2019-03-05

Justin Martyr Answers a Second Century Jesus Christ Mythicist

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by Neil Godfrey

We return here to the question of the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus found in our copies of Antiquities of the Jews by the first century Jewish historian Josephus.

Not many years back Earl Doherty wrote for this blog:

Trypho

Finally, there is the question of what is meant by Trypho’s remark in Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8):

But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .

As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.

Eddy and Boyd, whom Doherty is addressing, do acknowledge that “some scholars interpret Trypho as denying that Jesus existed” but they do not identify any of those scholars. Louis Feldman is the first scholar I have encountered. One would expect a seriously critical discussion to have cited the scholars alluded to and not vaguely left the reference as an unidentified “some”.

But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.

Interestingly, another highly respected scholar on Josephus, Louis M. Feldman, wrote thirty years earlier, presumably without any conscious awareness of a Christ Myth debate, the following:

A point that has not been appreciated thus far is that despite the value that such a passage would have had in establishing the credentials of Jesus in the church’s missionary activities, it is not cited until Eusebius does so in the fourth century. This is admittedly the argumentum ex silentio, but in this case it is a fairly strong argument against the authenticity of the passage as we have it, especially since we know that Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century (Dialogue with Trypho 8) attempted to answer the charge that Jesus had never lived and was a mere figment of Christian imagination. Nothing could have been a stronger argument to disprove such a charge than a citation from Josephus, a Jew, who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death.

(Feldman, 182)

Feldman in none of his writings of which I am aware expresses any doubt about the historicity of Jesus. On the contrary, he even argues (in the same work quoted above) that the Testimonium Flavianum should be treated as the earliest non-Christian evidence for Jesus.

What I find of some significance is that a scholar seemingly unaware of any debate over the historicity of Jesus interprets the words Justin puts into the mouth of Trypho, and of equal significance, of course, the arguments Justin used to affirm that what he had to say about Jesus was not based on a “groundless report” or “invention”.


Feldman, Louis H. 1982. “The Testimonium Flavianum: The State of the Question.” In Christological Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Harvey K. McArthur, edited by E. Berkey and Sarah A. Edwards, 179–99. New York: Pilgrim Press.


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17 Comments

  • Lowen Gartner
    2019-03-05 21:31:34 GMT+0000 - 21:31 | Permalink

    So do I get this right that it might be tha t Justin is arguing against a fictional Jesus and should have been aware of the Josephus line about Jesus if it wasn’t a later interpolation?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-03-05 21:59:28 GMT+0000 - 21:59 | Permalink

      Basically yes. Feldman is discussing the manuscript evidence for the works of Josephus and part of that discussion involves the Testimonium Flavianum (the Jesus passage in Antiquities). Feldman points out that the TF does not appear in the early citation evidence (by Church Fathers) but it is found in all the manuscripts even though these are dated very late and on that manuscript evidence he concludes that the TF should be accepted as genuine.

      Feldman writes:

      A point that has not been appreciated thus far is that despite the value that such a passage would have had in establishing the credentials of Jesus in the church’s missionary activities, it is not cited until Eusebius does so in the fourth century. This is admittedly the argumentum ex silentio, but in this case it is a fairly strong argument against the authenticity of the passage as we have it, especially since we know that Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century (Dialogue with Trypho 8) attempted to answer the charge that Jesus had never lived and was a mere figment of Christian imagination. Nothing could have been a stronger argument to disprove such a charge than a citation from Josephus, a Jew, who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death.

      Yet an examination of Christian writers who mention Josephus shows a complete absence of references to the Testimonium before Eusebius. (183f)

      Justin argues for the historical reality of Jesus by appealing to the fulfilment of OT prophecies.

      • mbuckley3
        2019-03-06 01:48:19 GMT+0000 - 01:48 | Permalink

        Certainly Trypho’s meaning (to serve Justin’s argument) can’t be that “Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” : in ch.49 Justin explicitly endorses Trypho’s definition of a messiah’s credentials. His ingenious sidestep is to assert that John the baptist had ‘part of the spirit of Elijah’ and so anointed Jesus-as-Christ in his first coming; the actual Elijah will appear at Christ’s second coming in glory.
        To turn to the Greek text : mataian akoèn is indeed ’empty rumour’; as for ‘invent’, anaplassein is a wonderfully polemical verb, definitely meaning ‘forge, fabricate, invent’.
        Feldman and Doherty seem to have read this right !

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-03-06 07:56:22 GMT+0000 - 07:56 | Permalink

          That’s an interesting point. I will keep it in mind and see if it is made in any of the literature that I come across. But yes, thanks for that.

  • 2019-03-05 21:48:23 GMT+0000 - 21:48 | Permalink

    Very interesting indeed. I wish I had known of this passage when I wrote my book :p

    @Lowen Yes it would seem. I don’t see Doherty or Neil saying that here, but that’s certainly a valid conclusion given that Martyr never makes reference to the TF. This is one more line of support for the view that the TF didn’t exist at that time.

    • A Buddhist
      2019-03-06 00:08:32 GMT+0000 - 00:08 | Permalink

      For what it is worth, I thought that this was the weakest part of Doherty’s argument. But now we have evidence that a mainstream biblical scholar also interpreted Trypho’s words as evidence that Jesus was being argued to have been completely made up. So Doherty seems to be vindicated in this – but because he came to a forbidden conclusion about Jesus, he was vituperated and condemned.

  • Joseph
    2019-03-05 23:10:08 GMT+0000 - 23:10 | Permalink

    There may be another early mythicist report in some varieties of gnosticism. If gnostics insisted that Jesus was a false corporeality.

    Many gnostics may believe that most or all material matter, material things, was a kind of evil delusion or illusion, existing on the inferior plane of material, as opposed to higher, spiritual things. This would make a solid-seeming real historical Jesus, just another superficial illusion. Like all material things.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-03-06 00:02:08 GMT+0000 - 00:02 | Permalink

      Presumably one could be a docetist and still believe that that form of Jesus really did appear and walk among Galileans and Judeans. Docetism denied the physical reality of Jesus but not necessarily the historical appearance of that Jesus.

  • Giuseppe
    2019-03-06 06:58:01 GMT+0000 - 06:58 | Permalink

    Another possible old mythicist accusation:
    But if any one seek Him not purely, nor holily, nor faithfully, He is indeed within him, because He is everywhere, and is found within the minds of all men; but, as we have said before, He is dormant to the unbelieving, and is held to be absent from those by whom His existence is not believed.”
    (Recognitions 8:62)

  • Amer
    2019-03-06 07:36:17 GMT+0000 - 07:36 | Permalink

    What if “the groundless report” is the TF itself?

    What if they were discussing it at the time?

    Surely the question that preceded this one from Trypho to Justin would have been something like “so how can you prove Jesus was Christ?” – this is indicated from the phrase “doesn’t even know himself” – having been part of an earlier response to earlier questions in their dialogue. Clearly it is established that Justin believed Jesus was Christ. So we cannot assume Trypho meant other than Jesus in that discussion.

    If none of the above is sound then I think it needs to be determined what exactly is that “groundless report”? Presumably the groundless report would something like “the Messiah has come” or “Jesus was the Messiah” …

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-03-06 07:41:24 GMT+0000 - 07:41 | Permalink

      I think against this interpretation is the fact that we find no evidence that anyone had any knowledge of the TF until Eusebius. And would a passage in a historian be described as a “groundless report”? Though I admit I do not know what word was translated “report” or what it connotated in the Greek of the day.

  • Attila Csanyi
    2019-03-06 17:37:36 GMT+0000 - 17:37 | Permalink

    Was the TF not invented by Eusebius? DId he nearly duplicate it in the Emmaus Road episode in LUKE, where the statement about Jesusus matches the TF almost verbatim?
    “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
    Justin’s arguing shows there were contemporaries of his who believed Jesus never existed, but was a Christian invention.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-03-06 21:16:59 GMT+0000 - 21:16 | Permalink

      It has been concluded by a number of scholars that Eusebius was responsible for the TF (see especially Ken Olson’s arguments that are included in the posts at https://vridar.org/series-index/jesus-in-josephus-testimonium-flavianum/).

      But it is a conclusion, an inference from certain evidence, and not a “fact”. There are very good reasons to believe Eusebius did forge the TF (I strongly suspect he did). But I can’t say as a fact that he did do it.

      • Attila Csanyi
        2019-03-08 18:28:19 GMT+0000 - 18:28 | Permalink

        Thank you.
        Provided Eusebius did it, did he also invent the Emmaus Road episode fount in the LUKE gospel?
        Why is there such a close similarity, especially in Greek?

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-03-10 01:02:39 GMT+0000 - 01:02 | Permalink

          I don’t know. My first thought, though, is that I have seen the Emmaus Road scene as so closely tied to the other patriarchal narratives in the Gospel of Luke (compare the allusions to scenes in Genesis and Judges in the opening chapters) that it is best seen as original to our canonical version of Luke — from around the mid to later second century.

  • Giuseppe
    2019-03-18 20:56:54 GMT+0000 - 20:56 | Permalink

    Was Paul himself agnostic about the historicity of Jesus?

    From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even if we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer
    (2 Cor 5:16)

    The sense would be: even if Jesus existed really “in the flesh”, we don’t know and we don’t care

    • db
      2019-03-18 22:05:59 GMT+0000 - 22:05 | Permalink

      • Jesus no longer has a body of flesh, but rather a body of glory. This is the “Participation in Christ Salvation” promised to those who live their lives as God-worshipers and devotees, thus earning a new body for themselves when standing in the presence of Jesus Christ in the future: “[O]btain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (1 Thess. 5:9-10)”.

      2 Corinthians [Textus Receptus @ blueletterbible.org]

      5:16 Ὥστε ἡμεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν οὐδένα οἴδαμεν κατὰ σάρκα εἰ δὲ καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν ἀλλὰ νῦν οὐκέτι γινώσκομεν

      5:16 Óste imeís apó toú nýn oudéna oídamen katá sárka ei dé kaí egnókamen katá sárka Christón allá nýn oukéti ginóskomen

      Novenson, Matthew V. (2012). Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-19-984457-9.

      [Per 2 Cor 5:14-15, Paul writes] So then, from now on we know no one according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, now, at any rate, we no longer know [him so]. So then, if anyone is in Christ, new creation happens. The old things have passed away; behold, the new have come.

      Engberg-Pedersen, Troels (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-664-22234-5.

      [Per Philippians 2] Salvation appears to stand for the future goal of all Christ-believers, their stay in the heavenly politeuma when Christ will have changed their lowly bodies and made them symmorphic with his own body of glory (3:20-21).
      […]
      Paul first speaks of the Philippians as working on their own salvation (2:12) and then (apparently) of the end of that work, namely that they become (‘morally’) blameless and spotless (2:15)…

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