

    One of the things that came to mind when reading this was the level of expertise required to wade through the amount of information we have available to us, and the negative consequences of that. We see it most often in the sciences where it has become very difficult for anyone outside of a specific field to really understand the details. You are demonstating that in history as well.

    Lay people can easily be swayed by those who present themselves as experts, especially those who make things sound simple. My partner is an academic librarian and one of her primary teaching tasks is to help students evaluate the reliability of source material. When my youngest was 10, he figured it out. “You don’t need to know what you are talking about, you just need to say it with authority”.

    Scholarship is not easy, but it is critical to understanding our world.

  14. Dorothy says

    By the way, not boring!!.
    I read mostly fiction, mysteries and science fiction, and there are latin/roman historical ones in there, and this gives me another measuring stick to test the validity of their research. No information is ever wasted.

  15. coragyps says

    Hell, Mr. Carrier, that’s at least 3 X 10^7 times as interesting as my dissertation was!

  16. Julien Rousseau says

    Let me add to the chorus of “I find that kind of stuff interesting and would like to see more”.

    I have a question that is off topic but related to the historicity of Jesus: is the lack of Roman record about his crucifixion* due to lacking records for all executions at that time and place or do we have such executions records but they do not contain any entry that can be attributed to Jesus?

    If the latter, is it possible to consult those records (in the linked article about pre-50’s books about history you mentions books that present primary evidence, so in a book like that for example) to have an idea of how complete they are?

    * assuming an historical Jesus for the sake of argument here.

    • says

      Julien Rousseau: Is the lack of Roman record about his crucifixion due to lacking records for all executions at that time and place or do we have such executions records but they do not contain any entry that can be attributed to Jesus?

      The former. We have no crucifixion records for anywhere (that I know of*). Not even for Egypt, which is the only place where we have a substantial amount of government documents (although still only scattered scraps, and then only because they were thrown in the trash; trash heaps are archaeology’s gold mines; that and mummies, which were stuffed with scrap paper, from discarded census returns to old books).

      *(Possibly we have a record of a crucifixion here and there in Egypt; I know we have court documents and letters that tangentially mention an official execution now and again, but that’s not quite the same thing; and as there are tens of thousands of translated papyri, I haven’t checked them all for what’s in there; there are also hundreds of thousands of untranslated papyri sitting in museum and university vaults, for want of funds and personnel to translate them–experts pick out the juicy ones instead, but a list of crucifixions would be a priceless find, for a number of reasons, so if anyone saw one in the stacks we have, they would likely have published it by now.)

  17. says


    What’s the deal with JGRChJ? Is it normal to have a single contributor (Craig Keener) publish so many papers in a single journal? Five papers in 2010 alone?

    • says

      Landon Hedrick: What’s the deal with JGRChJ? Is it normal to have a single contributor (Craig Keener) publish so many papers in a single journal? Five papers in 2010 alone?

      No. In fact most journals have a policy that prohibits that. Although not in stone, e.g. JECS (which is a bit more prestigious than JGRChJ) won’t usually publish the same author twice in one year, and will tell you so, but they might do for a particularly prestigious scholar writing on particularly important topics. If there were five in one year that would raise questions; although I see only two Keener papers in 2010, two in 2009, and one in 2008. To have two articles in one year is a little unusual and it’s valid to wonder why they permitted that; either Keener has an in with the editorial board, or there really were no other competing articles submitted that year (or rather the previous year; the lead time from submission to publication averages a year for articles in academic journals, and is frequently longer).

  18. mephistopheles says

    First visit to your blog.

    Count me in the completely fascinated category– despite a retained comprehension of 10%, max. That it is fascinating is a testament to your gifted writing style. For such potentially dry academic material (I can see where you could harbor apology with respect to it), you write as a (regular) person who is sitting in a chair with a friend, all fired up and excitedly explaining something he is totally jazzed about. Reading that “transcript” is like watching a movie, not listening to an academic! Please don’t ever lose that wonderful talent.

  19. mephistopheles says

    Oh, and the tease at #27? That’s just MEAN. :-)

    And, I really wanna know about the B.C.E. thing, too. (Totally out of my field here, so please dash off a sentence re “what the fuck difference does it make” when you do blog about it, just for us neonates).

  20. _Arthur says

    In her series Masters of Rome, Colleen McCullough explains that, in Cesar’s time, the proconsulship was in many ways as important as the consulship itself. The consul would choose his proconsular province with care, either to loot it by farming taxes, or, more likely, as a base to conquer nearby kingdoms, so to extend roman territories. And enrich himself in the process, with a Triumph upon his return to Rome with (some of) his glorious legions.

    Winning the consulship was very costly; there were few opportunities to accumulate big money (bribes?) during the consulship. The proconsulship was where you made back your investment tenfold.

    Any comments ?

    • says

      Arthur: What you describe (via McCullough) applies to the Republic, not the Empire. The emperor’s interests limited the ambitions of proconsuls. But graft and other forms of for-profit corruption did remain common. And it was indeed proconsuls who had the real power and opportunities. Becoming a consul had become just a way to become a proconsul later.

  21. says


    What do you think about Hitchens idea, that some sort of person must have existed, because who would make up a “Nazarene” Jesus if in the end you have to pretend his birth to have taken place in Bethlehem?

    If I may, the main problem I see with that line of thinking is that one is trying to pigeonhole mythologies, which cannot be done. Hitchens is saying that since that part of the story doesn’t follow the standard mythology template, then it is not a myth. But there is no standard template that one must use when creating myths; they can be as wacky and nonsensical as one likes. Why shouldn’t he come from a family of Nazareth and yet be born in Bethlehem? The only reason Hitchens has given is that it would be strange, but who is Hitchens to say it shouldn’t have been strange?

    Easy ways for it to have happened could have been two competing myths about such a person merging at one point (one saying he was from Bethlehem, the other saying he was from a place called Nazareth), or a need to shield the person in the myth from potential detective work of real people living at the time thereby having him born in a well known place (yet in the unlikely location of a manger) but putting his lost years in a place where one might not so easily dig up details if one were to even try (comic book superheroes are notorious for this). There is also the hamming it up aspect that we see in politicians today where they all come from small towns to appeal to the working class; why couldn’t that be the explanation for his being born into a family of nobodies? As Hitchens would say, even noticing that incongruety, one still has all their work ahead of them!

    (And I do look forward to this spring/summer when we’ll get to see Carrier’s thoughts on this revealed and also get our hands on PZ’s first book.)

    • says

      Aratina Cage: On Nazareth and myths being just weird that way, I agree with your premise, but not the conclusion. The problem is that “possibly, therefore probably” is fallacious reasoning. The issue is, what is the most likely explanation of the evidence given what we currently know? If the answer is, historicity, then we must conclude historicity is more probable–even if (unbeknownst to us) Jesus didn’t exist after all. This is the problem of lost evidence. If the evidence we have indicates X, we must conclude X (and allow some probability that ~X, precisely as much as the evidence allows). Thus, in principle, Hitchens could be right: historicity could indeed be the best explanation for the problem he identifies (and Jesus might more likely have existed than not, regardless of whether he did exist or not), even despite myths also being weird that way. It just so happens he’s wrong, because we can show the probabilities of alternative explanations are high in this case (and I mean we have actual evidence of that, not just speculation). But that has to be argued (and I do, on Proving History). You are on the right track, though (competing prophecies; although there is a twist).

      The point is, we can’t just make up any “just so” story and conclude that we’ve refuted Hitchens. There has to be a reason to believe your “just so” story is more likely true than his (or at least likely enough to cast doubt). This holds even if you avoid any specific story and just argue “there could be one that we can’t now reconstruct” (which is entirely true, and I can prove it applies, for example, in John 21, where we can demonstrate mythopoeiesis but can’t reconstruct what the point of the myth was; similarly the Cana miracle in John 3, which is obviously a myth, but the point of it has been completely lost to us, e.g. the specific quantities given there must have meant something to the author and his immediate audience, but we can only speculate now on what). Because again, “possibly, therefore probably” is a fallacy. Thus you actually have to argue for “probably.” And that requires evidence. Of some sort.

  22. Braavos says

    Add another vote to the “this wasn’t boring but fascimating” camp! More posts like this please!

  23. James Power says

    I wish my Latin teacher had been as exciting and funny as you. Bravo! Looking forward to reading your Thesis. Love Roman history, glad it’s mostly history at this point now though!

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    … C.E. is fucking stupid in every conceivable way.

    Well, so is A.D.

    … you can indeed translate “fucking stupid” into a disguised academic language…

    I know some grad students who would eagerly welcome such protocols.

    So let’s wait for that.

    This is gonna be good.

  25. _Arthur says

    Found it in Wikipedia: “Roman Consul”:

    [About multiple suffect consuls in sequence] “This practice reached its extreme under Commodus, when in 190 twenty-five men held the consulship.[citation needed]”

  26. says


    I thought that was unusual, though I’m only familiar with how philosophy journals tend to operate. Look again at the link you supplied for 2010–there are five papers listed by Keener. And I noticed that another scholar (Jintae Kim) has published a lot of papers there as well (Two papers in Vol. 2, and one each in Vol. 5-8). Evidently every paper this individual has ever published has been with the same journal–which would be odd in a philosophy journal, but again, I don’t know how things work with other journals.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d point that out. I’ll stop derailing the thread now.

    • says

      Landon Hedrick: Look again at the link you supplied for 2010–there are five papers listed by Keener.

      Oh, you’re right! I didn’t click down inside the frame. Yes, that is extremely unusual, and in fact worth writing to the editor about and asking for an explanation.

  27. F says

    AD/CE: What is fucking stupid about CE?

    Why is there an era, and what defines it aside from the dating system itself?

    What is common about the era from 1 CE until now, and what is not in common with the preceding era (or the time before historical dating eras – are there two eras or just the one, with formless chaos of Before dates that go back fourteen billion years?)

    When these are just labels glued to a dating system centered on a point which is an approximation of some event in you-know-who’s putative life, what is the point?

    Er, I swear I had one more, but that evaporated somewhere. But you may as well leave the dating system labeled in the manner originally intended, as it is descriptive of itself (an historical meta or whateva).

    Disclaimer: I most frequently use CE as the label ever since it was brought to my attention, even though AD looks waaay cooler. Especially when you throw BC(E)-magnitude numbers after it.

  28. scenario says

    I’ve been a history buff all my life and I found this very interesting. You don’t need to say this is boring quite as much since everything is boring to some people and interesting to others. Who cares that the number of people who enjoy reading about what you, and many of the readers of your blog find interesting is much smaller than the number of people who care about stuff like who a famous person is sleeping with?

    I am very interested in the question of historical Jesus vs mythical Jesus. You mentioned the existence of Jesus in the opening of the post. I think Jesus is like the saying about your grandfather ax. I changed the head twice and the handle four times. Do you still own your grandfathers ax? If there was a man whose life started the myth but so much has change over the years that there is almost nothing left of the real man in the bible, did he really exist? I’d like to read about how historians draw the line between straight up myth and real people who have been mythologized so much that it is impossible to tell what the real fact are. George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree but he really existed.

    I fully agree that from a historians perspective, you really need to view Jesus as a myth because there is no verifiable evidence that he ever existed. But I don’t have as much problem as a layman with just so stories up to a point. Like assuming that there was a person that Jesus was based on and looking at all of the stories and putting them into categories like clearly myth, clearly enhanced but possibly based on truth and plausibly true, and then drawing a picture of what the historical Jesus was like. Its not scientific but potentially useful.

  29. Steve says

    Wow, painfully long, painfully uninteresting, and painfully poorly written. I wanted to choke, as I had to continually read through one bracketed comment after the next! C’mon R.C. you are better than this! Or are you?

  30. _Arthur says


    If the Emperor was a (bogus) Tribune of the Plebs, was the Emperor then sacrosanct, just like a tribune was in the Roman Republic’s time ?

    …Did Emperors still use lictors ? TPs had no right to lictors and were religiously immune from violence, so they didn’t need lictor bodyguards to “protect” them. In theory.

    • says

      Arthur: If the Emperor was a (bogus) Tribune of the Plebs, was the Emperor then sacrosanct, just like a tribune was in the Roman Republic’s time?

      I haven’t researched that, but it would follow (as the tribune’s veto power derived from his status as sacrosanct, i.e. magistrates could not beat or kill or imprison him to prevent him vetoing their acts).

      Did Emperors still use lictors?

      Yes. Remember, the clever thing about the emperor’s invented office is that he managed to simultaneously be a TP and a magistrate with imperium (which entailed a right to lictors). That was certainly never the constitution’s intent, and indeed perverts the whole point of that constitutional structure. But by exploiting loopholes, it was managed to be “legally” done, as the constitution did not explicitly prohibit it.

  31. F says

    I have what may be a stupid question about (HerodSyrianGovernor.pdf) Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?

    On page 14, where it reads in the second paragraph,

    …the BJ as we have it is
    not a mere translation as Josephus claims, but clearly an original Greek composition…

    should not Josephus be replaced with Hahn? I have to perform mental contortions for Josephus to make sense here, as both the facts and your normal English prose contraindicate that Josephus would make this “claim”.

    • says

      F: [RE: “not a mere translation as Josephus claims, but clearly an original Greek composition”] should not Josephus be replaced with Hahn?

      No. Josephus does indeed claim (in War 1.3) to have “translated” his original Aramaic book into Greek; but modern analysis demonstrates this to be impossible. However, the word he uses (metaballô), though the standard word for “translate,” more generally means “change, transform,” and thus he might have meant it in the looser sense (and thus not really said he had translated it directly). Though modern scholars have previously assumed he meant “translate,” he probably only adapted the original into a Greek edition. It’s thus most likely a very loose translation by our standards.

  32. _Arthur says

    “That was certainly never the constitution’s intent”

    Uh, the Romans had no such thing as a neat Constitution in one single tidy document, right ?

  33. Azuma Hazuki says

    Richard. this is fascinating! Others may call it boring, but your analysis of actual evidence, facts, texts, etc did more to help me break free of the Abrahamic religions than any amount of philosophy or logic or “soul-searching.”

    Have you ever considered, when your research is done, creating a compilation of all this, a sort of rationalist version of “On Guard?” An anti-apologetics handbook, as it were. I suggest the name “Guard Break” (but that’s because I’m a doooorrrrrr~rrrrk). Could be interesting, and a nice way to help Bill Craig end his life on a note of failure.

  34. heddle says

    You really are a dishonest piece of work. Or else just plain dumb.

    Yes, convenient of you to couch the problem this way:

    Haha! Matthew says one thing; OMG, Luke says something entirely different!

    When in fact, Luke says exactly the same thing as Matthew. In Matthew we read:

    Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king (Matt 2:1)

    Luke write, in agreement with Matthew,

    In the days of Herod, king of Judea (Luke 1:5)

    Luke also writes, as you point out:

    In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2)

    And furthermore Luke also refers to the despised ca. 6AD census:

    After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. (Acts 5:37)

    Just in case this is too complicated for you, let me summarize. An honest person would not pit Matthew v. Luke. An honest person would have at least pointed out that Luke wrote:

    1) The birth of Jesus was during the reign of Herod (consistent with Matthew.)
    2) Luke also talks about the census of ~6AD in Acts.
    3) Luke mysteriously talks about a census at the time of Christ’s birth

    Why would an honest person do that? Because all the information from Luke paints a more complicated picture. Luke, like Matthew, had Jesus born in the time of Herod. Luke also mentions the hated ~6AD census. But Luke also puts a census at Jesus’ birth. Perhaps Luke is completely nuts and he refers to the same census twice—once placing it at its correct time and once placing it ~14 years earlier. Or maybe he was referring to two different events, at least in his mind. Who knows? It is still a problem, for which no satisfying solution is known, but it is not the trivial “Matthew says one thing Luke says another” problem that you stupidly portray. It is more nuanced than you explained. Or perhaps can handle.

    Then you also (I can hardly believe it but why should I be surprised?) invoke the tiresome canard of playing “gotcha” with Christians with this problem of the early census and leaving them dumfounded. Why atheists, especially of the pseudo-intellectually variety, fantasize that they surprise us with their awesome biblical knowledge, is a great mystery. This problem is in the notes of any study bible of the kind most Christians own. It is discussed in Sunday schools and mentioned in sermons whenever these passages are discussed. We know the problem. You are not surprising us. Get over yourself.

    • says

      Heddle: Your argument makes no logical sense. Luke mentions the same census twice; how do you get out of that that he meant two different censuses? Luke doesn’t say Jesus was born under Herod the king, but that John the Baptist was. And Herod the Great was not the only king named Herod. Judea was ruled after Herod the Great’s death by Herod Archelaus, whom even Josephus designates a king. Luke does not tell us which Herod John the Baptist was born under. In fact, as he never mentions this Herod dying and being replaced by another before Quirinius arrives (whereas Matthew does), we should assume Luke means Archelaus. Luke also contradicts Matthew on numerous other points: e.g. the family of Jesus never goes to Egypt and even goes to Jerusalem every year in Luke; but they flee to Egypt and then never go to Judea at all until decades later in Matthew; Jesus’ family comes from Nazareth in Luke, but does not come from Nazareth in Matthew, they only settle there years later; etc. If we saw this in any other pair of histories, we would conclude they are contradicting each other and that one of them is surely wrong (if not both). But the contradiction as to the date is worst of all, because Luke places the birth in the 6 A.D. census, and Matthew places it before the 4 B.C. death of Herod the Great. Every attempt to argue Luke meant a different census is based on ludicrous arguments and embarrassingly incompetent historical claims, as I have extensively proved.

      If you cannot think of anything new that I haven’t already refuted, please don’t waste people’s time here.

    • GeoJim says

      This is jaw-dropping, if not surprising. Professor Heddle otherwise loves to play the hurt feelings, or righteously indignant, card when he believes he is on the other end of hyperbole.

  35. Azuma Hazuki says


    Heddle is a persistent problem in other blogs on this collective. I don’t know how much experience you have dealing with him, but he’s basically the Calvinist counterpart to the lunatic, Opus-Dei-are-a-buncha-flaming-liberals Catholic troll called Piltdown Man (though to his credit, Heddle actually knows something).

    He attempts to blind with bullshit and minutiae, just like all apologists, while either ignoring or raging at any argument he can’t handle directly. There is disease here; he fell 100% for the TULIP doctrine, and like e.g. Bill Craig is completely convinced he is correct and beyond the reach of mere facts and evidence.

    In short, don’t waste your time on him. He’s intelligent but fatally deluded.

    • GeoJim says

      Yeah, um, Heddle. Heddle is a Math &/or Physics prof at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. As A.Hazuki says, he is a Calvanist, & he takes that shit humorlessly. He used to show up frequently on Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, EvolutionBlog (Science Blogs), although I haven’t seen him there in a while. He has his own blog, He Lives , where he has actually spilt quit a bit of digital ink on Richard Carrier lately.

      Watching Heddle argue always makes me think of the mad energy that Copernicus spent creating cycles & epicycles trying to prop up the geocentric system until he just couldn’t make it work anymore. However, to his credit, if ratemyprofessor.com is an accurate sampling, his students really seem to like him.

  36. Joe says

    Hi Richard,

    In your paper you find that “in strictly Roman contexts, Josephus appears to always use the word [ἐπίτροπος] in its technical sense”. Volumnius is an ἐπίτροπος in BJ 1, 538, however Saturninus and Volumnius seem to have equal authority in AJ 16. One can assume a dual appointment for Volumnius, but why? I’d rather agree with Steve Mason (Flavius Josephus. Judean War. Translation and commentary. Vol. Ib, 2008), p. 80, n. 720: “At any rate, Josephus’ labels for the governors of Judea are notoriously imprecise […] one pattern clearly emerges: at their first mention in War, Josephus invariably uses ‘procurator’, whereas he never uses this term in Antiquities” (but I have not verified the “never” part) and with Anthony Forte (“Translating Book I of Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum: some critical observations” in Josephus and Jewish History in Flavian Rome and Beyond edited by Joseph Sievers and Gaia Lembi, 2005), p. 400: “A precise and consistent rendering of such terms remains problematic.”

    As for pre-Roman contexts, in CAp I, 98, Harmais, the brother of Ramesses, was appointed ἐπίτροπος τῆς Αἰγύπτου and entrusted with royal authority. This term rather parallels “the steward of whole Syria”, not “the steward of the empire”.

    In the end I agree with Anthony Barrett – there’s no good reason to look for a “technical meaning” (p. 298). I understand Barrett’s hesitations and I also find his scenario plausible: Herod was rather a private agent of Augustus, not a Roman procurator sensu stricto.

  37. Joe says

    Another issue. On p. 24 you wrote:

    It is remotely possible that Josephus originally wrote, or intended to write, Syrias hapasos epimelêtês, “the whole caretaker of Syria,” since a scribal mistake of o for ê is not only feasible, but here likely, by confusion with either the proximity of Syrias or the –ês termination on the otherwise masculine epimelêtês (and indeed taking hapasos with epimelêtês is the more difficult reading).

    If I read correctly your argument, you refer to BJ 1, 225: Συρίας ἁπάσης ἐπιμελητήν. The adjective is ἅπας and if it would modify the second noun (which is in accusative), it would be ἅπαντα. What am I missing?

    Also I could not find any hapasos in LSJ. What does it mean?

    • says

      Joe: If I read correctly your argument, you refer to BJ 1, 225: Συρίας ἁπάσης ἐπιμελητήν. The adjective is ἅπας and if it would modify the second noun (which is in accusative), it would be ἅπαντα. What am I missing?

      Nothing at all! You are quite right. I made that error back in 2003 and neither I, nor my thesis adviser, nor two peer reviewers for an academic journal caught it. Amazing. I’ve corrected the paragraph. Thank you. (Be proud. You just outperformed three university classics professors.)

      The corrected version is up now.

  38. janeymack says

    You can put my name down in the “found this very interesting” column! I am looking forward to reading the whole .pdf.

    I did study history for a while in college, though did not take my degree in it. In more recent years, digging into genealogy has given me a rather frustrating taste of what is and isn’t available in the sources, and the delights of trying to fill in blanks from the available evidence–and the accompanying delights of having to throw your hands in the hair, bang your head on the desk, and exclaim, “I haven’t a fucking clue!” (concerning, perhaps, how someone’s father was apparently born in two different places 7 years apart, or how someone’s mother seems not to have existed at all…)

    That kind of thing makes me glad I didn’t pursue history as a profession. Reading this post made me wish that I had, after all. Thanks; I’ve spent worse evenings.

  39. Patricia, OM says

    This was very worth reading, and not boring at all.

    Seconding Heddle being a well known troll & not worth your time.

    • says

      The mos maiorum was not the constitution of the government (e.g. what magistracies have what powers and who serves in them), but the set of Roman cultural values (although eventually the Romans did effectively legislate it into law).

    • says

      aaronbaker: Hapasos is an erroneous masculine nominative, hapas being the correct form (sorry; I don’t have a Greek font).

      Just FYI, this is moot now, because it really should be in the accusative (thus, hapanta), and the paragraph has been corrected accordingly. But thanks.

  40. ficino says

    Great piece of research, your M.A. thesis. Defining procurator is really helpful. Just what looks like another typo: on p. 7, “ne quid fine” should be “ne quid sine…” I think, no?

  41. says

    And yes, my work demolishing the Josephus passages (which will be published in JECS later this year) . . . .

    That’s, well, confident. One of the Josephan passages is an obvious Christian interpolation, and has been recognized as such pretty near forever; the other is not obviously an interpolation (though it might be one). Could you summarize your alleged demolition here, or is that too far off-topic?

    I’m genuinely curious what you have to say on this subject (I would have thought that everything that could ever have been argued about both passages has already been said; but you’ve made me curious).

    • says

      aaronbaker: On the James passage in Josephus, I prove the phrase “the one called Christ” is an accidental interpolation that occurred between 235 and 310 A.D. to a copy produced in the Christian library of Caesarea employed by Eusebius, and that the story originally referred to James the brother of Jesus ben Damneus who is appointed high priest when Ananus is deposed for illegally executing his brother. The evidence is complicated and requires background understanding of textual practices and a variety of sources and analysis in the original language, so you will have to await my article: Richard Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012). The other passage, of course, has already been proven a deliberate interpolation, in the same period and place (the more so than many know, as the Arabic testimonium, once touted as evidence of authenticity, has been proved to derive from Eusebius: see Alice Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic,” New Testament Studies 54.4 [2008] pp. 573-90). There was therefore never any mention of Jesus Christ in Josephus at all.

  42. says

    Thank you. I’ll look it up as soon as it comes out. Here’s my great contribution to Classical history–if you’re interested, and, I guess, even if you’re not:

    Baker, Aaron, “Eunapius’ nea ekdosis and Photius,” GRBS 29 (1988) 389-402.

  43. says

    I’m almost scared to bring this link to the attention of a subject-matter expert, but here we go:


    The article is a bit of a hashed-over mess (and some of the refs are still terrible), but has at least one frequent editor who was in fact trained as a Biblical scholar 20 years ago. I hope it’s not a complete disgrace …

    The target audience starts at well-meaning evangelicals who’ve just realised that the concept of a “historical Jesus” is possible – so it really does have to do the dumb basics of “what is history?” – up to the knowledgeable and nitpicky, e.g. commenters on this post.

    I’m very much looking forward to your book, and not just so I can furiously crib from it for this article 😉

  44. evodevo says

    I LOVE your stuff – it would never be boring. I started reading you at Infidels.org and enjoy it immensely. The actual HISTORY of biblical times, and the archaeology, has been a hobby of mine for 50 years – been an atheist since I was 12 and they couldn’t explain all those historical mismatches and internal contradictions to me at Methodist confirmation class. I’m just sorry very little of this kind of stuff was widely available (especially in a small town in Ky.) in the 60’s and 70’s. I know it was available in theological seminaries, but the general public is STILL ignorant of its existence, 50 years later.
    Thank goodness for the internet.

  45. GordonWillis says

    If you read it all through (you have to be kind of a little crazy to do that, but that can be in a good way; why, hey, it’s “only” 36 pages long)

    I suppose I am quite crazy, and I confess that I am reading your paper even (almost) as I type, but even though I agree that Sexism, slander, dumbassery, political murder, bad science, the Republican primaries, soda mice are all happening and need attention, there is also the feeling that life is short, and it would be such a pity not to know even a little bit of what one might know before knowing anything ceases for ever, don’t you think?

    For example (Pepsi claims this could not have happened, as the acid in Mountain Dew would have dissolved a mouse), it’s nice to know that mice as such cannot be found in Mountain Dew, even though it would be nicer to know if mice in any form are included in the list of ingredients. I have also discovered that my merely British understanding of the concept “mountain dew” has been wrong for a very long time. It’s also nice to know a little bit more about the realities behind the story that people have spent years and years and years trying to persuade me to believe and which has had a major impact on my whole life. So don’t apologise. Thanks very much for your extraordinary and painstaking work. I really appreciate it.

  46. says

    There’s a typo on p.9 of the pdf of your thesis: in the Endrös translation “Frühlungnahme” should be “Fühlungnahme.”

    Fascinating stuff. Although I pretty much have to take your word concerning your main point about the traditional mis-editing of the Greek texts. My Greek is improving but it’s not quite to the point yet that I feel entitled to an opinion. (I hate to ever have to take anybody’s word about any translation, so I keep learning more languages.)

  47. JB says

    Carrier’s claims:
    “case in point: Caligula is said to have appointed his horse, and they promptly killed him…and damned his memory–literally: the senate issued an official decree of damnatio memoriae; yeah, they had those”

    Actually, both claims are incorrect. Caligula is not said to have appointed his horse. He is said to have contemplated doing so (traditur, says Suetonius, ~”it has been said”), but did not actually do it (Suetonius, Caligula 55, Cassius Dio’s History 59.14). Regarding the implicit claim that “they promptly killed” Caligula after the appointing of the horse (Incitatus), Dio expressively state that Caligula would have appointed the horse “if he had lived longer”. Regarding the claim about an “official decree of damnatio memoriae” against Caligula, such a claim cannot be substantiated. In Suetonius Claudius 11.3, Claudius is said to have refused to declare the day of Caligula’s death a public holiday, and in Dio’s History 60.4.5-6 it is explicitly stated that Emperor Claudius vetoed any official damnatio memoriae against Caligula. There is no evidence that Caligula was even declared an enemy of the state.

    • says

      Granted, Caligula only promised to appoint his horse consul. As to the story that Claudius blocked the motion for damnatio, the archaeological evidence doesn’t support that (his name was erased from inscriptions and coins, for example, a recognized consequence of damnatio). Possibly he was condemned officially after the reign of Claudius. But I’ll look into this further.

    • JB says

      The mutilation of coins mustn’t be due to an official senate decree of damnatio memoriae. Such an official decree is unsupported (and it would have nothing to do with Caligula appointing his horse, since this did not happen – except an appointment to co-priest, according to Dio 59.28), even if Caligula apparently was not well liked.

    • says

      The redaction of official state inscriptions does imply the decree was passed, and a pervasive redaction of coinage supports the possibility of a state action as well. I’m away from home, but when I return I’ll check the modern references that list him as among the condemned and see if there is more to this. (And as said in the ancient sources, the promise to appoint his horse consul was among the assaults on the dignity of the senate that prompted their support of his assassination.) Nevertheless, to ensure nothing misleads, I have revised the post to reflect the ambiguities and uncertainties.

    • says

      He was almost certainly both. Ehrman (and his colleague) didn’t read the scholarly references I pointed them to, but instead cited an obsolete modern commentary. See my discussion here.

    • says

      Really? Two brief, insubstantial paragraphs, which completely ignore everything I say in the book?

      Indeed. That’s the only way to dodge a bullet. Don’t face it in the first place.

  48. Florian Blaschke says

    A few tiny nitpicks (hope I’m not coming across as overly pedantic even for your standards):

    First, referring to p. 4 (this error could be found elsewhere, too, so you could simply do a quick search-and-replace session), “mss.” is the abbreviation for the plural “manuscripts” only. The singular “manuscript” is abbreviated “ms.”!

    Second, since you (according to good scholarly practice) obviously transliterate Greek upsilon consistently as “u”, on p. 5, the second occurrence of the genitive of “Syria” should likewise be rendered as “Surias”, and “symboulias” should be “sumboulias”, and same on p. 11, p. 24 et passim (I realise this is easy to miss, and indeed have occasionally spotted this annoying little mistake on your blog, too).

    Third, on p. 6, n. 14, the plural “apparati” is wrong, as the Latin noun “apparatus” belongs to the fourth declension (u-declension), so the correct Latinate plural would be “apparatus”; although, for clarity and reader-friendliness, you might prefer to employ the English plural “apparatuses”.

    A stylistic point: On p. 13, I’d write “[…] so we cannot be sure that the passages that concern us come solely from Nicolaus or if they come from him at all”, with an additional “that” for clarity.

    On p. 17, a real mistake, even if only a wrong diacritic: “stândiger” should be “ständiger” (umlaut, not circumflex).

    On p. 24, shouldn’t it be “a scribal mistake of -(as)ês for -anta”? I’m not sure I quite get the logic here (although the point is admittedly immaterial).

    I would also like to point out that “Koilês” and “holês” differ by more than a single kappa, as there is an iota to account for as well.

    Strangely, seemingly at random, gaps appear in the text. I’m not sure what causes them, but I suspect invisible word (syllable) divisors and protected spaces at fault.

    • says

      Thanks. I was aware of most of this. Some of these were corrected in the print edition (Hitler Homer Bible Christ), but even there I often overlooked them (some were fixed only in the kindle edition; which is still awaiting a second update). And some don’t affect the sense so I didn’t trouble myself too much over them. However, I won’t use a single transcription for upsilon, due to standing conventions (e.g. it is conventional to write syrias rather than surias), which aids in recognizing familiar words.

    • Florian Blaschke says

      That’s cool. I know about not sweating the small stuff, but reading slowly (which reminds me that philology has been called the art of reading really slowly), I can’t help spotting it, so I thought I’d note them down and write a comment just in case. Regarding the upsilon, I can see that, but the inconsistent transliteration – sometimes as “Surias” and sometimes as “Syrias” – surely was a mistake. But if this is corrected now, and you just haven’t bothered to update the PDF, fine.

    • says

      Be aware, though, that possibly I haven’t and won’t correct trivia like that, since it doesn’t bother me. Similarly if I switch between American and British spelling. It’s just not that important. But I don’t mind things being pointed out, even if I conclude they are too trivial to worry about.

    • Florian Blaschke says

      I realise that your time is precious, so I have not expected anything; I understand your stance completely.