I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:
I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)
I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote
Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.
Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:
It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.
If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.
Another form of proof-texting
Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.
Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”.
(I am almost tempted to retort that if someone was once a creationist — as was the professor in question — that someone will always be a creationist and continue to argue the same ineffective way by firing off “proof texts” at the other side. But I won’t because I’d rather leave absurd claims like this to theologians like Larry Hurtado, Joe Hoffmann, ‘N.T. Wrong’ (sic), Jim West, and co.)
One can always claim that one’s own interpretation is the “natural” or “common sense” one, but if so, one needs to be able to establish that point by means of argument, not assertion, and to demonstrate why opposing interpretations are wrong. (Setting aside post-modernist rationales.)
A Better way of arguing
When we have a “not convincing” or “not persuasive” response to an argument we really have an invitation to make progress in the discussion. Simply closing the book with a “not convincing” hurrumph is to walk away from intellectual inquiry. The argument is evidently persuasive to someone. It is not really adequate to simply say “I don’t agree” without explanation.
The first step would be to take one argument at a time from those who argue that the James reference in Josephus does not establish the historicity of Jesus.
Both Doherty and Carrier argue for the possibility that the words “called Christ” originated as a marginal gloss. That is, a scribe wrote the words in the margin of a text of Josephus that he was reading and a later copyist mistook those words as possibly rightly belonging to the original text.
Now such a suggestion may not “be persuasive” to many. Instead of walking away why not seek to test that claim. Treat it as a hypothesis because that’s what it really is. How can that hypothesis be tested? Test the argument that challenges your prior belief and see if it can be broken.
If we can put it to a test and it fails then we can be confident our grounds for rejecting the argument are rational and not merely an emotional response. We want to do better than accept or reject arguments the same way we accept or reject flavours of ice-cream.
Yet as mentioned above, we so very often read works by theologians or biblical scholars resorting to a mere “I don’t find his argument persuasive” cop-out. And too many of us lay readers follow their anti-intellectual behaviour.
Of course the same principle applies in reverse, too. It is all too easy to jump on board with an argument or assertion by an authority because it appeals to our intuition or belief preference. If it is bad practice to reject an argument that “called Christ” originated as a marginal gloss without carefully and explicitly evaluating the pros and cons it is just as bad to embrace the idea because that’s what we want in order to support our preferred theory for mythicism. That makes the mythicist as much a mindless “proof-texter” as the historicist.
One more demonstration
I once attempted to show how one can do better than simply reject claims (i.e. “proof-texting”) and counter-claims about another reference to James being the “brother of the Lord” (the Lord is generally assumed to be Jesus) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Let’s see how we can begin to do something similar with the hypothesis that “in Christ” in the Jesus who was called Christ passage in Josephus began their life as a marginal gloss.
We propose an alternative hypothesis: that “in Christ” were originally penned by Josephus. This surely seems to be the most natural assumption to make. But we are not in the business of choosing arguments on the basis of how much of our familiar world they support so let’s put this surely simple proposition to the test.
If the words were original to Josephus are they what we would have expected Josephus to say given all that we know about his works or does it appear as an anomaly? This means we have to draw upon some background knowledge of the works of Josephus.
Why did Josephus avoid references to other Christs?
One of the first things one learns about Josephus in undertaking any treatment of him by scholars interested in Christian origins is that he appears to have scrupulously avoided the merest hints of messianic ideology when writing about figures whom scholars believe were considered messiahs in their day. Even when he has the chance to use the term (“christ” being the Greek word for “messiah”) in a positive way — as, many believe, when he declared the Roman general Vespasian as the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecy that from Judea would rise a ruler of the entire world — he still fails to use it.
To argue that Josephus wrote that Jesus was called Christ is to take the position that Josephus made Jesus the sole exception in the way he wrote about messianic figures (others who were believed to be christ). That means we need to be clear on the reasons Josephus apparently avoided the term in every other case and be able to explain why he made an exception for Jesus.
The reason he avoided hints of messianism, scholars tell us, is that the idea stimulated popular support for the Jewish rebels fighting against Rome. Josephus was, by the favour of Vespasian, in the service of Rome at the time of his writing. If Josephus found the word “christ/messiah” such a sensitive issue then how do we explain his use of it for Jesus?
Some scholars have argued that Josephus had a secret soft-spot for Jesus. They say he even admired the man. If so, then he was not comparable to the rebel “messiahs” in the eyes of Josephus. If this is true, and if Josephus felt the word “christ” was such a problematic one for Roman sensitivities, then we still need an explanation why he would have used it of Christ.
Perhaps Josephus was trying to show the word had a good meaning. If so, then why did he not use it of Vespasian? Okay, we can say he just used the words he did and that’s that. And that’s fair enough.
We might also ask if he avoided the word because the Jewish notion of “messiah/christ” would have been meaningless to Romans. Some scholars have said just this: not that Josephus did not call Vespasian “christ” because the word would have had no meaning to him, but that the word would have meant nothing to Romans generally.
But if that is the case we have a contradiction with our first scholarly point about avoiding any language that would upset the Romans.
Was Josephus impressed by Jesus enough to break his rule?
Maybe Josephus was trying to show that the word was really a positive one and not rightfully applied to rebels. Jesus was a positive figure in Roman eyes, or at least Josephus was presenting that case to the Romans.
Perhaps. But how likely is that given what scholars generally tell us about persecutions of Christians by Nero (almost 30 years before Josephus wrote Antiquities) and then under Trajan (who became emperor about half a dozen years after Josephus wrote). In the time of Josephus another historian, the Roman Tacitus, flourished and many scholars conclude from what they see in his writings that Christians in the days of Josephus were hated.
We may conclude that Josephus wrote the words “called Christ” of Jesus as an exception to his normal reticence on their use, but if so, we must admit that we cannot simply assume they were as likely as anything else he wrote. The reference does appear to be an anomaly.
Strengthening the case for Josephan authenticity
The Book 20 reference to “Jesus, who was called Christ” seems to be a reference to an earlier passage where this same Jesus (called Christ) was introduced. (Many persons with the name of Jesus feature in this work by Josephus so there needs to be some identifier to distinguish them.) So if we continue with our (slightly shaken) confidence that Josephus did say in Book 20 that he is speaking of the Jesus who was called Christ, our case would be strengthened if we found an earlier passage making this same identification.
Our hypothesis appears to be passing the test when we recall that we find a passage about Jesus in an earlier book of Antiquties, the famous Testimonium Flavianum (=testimony of Flavius Josephus), the TF.
In that earlier passage we read the Josephus wrote, quite bluntly, that Jesus was the Christ. I think probably all scholars today acknowledge that that statement, as it stands, was certainly not written by Josephus. If it were it would imply that Josephus was a Christian. Yet we know Josephus loathed departures in the Jewish laws and traditions attributed to Moses. But all is not lost.
We have some theories that the TF began as a somewhat shorter passage by Josephus, one that was either neutral or negative towards Jesus, and that it was over time “redacted” by Christians. Some of these reconstructions suggest Josephus may have written something like “Jesus was believed to be the Christ by his followers”. If so, then the later passage in Book 20 may well be interpreted as a reference back to that TF.
It would be stronger, of course, if all of this theory about the TF were not quite so hypothetical.
Just the beginning
What we have done here is apply some tests to the hypothesis that “called Christ” were the original words of Jesus and not incorporated into the text from a marginal gloss. There are many more arguments surrounding this passage. There are even additional arguments that argue for the marginal gloss theory that I have not covered here and that need to be seriously tested, too.
Earl Doherty has a seventeen page exploration into the many points to consider on this passage in Jesus Neither God Nor Man; in On the Historicity of Jesus Richard Carrier’s in depth discussion covers a little under 5 pages. There are many aspects to consider and it would be foolhardy to conclude the matter can be decided in just a few minutes.
Remember, we don’t want to be one of those who jumps on the bandwagon of whatever arguments sound plausible and good for our own preferred conclusion whether that’s mythicism or historicism. It doesn’t hurt (well, not very much or if it does hurt a lot the hurt does not last too long) to endeavour to be as brutally honest with ourselves and our thinking processes as we can be.
Ask what our particular view would lead us to expect in the remainder of the evidence. Do the same for the opposing arguments. The whole process takes time and effort. It’s not as simple as deciding what flavour of ice-cream suits our taste today — or which author’s words we find the “more persuasive”. Sitting on the fence for a while is not always a bad thing.
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