This post raises reasons to challenge “the usual scholarly view” most recently asserted by Maurice Casey in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, that Josephus wrote a short passage about Jesus. I show that contrary to “the usual scholarly view” in general, and contrary to Casey’s assertions in particular, there is evidence to justify the view that Josephus wrote nothing about Jesus, and that the passage about Jesus in Josephus is a complete Christian forgery.
The passage about Jesus appears in a book by a Jewish historian written around 90 CE. The historian is Josephus, and his book, Antiquities of the Jews, is a history of the Jews from the beginnings of the biblical story right through to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.
The passage begins:
At this time there lived one Jesus, a wise man . . . .
And the tribe of the Christians . . . has not died out to this day.
For the full passage, I have copied a translation in The Jesus Reference in Josephus, and have included in that post translations of all the variant versions from Eusebius to the 11th century.
Until the Second World War this passage was generally regarded worthless as historical testimony. I have cited the views of scholars as diverse as Albert Schweitzer, G.R.S. Mead, Walter Bauer, Maurice Goguel and Charles Guignebert (the first and latter two names still prominent for their criticisms of the view that the Jesus of the New Testament was a mystical or mythical character) in What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus.
Since the Second World War the scholarly tide has turned towards default favouring of any potential Jewish contribution towards Christianity, as discussed in earlier posts on discussions by Crossley (Political Contextt of Scholarly Consensus) and DeConick (Need a Good Judas).
Of this passage, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, Maurice Casey, writes:
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. (p. 121 of Jesus of Nazareth)
So what is the basis of this assertion that is clearly contrary to the views of prominent scholars and scholars who argued against the Jesus-myth view?
Casey explains his reason for believing that the passage in Josephus is not a complete Christian interpolation:
[A] Christian is not likely to have begun a complete interpolation ‘At this time there lived one Jesus, a wise man’, nor to have ended by saying that ‘And the tribe of the Christians . . . has not died out to this day.’ Accordingly, the usual scholarly view is that Josephus, who also recorded the trial and execution of Jacob, ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ (Ant. XX. 200), wrote a short piece about Jesus, and that it was edited by Christian scribes . . . . These scribes may have omitted things as well as added them. The importance of this passage is therefore basic. (p. 121 of Jesus of Nazareth)
Evidence that a Christian was likely to have begun an interpolation with “wise man”
Casey appears to speak for many scholars when he writes that a Christian “would not have” begun a passage describing Jesus as a “wise man” (sophos). This argument is merely an assertion. Its weight consists entirely in scholars’ lack of knowledge of the insights, conditions and motivations of the original author.
What this assertion (based on ignorance of the original author’s intent) overlooks is that there is indeed strong evidence that a Christian would have, and really did, describe Jesus as a “wise man”:
- This passage is first found in Eusebius, the fourth century Christian bishop and author.
- Eusebius uses this passage to answer the criticism that Jesus was a charlatan.
- Eusebius several times elsewhere in his works uses the word for “wise man” as the opposite of “charlatan”.
Ken Olson has shown that the word used for “wise man” in this context was characteristic of Eusebius, whom Olson argues was the forger of this passage in Josephus. (For those unable readily to access Olson’s article — click his name above to be taken to his blog — I have outlined some of its main points here.)
Eusebius several times throughout his works uses “wise man” in his arguments countering the views that Jesus was a charlatan.
Josephus also uses the same word of Solomon and Daniel, but unlike Eusebius, never uses it in connection with miracle working and special teaching.
It just happens that the first time we learn that anyone knew of this passage in Josephus is when we read Eusebius using it to counter the criticisms that Jesus was a charlatan.
We thus have in Eusebius an example of a Christian likely to describe Jesus as a wise man when countering the anti-Christian polemic that Jesus was a charlatan.
So the first evidence we have that anyone knew of this passage in Josephus is when we read of it in Eusebius. And when we read of it in Eusebius, it just happens that it answers Eusebius’s polemical needs perfectly: he can use it to show that Jesus was the opposite of a charlatan, and that he was, rather, a “wise man”. And the fact that Eusebius elsewhere uses these two words as antonyms is a lucky coincidence.
When Josephus uses the word for “wise man” elsewhere, he does not use it in the sense which it is applied to Jesus in this passage. This particular usage is not Josephan.
Evidence that a Christian was likely to have concluded with the “tribe of Christians” not having died out till this day
Again, though Josephus elsewhere uses the word for “tribe” or “race” (phyon), he never uses it to describe a religious group. Again we have an unJosephan use of a key word in the Jesus passage.
Eusebius, on the other hand, is creative in his use of the word “tribe”, and is the first known author (outside this Josephan passage) to use the word “tribe” to describe the Christians. It is after Eusebius describes Christians (twice) as a tribe that other Christian authors also speak of Christians as “a third race”. This suggests that it was Eusebius who introduced this descriptor of Christians.
As discussed more fully here (from Ken Olson’s article), Eusebius describes Christians as “a tribe” twice in his History. Evidence of his creativity in use of the word is found in his Preparation of the Gospel where he describes groups of stars and aerial creatures as “tribes”.
As for the phrase, “until this day”, again we find in this Jesus passage a usage that is uncharacteristic of Josephus, but almost a signature of Eusebius. To quote a section from my earlier post (that is based on Ken Olson’s article) discussing this in detail:
Josephus does not use this phrase, eis eti te nun, but he does use similar phrasing (e.g. eti nun, kai nun eti) to express a similar idea.
However, Josephus nowhere uses this idea of “up until now” to convey a meaning of something being proven to be true and “of God” because it has survived “even until now, today”.
Such a meaning, however, is conveyed every time Eusebius uses this phrase, and he uses it very often. Doherty cites Jay Raskin’s observation that this phrase is a veritable signature phrase of Eusebius.
Raskin quotes several passages from the Theophany, Adversus Hieroclem, the Demonstratio and History of the Church, all of which use this characteristic [signature phrase]. It is extremely important for Eusebius, as a proof of their veracity and divine nature, that things of the past have survived to this day and continue to be strong. He uses phrases such as “to our times,” “even to the present day,” “even until now.” For example, in the Theophany, in discussing Jesus’ miracles:
“Nor was it only that He impressed on the souls of those who immediately followed Him such power . . . but also . . . on those who came afterwards; and on those even to this present, and (who live) in our own times. How does this not transcent every sort of miracle? [i.e., by other alleged miracle workers]“
Olson notes the same Eusebian usage in Contra Hieroclem 4, the book in which Eusebius seems to narrate a blueprint for what later emerged in the Testimonium Flavianum:
He alone established a school of sober and chaste living that has survived him . . . and even now wins over to his divine teaching multitudes from all sides by the myriad.
So we do have evidence that a Christian really was likely to have begun an interpolation by describing Jesus as a wise man, and to have concluded it with a reference to Christians as a tribe who “continue until today”!
Thus the assertion to the contrary is simply an appeal to ignorance or incredulity, not to knowledge or the evidence. The “usual scholarly view” today, as expressed by Maurice Casey in his latest book, is unfounded.
More important than this evidence in its own right, is what it demonstrates about the basis for the “usual scholarly view”. When “historians” argue that something must be a “fact” because they can’t think of any reason to think it is “not a fact”, they are falling into the fallacy of incredulity, or arguing from ignorance, not knowledge or judicious imagination.
Addendum: that “brother of Jesus called Christ, James by name” passage
Many appeal to Josephus’s reference to the martyrdom of James later in Josephus’ Antiquities, where he describes James as “brother of Jesus who is called Christ”, as evidence that Josephus must be referencing an earlier passage where he explained who this Jesus Christ was. But there is little to commend this argument. Some of the difficulties with this passage are:
- The phrase does not identify which Jesus is the brother of James. Jesus was a common name, (there are 20 so named in Josephus), and few scholars believe Josephus ever wrote that any Jesus was “Christ”.
- It is inconsistent with the way Josephus normally re-introduced characters after their last mention being some time earlier
- It leaves unexplained why this James (supposedly renowned for his law-based life yet charged with breaking the law?) was murdered
- It is inconsistent with the other accounts of James being a Christian (the high priest would not have been so unpopular if James had been a Christian)
- It is inconsistent with the other non-Josephan accounts of the death of James. In other accounts, we read of a large gang of Jews collectively murdering him along with their leaders (with no reference to Ananus as in Josephus).
- It would be one of only 2 places in all of Josephus’s works where he says someone was said to be a Messiah or Christ — not even other clearly would-be messiahs were so described by Josephus
- It creates an unusual word order. Why would a passage about the wickedness of Ananus, with James as a target of his wickedness, be introduced by reference to a relative of that target, especially if Christ was not originally used in the book 18 passage earlier?
There are, furthermore, positive arguments that do explain the origin of this phrase in Josephus at this point. But they are too lengthy to address here. I have discussed these arguments several times, including links to online articles, in a small collection of posts here.
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