A bizarre slogan that is making the rounds in Christian apologetics is to claim that there is no outside corroboration for Pliny’s account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nor any mention in ancient literature of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum until centuries later. Apologists make this claim to retort to the observation that many of the extraordinary events in the Gospels (e.g. the midday three hour darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion, Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, etc.) have no contemporary outside corroboration from authors outside the New Testament. I say that this slogan is “bizarre,” since (obviously) we have located the volcano, unearthed the cities, and proved that Pliny’s account is accurate. But I suppose what the apologists are attempting to do is to create a reductio ad absurdum of the historical criterion of outside corroboration by arguing that, despite Vesuvius being a massive event that killed thousands of people, only Pliny writes about it.
The logic goes that, in light of this comparison, it would be a double-standard to demand outside corroboration for the claim of the three hour darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion and Herod’s slaughter of the infants in the Gospels, since events as extraordinary as the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum went uncorroborated.
This argument was made in a comment on my article about the criterion of outside corroboration, as well as a Bible.com note that claims:
“The lack of other sources cannot be used as evidence that the event did not occur since authors routinely ignore events in their writings. For example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in AD 79 is mentioned by no first century sources…”
I have demonstrated before on this blog how apologists are often woefully wrong when they pretend to know something about Classics in order to exaggerate the “evidence” for Jesus in my articles “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan” and “Yet Another Case of Apologetic Dishonesty in Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case For Christ’.” In the case of Mount Vesuvius, apologists have once more failed to do basic research and made a very poor comparison.
Do we really have no 1st century attestation of the eruption of Vesuvius? Nope. One thing that apologists fail to point on when making this argument is that most of the prose historical works written during the Flavian Dynasty (the period during which the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius took place) have been lost due to the bottleneck of ancient texts that perished during the Christian Middle Ages. I have discussed previously in my article “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” how the numerical quantity of Christian texts to survive from antiquity is superficial and inflated due to to a sample bias in the works that were copied by Christian monks for roughly a thousand year period. For more information about this bottleneck, see Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. There was no special interest in specifically preserving works that mentioned the eruption of Vesuvius during the Middle Ages, while, in contrast, the whole apparatus of textual transmission in Europe had been turned towards preserving Christian works about Jesus. Despite this sample bias, no contemporary work or work written within ten years of Jesus’ death has been preserved (indicating that there probably were none), but nevertheless our earliest surviving source to mention of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is within only ten years of the event!
Although Christian monks did not preserve the valuable prose histories of the Flavian era, nevertheless, a number of epic poems have come down to us from that period. The authors of these epics would occasionally allude to contemporary events, which provide us with valuable contemporary sources for the Flavian period. For example, the epic poet Statius alludes to the emperor Domitian’s campaigns along the Rhine and against the Dacians in his Thebaid (1.18-22). The fact that these events were alluded to in poetry shows that they were certainly recorded previously in various forms of prose, which shows that many contemporary written sources did in fact exist, but were simply not preserved by later copyists.
The same is true for Mt. Vesuvius. Within only about ten years of the volcano’s eruption (79 CE), the contemporary poet Valerius Flaccus (writing c. 90 CE) makes reference to the eruption of the volcano twice in his Argonautica (3.209; 4.507). Flaccus was almost certainly not the first ancient author to record the eruption, but nevertheless, out of the few Pagan Classical texts that survived during the Christian Middle Ages, he still preserves testimony about the event within only a decade of its occurrence in the 1st century CE. This is earlier than any written mention we have of Jesus (let alone the later legendary miracles attributed to him the Gospels), despite the fact that a thousand years of biased textual transmission was in place for Jesus. This shows that, despite an inflated number of Christian works surviving the Middle Ages, there are still earlier sources for real historical events, like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, that had no sample bias in favor of their survival.
So we have an earlier source for Vesuvius, but what about the quality of the evidence? The best account we have of Vesuvius’ eruption is Pliny the Younger’s two detailed letters, written as eyewitness accounts, to the historian Tacitus. Do I even need to state how poor the Gospels are as evidence in comparison? Perhaps it will be best to show it.
Here can be found Pliny’s two letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius (6.16; 6.20).
After reading through those, see here the evidence for the three hour darkness at Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44) and here the evidence for Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18).
Here are a couple of ways in which Pliny’s account is vastly superior:
First, Pliny is writing an eyewitness account, whereas the Gospels are all anonymous and their authors never claim to have witnessed the three hour darkness or the slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem. Furthermore, Pliny’s account is extensive and detailed, whereas the Gospels are far shorter, more vague, and ambiguous in their claims.
Second, Pliny’s account has outside corroboration, as both the poet Valerius Flaccus writes about the event, as well as the historical biographer Suetonius in his Life of Titus (8.3). There is no independent corroboration for the three hour darkness described in the Gospels . While three of the Gospels mention the event, they are all dependent upon each other (Matthew copies 80% of Mark’s material, and Luke 65%). In fact, the dependence is so nakedly obvious that the Greek between these passages is nearly verbatim identical, with only a few trivial grammatical variations. So we only have one source, the Gospel of Mark, with no outside corroboration for the three hour darkness at Jesus’ death. Likewise, only the Gospel of Matthew claims that Herod slaughtered infants in Bethlehem (Josephus is oddly silent, despite cataloguing many of Herod’s other crimes). Nevertheless, for the eruption of Vesuvius we have multiple independent and earlier authors writing about the event.
Third, there would be no obvious reason for Valerius Flaccus, Pliny the Younger, or Suetonius to invent the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. A disaster simply occurred, and as three independent sources writing in different styles for different reasons, they all mention the event in their different narratives. However, it is very obvious that the Gospels invented the stories about the darkness and the infant massacre for scriptural reasons in order to draw parallels with the Old Testament. By inventing the three hour darkness, the author of Mark was able to allude to several passages of the OT (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15). Likewise, the story of the infant slaughter in Bethlehem was invented partly as a reference to Jeremiah 31:15 (the author of Matthew even lists the passage), as well as to draw a parallel between Jesus and Moses. In Exodus (1:22-2:1-8) the Pharaoh in a very similar fashion orders the slaughter of Hebrew male infants, from which Moses barely escapes. To draw one of the many parallels between Moses and Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, the author simply invented a similar story in which the unpopular king Herod slaughtered infants, just like the Pharaoh, so that baby Jesus’ escape could serve as an apt allegory and allusion to the OT.
So the evidence for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is better in every conceivable way. But what about the evidence for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum? While he does not claim that Pliny is the only source for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, apologist Tim McGrew has an odd way of nitpicking the evidence for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum:
“For comparison, the catastrophic burial of the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 goes unremarked by both Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness who wrote an extensive account of the eruption, and Suetonius, who also mentions the eruption. The first written record of their destruction that survives today is by Dio Cassius, who not only did not witness it but in all probability had never spoken to anyone who had. So what?”
This is more than a little nitpicky. To begin with, skeptics are not asking that every single detail be corroborated by an independent source. Imagine if Josephus had said something like this about Herod’s slaughter of the infants: “Herod became so paranoid that, upon the rumor of three Magi about a future king, he even slaughtered a whole score of infants in the hope of thwarting this prophecy.” Now, I would never respond to this by arguing, “Ah, but he doesn’t say that they were slaughtered in Bethlehem!” Obviously an outside account can corroborate a claim without mentioning every single detail. The problem is that no plausible contemporary outside reference exists for this event, nor for Jesus’ miracles, period.
Furthermore, in mentioning a massive volcano in Campania, Pliny certainly implied that many nearby towns were destroyed. In fact, in his second letter (6.20) Pliny even describes the disastrous effects that the volcano upon the town of Misenum, across the Bay of Napes, where Pliny was staying :
“By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint. The buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed. This finally decided us to leave the town. We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us. The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones. We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size.”
Misenum is located further away from Vesuvius than both Pompeii and Herculaneum. If, across the Bay of Napes, Misenum was struck so hard, as Pliny’s eyewitness account clearly documents, one can reasonably infer a fortiori that Pliny’s letter also entails that other nearby cities were damaged/destroyed.
But furthermore, it is not even correct that there is no reference to the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum until the time of Cassius Dio (3rd century CE). The historian Tacitus, writing c. 109 CE in his Histories (1.2), clearly refers to the burial of these cities in his praefactio about the Flavian period:
“Now too Italy was prostrated by disasters either entirely novel, or that recurred only after a long succession of ages; cities in Campania’s richest plains were swallowed up and overwhelmed.”
This reference was written only 30 years from the event, and it is not even the earliest source to mention the eruption of Vesuvius. Now, Tacitus does not explicitly state “Pompeii” and “Herculaneum,” but put the pieces together. Pliny is writing a detailed eyewitness account to Tacitus about the eruption of a volcano in Campania. Tacitus then, in the opening of his history, alludes to cities being completely swallowed up and destroyed in Campania (just as we have unearthed them at Pompeii and Herculaneum). This is more than sufficient corroboration for the destruction of the cities, which was recorded earlier to the event than the miraculous claims in the Gospels. Furthermore, most of Tacitus’ Histories was lost along with other valuable Classical texts during the Christian Middle Ages. We only have the first few books (Tacitus’ fuller account of the eruption of Vesuvius, where he no doubt described the burial of Pompeii and Herculaneum, was in the later books, which were not preserved), but even in his opening remarks Tacitus refers to the destruction of the towns.
So, we may compare the evidence as follows:
|The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius||The Midday Three Hour Darkness||Herod’s Slaughter of the Infants|
|Earliest Written Record:||10 years||40 years||80-90 years|
|Biased Selection of Textual Evidence:||No||Yes||Yes|
|Reason to Invent the Story:||No||Yes (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15)||Yes (cf. Jeremiah 31:15; Exodus 1:22-2:1-8)|
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the contemporary written evidence for Vesuvius is in any way comparable to the later legendary miracles and extraordinary claims in the Gospels.
 For information about how Thallus does not record the darkness, see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death.” Furthermore, even if Thallus decades later had claimed that the darkness was an eclipse, it would have been in response to Christian claims and propaganda. This would not make Thallus an outside or independent source, since his knowledge of the darkness would be dependent upon previous Christian claims. However, Carrier demonstrates that not even this meager evidence exists in the case of Thallus.