O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium

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by Neil Godfrey


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate


Tim O’Neill (TO) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

One would expect to find in TO’s review of DF’s book, Nailed!, therefore, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement of arguments in that book. Unfortunately anyone reading TO’s review would have no idea of DF’s overall argument on any point TO chooses to address.

Since I began these posts taking the trouble to expose TO’s bluff, ignorance and pretentious nonsense, the good man himself has responded by saying my posts are “nitpicking” and symptoms of a man “obsessed with him”. I can only smile with contentment over a job done reasonably well if that’s the best his vanity can muster in his defence.

Now it’s time to address TO’s criticism of DF’s discussion of the evidence of Josephus for the historicity of Jesus. This will take a few posts to complete. Let’s begin the way any honest reviewer of a work should always begin — that is, set out the arguments of the author one is reviewing. Since TO forgot this step I will outline the first of DF’s points here, and then we will compare TO’s initial critique.

I hope that these posts will have more value than they might if they were nothing more than responses to TO’s nonsense. Hopefully issues and arguments will be raised that some readers will find informative for their own sake.

DF’s chapter 3 is titled “Myth No. 3: Josephus Wrote About Jesus”. The first passage he addresses is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” from book 18 of the Jewish historian’s Antiquities of the Jews. It translates as:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.

He was (the) Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Did the Jewish historian, writing around 90 CE, write those words? DF rightly points out that no historian or scholar today believes he did. The only debate over this passage is whether the entire lot is a forgery or if only a few phrases were added by a pious Christian scribe. If one can be persuaded of the latter, then one can say that Josephus did at least write SOMETHING about Jesus. And that’s a good thing because then it means there really is a first century historical record (outside the Bible) of the existence of Jesus.

DF writes:

Still, wishful apologists try to argue that Josephus really did mention Jesus, and overenthusiastic scribes merely embellished his account. They even try to reconstruct the “original” Testimonium.

DF, however, sides with those who argue the entire passage is an interpolation. His reasons:

  1. Non-Josephan vocabulary
  2. Mis-use of terms
  3. It stands out from its context as an incongruity. The surrounding paragraphs are a gloom and doom lament over the calamities befalling the Jews. Then we read this glowing portrait of Jesus. Then immediately afterwards we read, “Another sad calamity put the Jews to disorder. . .” — as if the preceding paragraph were more of the same. The preceding report of Jesus was not “a sad calamity upon the Jews”. The passage preceding the Testimonium speaks of Pilate’s setting loose soldiers to massacre unarmed Jews. The Jesus passage interrupts the flow. Without the passage the remainder of Josephus’s words flow together seamlessly.
  4. Even though the histories of Josephus were “immensely popular and pored over by [ancient] scholars” — and a dozen early Christian authors who otherwise quoted Josephus are listed — not one of those scholars have left us any indication they knew of this passage until the fourth century. Origen (early third century) often quoted Josephus but when answering a question about evidence for Jesus performing miracles he indicates that the Gospels alone supply that evidence. Origen elsewhere uses Josephus to prove the historical existence of John the Baptist but complains that the same Josephus failed to mention Jesus.
  5. Eusebius in the fourth century is the first to record any knowledge of the Testimonium in Josephus’s Antiquities. DF cites a number of scholars who have warned us that Eusebius is known to have doctored texts and to have been less than totally honest in his re-writing of history and treatment of sources.

Conversely, DF writes that we could expect a genuine reference to Jesus by Josephus to

  1. call Jesus a charlatan
  2. match the vocabulary of his other writings
  3. fit the tone and content of the surrounding text
  4. have been much longer if Jesus really had done anything noteworthy or introduced radical new teachings
  5. have been quoted and referenced often in following decades by Christian authors who were eager to find and discuss any reference to Jesus at all.

I’ve reached about 1000 words here so let’s pick up TO’s “review” of DFs argument on the Testimonium in a future post.

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Neil Godfrey

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