2011-05-27

How they used to debate the evidence of Josephus for the historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from my previous two posts my little roll on Jesus Not A Myth by “anti-mythicist” A. D. Howell Smith (1942). . . .

I love reading those book reviews that introduce me to the arguments under review. I have read many worthless reviews that pique my interest in their subjects despite their efforts to turn me away. One was by a seasoned scholar who blasted George Athas’s publication of his thesis on the Tel Dan inscription. The reviewer spent most of his time attacking Athas personally (he was too much an academic novice to be attempting to discuss such a serious topic!) and appealing to the authority of traditional views. That sort of review raises my suspicions that there is something in a work by the likes of Athas that the reviewer cannot handle, so I am more curious to find out what it is.

Albert Schweitzer also outlines arguments of various mythicists of his day in order to explain what he believes are their weaknesses (and even strengths in some cases).

So it is with Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth. It is not easy to track down older books on mythicism, but I was lucky to stumble across Jesus Not a Myth some years back and find it a valuable resource to catching glimpses of the contents of mythicist arguments early last century — and, of course, to compare rejoinders to those arguments.

Here is another excerpt, this time on the evidence of Josephus, pp. 15-18. I have reformatted some of the layout and paragraphing, added bold to mark thought changes, for easier reading. A companion post to this would be my earlier What They Used To Say About Josephus As Evidence For Jesus.

The Mythicists lay great stress on the silence of Jewish writers of the first century about the life and death of Jesus. This silence is certainly impressive, but we can make too much of it. . . .

But we should have expected Josephus, who wrote so voluminously on Jewish affairs, and who is careful to mention the various Jewish sects and parties, to have said something of the career of a propagandist whom the Jews had sacrificed to their political enemies. Josephus, however, ignores Christianity altogether. So if his silence about Jesus proves that Jesus never lived, his silence about the Christian Church and its wide diffusion at the end of the first century proves that no such organization existed until after his time. Some perhaps will draw this inference But we shall enormously increase our difficulties as literary and historical critics by so doing.

A sounder logic will conclude that Jesus never made such an impression on his contemporaries as the early Christian records would have us believe, and that Christianity was too obscure, even as late as A.D. 100, to attract, except very cursorily, the attention of writers not biased in its favour.

An alternative explanation is that the obvious connection of Christianity with Judaism, and the growing hostility of the Roman authorities to the former as a cult subversive of political and social peace, made it desirable that one who sought to curry favour with his masters should burke certain awkward facts. 

This explanation does not seem very convincing, as it would surely have served better the purpose of Josephus to insist that Christianity was a disreputable heresy with which no decent Jew would have anything to do. Nor is the theory of the obscurity of Christianity at this time compatible with it.

But was Josephus silent?

A passage has long been cited from his Antiquities of the Jews which obviously fits badly the matter preceding and following it, and appears moreover to have had a shifting place in the text. Despite the pleas of Burkitt, Harnack, Chwolson, and other eminent scholars, its authenticity seems to be rationally indefensible. Only a Christian hand could have penned a panegyric of Jesus as the Christ, who had actually worked miracles in fulfilment of the predictions of the Hebrew Prophets, and had risen from the dead after having been condemned to the cross by Pontius Pilate. Possibly the forger has expunged a less appreciative notice of Jesus and primitive Christianity. But against this view is the fact that the existing notice is out of harmony with its context. . . .

I have argued this myself in a series of posts, and not only that it disrupts the context, but that it also runs against the thoughts and interests of Josephus expressed elsewhere: Cuckoo in the nest 1; Cuckoo in the nest 2; Cuckoo in the nest 3; Cuckoo postscript.

After discussing a controversial argument by Robert Eisler, Howell Smith continues:

. . . . A reference to Jesus, however, does occur in the Antiquities of the Jews (Bk. XX, chap. ix, 1); it occurs in a short account of how Ananus the High Priest caused to be put on trial “the brother of Jesus, him called Christ (James was his name), and some certain others,” and then made accusations against them as law-breakers, which led to their execution by stoning.

W. B. Smith maintains that the whole of the section “the brother of Jesus . . . others” is a Christian interpolation, except the words “some certain”; in this he follows other critics. “It seems incredible,” he writes, “that Josephus should throw in such an observation as this state without preparation or explanation of occasion.”¹

Why so? Considering that Josephus mentions so many persons of the name of Jesus, he could not very well allude to James, brother of Jesus, without saying who this Jesus was. On the traditional view of Christian origins many contemporaries of Josephus, Jews and non-Jews, must have heard of “Jesus who was called Christ.” The use of such an expression does not demand a Christian writer as its literary source. Of course, there may have been interpolation here. But there is no satisfactory evidence of this. The passage in question was known to Origen, who quotes it three times. . . . .

¹ Ecce Deus, p. 235.

I have discussed this last passage, including Origen’s quotations, in a number of posts. My purpose here is simply to illustrate how someone argued against the mythicist case in 1942.


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13 Comments

  • Steven Carr
    2011-05-27 15:47:40 UTC - 15:47 | Permalink

    ‘Why so? Considering that Josephus mentions so many persons of the name of Jesus, he could not very well allude to James, brother of Jesus, without saying who this Jesus was.’

    Good point, well made.

    ‘Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.’

    Josephus does indeed explain who Jesus was.

  • John
    2011-05-27 22:00:36 UTC - 22:00 | Permalink

    I think Josephus does write about “Christians,” and like Philo and Pliny, he calls them Essenes. And Eisenman convinces me that in their final stage they were James’ group. What evidence do we have that people were called Christians in Palestine in the first century? Even Acts says that the Jesus movement was known as the church (assembly) and the Way, terms that are also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as well the poor, and the New Covenant and Damascus, and even a plausible source for the word Essenes, ossim, or “doers”). This explains why no one writing about first century Palestine called anyone Christian, because it was only “in Antioch [that] the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

    This also explains why the NT writers mention the Pharisees and Sadducees but not the Essenes, because, as Eisenman suspects, the latter is who they think they are.

    • 2011-05-27 22:49:40 UTC - 22:49 | Permalink

      I think Josephus does write about “Christians,” and like Philo and Pliny, he calls them Essenes.

      Josephus says that the Essenes lived like the Pythagoreans (AJ 15.11.4) — much like the Pharisees lived like the Stoics. Is there any evidence of Pythagorean (or Neo-Pythagorean) thought in early Christianity? I think there is: the Diatessaron. As Stephan Huller points out, “diatessaron” is a musical term (like my own website/blog “diapente”, and as in “diatonic” scale), and a term invented by the Pythagoreans.

  • 2011-05-28 01:45:58 UTC - 01:45 | Permalink

    Howell-Smith: “The passage in question was known to Origen, who quotes it three times.”

    Actually, Origen does no such thing. He quotes a passage containing the phrase “brother of Jesus, called Christ”, but such a passage cannot be shown to have had anything to do with Antiquities 20 and the account of Ananus. It seems to be a ‘lost’ passage in which Josephus allegedly opined that the fall of Jerusalem was God’s punishment for the murder of James. (Such a passage had to be an interpolation itself, since Josephus would hardly have said any such thing.)

    In fact, Origen’s silence on comparing or co-mentioning this lost passage with the now extant one in Antiquities 20 is quite indicative of him having no knowledge of any comparable mention in the latter. Which means that the earliest witness to the Antiquities 20 reference to Jesus comes only with our trustworthy historian Eusebius in the 4th century. Imagine that!

    • 2011-05-28 13:20:43 UTC - 13:20 | Permalink

      Earl,isn’t Origen –regarding the marking of the beginning of the fall of Jerusalem– conflating the murder of James with the death of Ananus mentioned by Josephus in Wars 4.5.2?

  • GakuseiDon
    2011-05-28 10:54:09 UTC - 10:54 | Permalink

    Earl: It seems to be a ‘lost’ passage in which Josephus allegedly opined that the fall of Jerusalem was God’s punishment for the murder of James. (Such a passage had to be an interpolation itself, since Josephus would hardly have said any such thing.)

    Actually, I think that Josephus did, after a fashion. Origen writes that “in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple” Josephus says it was because the Jews killed a just man, James, brother of Christ. Josephus writes this in Ant 20, 9.1. According to tradition, this happened right in front of the Temple.

    Now, just before that, in Ant 20, 8.5, Josephus does indeed seek after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Josephus writes:

    “… the robbers … slew certain of their own enemies, and were subservient to other men for money; and slew others, not only in remote parts of the city, but in the temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty. And this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of his hatred of these men’s wickedness, rejected our city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it”.

    So the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was the impiety of killing people in the Temple.

    Origen either misremembered Josephus or was ‘reading between the lines’ wearing his Christian revisionist glasses. But it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence. Origen does appear to be referencing that part of Josephus, with the ‘lost’ passage arguably appearing where we would expect it to appear: just before the James passage.

    • Steven Carr
      2011-05-28 17:51:45 UTC - 17:51 | Permalink

      ‘ just before the James passage.’?

      You mean 3 chapters before the James passage?

      Christian revisionist glasses? All we have are killings, and no reference to any James in this section which is 3 chapters before another killing of a James, and one not linked in any way to a destruction of Jerusalem.

      • Steven Carr
        2011-05-28 17:55:50 UTC - 17:55 | Permalink

        Apologies. I miscounted. It is in chapter 8, just one chapter before the death of James.

        Nevertheless, Josephus clearly distinguishes the death of James from his stated cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. Josephus give no linkage, and there is no passage in Josephus linking any death of James with any destruction of Jerusalem.

        Elsewhere Josephus gives other causes for the destruction of Jerusalem.

  • John
    2011-05-28 22:22:16 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

    Regarding Origen on James (http://www.textexcavation.com/anaorigjos.html), I think it’s not only possible that Origen was aware of the James passage in Antiquities 20, but also that the “lost” passage did exist. Origen does not quote Josephus concerning John the Baptist in Against Celsus 1.47, but rather only summarizes what he says:

    “Josephus testifies to John as having been a baptist and promised cleansing to those who were baptized.”

    Likewise he does not quote the James passage, but he does show awareness that Josphus calls him a “brother of Jesus who was called Christ,” like it says in the Antiquities. That he is being faithful to Josephus’ words is indicated by how he is also faithful to Paul’s description of James:

    “Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he saw this James as a brother of the Lord…”

    Does Origen (or anyone else in his time or before) ever refer to James as “the brother of Jesus” instead of “the brother of the Lord”? If not, then why does he say it here if it was not in Josephus?

    As for the “lost” passage, which is Origen’s concern, perhaps it was part of the rest of the James passage in the Antiquities and was removed because of the protests of people like Origen and Eusebius, for as the former put it: “[I]s it not more reasonable to say that it happened on account of Jesus the Christ?”

    • GakuseiDon
      2011-05-29 01:53:10 UTC - 01:53 | Permalink

      Does Origen (or anyone else in his time or before) ever refer to James as “the brother of Jesus” instead of “the brother of the Lord”? If not, then why does he say it here if it was not in Josephus?

      That’s right. Some think that Origen gets this from Hegesippus, but even Hegesippus calls James “brother of the Lord”. It seems to me that Origen is referring to that particular part of Josephus because of the proximity of the passage in Josephus regarding the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, while Josephus gives the cause as people being murdered in Jerusalem and in the Temple, Origen sees Josephus (as “against his will”) indicating the destruction was a result of the death of James.

  • John
    2011-05-29 02:47:57 UTC - 02:47 | Permalink

    Another thing that Origen says concerning James in Josephus that does not sound like Hegesippus to me (in addition to there not being any evidence that Origen knew of Hegesippus as far as I am aware) is:

    “But he himself, though not believing in Jesus as the Christ…” (Against Celsus 1.47)

    and:

    “[A]lthough he did not accept our Jesus as Christ…”

    How could Origen possibly think that Hegesippus did not believe in Jesus as the Christ?

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