Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.
In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
We saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is an independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”
Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.
Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:
- Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
- Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?
The Question of Authenticity
Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.
In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.
And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that
- summarizes the work and character of Jesus
- tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
- says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians
and in the course of that summary, the same passage says
- Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
- that Jesus was the Christ
- that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20, Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.
We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:
- It is entirely original to Josephus
- It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
- It is a mixture of original and insertion.
Meier excludes the first two options:
- It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
- It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus
Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.
That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.
Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.
Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest.
I have refrained from commenting on each of the points since to do so would inevitably lead this post too far from Brodie’s presentation. There is an archive for Vridar posts on the Testimonium Flavianum, and another post looks at the history of scholarly interpretation of the Jesus passages in Josephus.
The Question of Independence
Meier lists five possible sources used by Josephus for his account of Jesus:
- Christians he encountered in Palestine or Rome
- The Gospels / NT writings
- Imperial archives in Rome
- Educated Judeans within Josephus’s Romanized circle
- Information obtained in Palestine before the War
The challenge for the investigator is to establish with as much certainty as which one(s) of these five provided information to Josephus. In practice, this means trying to match Josephus’ information with one or more of the five. The more the information matches a source, the more likely it is that it is the source Josephus used. (p. 162)
Since there is no perfect match between what Josephus wrote and any of the five possible sources (an ideal match would have been a word for word correspondence at some point), so certainty is out of the question. This leaves the historical inquirer having to be content with finding something that is highly probable.
Meier argues that since all options are “equally unverifiable” they all remain “equally possible”. In reaching his final conclusion he focuses on two features: language and content.
Here is Meier’s reasoning:
- Christians as the source? — No, because the defining belief of Christians is the resurrection of Jesus and Josephus does not mention the resurrection as such.
- The NT writings as the source? — No, because the NT language is different from that of Josephus.
So having eliminated the Christian sources Meier concludes that there is no problem in assuming that Josephus is a witness independent of them.
. . . Roman archives, educated Judeans from the Romanized world, and pre-war Palestine. These three sources sound rich — they sound varied and potentially deep — so the idea that they supply independent evidence seems plausible. (p. 164)
Brodie stops to ask the questions that should be obvious. He grants the possibility of the principle that the three remaining sources may be independent from those of the Christians. But then he pauses.
Of course. Surely there is some new snippet from such potentially rich independent sources.
When Josephus elsewhere writes about Pilate he adds much to what we read in the Gospels about him. His perspective is completely different from that of the evangelists so we would expect different types of information to come through. We know much about Pilate from his witness that is truly independent of the Gospels.
So what do the independent sources of Josephus add to our knowledge of Jesus? What new information do they contain that bears out their independence?
Brodie answers his own question in a one-word paragraph:
Nothing. (p. 164)
Ken Olson is not so sure that the vocabulary is uniquely Josephan: see:
Everything that Josephus tells us about Jesus is found already in the Gospels and Acts. The only difference, according to Brodie, is “Josephus’s own distinctive vocabulary and style.”
Theoretically (Brodie concedes) it is possible that independent sources had nothing new to add. But even if so,
it makes their claims sufficiently fragile that it is appropriate to come back to the factor that Marginal Jew skims over — the possible dependence of Josephus on one or more of the evangelists. (p. 164)
By now we know that Thomas Brodie is very conscious of the ancient practice of re-writing other texts, of adapting them and creating new works from the old masters. He follows that frame of reference through in his argument about the Josephan style and vocabulary of the core (“original”) Jesus passage in Book 18 of Antiquities.
Brodie makes the telling point that Josephus used many other sources yet always expressed their contents in his “own style and his own language”.
With such a simple and “obvious” point Brodie demolishes Meier’s (and most historical Jesus scholars’) reasons for concluding that the Josephan passage on Jesus is necessarily independent of Christian sources.
Besides, in the wider ancient practice of rewriting sources, verbatim quotation was an exception. And so, the variation in language proves precisely nothing. (p. 164)
So simple, yet so profound and of such far-reaching consequences. No wonder the Bart Ehrmans and the James McGraths prefer to withdraw to their own paywalls and to presenting blatant misreadings of Brodie’s points in place of serious engagement.
So did Josephus know any Christians personally?
Brodie quotes Meier’s view that Josephus did not. Josephus belonged to an elite social class that would have had no connections with the followers of “a marginal Jew”.Nonetheless, Brodie does offer three reasons to think that Josephus did have “a certain closeness” to some of the evangelists or their works.
Three reasons to suspect Josephus knew (or knew of) Christian writings/authors
1. General literary context
Josephus and the evangelists, as writers of significant works that were read by others, belonged to an elite.
They were not enclosed in small worlds. Josephus drew widely upon all kinds of writings. Antiquities absorbed everything from Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus to tragedy, philosophy and romantic motifs from Xenophon and Hellenistic novels. And, like most other writers of his day, he presented these materials through the medium of his own distinctive language and style. (p. 165)
Further, both Josephus and the evangelists were engaged “essentially in the same field of writing — in diverse modifications and updatings of the Jewish scriptures.” Both Antiquities and Luke-Acts build on the Jewish scriptures. Both Josephus and Luke covered an expanse of history that went back to the beginnings of things. And there are clear affinities (Mason, 2003) between Josephus and Acts, especially in the speeches.
It makes sense that the Antiquities that built so carefully on the older scriptures should also acknowledge New Testament narrative.
(I don’t think so. Surely the ideology of the New Testament narrative stood in conflict with the values most cherished by Josephus.)
2. Specific content
Josephus regularly summarizes or paraphrases sections of the Hebrew Bible, Brodie points out, so this fact should remove any quibble about the Testimonium core being a summary outline of the contents of the Gospel account. Further, the Gospel of Mark — or some knowledge of it — could have informed Josephus that Jesus was both the brother of James and recognized as the Christ.
3. Location and time
Josephus lived in Rome between around 70 and 100 CE. Brodie is inclined to the view that Mark also lived in Rome and wrote his Gospel there around 70 CE. Josephus lived in close proximity to Christians who very likely possessed their own texts. The Gospel of Mark was circulated — it was not hidden in the closet of a secret group: Luke and Matthew had access to it and used it. Brodie concludes that it was quite likely that Josephus had access to at least information about these Christians and their writings. He would also have had an interest in writings — such as Mark and Luke-Acts, based on the Scriptures.
(As above, I suspect Brodie is overlooking the ideological divide between Josephus and Christianity in drawing his conclusion.)
Brodie acknowledges the vagueness of this hypothesis, but is right to point out that the Meier’s alternatives — Jesus-related imperial archives that may never have existed; unspecified educated Judeans; a pre-war career in Palestine — are no more precise.
What is certain is that it is extremely risky to conclude that Josephus did not have access, direct or indirect, either to serious discussion with some Christians or to some of the work of the evangelists, so it is not possible, in any reliable way, to invoke Josephus as an independent witness to Jesus.
Unreliable witness cannot be used to condemn someone to death. And neither can it be used to assert that someone lived. (p. 167, my formatting)
Next and last in Act 4, the witness of Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata.
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