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Thallus: Spinning Straw into Gold (1st-Century Fridays #9)

Thallus: Spinning Straw into Gold (1st-Century Fridays #9) August 20, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Today, we have a slight departure from our usual 1st-Century Friday series. Usually, we talk about someone active during the supposed actual lifetime of Jesus Christ, who wrote stuff about history or philosophy, and who should have known something about the new religion starting in Judea. But today, we’ll be looking at a man whose work is largely lost. Later Christians invented enough work of his to turn him into a real live contemporary source for their claims about Jesus. And they’ve clung hard to that lie ever since. Today, let’s look at what Thallus wrote — or rather, at what later Christians said Thallus wrote, and why it’s just not convincing as a source.

yes I know it wasn't an eclipse really
An eclipse. (Vino Li.) The text in question makes clear that we’re not talking about an eclipse, but it’s still cool.

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we meet the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Everyone, Meet Thallus. Sort Of.

We really don’t know much about Thallus. He was active in the second half of the 1st century CE, with most of his writing thought to date to around 50 CE. He wrote histories in Koine Greek, which was the same kind of Greek used in the New Testament. But we have none of the originals.

In fact, a mention of him around 180 CE (by Theophilus, a patriarch of Antioch) is the first time anyone knew anything about him. Theophilus just offers us a brief description of a history Thallus wrote involving a fight between the King of the Assyrians and Cronus the Titan facing off against Zeus and his fellow gods. In addition, Theophilus mentions that Thallus wrote about various events in Greek history, like the Fall of Troy. But he doesn’t quote much of it — though he does tell us that Thallus’ histories ended at 109 BCE.

Of the writing, we have none. Instead, what we have are quotes claimed by much later authors — notably Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240CE). Africanus claimed that Thallus described the execution and death of Jesus Christ.

But we don’t even have Africanus’ direct work. We have it only as a quotation in the writings of a 9th-century Christian, George Syncellus. Syncellus cited Africanus at length, particularly one bit about the supposed darkening of the sun that occurred right as Jesus died.

As PROOF YES PROOF that Jesus totally lived and died as the Gospels claim, it’s already pretty weak sauce. Even La Wiki, Font of All Knowledge, seems really iffy on the value of Thallus as a source for the Gospels’ historicity (for reasons we’ll get into shortly).

The Thallus Quote in Question. Sort of.

Here is the quote that’s got some literalist Christians’ hearts a-flutter, courtesy of George Syncellus:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour fails on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. [Lots of eclipse talk.]

This is where it gets kinda spicy: Remember the first sentence in particular; we’re coming back to it.

Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth — manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time.

They didn’t like paragraph breaks back then, I reckon. This is the quote that George Syncellus offered up in the 9th century as a quote from Africanus that quoted Thallus.

Can you see the problems with it? There are a few.

Thallus as a Source Corroborating Christianity. Sort Of.

Despite its weakness, it’s almost all Christians have. So they’ve latched on to it, especially the apologists for evangelical flavors of the religion. They absolutely need a literal, real live Jesus who lived and died and rose again, or it makes their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game feel all weird.

So we have Thallus cited as a “moderately reliable” secular source for “the historicity of Jesus” by this apologetics course.

For his own part, William Lane Craig hand-waves away the “chain of citations for works now lost,” since obviously Christians would have accurately conveyed information — and comes down firmly on the idea of Thallus being a reliable reporter of this “most fearful darkness.”

And the Christian Apologetics Alliance breathlessly offers up this PROOF YES PROOF, though they mistakenly think we have Africanus’ writing to consult. (We don’t. We have George Syncellus’ quote of Africanus’ quote of Thallus’ writing.)

Evangelicals themselves really are very impressed with this quotation. But should they be?

(Aw, c’mon, you know my answer already.)

The Problems With Thallus.

Possibly the very first major problem we’re having here is that we don’t have any of the earlier works to consult. We lack not only Thallus’ writing but also Africanus’. Even Eusebius, who mentions some of the contents of his lost books, notes that they involved long-gone history. Thallus talked about the Fall of Troy (1184 BCE) to events around 109 BCE. So it’s kind of weird to have him suddenly jump ahead to contemporary topics, when Eusebius mentions not one word about him writing so close to his present day.

For that matter, it’s exceedingly weird that Eusebius and Theophilus don’t record the absolutely mind-blowing claim of darkness-at-noon in Jerusalem. That seems like it’d be super-noteworthy to early Christian leaders. Theophilus noted that Thallus wrote about wars between gods and Titans, but missed the mention of the darkness? That’s really odd.

Moreover, at no point in George Syncellus’ quote do we find any mention of Jesus at all, nor his death. It is Africanus himself who reasons that the darkness had to be a reflection of Jesus’ suffering. Thallus himself doesn’t appear to state any such thing.

But we’ve only just gotten into the problems with using this twice-removed quotation as PROOF YES PROOF that Thallus saw the sky darken in Jerusalem on some fateful day.

… And Some Complete Dealbreakers for Thallus.

I really appreciated this paper from Richard Carrier covering this exact topic. Jeffery Jay Lowder covers this question as well in a paper refuting Josh McDowell’s “‘Evidence’ for Jesus,” which includes Thallus as a source. Both are devastating to Christian apologists who try to use Thallus as a source for their beliefs.

In Carrier’s paper, we discover that the Gospel of John doesn’t even mention the darkness. Carrier wonders if whoever wrote Mark made up the myth of the darkness because a great person’s death needed to be marked by great, confusing events.

Further, this darkness — along with all the other mythic elements described that went along with it — doesn’t appear in any other contemporary sources at all. Ever. Anywhere. Nor do we have any evidence for any big earthquakes in 33 CE, though Carrier cites evidence for a big one in 31 BCE.

And obviously, nobody saw any zombie Jews wandering around town looking for their living relatives. Sheesh. Like, of course nobody did.

Because there weren’t any.

Some More Subtle Dealbreakers.

Richard Carrier also thinks that Thallus probably wrote close to the middle-to-late second century, not the middle of the first. That makes sense, since the first mention of his work at all comes from 180 CE. With Christians’ pious frauds, I’ve noticed their lies and forgeries actually tend to have their origins in the time-period of their first so-called discovery.

In this case, Eusebius mentions the three-volume history Thallus wrote, and George Syncellus mentions that his darkness story comes from the third book. So somehow Eusebius had the third book too, but doesn’t ever mention this darkness?

Another Richard Carrier paper about Thallus notes that it’s entirely possible that Africanus’ apparent mention of Phlegon in the quote might have been a later insertion — perhaps added after Syncellus’ time.

Whichever way we go, we suddenly have no idea exactly when Thallus lived or exactly what time periods his work covered. And without that, Africanus’ comments are worthless — because it was Africanus who appears to have decided that Thallus’ report related to Jesus’ supposed death.

We just know that whatever Africanus thought he saw, Eusebius had the same book but hadn’t seen anything about a darkness in it, and neither had Theophilus.

(And neither did the author of the Book of John, for that matter.)

The Pious Frauds Began Early, With Christianity.

Now, let’s circle back to the quote itself.

Taken on face value, ignoring all the problems it presents us, it tells us nothing whatsoever about Jesus or the earliest Christians. It reports a darkness — when? We don’t know. Where? We don’t know that either. If the Phlegon quote is an insertion, as seems very likely, it doesn’t bolster Africanus’ quote at all.

Especially because Eusebius quotes Phlegon at length:

In fact, Phlegon, too, a distinguished reckoner of Olympiads, wrote more on these events in his 13th book, saying this: ‘Now, in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [32 CE], a great eclipse of the sun occurred at the sixth hour [i.e. noon] that excelled every other before it, turning the day into such darkness of night that the stars could be seen in heaven, and the earth moved in Bithynia, toppling many buildings in the city of Nicaea’. [Source.]

Compare and contrast with what Africanus quotes:

Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth — manifestly that one of which we speak. [Source.]

See some differences?

So the pious-fraud act began very, very early in Christianity.

Grading Thallus.

I just can’t take Thallus seriously as a source for Jesus’ life and death. What we actually have of his work is a quote of a quote from a long-lost book about something obviously mythic — and doesn’t mention Jesus at all.

And I get that with ancient sources, sometimes you’ve got to give some leeway. Christians don’t have a lot of choice there, not if they want a historical Jesus whose life looks anything like what we see in the Gospels, right? But my worldview doesn’t demand such a god-man to have really existed. Even if he did, even if his life looked anything like the Gospels at all, that doesn’t make him divine — which is where we’d be going if I thought any evidence at all existed to corroborate the Gospels’ obviously-mythic stories.

However, we talk here not of some esoteric bit of trivia about some ancient name. We’re talking about the supposed King of Kings, who supposedly had a bad half-weekend so he could forgive us for being exactly as he made us — but only if we psychically apologize for being that way and swear to obey his chosen representatives on Earth so he can turn us into Stepford Wives in Heaven one day.

This is a breathtaking claim of extraordinary magnitude, and it requires way more evidence than I’d want for, like, exactly what street Homer lived on.

And Christians don’t have any of that.

Grading Thallus.

As a consumer in the religious marketplace, I’m free to evaluate evidence and accept or discard whatever seems solid.

And this throwaway reference, three times removed from anything contemporary, containing at least one insertion and a whole lot of extrapolation about what Thallus originally wrote, with corroboration from absolutely no other writers in the early-mid-1st century and a couple other sources who apparently didn’t see the same things Africanus saw in the same exact books? This is not solid.

It’s desperate, unbecoming, undignified, and dishonest.

Y’all, what Christians do with their lack of evidence matters a lot more to me than the lack of evidence itself.

My time in paganism cured me of the need for fundamentalist-style literalism in my religions’ source material, but I reckon evangelicals can’t exactly go that route to cure themselves of whatever makes them push so hard for evidence where there simply is none.

At least I know now. We had a drive-by last week mention some other names that we’ll discuss later — bearing many of the same weaknesses we saw today with Thallus — and it’s important to know why we discard some sources but accept others.

Maybe one day we’ll find something that we can trust is from Thallus. If we ever do, I bet it won’t support Christians’ claims much at all.

For now, though…

THALLUS’ GRADE: F.

NEXT UP: Some Christian ethics professor wants people to quit talking about all those COVID deniers who are now, well, dying of COVID. We’ll see about that — tomorrow.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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