I will post just once more on the mythicist argument in Caesar’s Messiah: the Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus. My previous criticism examined the notion that Josephus, when describing one detail of a battle in Galilee, was subtly referring to Jesus call to his disciples to become “fishers of men”. The strongest rebuttal to my argument seemed to be that readers would associate the killing of drowning soldiers with “fishers of men” in the gospels. Atwill responded to explain that it was the parallel sequence of events that was most telling, but my own view is that if the supposed parallel between any event is not valid then it follows that there can be no sequence of events.
So I will follow up with just one more post for the benefit of anyone who might be wondering about the strength of Joseph Atwill’s overall thesis.
In chapter 3, “The Son of Mary Who Was a Passover Sacrifice”, Atwill writes:
While readers can judge this claim for themselves, it should be noted that Josephus wrote during an age in which allegory was regarded as a science. Educated readers were expected to be able to understand another meaning within religious and historical literature. The Apostle Paul, for example, stated that passages from the Hebrew Scriptures were allegories that looked forward to Christ’s birth. I believe that in the following passage Josephus is using allegory to reveal something else about Jesus. (p. 45, my bolding)
I don’t know of any historical literature in the ancient world that was meant to be read as an allegory. Atwill does not cite any source to verify his assertion that “educated readers were expected to be able to understand another meaning within . . . historical literature”. He does refer to the following passage by Paul, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 (Young’s Literal Translation), however:
And I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,and all to Moses were baptized in the cloud, and in the sea;and all the same spiritual food did eat, and all the same spiritual drink did drink, for they were drinking of a spiritual rock following them, and the rock was the Christ; but in the most of them God was not well pleased, for they were strewn in the wilderness, and those things became types of us, for our not passionately desiring evil things, as also these did desire.
The Douay-Rheims Bible translates “τύποι” (types) as “figure”:
Now these things were done in a figure of us, that we should not covet evil things as they also coveted.
The Gospel of Mark is sometimes interpreted as an allegorical gospel but those who do interpret its characters and stories as allegories do so on the strength of the following passage, Mark 4:34, in the text itself:
And without parable he did not speak unto them; but apart, he explained all things to his disciples.
This saying has been interpreted as a hint that the entire gospel itself is a parable. Indeed, many of the episodes in Mark’s gospel simply make no sense if read as realistic events. It is impossible for any persons to be as dim-witted as the disciples are depicted in that gospel, for example.
Back to Paul. Paul uses “types” or allegories or figures of speech to explain the covenants. But notably he explains to the readers of his letter that he is speaking in allegories; Galatians 4:24:
These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.
What we can conclude, then, is that if an author was writing an allegorical scene we can expect him to make it clear to his readers that he is indeed writing allegorically and he explicitly states as much, and warns the reader not to read his account literally.
Conclusion: there are no grounds for thinking that any historian in ancient times, Josephus included, ever wrote allegorically — unless they gave their readers a clear indication that they were doing so. And I don’t know of any historian who ever wrote his account allegorically, period.
It is not the case that “educated readers were expected to be able to understand another meaning within … historical literature.”
Let’s look at the second episode Atwill claims is an allegory of the story of Jesus’ last supper.
I believe that in the following passage Josephus is using allegory to reveal something else about Jesus. . . .
There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; her father was Eleazar, of the village Bethezob, which signifies the house of Hyssop. She was eminent for her family and her wealth, and had fled away to Jerusalem with the rest of the multitude, and was with them besieged therein at this time. The other effects of this woman had been already seized upon, such I mean as she had brought with her out of Perea, and removed to the city. What she had treasured up besides, as also what food she had contrived to save, had been also carried off by the rapacious guards, who came every day running into her house for that purpose. This put the poor woman into a very great passion, and by the frequent reproaches and imprecations she cast at these rapacious villains, she had provoked them to anger against her; but none of them, either out of the indignation she had raised against herself, or out of commiseration of her case, would take away her life; and if she found any food, she perceived her labors were for others, and not for herself; and it was now become impossible for her any way to find any more food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself; nor did she consult with any thing but with her passion and the necessity she was in. She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, “O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.
As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed. Upon this the seditious came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready. She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them, and withal uncovered what was left of her son. Hereupon they were seized with a horror and amazement of mind, and stood astonished at the sight, when she said to them,
“This is mine own son, and what hath been done was mine own doing! Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself! Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother; but if you be so scrupulous, and do abominate this my sacrifice, as I have eaten the one half, let the rest be reserved for me also.”
After which those men went out trembling, being never so much afrighted at any thing as they were at this, and with some difficulty they left the rest of that meat to the mother. (Josephus, War 6.3)
I have bolded the passages that Atwill sees as indicators of the passage being an allegory of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.
There are difficulties with that allegorical interpretation, however.
1. Mary was not present at and did not eat the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples.
2. The house of Hyssop. Joseph Atwill links the word hyssop to Passover on the correct understanding that hyssop was used to smear the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of Israelites in Egypt at the first Passover (Exodus 12:22). I think, however, given the other many uses of the word hyssop in the Hebrew Bible, there may be other associations that come more readily to mind. Psalm 51 prays to God to be purged with hyssop — with no passover association. Other Pentateuchal passages relate hyssop to sacrifices cleansing lepers and houses and in use at the sacrifice of the red heifer. See the biblegateway references.
3. The image of “piercing” Mary’s soul is, for Atwill, a reminder of Luke 2:35
And a sword will pierce your heart
Commentators are divided over the meaning of this passage. Some say it speaks of Mary’s sorrow to come when her son is crucified; others say it references the time of judgement when all thoughts, even those of Mary, good and bad, will be revealed. But the telling blow to the Caesar’s Messiah interpretation is that the word translated “pierced” in the Whiston translation (the one Atwill uses) of Josephus is not the same as the Greek word used in Luke 2:35.
The word that Whiston translates as “pierced” is ἐξέκαιον. G.A. Williamson in the Penguin translation of Josephus’s War is
while hunger was eating her heart out and rage was consuming her still fast
The Perseus Greek Word Study Tool renders the word as “burn out“. Thackeray translates the passage similarly:
while famine coursed through her intestines and marrow and the fire of rage was more consuming even than the famine
In Luke 2:35, meanwhile, the word translated “pierced” is διελεύσεται, quite different from ἐξέκαιον. Other translations of the biblical passage use “revealed”, though to be fair I do think those are letting personal doctrinal preference decide the word for them.
Thus far, we have seen that there is no compelling reason to interpret “hyssop” as a pointer to Passover; and no good reason to think that the two different words translated into English as “pierced” by some translators would be associated by anyone familiar with the Gospel of Luke with the Josephan passage.
A simpler explanation
There is, though, a clear and memorable association between Josephus’s anecdote and the Bible, but the biblical passage is in the Old Testament. 2 Kings 6:26-30
And it cometh to pass, the king of Israel is passing by on the wall, and a woman hath cried unto him, saying, `Save, my lord, O king.’And he saith, `Jehovah doth not save thee — whence do I save thee? out of the threshing-floor, or out of the wine-vat?’And the king saith to her, `What — to thee?’ and she saith, `This woman said unto me, Give thy son, and we eat him to-day, and my son we eat to-morrow; and we boil my son and eat him, and I say unto her on the next day, Give thy son, and we eat him; and she hideth her son.’And it cometh to pass, at the king’s hearing the words of the woman, that he rendeth his garments, and he is passing by on the wall, and the people see, and lo, the sackcloth [is] on his flesh within.
I suspect the Josephan narrative is an adaptation of the 2 Kings passage. In place of two women each with their respective sons, Josephus has given readers one woman and a decision to eat the son over two days. This narrative plot device also allows her horrible action to be discovered.
I cannot say that no-one has suggested that the crucifixion of Jesus in the gospels is an allegory of, or derived from, the 2 Kings 6 passage. I suggest it is equally unlikely that the Josephan passage is a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus. I think the more obvious scenario in Josephus’s mind was 2 Kings 6:26-30.
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