Poor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.
Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)
So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources.
(In even more desperation the same scholar insisted that there is no more evidence for Paul and Jesus than there is for Shakespeare! When scholars attempt to attack mythicism by resorting to such fatuous and ignorant claims you know they have nothing but their fears and ignorance to defend. They are arguing from desperation. For anyone who stumbles across their nincompoopery (thanks for that word, tw), I suspect that they are probably doing more to open the minds of those others to the mythicism question.
But Josephus was not always laden with such a burden. It is since the Second World War that there has been a shift in scholarship to rehabilitate this Jewish historian to the Christian cause. This trend may be seen as part of a general ecumenical trend and swing to embrace Jews more deliberately since that war. Compare the frequent attempts to rehabilitate Judas. Today’s insistence upon finding a “Josephan core” to the clearly Christian note about Jesus in Josephus is a trend or current fashion. Nothing about the evidence itself has changed. Compare What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus and How they used to debate the evidence of Josephus.
I have said above that what we read in Josephus about Jesus cannot be compared with evidence that claims to be eyewitness reports. Even if Josephus did write something about Jesus we must naturally wonder about his source of information. He says, for example, that Jesus won over a good many Jews and Greeks, but that’s not what we read in the Christian narratives. It sounds like someone is writing from the perspective of knowing about a mixed following of Jews and Greeks within Christianity after the time of Jesus. This claim is an anachronism and must necessarily open up the whole passage to question.
We must also ask why we are left with no indication that anyone knew of this passage about Jesus in the Jewish history until the fourth century when Eusebius quoted it. We do know that many church fathers before then had read Josephus. They quoted or referred to Josephus in their writings. But none mentions his famous passage about Jesus. If a Jewish notable had said anything even mildly favourable about Jesus it beggars belief that this would be passed up by any church father who was writing to prove his faith among Jews and others.
Ken Olson has shown the striking similarities between phrases and terms in the Josephan passage and distinctive Eusebian expressions. That looks as damning as fingerprints at a crime scene.
Some have tried to argue that Josephus was a secret admirer of Jesus. One scholar did take the trouble some years back to send me a very lengthy argument to this effect. It was a remarkably abstract piece, but only someone very much wanting to see a Jesus-loving heart in Josephus would have been patient enough to stare at the evidence long enough till it came into focus like one of those curious optical illusions.
Others have tried to find in the Jesus passage a neutral core, words that do not come to praise Jesus but not to condemn him either. And others have suggested the original words truly were hostile. But this is also a sign that some desperation lies at the heart of the argument. Josephus could scarcely be said to be neutral or hostile when he says that disciples keen to know the truth followed Jesus. There does seem something a little insecure in an argument that, in the absence of any other supporting evidence, takes a set of words as found and suggests that originally the opposite words were written.
But if Josephus is insecure as evidence for Jesus independent of the Christian tradition, we have nothing but the self-testimony of Christians themselves for the narrative of how their faith originated. And not one of those witnesses is an eye-witness to the narrative events propagated.
This does not mean Jesus was a myth. But it does leave the gate ajar on that possibility.
Some other posts where this theme is covered in more detail:
- The Jesus reference in Josephus: its ad hoc doctoring and various manuscript lines
- The Testimonium Flavianum: more clues from Eusebius
- Jesus in Josephus — Eusebian clues — point 4
- Jesus in Josephus — pts 5-12
- Jesus in Josephus – “not extinct at this day”
- Jesus in Josephus, a cuckoo in the nest. 1
- Cuckoo in the nest (2) — Jesus in Josephus
- cuckoo postscript — a more plausible Josephan “reconstruction”
- “An important piece of non-Christian evidence” for the historicity of Jesus
And on that “other entry” in Josephus:
- That other suspect entry in Josephus
- “The brother of Jesus called Christ”: another Eusebian footprint in Josephus?
- Brother of Jesus called Christ / 2
- That ‘brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ storm in Josephus’s teacup