Category Archives: Josephus

Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

Clare K. Rothschild

As a follow up on my previous post about the care we need to take in judging certain passages in Josephus’s Antiquities to be inauthentic I quote below a small section from “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist”, a chapter by Clare Rothschild in Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity (2011). All bolding and line-breaks are mine.

Meier claims that both the “vocabulary and style” of this passage “are plainly those of Josephus.” Yet many scholars, most famously H. St. J. Thackeray, argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.9

The interesting detail is in the footnote (C.Ap = Against Apion; B.J. = Jewish War; A.J. = Antiquities of the Jews):

9  C. Ap. 1.50:

I kept a careful record of all that went on under my eyes in the Roman camp, and was alone in a position to understand the information brought by deserters. Then, in the leisure which Rome afforded me, with all my materials, in readiness, and with the aid of some assistants for the sake of the Greek (χρησάμενός τισι πρὸς τὴν Ἑλληνίδα φωνὴν συνεργοῖς), at last I committed to writing my narrative of the events (ET: H. J. St. Thackeray).

H. St. J. Thackeray even refers to this secretary as “hack!” See Josephus The Man and The Historian, 132. This statement refers to B.J., but B.J. became a source for A.J. Cf. also Ant. 1.7 where Josephus expresses hesitation over “rendering so vast a subject into a foreign and unfamiliar tongue” (ET: Thackeray). This thesis is old, but not, as many assume, debunked.

Mason, with Rajak, rejects Thackeray’s ‘secretaries’ theory (referring to it as “rightly rejected”) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 233–234. However, earlier in this essay collection (with specific but not exclusive reference to B.J.) Mason simply prefers a modified version of the Thackeray’s “literary assistants” as “co-workers and literary friends” (συνεργοί, C. Ap. 1.50) at Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, 56 incl. n. 43.

Concerning B.J., Mason writes:

In Josephus’s enlistment of co-workers (συνεργοί) or literary friends in the capital for this massive project, we again witness a social affair and not the work of an isolated author. Another point raised by this notice concerns Josephus’s ability in Greek, since the collaborators helped particularly with the Greek sound (or possibly “language”: φωνή) (56).

Horst R. Moehring too assumes some intervention by assistants. In defense of and as a means of defining Josephus’ authorship, Moehring writes:

Josephus can justly be called the author, in the true sense of this term, of the works ascribed to him: even when he borrows and even when he uses assistants, he impresses his own personality upon his work (Novelistic Elements in the Writings of Flavius Josephus), 145.

See also

The discussion is likewise older than Thackeray:

In contrast, D. R. Schwartz argues for the presence of sources (and likewise absence of authorial or other editing) in the final volumes of A.J.; see Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea, 2; idem, Josephus and Nicolaus on the Pharisees, 157–171.

Steve Mason

In a brief critical review of Schwartz’s project Mason (2003) counters Schwartz by echoing Thackeray:

Finally, Schwartz does not explain why the very section of Antiquities he would like to assign to incompatible sources, books 17 to 19, exhibits an impressive, if bizarre (mock-Thucydidean), stylistic conformity (Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 112; Thackeray is acknowledged in n. 58).

Mason, however, also points out that it is dangerous to assume that Josephus himself was always consistent:

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources); they do not ohne weiteres imply incompatible sources (112).

See also Shutt, Studies in Josephus, 68–75; Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 235.

This essay’s question of the authenticity of the Baptist passage is related, but not identical to the question of the historicity of Josephus’ writings in general. The latter topic is of intense interest to the scholars named in this note as well as others; see Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins, 105–113.

(From p. 257 of Rothschild’s ‘Echo of a Whisper’)

Rothschild, Clare K. 2011. “‘Echo of a Whisper’. The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist.” In Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity, edited by David Hellholm, Tor Vegge, Øyvind Norderval, and Christer Hellholm, 255–90. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter, 255–90.


Interpolations in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews

Of special interest to many readers are questions over the authenticity of passages about Jesus and John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities.

We know the tell-tales signs that a passage has been inserted into Josephus’s Antiquities:

  • It breaks the narrative flow of the surrounding passage;
  • It contradicts what is known about information from other sources or even elsewhere in Josephus’s work;
  • It can be out-of-place chronologically;
  • It appears to assume certain details are found elsewhere in Antiquities but that are not found anywhere else;
  • It introduces details in which Josephus appears to have no interest in the rest of his work.

But what if Josephus himself was responsible for those interpolations? A study by Vered Noam sets out evidence for thinking that Josephus was responsible for a series of additions to an otherwise completed narrative history. We know that textual “corruptions” were very common throughout antiquity (for some details see Forgery in the ancient world) so the question that we need to ask as we read Antiquities is: Is this interpolation by Josephus or some subsequent copyist?

To illustrate a case for an interpolation by Josephus into his own work I copy a table from Vered Noam’s Shifting Images (p. 69). Close to twenty years after completing the Jewish War (75-79 CE) Josephus modified and expanded that earlier narrative by adding — interpolating — new material in Antiquities (93/94 CE). (I have added the older passage location references — e.g. III. 7 — that many of us relying on Whiston translation know better than the Loeb Classical Library numbering.) read more »

Debunking myths of Judas the Galilean, the Zealots, and causes of the war with Rome

Jewish zeal for both liberty from foreign rule and a passion to be ruled “by God alone” are generally thought to be the causes of Judaea’s war with Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. Hence, goes the common view, the many Jews who were influenced by this politico-religious liberation movement loathed not only the Roman rulers but also the corrupt priesthood whom they considered to be in league with their foreign oppressors. Add a pinch of messianic hopes to this mix and we have a powder-keg situation with the mass of restive Judaeans set against the Romans. It was only a matter of time before it all blew up in all-out rebellion and war, as it did in 66 CE.

And is not Galilee a hotbed of these messianic and nationalist rebels? We think of Jesus’ disciple, Simon “the Zealot” or “Canaanite”, and of Josephus’s account of Judas the Galilean in 6 CE apparently responsible for what became the Zealot party and a widespread “nationalist” movement against Roman rule.

This popular view of Judaea is born rather of “theological romanticism”, a “glorification of Jewish heroes who fought ‘freedom alone'”, “enthusiastic Zionism anxious to represent opposition to Rome as a spontaneous movement of united Jewish people” (Smith, 3f), than it is of a sober evaluation of the evidence.

I was reading Steve Mason’s history of the Jewish war of 66-74 CE and paused to follow up a citation of his, Smith 1971, which he portrayed as “a learned and entertaining review of key scholars” attempting to explain the origins of the war. I can’t claim to have shared the entertaining tone of Morton Smith’s article in what follows but I have attempted to extract key points.

Before we start, though, here is a reminder of what Josephus tells us in his first book (on the Jewish War) about Judas the Galilean:

Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders.

On Judas the Galilean, Zeal and Zealots

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How to portray a Roman authority: lessons from both Josephus and the evangelists

Josephus’s portrayal of the general then emperor Titus reminded me of the gospels’ treatment of Pilate:

That Josephus intended such safe criticism is likely because he employs other techniques from the same manual, such as hyperbolic praise of current rulers. His Titus is endowed with so much πρόνοια (“forethought”) and έλεος (“gentle commiseration”) that he appears an improbable humanist and even incompetent general, frequently tricked by the wily Judaeans (BJ 4.84-120; 5.316, 329; 6.12, 29-32, 78-9, 152-6, 183-4, 190, 214-28, 356).

Mason, Steve. 2009. “Of Despots, Diadems and Diadochoi: Josephus and Flavian Politics.” In Writing Politics in Imperial Rome, edited by W. J. Dominik, J. Garthwaite, and P. A. Roche, 347–48. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Just as Josephus portrayed a thug as a saint so the evangelists portrayed another thug, Pilate, as so good natured, so innocent, that those “wicked Judaeans” pressured him into crucifying Jesus against his will.

Is Josephus Evidence that a Messianic Movement caused the Jewish War?

A historian specializing in the study of Josephus, Steve Mason, presents a case that the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was not prompted by any messianic movement among the people of Judaea. Rather, Mason suggests that the prophecy of a ruler to come out of the east and rule the entire world was a product of hindsight and that there is little reason to think that there was a “messianic movement” propelling the Jews to rebel against Rome.

I can’t hope to cover the full argument set out by Mason in A history of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 in a single post but I will try to hit some key points from pages 111 to 130 here.

To begin. It is a misunderstanding to think that we can read the works of Josephus as if they were a chronicle of facts happily shedding light on the background to the rise of Christianity.

History as Tragedy

To get the most reliable data from Josephus we need to study his works in the context of other historical writings of his day. In that context it is evident that Josephus is writing a “tragic history” — a narrative that he presents as a tragedy, a form of narrative with which his Greco-Roman audience was familiar. As a tragedy Josephus seeks to elicit tears of sympathy from his audience by using all of his rhetorical skills to portray graphic suffering and misfortune. In War Josephus opens with the proud Herod whose hubris is brought low by the misfortunes that follow. The audience knows how the story ends and knowing that only adds to their awareness of the tragedy in each scene. The irony of temple slaughter at Passover time would have been as clear to Roman as to Jewish readers: Passover was known to have been the festival of liberation.

A tragedy needs villains and Josephus fills his narrative with an abundance of “robbers” or “bandits” who polluted the temple, just as per Jeremiah 7:11 said they would.

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?

Josephus was in good literary company since we find the same motif being drafted by the Roman historian Tacitus when narrating the destruction of the central temple in Rome:

Thus the Capitoline temple, its doors locked, was burned to the ground undefended and unplundered. This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. Though no foreign enemy threatened, though we enjoyed the favour of heaven as far as our failings permitted, the sanctuary of Jupiter Best and Greatest solemnly founded by our fathers as a symbol of our imperial destiny . . . was now, thanks to the infatuation of our leaders, suffering utter destruction. (Hist. 3.72 — I am using my Penguin translation and not the one used by Mason)

Josephus blends Jewish and Greek literary motifs in his tragic narration (Mason, pp. 114-121). A stock motif in tragic narrative were omens of imminent disaster and ambiguous prophecies that would mislead the hapless victims.

Tragedy’s Stock Omens and Prophecies

A motif that was virtually universal in ancient historiography was that a change of ruler should be preceded by omens and prophecies. We see it in the history of Tacitus describing the ascent of Vespasian (I quote from LacusCurtius, Histories, Book 2.78- the extract is not quoted by Mason): read more »

New Archive for Testimonium Flavianum, the Jesus in Josephus passage


I have collated 21 Vridar posts on the Testimonium Flavianum into a single page of annotated links. See the ARCHIVES by TOPIC, Annotated in the right margin. Look under Pages.

Or jump straight to Jesus in Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum to see the annotated list.



A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus

An email update this morning informs me that linguist Paul Hopper has uploaded to his page another copy of his earlier paper, A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:631, that was published in 2014 in Linguisitics and Literary Studies. There is now a new link to the paper. The paper is a few years old now and I’ve posted about it before but no matter at all: the email notice this morning gives me another opportunity to bring it to the attention of readers not aware of it.

In my previous post, Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus, I quoted the abstract and conclusion of Paul Hopper’s paper. Here I quote a few lines on different aspects in the body of the paper.

After a detailed discussion of verbal forms in the Testimonium Flavianum passage compared with those in the adjacent Pilate episodes we move to a discussion of the “macrolevel” of narrative structure. (I have added bolding to and changed some of the layout of the original text.)

The Aquifer episode

But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition.Antiquities, 18, 3, 2.

The time organization in the Testimonium is strikingly different from that of the surrounding text. For example, the narrative of the Aquifer [see box right] is filled with particular details –

the rioters shouting insults,

the Roman soldiers going among the crowd in Jewish dress,

the order to the demonstrators to disperse,

the overreaction of the soldiers,

and the bloody suppression of the riot.

At each point we know not only what the actors did, but why they did it, and what the causes and effects of their actions were. The Aquifer episode, like the other episodes involving Pontius Pilate, has an event structure. Time in these episodes is kairotic, that is, it is qualitative time (kairos) experienced by individual actors.9 . . . .

By contrast, the temporality of the Testimonium is chronic (chronos), that is, it is part of the general temporality of human history. It takes place in a more remote perspective of slow changes and general truths; it is temps conjoncturel, the time of social movements and social reorganization. It has a bird’s-eye view of its subject, scanning the entire life of Jesus and his influence in no particular order, anachronistically (Genette 1980:34). . . . . So the Testimonium belongs to a different kind of time from the rest of the Jewish Antiquities. The temporality of the Testimonium derives from its presumed familiarity to its audience, which in turn is more compatible with a third century or later Christian setting than a first century Roman one. . . . .

The next point is a comparison of the Testimonium‘s “emplotment” with the preceding Pilate episodes.

The Aquifer story is a narration in which a situation is established and the characters interact, and there is a resolution. It has a plot in the way that recent narrative theorists have stipulated. . . .  The same is true of the other two Pilate episodes. . . . . The careful crafting of emplotment is an essential part of Josephus’s skill as a historian.

The Testimonium has no such plot. From the point of view of its place in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, it does not qualify as a narrative at all. The Testimonium could not be understood as a story except by someone who could already place it in its “intelligible whole”, the context of early Christianity. The Testimonium gains its intelligibility not through its reporting of novel events but by virtue of being a “repetition of the familiar” (Ricoeur 1981:67) – familiarity here meaning familiarity to a third century Christian readership, not to a first century Roman one.The “intelligible whole” posited by Ricoeur as the indispensable foundation for a story does not lie, as it does for the other events told by Josephus in this part of the Jewish Antiquities, in the larger narrative of the interlocking destinies of Rome and Jerusalem, but instead in the Gospel story of the Christian New Testament, and it is from the Gospels, and the Gospels alone, that the Jesus Christ narrative in the Testimonium draws its coherence and its legitimacy as a plot, and perhaps even some of its language. It is not just that the Christian origin of the Testimonium is betrayed by its allegiance to the Gospels, as that without the Gospels the passage is incomprehensible. Once again to draw on Paul Ricoeur, the Testimonium does not so much narrate to first century Romans new events, but rather reminds third century Christians of events already familiar to them.

And then a look at genre, and a comparison between the TF and credal formulas vis a vis the historical narrative of Josephus.

The Testimonium is anchored in a radically different discourse community from that of the rest of the Jewish Antiquities. The Testimonium reads more like a position paper, a party manifesto, than a narrative. Unlike the rest of the Jewish Antiquities, it has the same generic ambiguity between myth and history that Kermode (1979) has noted in the Gospels as a whole. . . . . It is, in other words, a political interpolation. It serves to validate the Christian claim of the crucifixion of the sect’s founder during Pilate’s administration, and, by positioning its text within that of the genre “history”, with its ethos of truth, to warrant the historical authenticity of the Gospels. But told as a series of new events to a first century Roman audience unfamiliar with it, the Testimonium would have been a bizarre addition and probably quite unintelligible.

The Testimonium Flavianum

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, (9) those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; (10) 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.Antiquities, 18, 3, 3.

The Testimonium Flavianum qualifies poorly as an example of either history or narrative. Where, then, does it fit generically? The closest generic match for the Testimonium is perhaps the various creeds that began to be formulated in the early fourth century, such as the Nicene Creed (325 CE).10 Some credal elements are clearly present:

Jesus was the Messiah;

he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (passus sub Pontio Pilato, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed);

he came back to life on the third day after his death;

the movement founded by him – the Christian church – continues to flourish;

he performed miracles;

the biblical prophets foretold many details of his life.

Less specifically credal, but similar in character to the creeds, are its length (77 Greek words, comparable to the 76 words of the Latin Apostles’ Creed and the 91 words of the Greek Apostles’ Creed)11 and the sycophantic tone of the confirmed believer (“had a following among both Jews and Gentiles”, “appeared to them alive after the third day”, “the biblical prophets foretold his many miracles”). The unmotivated introduction of Jesus immediately after the openingginetai (“there happened”) is also structurally reminiscent of credal formulas such as credo in unum deum etc.

. . . . . . The Testimonium reflects what had by the third century CE become a commonplace of Christianity: that culpability for the death of Jesus rested with the Jews.12 It is made clear in the Testimonium that Pilate’s agency is indirect: the true agents are “the first men among us”, the Jewish leaders who effect the “indictment” of Jesus, Pilate’s role being limited to pronouncing the death sentence. The “among us” is unequivocal: responsibility for the death of Jesus lies with Josephus’s fellow-countrymen, the Jews, not with the Romans, and in this too the Testimonium is hard to reconcile with Josephus’s denunciation of Pilate’s crimes against the Jews. The Josephus of the Testimonium is represented as aligning himself with the Christians (versus the Jews) and admitting that the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah lies with the Jews; it need hardly be said that such an admission on Josephus’s part is inconceivable.

But the above is taken from only the last three pages of Paul Hopper’s twenty plus page article. See the link below to download the paper or read it online.

Hopper, Paul. 2014. “A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63.” In Linguistics and Literary Studies / Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft, edited by Monika Fludernik and Daniel Jacob, Bilingual edition, 147–69. Linguae & Litterae, Book 31. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter.

Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?

This post is the sequel to Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? It is my take on Professor James S. McLaren’s chapter, “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas” in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire.

In the previous post we covered McLaren’s analysis of the contexts, style and contents of the respective references to Judas the Galilean in both Wars (written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and Antiquities (completed some twenty years later).

McLaren’s next step is to assess the situation (both geographical and socio-political) of the author of these references.

When the war broke out Josephus was in Jerusalem. He was in a position to have a fair idea of what was going on. The war itself was initiated by the priests of Jerusalem refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor.

25. The view that it was Jerusalem-based aristocratic priests who were instrumental in starting and leading the revolt concurs with the general picture of ‘native’ revolts in the Roman Empire (Dyson 1975 = “Native Revolt Patterns in the Roman Empire”, ANRW II.3: 138-175). The silver coinage issued in the first year of the revolt helps confirm the crucial role of priests in instigating and leading the revolt. See McLaren 2003 = “The Coinage of the First Year as a Point of Reference for the Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE)”, Scripta Classica Israelica 23:135-52.

It was the priests who were among the prime movers at the start of the war when they ceased offering sacrifices on behalf of Rome and the emperor, not nameless revolutionaries or insurgents. Josephus should be placed among these priests who publicly rejected Roman rule in 66 CE. He, therefore, went to Galilee, the likely direction from which the Romans would attack, as an active rebel leader commissioned by those in Jerusalem who had decided to defy Rome.25 (101)

McLaren insists that Josephus himself was one of the rebels who initiated the break with Rome. In 66 CE he was not a moderate trying to soothe ruffled feathers or a reluctant participant.

For McLaren,

26. Obviously there are pitfalls with any interpretation that incorporates an argument from silence. However, given that the only eyewitness account is trying to suppress what actually happened, the absence of direct evidence is no surprise. If anything, what could be seen as most puzzling is why there is any reference to the war cry at all; surely no mention at all would be better. Clearly that would be one way of dealing with the problem, unless others were still alive who could counter the oversight with their own version, especially as Josephus had no guarantee that his would be the only account written. Another approach would be to find a scapegoat, as suggested here. 

The key contention is that Josephus and his fellow rebel priests advocated rebellion against Roman authority, using as a rallying-point the claim of ‘God alone as master’. No direct evidence for this view remains in the War account of 66. It has been deliberately edited out of 66 CE and the war cry has been relocated to another time, group and place, namely, Judas from Galilee and the supposed fourth philosophy.26 (102)

McLaren argues that the conflict sprang up quickly. It was not apparently an eventual eruption that had been building up through pressures for decades prior. Human folly of the moment was more likely the culprit.

In the wake of the recent census in 65/66 (War 6:422-23) and the subsequent dispute regarding the outstanding tribute (War 2:293-96, 404-407) some of the Jerusalem priests decided to take drastic action. (102-103)

That coins were minted to mark the beginning of the revolt and the decision to stop sacrifices for Rome are strong indications that the Temple establishment was a principal actor. The symbols and inscriptions on the coins and Josephus’s discussions elsewhere (especially in Apion) point to the priests leading the revolt under with the ideological belief in the rightness of God’s rulership through his priests. Josephus, after the war as a de facto captive in Rome, transferred the slogan to a group as far from himself and his associates as possible. Josephus needed to justify the mercy shown to him in allowing him to live and prosper anew in the city of his nation’s destroyers so his the former ideological rallying cry of “no master but God” had to be sloughed off and planted on others.

Judas the Scapegoat

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Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome?

Josephus lays the blame for the Jewish rebel movement squarely on the shoulders of Judas the Galilean who led some sort of movement to oppose Roman taxes around the time of the infancy of Jesus — 6 CE. From this Judas arose what Josephus labels the “Fourth Philosophy”. The other three were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Fourth Philosophy is depicted as an undesirable conglomeration of upstart rebels who brought down ruin upon their nation.

Professor James S McLaren

Recently I was posting about my doubts concerning the evidence for Jewish messianic movements prior to the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) and Giuseppe alerted us to a study by James S. McLaren in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. McLaren’s chapter is “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas“, pages 90-107. Thanks, Giuseppe. Until I read that chapter I never quite knew what to make of Judas the Galilean because though scholars often say he led the first military rebellion against Rome I have not been able to find unambiguous evidence for that claim in Josephus. It seemed some historians were simply repeating the hearsay of their guild. Hence I have held back from commenting on him when I have discussed other rebels and bandits on the Judean stage either side of the time of Jesus. McLaren’s chapter is the first work I have read that squarely confronts and addresses the ambiguities and inconsistencies that have bothered me in Josephus’s account.

Conclusion: Josephus created Judas the Galilean as a foil to bear the responsibility for the humiliation of the Jewish defeat. I’m not saying that Judas did not exist (though he may not have) but that Josephus has been forced to modify his account with each retelling of his role in starting the rebellion. These variations indicate that Josephus is creatively rewriting history to deflect blame for the war from his own class of aristocratic priests.

This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’s career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities. (108: bolded emphasis is mine in all quotations)

Now McLaren is working like a real historian — a welcome change from some of the tendentious works we have discussed elsewhere. He examines the nature of his source material before deciding to take its claims at face value — and that means literary analysis . . .

This discussion will be presented in three parts. In the first, I offer an analysis of the textual location of the references to Judas.

and study of provenance:

The second part will be devoted to a reassessment of the geographical and socio-political location of Josephus in 66 CE and in the years that followed the revolt. The third and final part will outline how these locations result in Judas being presented as a scapegoat by Josephus. 

Further, he understands the necessity of evidence external to his source material for corroboration.

Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.

These are the methodological principles I have been saying ought to be applied to the gospels even if the result might lead to the conclusion that a central character has possibly been a creation of the author rather than a true historical figure. I notice that McLaren’s background is strong in ancient history and not restricted to biblical studies.

So what are McLaren’s arguments? I’ll take them in the same order as McLaren with this post covering McLaren’s analysis of the respective locations of Josephus’s references to Judas.

Warning: the following post is for those with a serious interest in the question of Josephus as a historical source. read more »

Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail — & a Test Case for a Better Way

Ananus [the high priest] . . . thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, Book 20 [9,1])

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”. read more »

The Myth of Judean Exile 70 CE

English: Jews in Jerusalem
English: Jews in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we have “sacred space” and religious violence in our thoughts, it’s high time I posted one more detail I wish the scholars who know better would themselves make more widely known.

The population of Judea was not exiled at the conclusion of the war with Rome when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Nor was it exiled after the second (Bar Kochba) revolt 132-135 CE. The generations following that revolt witnessed the “golden age” of Jewish culture in the Palestine (as it was then called) of Rabbi HaNasi, the legendary compiler of the Mishnah.

In the seventh century an estimated 46,000 Muslim warriors swept through Judea and established liberal policies towards all monotheists. Arabs did not move in from the desert to take over the farmlands and become landowners. The local Jewish population even assisted the Muslims against their hated Byzantine Christian rulers. While the Jews suffered under the Christian rulers, no doubt with some converting to Christianity for their own well-being, many resisted as is evident from the growth in synagogue construction at this time. Under Muslim rule, however, Jews were not harassed as they were under the Christians, yet there appears to have been a decline in Jewish religious presence.

How can we account for this paradox? Given that Muslims were not taxed, it is reasonable to assume that the decline in Jewish religious constructions can be explained by many Jews over time converting to Islam. Certainly David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1918 published their hopes that their Muslim Jewish counterparts in Palestine might be assimilated with their immigrant cousins.

There never was a mass exile of Jews from Judea/Palestine. At least there is no historical record of any such event. Believe me, for years I looked for it. In past years my religious teaching told me it had happened, but when I studied ancient history I had to admit I could not see it. Sometimes historian made vague generalized references to suggest something like it happened, but there was never any evidence cited and the evidence that was cited did not testify to wholesale exile.

Who started the myth?

It was anti-semitic Christian leaders who introduced the myth of exile: the “Wandering Jew” was being punished for his rejection of Christ. Justin Martyr in the mid second century is the first to express this myth.

So where did all the Jews that Justin knew of come from if they were, in his eyes, “a-wandering”?

read more »

Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus

Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWe saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”

Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.

Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:

  1. Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
  2. Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?

The Question of Authenticity

Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.

In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.

And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that

  • summarizes the work and character of Jesus
  • tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
  • says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians

and in the course of that summary the same passage says

  • Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
  • that Jesus was the Christ
  • that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
For alternative views of the passage in Book 20, especially those arguing against its reference to “the Christ” being original, see the posts in the James Passage archive.

Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20 Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.

We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:

  1. It is entirely original to Josephus
  2. It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
  3. It is a mixture of original and insertion.

Meier excludes the first two options:

  1. It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
  2. It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus

Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.

That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.

Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.

Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest. read more »

6. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Jewish Sources


Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.6

What Did Jews Have to Say?



  • Philo of Alexandria
  • Josephus
    • the Testimonium: entirely interpolation or an authentic residue?
    • is an authentic residue “neutral”?
    • is the Testimonium intrusive or a digression?
    • silence of Christian commentators on Testimonium before Eusebius
    • how could Josephus have felt ‘positive’ or even neutral toward Jesus?
    • is the Testimonium’s language the language of Eusebius?
    • changes to the Testimonium and its location
    • the case of Antiquities 20
  • The Jewish Talmud
    • why are there no traditions about Jesus going back to the 1st century?


* * * * *

Non-Christian References to Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 56-68, Jewish Sources)


Philo of Alexandria


Deutsch: Philo(n) von Alexandria English: Phil...Bart Ehrman, in his survey of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, turns next to the Jewish category. He first dismisses the silence about Jesus in the writings of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria as something unsurprising, since by his death (probably by 50 CE), Christianity had not yet penetrated to Egypt. That may be the case, but this does not mean that a philosopher living in Egypt, just around the Mediterranean corner from Palestine, especially one whose philosophy about God and the mediator Logos was a close antecedent to that of Paul, was completely isolated from news of Judean events, or from new ideas being bandied about in the very field of thought Philo was engaged in.

What we do know from Philo’s writings

Moreover, we know from his writing that Philo was familiar with Pilate and his objectionable activities in Judea. He would not, of course, know about every rebel or criminal executed by the governor, but considering the developments which supposedly followed this particular execution, and considering his interest in the sect known as the Therapeutae to which the early Christian community in Judea would supposedly have borne a strong resemblance, it would not be infeasible for him to have noticed the latter and especially what was presumably being made out of its human founder.

We have writings of Philo up to the year 41 CE, but it could be argued (Ehrman does not) that, even had he taken notice, commenting on that notice was something he simply didn’t get around to doing. The silence in Philo is therefore not overly significant, it’s just another void to add to the overall picture.




The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius ...
The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the most important Jewish historian of the era is another matter. Josephus has been a battleground in the ‘clash of titans’ and understandably so. The last half-century of scholarship has focused mainly on whether the passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities of the Jews, Bk.18 contains an authentic original by Josephus which Christians later only made additions to. This is a bandwagon which virtually every New Testament scholar these days has hopped onto, as though the maintenance of an authentic original is seen as crucial to Jesus’ existence.

What scholars used to say

It should be noted, however, that prior to the Second World War, many scholars were quite willing to postulate that Josephus made no reference to Jesus at all. See, for example, Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, p.35 (that both passages can be “suspected of interpolation”); or Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18 (“It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere”). The latter, in regarding the Testimonium as a complete forgery, suggested: “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter” (Ibid., p.17).

Who proofread this book? I

Curiously, Ehrman says he will deal with Josephus’ two references to Jesus “in reverse order,” gives us a brief description of the Antiquities 20 passage, then “before dealing with” the mythicist claim that it’s an interpolation, he switches over to the Testimonium in Antiquities 18, calling it the “second passage.” One gets an impression more than once in this book that Ehrman simply went with his first draft, and without benefit of editor.

The suspicious passages

Though most of the present readers will know this passage like the back of their hands, I’ll give Ehrman’s rendition of it according to “the best manuscripts”:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3) [DJE?, p. 59]

The problem parts of this passage, as Ehrman recounts them, are well known: read more »

Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus

Socrates in Nuremberg Chronicle LXXIIvPoor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.

Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)

So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources. read more »