Garry Wills on Tacitus

Garry Wills won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Lincoln. His books on Catholicism - Papal Sins ; Why I am a Catholic; Why Priests? - are intelligently written and informative. But his book on Paul - What Paul Meant – is quite different. It not only suppresses many inconvenient facts, it substitutes fantasy for fact and reason. There are many examples. This article discusses one that has little to do with “what Paul meant,” but illustrates the toxicity of Wills’ excessive faith.

The story concerns Nero’s punishment of Christians following the great fire in Rome. Wills believes that both Paul and Peter were killed in the process. Wills cites Tacitus’ Annals 15.44:

“Nero, in order to quash the rumor [that he caused the fire himself], found substitute perpetrators and subjected them to the most original forms of execution. These were the ones popularly called Christians, a group hated for its abominations.... At first the open practitioners were arrested, and by their informing, a vast multitude was taken” (pp. 162-163).

Wills says, “That passage could be interpreted to mean that Nero’s agents first arrested some Jews who were not Brothers , and that these turned in the Jews who were Brothers.” (p. 163). Wills uses “Brothers” instead of “Christians,” feeling that the latter term is anachronistic. (He is probably incorrect. Luke said “Christian” was introduced after the movement reached Antioch, more than 15 years earlier.)

But the passage could only be interpreted that way by someone who either had major deficits in reading comprehension or who was deliberately misrepresenting the text. Tacitus clearly says that ‘open practitioners’ of Christianity were arrested first – exactly the opposite of what Wills asserts. It boggles the mind that both Wills and his editors at Viking Press failed to comprehend Tacitus’ text, which was presented alongside Wills’ aberrant conclusion. Tacitus clearly said that Nero arrested Christians, who then informed on “a vast multitude” of other Christians (who may have been either Jewish or Gentile). I note that torture was standard procedure, and the first Christian prisoners probably produced unreliable information in response to it.

Wills’ conclusion suggested that the Jews killed Peter and Paul, much as they supposedly killed Christ. There is an anti-Judaic strain throughout this book which I hadn’t previously noticed. Mr. Wills’ mentor, William Buckley, would have been proud (here).

Mr. Wills is hardly alone in misrepresenting facts about Paul. It is standard procedure among Pauline scholars, as I documented in Paul Revealed. I find this puzzling. I do not think they are consciously lying, even when they are obviously contradicting the facts. They seem to be afflicted with some mutant version of cognitive dissonance.

I’ll address further symptoms of this disorder in subsequent pieces on Wills’ book.