R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on the Testimonium Flavianum

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by Neil Godfrey

Where would one expect to find the most sound treatment of the textual and historical significance of the Testimonium Flavianum — in a work by a tried a true academic specializing in early Christian studies or in a lay outsider presuming to challenge the core working paradigm of those studies? F.F. Bruce’s “Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament” has been recommended more than once over recent years as an essential read for anyone wanting to come to grips with the Testimonium Flavianum, if only as a sound and sobering antidote to “radical nonsense” touted by “nonacademic upstarts”, with Earl Doherty being the principal one in mind. In fact, I once made a special 4 hour (two-way) trip to a university library just to consult this recommended reference on the strength of the erudition and assurances of an academic who strongly suggested it would put to rest any doubts raised by the nonsense pushed by the likes of Doherty re the TF. This piece is no doubt a smarting reaction against what I would like to think was a practical joke on the part of the academic rather than a true reflection of his knowledge and analysis of what Bruce has to say.

So I have finally prepared a comparison of the treatment of the Testimonium Flavianum by both Bruce (“Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament“) and Doherty (“The Jesus Puzzle“), and share it here with anyone else interested when and if similarly challenged by an academic to go to Bruce as an antidote to Doherty on this particular point. At least let it serve as a warning not to fall for the same practical joke some academics seem to enjoy playing on innocent, trusting laypersons.

Before getting into the detail of Bruce’s discussion of the TF there is another passage by Bruce I would love to share — this time with academics who scoff at views of those “less enlightened” who dismiss the TF in toto:

“[M]any students have come to the conclusion that the paragraph was interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor into the record of Josephus between the time of Origen and the time of Eusebius. It is a reasonable conclusion, held by many Christian scholars; and we must not accuse a man of undermining the case for historic Christianity because he cannot accept the authenticity of this paragraph. For, after all, it is not on the authority of Josephus that Christians believe in Christ!” (p.38 )

So what reasons does Bruce list and discuss to argue that the TF very likely represents core evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ?

On page 36 Bruce concludes a brief look (approx 350 words) at the reference to “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James” by asking if there is any more direct reference in Josephus’ work to Jesus. This leads to his discussion of the TF.

Bruce notes that the TF was known to Eusebius but that, “if we look at it carefully” (sic) (p.37) we will see that it contains wording only a Christian could use. This is underscored in the case of the sentence “He was the Christ” by explaining that Josephus elsewhere expressed his belief that the Christ was Vespasian, and that Origen a century before Eusebius also wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ.

So what reason(s) does Bruce give for thinking that Josephus did write at least something here about Jesus? I counted at least 1 (but I did keep counting many times looking for more so here they all are):

1. “The passage contains some characteristic samples of the diction of Josephus . . . ” (p.38 )

2. See 1. above

3. See 1. above

4. See 1. above

But to be fair, though, Bruce does let this single reason spawn a lengthier list of scholarly speculations on what that original Josephan passage might have said:

  • Klausner reconstructs the passage by removing the most obvious christian statements: “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the christ”, and the account of his resurrection.
  • In the time of Domitian it is more likely that Josephus would not have made any favourable comment about Christianity, hence original may have included negative expressions about Christ and Christianity as well such as:

— “a source of further trouble” (Robert Eisler, to connect the passage to what had gone before)

— “strange things” to replace “true things” (H. St. J. Thackeray since to Josephus Christianity was more strange than true)

— “[he was the] so-called [Christ]” (G.C. Richards and R. J. H. Shutt, to match “the so-called Christ” elsewhere in Josephus – and some reference to Christ is necessary here to make sense of the subsequent explanation of how the Christians got their name)

— [did not cease] to cause trouble” (Without some phrase like “to cause trouble” added here it is not known in what sense the Christians “did not cease”)

Conclusion? Hold your breath, now prepare to inhale what you are about to exhale, and study the circularity of hot air:

it seems clear (a) that Josephus’s paragraph about Jesus is not a wholesale interpolation; (b) that Josephus did not write it in the form in which it has been handed down to us.” (p.40)

And that’s it. Bruce has let his list of scholarly speculations of what an original Josephan core might have said (if there was one) cloud the fact that his conclusion rests entirely on the fact that the TF includes Josephan language. There are 2 major flaws here:

  1. Bruce offers no suggestion that there could be any reason to doubt that Josephan language in the TF must suggest that Josephus wrote something here about Jesus after all;
  2. Bruce appears to have let his array of speculations about what Josephus may originally have written persuade him enough to say “it seems clear” that Josephus did write something here about Jesus.

Bruce does conclude with a footnote on the tenth-century Arabic version of the TF, noting that it “may preserve a less thorough-going Christian editing of the original than does the traditional Greek text; at any rate it helps to confirm that Josephus did write about Jesus.” (p.41)

No argument, no details, no presentation of contrary opinions, just a footnote. (Garnering information “on the internet” is sometimes derided by academics who insist true in depth learning can only be found in hard copies of books, but in the case of checking more detailed information and arguments about this Arabic version I did come across a Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Arabic_version

On the view Bruce expressed in his footnote this “internet” source says:

However, Pines’ theory has not been widely accepted. The fact that even the title of Josephus’s work is inaccurate suggests that Agapius is quoting from memory, which may explain the discrepancies with the Greek version. In addition, the claim that Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified and to die has been interpreted as a reaction to the Muslim belief that Jesus did not really die on the cross.

Thank god for the internet to help me fill out footnotes in books I drive 4 hours to pick up!

Bruce’s next chapter is titled “The Slavonic Josephus”. Perhaps, I originally hoped, here I would find the reason for being advised to read this book for a more complete understanding of the debates surrounding the TF and its relevance as evidence for the historical Jesus. But sadly, Bruce writes on the first page of this chapter:

“In fact, it is as certain as anything can be in the realm of literary criticism that they [the Slavonic extracts relating to Jesus et al.] were not part of what Josephus wrote at all, but had been interpolated into the Greek manuscripts from which the Old Russian translation was made.” (p.42)

Compare, now, what I learned about the TF from Doherty’s “Jesus Puzzle”:

1. Josephus could not have written the TF as we have it because he did not subscribe to Christian doctrine (= F.F. Bruce)

2. There are 4 suspect sections in the TF (c.f. F.F.Bruce singling out 3 passages)

Arguments that Josephus wrote an original core on which the TF was built:

3. Vocabulary in the TF is characteristic of Josephus (= F.F.Bruce)

4. A Christian forger would not have limited himself to such short passage

5. A distilled Josephan original has no gospel flavour

6.Meier argues that Church Fathers would have failed to have referred to this passage because it testified to Josephus’s unbelief

7. Origen’s statement that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ is an oblique reference to the TF

To reconstruct the Josephan original core statement we need to consider:

8. That the original was neutral regarding Jesus (= F.F.Bruce)

9. That the original was hostile regarding Jesus (=F.F.Bruce)

10. That Josephus’s information came from official Roman records

11. That Josephus is likely to have made some put-down reference to the belief of Christians that Jesus was resurrected.

So I learned at least twice as much about the debates and discussion surrounding the TF from Earl Doherty’s book than I did from that by F.F. Bruce. An academic might assume that Doherty presents a one-sided discussion. I would say that Bruce has certainly presented a one-sided and narrow discussion about the TF as evidence for the historical Jesus. But Doherty presents arguments for and against on each point, concluding that within the framework of the most thoroughly addressed arguments in scholarship that the debate could go either way. He then looks at the broader context and issues in which the Josephan writings are embedded and presents fresh arguments that weigh far more decisively than Bruce’s default “it contains Josephan language … it seems clear”. Doherty’s strength is that he does not limit his discussion of the TF to the immediate textual issues. He weighs the broader context of what scholarship also informs us about what was known of Christianity in Rome around the time that Josephus wrote. He does this in part by drawing on the letters — and beliefs about Christ — of Paul. He considers the question of non-citation by Church Fathers in the broader context of what they did cite — thus breaking the narrow arguments of Meier (see point 6 above). Doherty also goes beyond the various speculations about what an original Josephan passage might have written by treating each one to an in-depth analysis within the broader context of what was known about Josephus, Christianity, and other cultural and political attitudes at the time.

Doherty’s treatment of the TF does not answer all the questions that have been raised about it. (I understand he has addressed the question in more depth on his website since publication of his book.) But if any academic recommends that you turn from Doherty and go to Bruce to better grasp the sound basics of the TF and its significance as evidence for the historical Jesus, be warned. That academic is only pulling your leg. Tricky buggers, some of them!


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