Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.6
What Did Jews Have to Say?
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Philo of Alexandria
- the Testimonium: entirely interpolation or an authentic residue?
- is an authentic residue “neutral”?
- is the Testimonium intrusive or a digression?
- silence of Christian commentators on Testimonium before Eusebius
- how could Josephus have felt ‘positive’ or even neutral toward Jesus?
- is the Testimonium’s language the language of Eusebius?
- changes to the Testimonium and its location
- the case of Antiquities 20
- The Jewish Talmud
- why are there no traditions about Jesus going back to the 1st century?
* * * * *
Non-Christian References to Jesus
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 56-68, Jewish Sources)
Philo of Alexandria
Bart Ehrman, in his survey of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, turns next to the Jewish category. He first dismisses the silence about Jesus in the writings of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria as something unsurprising, since by his death (probably by 50 CE), Christianity had not yet penetrated to Egypt. That may be the case, but this does not mean that a philosopher living in Egypt, just around the Mediterranean corner from Palestine, especially one whose philosophy about God and the mediator Logos was a close antecedent to that of Paul, was completely isolated from news of Judean events, or from new ideas being bandied about in the very field of thought Philo was engaged in.
What we do know from Philo’s writings
Moreover, we know from his writing that Philo was familiar with Pilate and his objectionable activities in Judea. He would not, of course, know about every rebel or criminal executed by the governor, but considering the developments which supposedly followed this particular execution, and considering his interest in the sect known as the Therapeutae to which the early Christian community in Judea would supposedly have borne a strong resemblance, it would not be infeasible for him to have noticed the latter and especially what was presumably being made out of its human founder.
We have writings of Philo up to the year 41 CE, but it could be argued (Ehrman does not) that, even had he taken notice, commenting on that notice was something he simply didn’t get around to doing. The silence in Philo is therefore not overly significant, it’s just another void to add to the overall picture.
But the most important Jewish historian of the era is another matter. Josephus has been a battleground in the ‘clash of titans’ and understandably so. The last half-century of scholarship has focused mainly on whether the passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities of the Jews, Bk.18 contains an authentic original by Josephus which Christians later only made additions to. This is a bandwagon which virtually every New Testament scholar these days has hopped onto, as though the maintenance of an authentic original is seen as crucial to Jesus’ existence.
What scholars used to say
It should be noted, however, that prior to the Second World War, many scholars were quite willing to postulate that Josephus made no reference to Jesus at all. See, for example, Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, p.35 (that both passages can be “suspected of interpolation”); or Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18 (“It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere”). The latter, in regarding the Testimonium as a complete forgery, suggested: “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter” (Ibid., p.17).
Who proofread this book? I
Curiously, Ehrman says he will deal with Josephus’ two references to Jesus “in reverse order,” gives us a brief description of the Antiquities 20 passage, then “before dealing with” the mythicist claim that it’s an interpolation, he switches over to the Testimonium in Antiquities 18, calling it the “second passage.” One gets an impression more than once in this book that Ehrman simply went with his first draft, and without benefit of editor.
The suspicious passages
Though most of the present readers will know this passage like the back of their hands, I’ll give Ehrman’s rendition of it according to “the best manuscripts”:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3) [DJE?, p. 59]
The problem parts of this passage, as Ehrman recounts them, are well known:
that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he arose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. [DJE?, p. 60]
No Jew, and certainly not Josephus, could have written these clauses. Who did? Obviously,
The majority of scholars of early Judaism, and experts on Josephus, think that . . . one or more Christian scribes ‘touched up’ the passage a bit. [DJE?, p. 60]
Today’s scholarship as a whole tends to accept the above passage, minus the noted impossible parts, as more or less Josephus’ original statement. But “people who receive the truth with pleasure” is surely suspicious as well. Would Josephus have styled Jesus as a speaker of “truth”?
And the claim that such a residual passage is “neutral” can hardly be accepted.
For one thing, “startling deeds” in the above translation tries to ‘neutralize’ a phrase better rendered as “wonderful works” (paradoxōn ergōn). Indeed, Josephus uses paradoxos 20 times in Antiquities, and most refer to wonders or favorable events brought about by God. Writers of the time like Philo regularly use it in positive ways.
Moreover, saying that his followers continued to love him after his death contains more than a hint of praise, as does the observation that “the tribe of the Christians” is still going strong.
Most importantly, there can be no reason to think that Josephus could have called Jesus “a wise man,” a phrase he consistently uses for respected figures like Solomon and Elisha. In fact, toward every other popular leader in Palestine during the first century Josephus has nothing but contempt, condemning them as instigators of unrest leading to the catastrophe of the Jewish War. Nor would he have had any reason to regard Jesus, unlike the rest, as an innocent man, something which the Testimonium conveys in its assigning of blame for Jesus’ prosecution to Jewish “leading men.”
Dealing lightly with the arguments
Ehrman chooses to address my own arguments in regard to Josephus as laid out in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, but he hardly does so in any comprehensive fashion. He notes the oft-observed fact that the paragraph on Jesus in Antiquities 18 seems intrusive, with the final sentence of the preceding paragraph (recounting the bloody protests over Pilate’s use of temple funds to build aqueducts) flowing naturally into the first sentence of the succeeding paragraph. The latter reads:
About the same time, another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.
This hardly follows logically from the paragraph on Jesus, which is in no way portrayed as causing a calamitous disorder, and certainly not for the Jews. Ehrman chooses to use my proviso that, since the ancients did not use footnotes, they had to insert “digressions from their main points” in the body of the text. From this he concludes:
So this argument really does not amount to much. [DJE?, p. 62]
But he has ignored important qualifications to this which undercut such a complacent judgment.
- First, if Josephus had written the paragraph on Jesus as a ‘digression’ from his main focus on the calamities of the time, he would likely not have worded that first sentence (see above) of the succeeding paragraph in the way that he has, looking back beyond the Testimonium as though ignoring it completely and leaving the reader wondering what was sad or calamitous about his Jesus account.
- Second, that succeeding sentence is itself followed by a digression (a scandal involving a con artist, calamitous only to the victim) which delays a recounting of that “another sad calamity.” However, in this case, Josephus announces that he is about to insert a digression, something he does not do for the Jesus paragraph.
So the situation is hardly as innocuous as Ehrman presents it.
As a counter to my argument that no Christian writer before Eusebius makes any reference at all to the Testimonium, Ehrman once again appeals to the “neutral” character of it, which would have given those writers no reason to quote from it.
The fact that Jesus is said to have been wise or to have done great deeds would not go far in the repertoire of the Christian apologists, he says. [DJE?, p. 62]
The only word for this is nonsense. I have shown above that the TF is anything but neutral, and Ehrman’s own words just quoted provide obvious corroboration. As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.538):
There is so much in that ‘neutral’ reconstructed account which Christians could have put a spin on in defense of themselves and Jesus, so much that could have provided succor, support and even ammunition for what those Christian apologists were attempting to do in their writing.
Origen’s evidence undermines Ehrman’s argument
And I gave a good example in Origen, who is countering Celsus’ accusation that Jesus’ miracles were ‘cheap tricks’ he learned in Egypt. Part of Origen’s counter is that Jesus’ superior miracles were designed to win people over to his commendable ethical teachings. A respected Jewish historian calls Jesus a wise man who did wondrous works and preached “truth,” and Origen—who in his writings cites Josephus 11 times on other subjects—would remain silent if he knew the reconstructed Testimonium? (And we know he had read Antiquities 18 because he cites the passage on John the Baptist.)
Ehrman tries to get around my opinion that Josephus could only have seen Jesus in a negative light, as yet another would-be messiah who drew the wrath of Rome down on Jewish heads. He suggests that, if we read into Josephus’ knowledge of Jesus only what is written in the residual passage — where there is nothing about claiming to be Messiah or preaching a subversive political message — then Josephus would have had no reason to react negatively to him. He was simply “a teacher with followers.”
This, too, is nonsense. If Josephus chose to write any passage about Jesus, he had to have known something about him. If he was willing to call him a wise man and label his teachings as “truth” he had to have some idea of what those teachings were about.
How could Josephus not know?
But in view of the Gospel traditions about Jesus’ teachings, which should have been circulating in Christian circles in Rome by the 90s of the first century when Josephus was writing, how can it be thought that somehow only the “good” teachings among them found their way to him? How would the overturning of the social order, the apocalyptic promises and the prophecy that the Temple would fall, the miracle traditions which included some resembling those essayed by other would-be messiahs, the promise of a new kingdom that would transform the world — how would these have been shielded from Josephus? Moreover, how was he ignorant of the whole cultic view of Jesus in the first century that he was the divine Son of God, called “Lord” and redeemer of the world, views sure to offend the Jew Josephus and prejudice him against any man whose followers—and perhaps the man himself for all Josephus knew—had been guilty of such blasphemy?
And he had been crucified by Pilate. Did Josephus dismiss any thought about why that had been done, or whether there had been any justification for it from the political point of view? Did he really think that Pilate would execute ‘a wise man’ simply on the word of Jewish citizens, whose own reasons Josephus failed to even state?
Clearly, Ehrman has put no thought into this at all, much less attempted to deal with much of my 50-page treatment of Josephus. So much about this book is slipshod and superficial.
Dealing lightly with the case for Eusebian forgery
Returning to the question of the language of the Testimonium, Ehrman notes that I spend a good deal of space in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.550f) discussing the arguments made by Ken Olson that Eusebius himself forged the Testimonium in its entirety:
The basis for the argument is a very careful analysis of the words and phrases used in the Testimonium. Olson argues in case after case that the wording and phrasing of the passage has numerous parallels with Eusebius’s writings but not with those of Josephus. In other words, the vocabulary and style of the passage suggest that it was written by Eusebius. [DJE?, p. 64]
Ehrman merely appeals to the names of a couple of scholars who have made a “critical scrutiny” of Olson’s case and found it wanting. He fails to give even a single example from such scholars of how Olson’s observations have been discredited — let alone his own arguments on the matter.
- He does not attempt to counter Olson’s point that Josephus consistently uses “poiētēs” to mean poet, and not “doer” (as in “doer of wonderful deeds”).
- Nor does he address Olson’s observation (supplemented in my book by Jay Raskin’s extensive study on this feature, which he calls a writer’s “Tell”) that the phrase “up until now” is used regularly by Eusebius to convey a positive marker: anything that survives or continues strongly “up until now, until our own time” enjoys proof of veracity, even divine favor.
- Nor is the precise phrase Eusebius uses (“Eis eti te nun”) found in Josephus, while phrases similar to it are never used in the same type of context as that final sentence of the Testimonium.
- As for “the tribe of the Christians,” the word “tribe” is always used by Josephus in application to an ethnic group, never a religious group, whereas Eusebius uses the term in other imaginative ways, and in History of the Church III,33, we find the phrase “the tribe of the Christians.”
Further evidence ignored by Ehrman
There are other aspects to the question offered in my book which Ehrman ignores. In an early work, Adversus Hieroclem, Eusebius is countering an unfavorable comparison between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana. Yet here he does not draw on the Testimonium’s favorable designation of Jesus as a “wise man.” Had he not yet discovered this famous passage? In three later works he would call upon the Testimonium to support his arguments about Jesus, though one of these survives only in Syriac. Between the other two, there are a few differences in the Greek wording; the later one, in History of the Church, is the one invariably quoted in all discussions. I make the case that this is hardly a matter of quoting from faulty memory. The best explanation is that Eusebius ‘improved’ the text he had created between his composition of the two works.
Another sign of interpolation
Incidentally, a comment by Eusebius (H.E. I,11) suggests that the position of the Testimonium was not originally what it is in extant manuscripts:
After giving this account of John, in the same part of the work he goes on to speak as follows of our Savior.
This would place the two passages in reverse order to what they are now. Had Eusebius not yet decided where to place his Testimonium, whether in association with the Baptist or with Pilate? An unstable placement is usually a sign of interpolation (as in the case of the ‘Gospel’ passage in the Apology of Aristides).
It is also more than a little suspicious that the Testimonium is handily available to bolster various arguments (whereas no Christian writer before him had so used it).
- For example, in the Demonstratio III,5 Eusebius is arguing that if Jesus were a deceiver or charlatan, his followers would have abandoned him after his death; it seems quite a coincidence that Eusebius then produced a text in Josephus which records the very fact that Jesus’ followers remained faithful.
- Nor were his miracles to be judged magic or fraud; by further coincidence, he can appeal to Josephus who regarded them as “wonderful works” and anything but fraud from a man who spoke “truth.”
- In History of the Church, following his quotation of the passages on Jesus and John the Baptist, he summarizes that this Hebrew historian has left a record of both, by which “we can condemn the shameless dishonesty of those who forged the Memoranda” (a Roman forged ‘Acts of Pilate’ in Eusebius’ time which disparaged Jesus and John).
Apparently, Eusebius found the Testimonium Flavianum a godsend.
The motive and the record
Considering that Eusebius himself declared in Praeparatio Evangelica, 13 that it was permissible for the good of the faith to use fiction/deception/lies (pseudos), and that the entire early Christian record is replete with forgeries, amendments and invented documents (Eusebius is generally suspected of having created his own bishop lists to fill in missing records, and he either created or made use of the outrageous correspondence between Jesus and Abgar of Edessa), the idea that he could have created a ‘pious fraud’ like the Testimonium to defend his faith is not at all far-fetched.
All this Ehrman skims or ignores
As a final argument in a very limited corpus, Ehrman suggests:
If a scribe (or Eusebius or anyone else) wanted to insert a strong testimony about the virtues of Jesus into the writings of Josephus (so that the Testimonium is a later interpolation), he surely would have done so in a much more glowing and obvious way. [DJE?, pp. 64-65]
This is not as telling as one might think. In the standard view, a Christian ‘touched up a bit’ an original passage by Josephus. Why didn’t that interpolator take the opportunity to create a more glowing passage about Jesus? One cancels out the other. Perhaps a cooler head prevailed — particularly understandable if it was Eusebius’ head — and the Testimonium was kept to a reasonable length and not revealing an unrealistic knowledge or interest on Josephus’ part.
Moreover, as an original, the authentic residue would be a much less detailed treatment of its subject than we find in the surrounding events, some of which are recounted at greater length.
All this Ehrman ignored in dealing with this point, as he did with the observations that no insertion of the Testimonium is found in the Table of Contents and that in Jewish War, when Josephus deals with the same crises in Judea under Pilate as he was to do in Antiquities 18, there is no appearance of a passage about Jesus.
Who proofread this book? II
When introducing Josephus, Ehrman has said that before addressing the mythicist claim that the reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20 was an interpolation he would first deal with the Testimonium. But he never returns to the subject of Antiquities 20. (Who proofread this book?) Thus we cannot know how he would have dealt with the contention that “brother of Jesus, called Christ” — or at the very least, the second phrase of it — is a Christian interpolation into an account of a certain “James” who was executed by the High Priest Ananus. Let me make a few comments on this. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.570-586 for a full discussion of the passage.)
Brother of Jesus, called Christ
- If Josephus did not write “he was the Messiah” in the earlier passage, this would leave “called Christ” hanging in the wind, with no antecedent explanation for it, and hardly a suitable elucidation for the Roman reader of who his “James” was. It would also be the only appearance of the term in the entire work.
- Since many have judged that Josephus was reluctant to discuss on any level the whole subject of Jewish messianism (he doesn’t even use the term when declaring Vespasian as the fulfillment of ‘Jewish oracles’—a declaration, by the way, which would in itself explain why Origen says that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, even if he made no mention of him), that single appearance is suspicious.
- The phrase “called Christ” is also found in several places in the Gospels: Matthew 1:16, 27:17 and 22, John 4:25, as well as in Justin, suggesting a Christian nature.
- The passage makes sense if its “Jesus” refers to a different Jesus, probably the one specified a few lines later (“Jesus, son of Damneus”), making “brother of Jesus” original to the text.
- It is also unlikely that the murder of the Christian James the Just would so incense Jewish elders that they would agitate to have their own High Priest removed.
- Moreover, “James, together with some others” were said to be executed, suggesting that those others were Christians as well, yet there is no record anywhere of a pogrom against Christians at this time in Jerusalem by a bloodthirsty High Priest.
- Finally, in connection with the debate over Antiquities20, three passages in Origen are regularly appealed to as some kind of corroboration.
- In them, Origen says that Josephus attributes the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) to God’s punishment on the Jews for the murder of James the Just, and in all three he attributes to Josephus the phrase “brother of Jesus, called Christ.” Such a “lost reference” cannot be found in the extant Josephan works, but if it existed, it cannot have been a part of Antiquities 20, not least because it would have conflicted with the rest of the latter’s context.
- At the same time, neither can it regarded as something Josephus would have believed, let alone written.
- And so it must be judged a Christian interpolation prior to Origen—indeed, prior to Melito around 170 who is the first we can see ‘switching over’ to the view that the Jerusalem fall was due to the crucifixion of Jesus rather than the murder of James. (It is almost impossible to see a Christian view on this as not involving Jesus rather than James right from the beginning, if the crucifixion were historical.)
- But here is the crux of the present matter. Origen’s “lost reference” can in no way serve to witness to the presence of “brother of Jesus, called Christ” in Antiquities 20—quite the opposite. We cannot assume that the interpolator borrowed from the latter passage. In fact, Eusebius, as in the case of the Testimonium, is the first to witness to the Antiquities 20 reference to Christ. In History of the Church II, 23.20-21, he repeats Origen’s remarks about Josephus attributing the fall of Jerusalem to the murder of James, then immediately refers to ‘another account of the death of James’ by Josephus and quotes the Antiquities 20 passage on Ananus as we have it today. No one before him even alludes to it, not even Origen who, though mentioning James and the lost reference three times, is never drawn — as Eusebius was — to calling attention to a similar reference to James and Jesus in Antiquities 20.
- We are led to conclude that either Eusebius himself, or a previous interpolator post-Origen, inserted “brother of Jesus, called Christ” (or only the latter phrase) into Antiquities 20. And indeed, whoever was responsible, it may have been innocently done, perhaps as a marginal gloss, to clarify which James Josephus was thought to be referring to.
None of this did Ehrman attempt to address.
After yet another appeal to authority, he then renders the whole Josephus question moot by taking refuge in the observation that it really doesn’t matter what Josephus said or didn’t say. Even if he had written the “pared-down” Testimonium, he would merely “have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation” and this wouldn’t tell us anything more than “we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds.” Alternatively, if he wrote nothing about him,
There is certainly no reason to think if Jesus lived that Josephus must have mentioned him. He doesn’t mention most Jews of the first century. [DJE?, p. 66]
The Jewish Talmud
If Josephus’s Testimonium “is only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed,” Ehrman acknowledges that the references to Jesus in the Talmud are completely irrelevant.
A little woolly
They appear centuries after Jesus lived, and are based on unreliable oral reports from earlier times (though none from the first century itself). Ehrman is a little woolly on exactly when certain persons in the Talmud, such as “Ben Panthera,” were first presented as “clear” references to Jesus of Nazareth.
My own study, based largely on that of Frank Zindler in The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, has shown that there is no continuous chain of understanding going back earlier than the late Talmuds (4th to 6th centuries). “Ben Panthera” and “Ben Stada” originally referred to entirely different characters, and only later, in limited fashion and in reaction to Christian traditions, were recast on the assumption that they could have referred to Jesus.
Far from irrelevant: Ehrman failing to see the implications
It is not clear from Ehrman’s writing whether he might actually agree with this. But he has certainly failed to see the logical implications.
How could the Jewish rabbis, reasonably competent in oral tradition, not have formulated and preserved some traditions of their own about Jesus the man, if only to counter claims about him being made by Christians? (I have demonstrated that neither Matthew’s concluding ‘guards at the tomb’ line in 28:15, nor the ‘bastard son of a Roman soldier’ slander as supposedly attested to by Celsus, can be sustained.) How could some Jewish writer not have undertaken a literary counter to the whole Christian story? (The Toledoth Yeshu is too late to fill that bill.)
Indeed, the Talmud’s off-the-mark statements about Jesus, such as seeming to accept full Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ ‘hanging’, indicate that they had nothing in their own traditions about those events; they have simply been blind-sided by a Christian story and figure they seem to know next to nothing about. As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.528):
The Christians were playing the game with a highly organized playbook, and the Jews had not even fielded a team — probably because they were unable to remember that they had been notified about the game or what the rules were. Their own past was totally silent and dark on the subject.
Far from being “irrelevant,” the Jewish Talmud actually provides evidence against the existence of an historical Jesus.
. . . . to be continued