Political context of the current Testimonium Flavianum “consensus”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Reading James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror I can’t help but wonder how his thesis applies to Jesus debates he fails to address.

Is it a coincidence that the shift in academic “consensus” that the Jesus passage in Jesus (the Testimonium Flavianum) is at least partly authentic appears to have roughly coincided with a shift to stress the “Jewishness” (at least in part) of Jesus?

This can only be speculative in the details, of course, but there can be no doubt that prevailing scholarly views in the social sciences and arts do shift with the prevailing historical political and social swings of their homelands. Crossley’s book is only one of the latest reminders of this simple fact when he demonstrates the scholarly shifts in Jesus studies with the shifts in prevailing cultural nationalisms and ideologies and social upheavals throughout the twentieth century.

The “emerging consensus” that Jesus was indeed an essentially Jewish religious figure only gained traction after the 1967 Israeli invasion and conquest of East Jerusalem, parts of Syria and the West Bank, aka as The Six Day War. I was old enough to recall the way this was reported in the media at the time: a hapless Jewish David gained a miraculous ascendancy over an overwhelming and deceitfully plotting Arab Goliath. This political propaganda was never questioned or critiqued by the media but consistently reported as fact, and more powerfully than fact, as a re-enactment of the biblical myth. Only ten years earlier the U.S. sided with Egypt against Israeli aggression and forced a retreat. But the 1967 war proved the secured usefulness of Israel to western interests. Now suddenly it was like deja vu all over again from the jingoistic days of the late nineteenth century. Preachers ensured that Western imperial expansionist interests of Gold and Glory went hand in glove with God.

Only this time the focal scriptures were not “go into all the world and make disciples of all the heathen” but “in the last days Zion will be a trembling to the nations” etc.

I won’t repeat here all the details Crossley (and others) have cited for the shift in historical Jesus scholarship to seeing Jesus as essentially Jewish. But the general idea is that from 1967 onwards it became more fashionable in society in general and academe in particular to see Jewishness as a long-overdue positive thing. The Jews of today, as seen through the prism of Israel, could be seen as acting out their biblical template. Their resettlement in Palestine really could be associated with a focus in Jerusalem, etc. It was not only a bad thing, post Holocaust, to dislike Jews; it was a good thing to praise and side with them now.

It was finally a “politically correct” thing to make Jesus as Jewish as possible. Anything less risked suspicions of anti-semitism. Only not “too Jewish” — a “marginal Jew” would do. Western values still necessarily prevailed over the semitic. Jesus must still be found to “transcend” his Jewishness.

(Another application of Crossley’s argument, I believe, relates to the establishment response to the mythical Jesus hypothesis. But I’ve discussed the political and cultural contexts of this elsewhere. Will revise and repeat here in a future post.)

So to cut to the chase, since I’ve been discussing Josephus and the Testimonium . . . .

I have no proof. Only questions, but no harm in asking and considering. And in one of my recent posts I referred to Earl Doherty’s observation that this shift in consensus view on the partial reliability of the TF is a latter second century phenomenon.

Might the trend in the latter half of the twentieth century to see the only candidate for the Jewish evidence for Jesus as containing true credibility and viability be culturally related to the broader societal trend to compensate for historic wrongs against the Jews, and to fully side with them post “miraculous” 1967?

After all, the actual arguments for believing the TF to have some degree of Josephan original have nothing in the rules of logic to sustain them. I recall one early twentieth century author writing that if there is any sign of contamination with evidence then in courts of law and schools of history it is necessary to throw the evidence out altogether as, well, contaminated and untrustworthy. And as Ken Olson has demonstrated more recently, by removing a pro-Jesus portions from a sermon by Peter in Acts one is left with a neutral passage about Jesus. That does not prove that the speech was originally neutral. Removing the X’s from a passage XY will always leave us with a Y passage. That, in itself, proves nothing about the nature of the original passage.

Not only is the logic of the key argument flawed, but the assumption that Josephus, one blatantly opposed to any would-be messianic claimant and supposed miracle worker who attracted a following, would ever speak even neutrally of Jesus, let alone positively, is simply untenable.

Yet such shallow arguments have apparently swept into the welcoming arms of the predominantly Christian and church affiliated biblical studies consensus.

But most of these academics are surely bright cookies.

So one is surely justified in asking if there is a more subtle cultural perspective at play here.

Maybe an explanation lies in the broader cultural trend to feel an obligation to compensate for past erroneous and misguided assumptions about Jews, coupled with a positive sense of the goodness of siding favourably with Jews post 1967.

If so, the irony would be that in the case of Josephus’s supposed testimony to Jesus, we have sided with the kind of Jew many moderns would condemn as a “self-hating Jew”. That is the rhetoric used by modern day Jews against their fellows who oppose the Zionist ideology underpinning the modern state of Israel. And Josephus further fulminated against anything in his day that came within a barge pole of supporting “end times” theologies and “Christian Zionism”.