Continuing from my previous two posts my little roll on Jesus Not A Myth by “anti-mythicist” A. D. Howell Smith (1942). . . .
I love reading those book reviews that introduce me to the arguments under review. I have read many worthless reviews that pique my interest in their subjects despite their efforts to turn me away. One was by a seasoned scholar who blasted George Athas’s publication of his thesis on the Tel Dan inscription. The reviewer spent most of his time attacking Athas personally (he was too much an academic novice to be attempting to discuss such a serious topic!) and appealing to the authority of traditional views. That sort of review raises my suspicions that there is something in a work by the likes of Athas that the reviewer cannot handle, so I am more curious to find out what it is.
Albert Schweitzer also outlines arguments of various mythicists of his day in order to explain what he believes are their weaknesses (and even strengths in some cases).
So it is with Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth. It is not easy to track down older books on mythicism, but I was lucky to stumble across Jesus Not a Myth some years back and find it a valuable resource to catching glimpses of the contents of mythicist arguments early last century — and, of course, to compare rejoinders to those arguments.
Here is another excerpt, this time on the evidence of Josephus, pp. 15-18. I have reformatted some of the layout and paragraphing, added bold to mark thought changes, for easier reading. A companion post to this would be my earlier What They Used To Say About Josephus As Evidence For Jesus.
The Mythicists lay great stress on the silence of Jewish writers of the first century about the life and death of Jesus. This silence is certainly impressive, but we can make too much of it. . . .
But we should have expected Josephus, who wrote so voluminously on Jewish affairs, and who is careful to mention the various Jewish sects and parties, to have said something of the career of a propagandist whom the Jews had sacrificed to their political enemies. Josephus, however, ignores Christianity altogether. So if his silence about Jesus proves that Jesus never lived, his silence about the Christian Church and its wide diffusion at the end of the first century proves that no such organization existed until after his time. Some perhaps will draw this inference But we shall enormously increase our difficulties as literary and historical critics by so doing.
A sounder logic will conclude that Jesus never made such an impression on his contemporaries as the early Christian records would have us believe, and that Christianity was too obscure, even as late as A.D. 100, to attract, except very cursorily, the attention of writers not biased in its favour.
An alternative explanation is that the obvious connection of Christianity with Judaism, and the growing hostility of the Roman authorities to the former as a cult subversive of political and social peace, made it desirable that one who sought to curry favour with his masters should burke certain awkward facts.
This explanation does not seem very convincing, as it would surely have served better the purpose of Josephus to insist that Christianity was a disreputable heresy with which no decent Jew would have anything to do. Nor is the theory of the obscurity of Christianity at this time compatible with it.
But was Josephus silent?
A passage has long been cited from his Antiquities of the Jews which obviously fits badly the matter preceding and following it, and appears moreover to have had a shifting place in the text. Despite the pleas of Burkitt, Harnack, Chwolson, and other eminent scholars, its authenticity seems to be rationally indefensible. Only a Christian hand could have penned a panegyric of Jesus as the Christ, who had actually worked miracles in fulfilment of the predictions of the Hebrew Prophets, and had risen from the dead after having been condemned to the cross by Pontius Pilate. Possibly the forger has expunged a less appreciative notice of Jesus and primitive Christianity. But against this view is the fact that the existing notice is out of harmony with its context. . . .
I have argued this myself in a series of posts, and not only that it disrupts the context, but that it also runs against the thoughts and interests of Josephus expressed elsewhere: Cuckoo in the nest 1; Cuckoo in the nest 2; Cuckoo in the nest 3; Cuckoo postscript.
After discussing a controversial argument by Robert Eisler, Howell Smith continues:
. . . . A reference to Jesus, however, does occur in the Antiquities of the Jews (Bk. XX, chap. ix, 1); it occurs in a short account of how Ananus the High Priest caused to be put on trial “the brother of Jesus, him called Christ (James was his name), and some certain others,” and then made accusations against them as law-breakers, which led to their execution by stoning.
W. B. Smith maintains that the whole of the section “the brother of Jesus . . . others” is a Christian interpolation, except the words “some certain”; in this he follows other critics. “It seems incredible,” he writes, “that Josephus should throw in such an observation as this state without preparation or explanation of occasion.”¹
Why so? Considering that Josephus mentions so many persons of the name of Jesus, he could not very well allude to James, brother of Jesus, without saying who this Jesus was. On the traditional view of Christian origins many contemporaries of Josephus, Jews and non-Jews, must have heard of “Jesus who was called Christ.” The use of such an expression does not demand a Christian writer as its literary source. Of course, there may have been interpolation here. But there is no satisfactory evidence of this. The passage in question was known to Origen, who quotes it three times. . . . .
¹ Ecce Deus, p. 235.
I have discussed this last passage, including Origen’s quotations, in a number of posts. My purpose here is simply to illustrate how someone argued against the mythicist case in 1942.
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