Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

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by Tim Widowfield

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

Receiving the truth with pleasure

First, since Case was writing back in the early part of the last century, he only knew of the old consensus about the Testimonium Flavianum (TF). Back then, most competent scholars (and anyone with the ability to reason) regarded it as a forgery, and therefore useless in the debate over Jesus’ historicity. He writes:

Josephus’ principal reference to Jesus is unauthentic. The very language used—the implication of Jesus’ divinity, reference to his miracles, recognition of his messiahship, etc — seems to mark the material as a Christian interpolation. It is also true that Roman history yields no important data until the second century A.D., and even then the evidence is of a meager sort. (Case, 1912, p. 86)

Later, while discussing the two supposed references to Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews, he recognizes that most scholars of his day viewed the TF as wholly spurious, while a minority thought parts might be salvageable. The modern reader will note that the optimistic assertions by Johannes Weiss and Augustin Goethals (see p. 252) do not differ significantly from the arguments made by scholars such as John P. Meier, namely that Christians rewrote an authentic Josephan core.

However, to Case’s credit, he reminds us that those arguments don’t address other outstanding issues.

But none of these solutions quite disposes of one serious difficulty, namely the foreignness of the passages to its context. Its motive is neither to record a sample of Jewish “sedition,” nor is it a “calamity which put the Jews into disorder”—the topics treated in the context. It is rather a distinctly biased note aiming to glorify Christianity, a note such as a Christian might write on the margin or a scribe insert into the text. This is all the more probable since it is not so much to Jews—who looked upon Josephus with suspicion after his part in the war with Rome—as to Christians that we are indebted for the preservation of Josephus’ works. (Case, 1912, p. 253, emphasis mine)

So, even if we tidy up the TF by rewriting it, we still have the problem of fitting it into its location in the overall text. Even worse, the reception history of the Antiquities of the Jews militates against its authenticity.

Origen, traditionally considered a 3rd century...

Origen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact the earliest Christian references to Josephus are against the originality of the paragraph in question. Twice Origen affirms that Josephus did not acknowledge the messiahship of Jesus, and in each instance the phrase “Jesus, the so-called Christ” (from Antiquities, XX, ix, i) is the ground of Origen’s statement. Evidently he is not acquainted with the earlier paragraph, since so outspoken a testimony to Jesus’ messiahship from the Jew, Josephus, would have been a deadly weapon to employ against the Jew, Celsus. This weapon was, however, forged not long after Origen’s day, for Eusebius cites the paragraph on two occasions and evidently thinks it genuine. (Case, 1912, p. 253-254, emphasis mine)

As you can see, Case believed that some unknown forger introduced the TF during the period between Origen and Eusebius. The arguments that focus on the text of the TF itself have gone back and forth over the past century, with scholars quibbling over whether this or that bit “sounds like” Josephus. On the other hand, these other arguments — the context of the passage as well as its transmission history — remain essentially unrefuted.

The defense of the TF’s authenticity has not substantially changed over the past 100 years, but the general attitude of scholarship has. Specifically, the number of scholars who desperately want at least some remnant of the TF to be real has increased as New Testament scholarship in general has become more conservative. Compare Case, who frankly admitted it was a forgery, to Maurice Casey, who wrote:

These scribes may have omitted things as well as added them. The importance of this passage is therefore basic. Against people who still argue that Jesus was not a real historical figure, it is an important piece of non-Christian evidence that he was. (Casey, 2010, p. 121)

To explain the shift in consensus, repeat that last sentence a few times in your head. The TF is far too useful to abandon. It is “an important piece of non-Christian evidence.”

Why would anybody make it up?

The second item on my list of omissions is Case’s use of what we would now call authenticity criteria. For example, in the debate over whether Nazareth was inhabited in the early part of the first century CE, he writes:

It will be observed that this reversal of the ordinary interpretation of the data rests on the assumption that the village of Nazareth never existed, a conclusion which in turn is derived solely from the silence of non-Christian writers. But this silence about a small Galilean town can hardly be so very significant. Recalling the apologetic difficulties caused by the statement that Jesus’ home was Nazareth, when christological speculation felt compelled to connect him with David’s city, Bethlehem, it seems quite unlikely that Christians would have invented, or at least have failed to challenge, so unprofitable a fiction. (Case, 1912, p. 116, emphasis mine)

The observant Vridar reader will note that Case is using the criterion of embarrassment. If you were thinking it was the criterion of dissimilarity, recall that the scholars who first named and used that criterion were focusing on Jesus tradition that was distinct from Judaism and from later Christian doctrine. On the other hand, embarrassment has to do with any tradition that would appear to create difficulties or weaken the arguments of the early church. Unfortunately I see that the Wikipedia article still gets it wrong, failing to discern the difference between the two criteria.

Concerning the unfulfilled prophecies found in the Olivet Discourse, Case writes:

A writer would not be likely to invent for Jesus a saying which history in the writer’s own day had shown to be false. A later editor or transcriber might preserve such a tradition, either unconscious of its incongruity, or because he felt it could be explained by some device of interpretation, but he would not create it de novo unless he wished to disparage the individual of whom he was writing—an inconceivable thing for a Christian biographer of Jesus to do. (Case, 1912, p. 217, emphasis mine)

My purpose here is not to argue with Case or to resurrect the criterion of embarrassment only to beat it to death yet again. Instead, I want to call your attention to a recent phenomenon in NT studies in which scholars blame anything they don’t like on form criticism generally, or on Rudolf Bultmann personally. When in doubt, blame Bultmann.

The strategy works, of course, facilitated by biblical scholarship’s propensity to forget its past. I have a post I’m still working on in which I explain when and why the criteria of authenticity arose. Suffice it to say for now the notion that both the criteria approach and the individual criteria themselves have their roots in form criticism is at best misguided.


What is the thread that ties these two observations together? They tend to confirm our suspicions that anyone who encourages us to read Case’s The Historicity of Jesus probably hasn’t read it. I’m sure you noticed that in one of the block quotes above Case actually argued that the TF began as a scribal note in the margin that eventually became an interpolation into the text. Consider now that today’s historicists (1) cling to the TF as an “important piece of non-Christian evidence” and (2) scoff at anyone who dares to suggest that passages that don’t fit with the surrounding text might be interpolations.

What does it say about a group of people who equate mythicists with proponents of Intelligent Design and who offer books for us to read that they themselves haven’t read? To me it says they’re either not interested or incapable of participating in an honest debate.

Vridar posts related to the TF

You can read more about the Testimonium Flavianum by clicking on the tag just below the title of this post. Here are a few of Neil’s best:

Case, Shirley Jackson

The Historicity of Jesus: A Criticism of the Contention that Jesus Never Lived, a Statement of the Evidence for His Existence, an Estimate of His Relation to Christianity, University of Chicago Press, 1912

Casey, Maurice

Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, T&T Clark, 2010

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