Cuckoo in the nest (2) — Jesus in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

continuing from jesus in josephus/cuckoo in the nest 1 . . .

The Nest — Book 18 of Antiquities

(The Greek and English can be seen side by side on this PACE page.) [Link is no longer active. 3rd August 2015]

v. back to the native Josephus

Josephus opens Book 18 with the theme of interaction between Roman rulers and the Jewish nation, and the beginnings of the all the calamities that befell the Jewish nation. These calamities were the direct consequence of foolish and self-seeking heads infecting the populace. He reminds readers, however, that the Jewish people were more justly to be recognized as following “philosophies” (religious ideas) that were pious, of outstanding character and that reverently preserved ancient customs. The significance of these themes should become obvious when we come to the TF passage.

Calamities on the Jews begin: The Cyrenian era

Book 18 opens with the arrival of Cyrenius and Coponius from Rome to take charge of the affairs of Syria and Judea and the subsequent birth of the contagion of rebellion that resulted in the destruction of the Jewish temple and changes to Jewish customs. This leads naturally into a digression where he explains that this rebellious faction was but one of four Jewish ways of life, and that Jews had traditionally been affiliated with highly noble and pious systems of thought, and notably with reverence for their ancient customs and institutions.

The details, and their potential significance for evaluating the status of the TF, were addressed in the previous post.

One point I should have given much more emphasis to in that previous post concerns a cardinal sin of the fourth philosophy, the rebellion instigated by Judas.

. . . for Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction.

It was a new thing, unable to trace any heritage back to the fathers. Josephus scarcely loses an opportunity to portray the old wine as the only wine worth the drinking.

Josephus then returns then to main flow of his narrative, the events in Judea that began with the arrival of Cyrenius and Coponius.

Cyrenius established a new order in the high priesthood, and under him Herod and Philip built up the region and demonstrated their being part and parcel of Roman civilization, being part of the best of the “pax romana”, by naming some of the grandest newly built cities after members of the Roman imperial family.

The first sign of decline (after the ongoing rebellion instigated by Judas) came when Samaritans polluted areas around the Temple by secretly coming in and “throwing dead bodies” about. It is a harbinger of what readers know is to be the end.

Cyrenius and Coponius return to Rome, and Pilate arrives to govern Judea.

Calamity on the Jews: King Herod

Meanwhile King Herod continues to build grand cities, naming one of them after emperor Tiberius. The Jewish kingdom is portrayed as a glorious part of the Roman empire. But cracks again appear. Herod’s tyranny cannot be overlooked, nor his violation of a Jewish ritual custom. Josephus narrates all this in detail. Herod had failed to wait the ritually required 7 days after having removed a cemetery before commencing construction work on the site for the new city of Tiberias. (18:38)

Calamities on the neighbours, hosts to the Jews

As if in chorus there were also at this time sinister plots, intrigues and conspiracies in neighbouring kingdoms. “Principal” personalities in these kingdoms (Parthia in particular) had been discussed in intricate narratives in earlier books (esp. Bk 15). Their relevance to a Jewish history is that they have had direct involvement in Jewish affairs, either providing safe havens for Jewish leaders or protecting (or failing to protect) large Jewish populations within their borders.

When we come to Book 18 Josephus takes us through the winding intrigues that led Artabanus to become king of Parthia. In the latter section of Book 18 Josephus returns to explore in depth the cruel fate of the Jews living under the hegemony of this Artabanus. Both the rise of Artabanus and what befell the Jews under him are palled in treachery.

So the narrative of the rise of Artabanus to become king of Parthia is not an irrelevant digression. It is an explanatory detail of the background to the theme of the tragedy and demise of the Jewish people, both within Judea and beyond.

Before the end of this book, however, Josephus returns to his Judean core with its offensive and cruel reign of Pilate.

Calamity on the Jews: Pilate’s first offence

Herod had been careless in violating Jewish laws, but Pilate was calculatingly provocative.

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem . . . in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar’s effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem . . .(18.55f)

Aside: I wish this willingness of Josephus to criticize the follies, cruelties and injustices of Pilate, a governor whose behaviour led to his being arraigned for interrogation in Rome, would be addressed whenever one reads discussions asserting that gospel authors feared to criticize this Roman governor, and that this fear steered them to laying more blame on the Jews.

The first wrong perpetrated by Pilate was his intention to undermine an ancient Jewish religious law.

Note that Josephus is beginning here to portray a rift between Pilate and the Jewish guardians of their ancient laws. Pilate backs off in this instance when he sees the willingness of those “principal men” of the Jews to die rather than witness the trampling underfoot of their laws.

What would have been Josephus’s reaction towards Christians who were cast out of synagogues for worshipping Jesus as a god, for compromising their teachings regarding sabbaths and circumcision to accommodate gentiles, and towards Jesus who initiated some sort of major disruption in the Temple services, and towards the same Jesus who preached an apocalyptic end of the world order, both Jewish and Roman?

Everything we think we know of late first century Christianity as propagated by Paul, and as an apocalyptic sect inspired by an opponent of the religious establishment, simply does not fit into what we know of Josephus’s views of those who broke with tradition and disrespected the religious establishment. But the TF does function as a very nice hindsight summary of a fourth century Christian propagandist: Jews and gentiles joined together as one through one doctrine in Christ, from the 30’s right through “to this day”.

Calamity on the Jews: Pilate’s second offence

Josephus narrates that Pilate’s next indiscretion was to use “sacred money” to improve Jerusalem’s water supply. But a reader of Josephus cannot help but wonder if Josephus is more incensed at the abusive and unruly mob reaction to Pilate’s provocation.

ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. . . . boldly casting reproaches upon him . . . (18.60)

The result was a bloodbath. Pilate’s soldiers slaughtered guilty and innocent bystanders alike.

And thus an end was put to this sedition.

Calamity on Temple of Issus: Rome

Josephus now turns to Rome and describes in detail a scandalous story that moderns might find amusing, but one that neither Josephus nor the Queen of England would find amusing. His audience is regaled with another extended dramatic narrative of passion, purity, guilt and innocence, deception and sacrilege. A pious woman is tricked into a night of adultery thinking her lover is a god.

This was the fault of a few priests who had swallowed a handsome bribe to deceive a pious woman. The fallout brought such enormous disgrace and shame upon this religious institution in the imperial capital that Tiberius crucified the responsible priests and destroyed the Roman Temple of Issus.

This Issus temple had been disgraced by some priests who had taken a bribe in return for deceiving a pious woman into expecting that the god, Anubis, to visit her one night in the temple, but allowing a Lotharian mortal instead to take his place. This is told in the context of a book (#18 of Antiquities) that, Josephus explains from its beginning, is about the causes of the destruction of the Jewish temple, and it appears to have sympathetic relevance to  Josephus’ way of putting events together. It is instructive that Josephus couples this story with another that relates to the Jewish temple, and likewise involves the deception of a pious woman by unscrupulous men posing as teachers of religious law.

(Another aside: it is of course bizarre for moderns to imagine a god-fearing woman being duped into thinking she would have sex with a god. Popular fiction of the era often echoed such stories from the myths by entertaining readers with stories of deceptions and tropes of women being thought to have copulated with a god and apparent resurrections from the dead and crucifixions. I see no reason to suspect any of these widespread cultural tropes, when they appear in Josephus, relate to some knowledge of the gospel narratives of Jesus.)

Calamity on the Jews: Rome

In the Whiston translation the Issus and Jewish events are thematically (shame and calamity on holy places and people) linked:

About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome. I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt about the temple of Isis, and will then give an account of the Jewish affairs.

Then after narrating this episode Josephus reminds his audience of the companion story:

I now return to the relation of what happened about this time to the Jews at Rome, as I formerly told you I would.

The “shameful episode” of the Issus establishment is coupled (or “footnoted”) with another also involving money-hungry men, in this case exiles from Judea, who abuse their position as preachers of the Mosaic Law. They deceive a devout woman into making notable offerings for the Jerusalem temple but they then run off with them.

There is no temple in Rome in this case. Indeed, the temple in question is in Jerusalem. But the result is just as condign as for Rome’s Issus establishment. The emperor expels all the Jews from Rome.

The Jews suffer for the crimes of sacrilege and taking cruel advantage of the pious by just a handful in the same way as the Issus establishment was destroyed for the crimes of a few. The entire Jewish nation eventually came undone because of the activities initiated by those Josephus despised as rogue elements.

Yet was there one Judas, . . . who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt . . . All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men . . . This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves . . . the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies . . . for Judas and Sadduc, who . . . had a great many followers . . . brought the public to destruction. (18:1)

Calamity on the Samaritans: Pilate again

Josephus next tells of a Samaritan “liar” who persuaded other Samaritans to follow him to their holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, where they expected to be shown some sacred relics of Moses. Pilate, however, ordered them to be massacred on their way, presumably because they also bore arms.

Calamity on Pilate

This was one blood-letting too far, and on the complaint of the Samaritan council or senate to a Roman overseer of Syria, Pilate was ordered back to Rome to face charges before emperor Tiberius for this abuse of his power.

Pilate’s career had been characterized with one episode after another (well Josephus cites three episodes at least) of alienating and offending the Jewish (and Samaritan) people and leaders.

  1. Attempting to bring into Jerusalem images of Caesar and thus alienating the religious leaders and general populace — with a last minute change of mind about ordering a massacre
  2. Using “sacred money” for public works, thus again presumably alienating the same sectors — with an ensuing massacre
  3. Slaughtering a mob of religious “fools”, thus alienating the Samaritan leadership and populace

vi. The cuckoo in the nest

I have, of course, omitted one passage from the above.

Between points 2 and 3 in this list we read in Josephus a passage that strangely depicts the Jewish religious leaders as condemning a righteous man. This is in the midst of an extended narrative that portrays the Jewish religious leaders as wise custodians and defenders of the sacred law and traditions. Josephus made it plain at the outset that it was the rebellious refusal of a few hotheads to remain obedient to the advice of the high priest, Joazar, that led to the final destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. (18:1)

The Jewish priests had courageously laid their lives on the line rather than let Pilate bring statues of Caesar into Jerusalem. It was another breach of Jewish law that further alienated the priests. Josephus in this context describes the Pharisees and Sadducees (and Essenes — all except the “fourth philosophy” of Judas the Galilean) as noble preservers of the Jewish customs and holy laws.

Pilate is their enemy, and the deliberately provocative enemy of Jewish rulers, religious rules, and the ruled, according to Josephus.

Jesus and early Christianity are generally believed by possibly most scholars today as apocalyptic preachers opposed to the religious establishment of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Yet this passage in Josephus portrays them as righteous and teachers of the truth. Where did this “philosophy” suddenly spring from? Josephus has outlined the righteous teachings of the Pharisees and others, and the unrighteous ones of Judas. And later even of John the Baptist. Why are readers not informed of the specific teachings of this Jesus here? And if they were righteous teachings, why does Josephus depict the religious leaders as acting out of character (certainly out of the character he has built for them throughout this book) and condemn him?

And why does he depict Pilate as being willing to accommodate the religious leaders of the Jews when, again, this is very out of character when compared with how Josephus paints Pilate elsewhere?

If Jesus were an apocalyptic prophet whom Pilate had destroyed, one might expect Josephus to have spoken of Pilate’s injustice in the way he got rid of him. But the passage as we have it in Josephus now is just as out of character in its depiction of the religious leaders as it is of Pilate, and nor does it conform with what we know of the teachings of Jesus and his earliest followers.

The TF is a Gospel passage

Interestingly the gospels themselves portray a weak Pilate who succumbs to the pressures of the mob and religious leaders. We know that Josephus paints a very different type of Pilate — except for the one found in this controversial passage — a Pilate who is always ready to tell his Jewish subordinates to “bring it on” before opening up with the mass killing.

The Pilate in this passage in our text of Antiquities is the weak and pressured Pilate of the Gospels, not the brutal Pilate of Josephus.

The Jewish leaders in this TF passage are the hypocritical and unrighteous religious leaders found in the Gospels, not the courageous and strong custodians of piety and sacred customs that we find in the rest of Book 18 of Antiquities.

If we are looking for a third party account of Jesus and early Christianity in a secular history, it is strange indeed that the closest we come to it (if we see the TF that way) is such a perfect reflection of what we read in the Gospels. Does this really “have the ring” of a third party point of view? The question is, of course, rhetorical.

The problem is magnified when we note that the very features of the Gospel account that the TF echoes are in fact the very features that are deemed by many historians as the least historically accurate. Pilate opting to side with religious leaders to do away with a righteous man? Religious leaders whom we know are to a large extent misrepresented in the gospels?

More context

Will continue with the context of the TF in a future post. . . .


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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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