2020-11-13

Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed”

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by Neil Godfrey

I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the  incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.

Louis Feldman

In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.

Here is the Trypho passage.

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 . . .

Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8)

Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:

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.

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.

(Doherty, on Vridar)

But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.

The Intolerability of Ambiguity?

About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.

The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.

Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:

The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.

Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.

When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:

Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.

(Paget, 602)

No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.

Here is what Feldman wrote, the argument he penned (when in his 80s) about the passage:

The fact, if it is a fact, that no ante-Nicene Christian is known to have used Josephus’s works in apologies directed to Jews is certainly surprising in view of the charge, as seen in The Dialogue with Trypho, that Jesus never lived and in view of the eagerness of Christians to convert Jews. To be sure, this is an argumentum ex silentio; but when the number of writers is so great and when these are writers who are very much involved with theological questions, especially questions regarding the nature of Jesus, the omission is striking.

(Feldman, 15)

On his blogpost O’Neill writes

However, his reasoning on this point is oddly flawed. He writes: . . .

O’Neill quotes the same passage I have quoted above but omits the last sentence. Ignoring Feldman’s reasons for his claim O’Neill says the passage has one definite meaning and that’s it:

But this is a complete misreading of what Trypho is depicted as saying here. The “Christ” he refers to is the Jewish messiah, who he says has either not been born or, if he has, has not yet been revealed. Then he says that Jesus is not the true Jewish messiah, that the idea he is is “a groundless report” and that in accepting him as the messiah Christians “invent a [messiah] for yourselves”. Trypho is not arguing that “Jesus never lived”, just that Jesus was not the messiah because the messiah has yet to appear.

No ambiguity there.

O’Neill continues with his own “complete misreading” of the text when he writes:

Elsewhere in the Dialogue Trypho is depicted making other arguments that depend on Jesus being a historical person, so the idea he represents some kind of second century Jesus Mythicism is simply wrong.

No, as Doherty in the opening quotation points out, it is not Trypho who is making the arguments but Justin. Justin is using Trypho as a literary mouthpiece to set up the arguments that he himself wishes to counter.

The problem with Feldman’s argument here is that Trypho does not make any charge “that Jesus never lived”. Here Feldman appears to be referring to a statement by the Jewish critic Trypho in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue:

Was this a misreading and a sign of Feldman’s senility? Was he so old when he expressed this view that no-one had the time or inclination to argue the point with him, to point out that his interpretation was “ridiculously wrong”?

The point O’Neill is unaware of (despite his stress on the importance of digging into the scholarship) is that Feldman wrote exactly the same argument thirty years earlier in 1982 when Feldman was in his (pre-senile) fifties:

A point that has not been appreciated thus far is that despite the value that such a passage [the Testimonium Flavianum] 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, 1982: “The Testimonium Flavianum: The State of the Question.” In Christological Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Harvey K. McArthur, 182)

Feldman in none of his writings of which I am aware expresses any doubt about the historicity of Jesus. In 1982 he even argued (in the same work quoted above) that the Testimonium Flavianum should be treated as the earliest non-Christian evidence for Jesus. (Later, in 2012, Feldman came down on the side of the TF being a total forgery.)

Getting History Wrong

Historians, like all scholars, need to treat the history of scholarly inquiry into any question as itself a historical pursuit. To gain some perspective on the current ideas it is necessary to have some idea of the ideas that have been published before. O’Neill states toward the end of his interview

If you are going to use arguments from history, get it right .. and don’t go for fringe stuff that isn’t accepted by mainstream historians. Because you just make us [viz. atheists] look stupid.

The history of Feldman’s view on the Trypho passage is clear. Feldman held the view as early as his fifties.

There is more ambiguity in the passage than O’Neill seems to find acceptable.

To “get history right” one needs to admit and work with ambiguity where it clearly exists and not deny it for the sake of fitting in “with the mainstream”. (And one also needs to do one’s homework on what scholars have written over the years, too.)

.

(One could elaborate on arguments for either reading of the Trypho passage and perhaps I will do so in another post. For now, I am wanting to do nothing more than suggest that we should not be easily persuaded by everything we read or hear on the internet, no matter how confidently it is expressed and how knowledgeable it seems to sound.)


Doherty, Earl. 2012. “10. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Listening to the Sounds of Silence.” Vridar (blog). May 11, 2012. https://vridar.org/2012/05/11/10-earl-dohertys-response-to-bart-ehrmans-case-against-mythicism-listening-to-the-sounds-of-silence/.

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.

Feldman, Louis H. 2012. “On the Authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum Attributed to Josephus.” In New Perspectives on Jewish-Christian Relations, edited by Elisheva Carlebach and Jacob J. Schacter. Leiden: Brill.

Lambert, Derek. 2020. The Problems With Jesus Mythicism – Tim O’Neill. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkZTiLacoks&feature=youtu.be.

O’Neill, Tim. 2020. “Jesus Mythicism 7: Josephus, Jesus and the ‘Testimonium Flavianum.” History for Atheists (blog). October 11, 2020. https://historyforatheists.com/2020/10/josephus-jesus-and-the-testimonium-flavianum/.

See also:

Godfrey, Neil. 2019. “Justin Martyr Answers a Second Century Jesus Christ Mythicist.” Vridar (blog). March 5, 2019. https://vridar.org/2019/03/05/justin-martyr-answers-a-second-century-jesus-christ-mythicist/.

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7 thoughts on “Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed””

  1. For what it is worth, I thought that Earl Doherty’s citation of this passage was the weakest argument in his book. If he had cited Feldman’s arguments to the same effect (at either age) I would have respected his argument citing Trypho’s words more.

  2. In addition to Trypho, the ancient pagan critic Porphyry calls the gospels mythoi (myths) and I have always thought this was cutting it awfully close to questioning Jesus’ historicity. I am curious whether the greek word mythoi was ever applied to tall tales / legends about historical figures because my guess is that it was typically used about allegorical, non-literal stories about sky gods. At best I suppose it may be ambiguous. On the hand, Porphyry also wrote the gospels invented the sea of Galilee (a very publicly disprovable claim!) and that Jesus’ stories were borrowed from pagan myths. If we brought Porphyry to the present in a time machine and asked him whether or not Jesus existed, whether he might have been made up (especially in light of the previous two facts), would he say yes? While it is somewhat feasible that Porphyry might not have actually been questioning Jesus’ historicity, to believe that he would have known or believed Jesus’ historicity to be totally unquestionable strikes me as an unbelievable position. If for him, even moreso for us today.

    1. “the ancient pagan critic Porphyry calls the gospels mythoi (myths) and I have always thought this was cutting it awfully close to questioning Jesus’ historicity. I am curious whether the greek word mythoi</> was ever applied to tall tales / legends about historical figures because my guess is that it was typically used about allegorical, non-literal stories about sky gods.”

      M David Litwa (and one or two other scholars) have addressed this in recent years: Litwa, in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and the Mediterranean Myths (Yale University, 2019), discusses myth, fiction and truth, and how they were portrayed in the first century c.e. in the Introduction (I think Litwa jumps around a bit but it’s still an interesting discussion).

      Litwa discusses the book in a podcast here: https://newbooksnetwork.com/m-david-litwa-how-the-gospels-became-history-jesus-and-mediterranean-myths-yale-up-2019/ – at 10minutes in Litwa says the historical Jesus is the “supreme myth” of the field and that “what we call facts are just interscholarly agreements about what might have happened.”

      Neil has discussed this book on vridar,

      https://vridar.org/2019/10/31/review-pt-1a-how-the-gospels-became-history-litwa/

      https://vridar.org/2019/11/02/review-pt-1b-how-the-gospels-became-history-litwa/

      Other books that address literary genres of the times are

      Jörg Rüpke’s Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, Feb 2018

      Michael Jensen’s Theological Anthropology and the Great Literary Genres: Understanding the Human Story, Aug 2019

  3. I haven’t read the whole article yet. With that caveat, I wanted to say that my reaction to O’Neil’s work is befuddlement. I could easily understand the attitude, “Hey, guys, I’m an atheist, too. But there’s no excuse for shoddy scholarship. Know your history. Let me help. We need to bring our A-game to this discussion.”

    But instead, he seems to delight in looking for mistakes. I can’t figure out where he’s coming from.

    1. Well, you and I know only too well from personal experience, O’Neill’s form on these issues is less about accuracy and more about trying to demonstrate his own narcissistic superiority.

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