Category Archives: Josephus


Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?

by Neil Godfrey

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

read more »


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

by Neil Godfrey

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

by Neil Godfrey
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

by Neil Godfrey
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

by Neil Godfrey

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 »


So John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus? One more argument for the forgery case

by Neil Godfrey

jm_baptism_1Many of us are aware of the arguments of Frank Zindler that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation, but we leave those aside here and look at what Rivka Nir of the Open University of Israel offers as reasons for doubting the genuineness of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. The following is drawn from “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” by Rivka Nir in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2012) 32-62.

Rivka Nir’s article also suggests her own answer to the old question of the origins of the idea of baptism as we read it in connection with John the Baptist.

To begin, let’s refresh our memory of what we read about John the Baptist in Josephus. The translation following is as it appears in Rivka Nir’s article:

(116) But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

(117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [ἐπασκοῦσιν] righteous lives and practice [χρωμένοις] justice [δικαιοσύνῃ] towards their fellows and piety [εὐσεβείᾳ] toward God to join in baptism [be united by baptism] [βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι].

In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [or: on condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by [righteousness—R.N.] [δικαιοσύνῃ].

(118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ἤρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Rivka Nir first gives us the three pillars upon which the authenticity of this passage rests (I omit supporting details in the footnotes and add bold format):

  1. In view of dissimilarities or even contradictions between the Gospel and Josephus versions about John the Baptist, it is reasoned that had the passage been interpolated by a Christian, the interpolator would most likely have accommodated the account to its version in the Gospels.
  2. The passage’s correspondence in vocabulary and style to Josephus’ Antiquities in general and books XVII–XIX in particular.
  3. The presence of the text in all the Josephus manuscripts and its mention by Origen in his Against Celsus (1.47), dated to 248 CE.

Early suspicions of a brazen forgery

1893: Herman Graetz called the passage “a brazen forgery”.(Geschichte der Juden, III, p. 276, n. 3) read more »


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

by Earl Doherty


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 »


The earliest gospels 6(c) – Luke’s Gospel (Couchoud)

by Neil Godfrey
Evangelist Luke writing, Byzantine illuminatio...

Image via Wikipedia

Continuing the series archived here: (I have also marked the name Josephus in bold for easy reference for any interested in the study of Luke’s use of Josephus.)

Irenaeus is the first to speak of Luke as the author of our Gospel and Acts dedicated to Theophilus (Haer. iii.1,2). Before Irenaeus we read in Colossians 4:14 of a Luke with the epithet “the beloved physician” having been interpolated into the original; and in the fictitious 2 Timothy 4:11 we read “Only Luke is with me.” Following

is an outline explication of the Gospel of Luke from Couchoud’s perspective of it having been composed around 142 c.e. by Clement of Rome.

The prologue refers to a number of Gospels and Acts already in existence and leads readers to infer that the author is collating his information from these earlier sources while also being in a unique position to offer more authoritative insights and a more coherent narrative of the whole.

With an acrobatic leap he passes from the fine style of a Greek rhetor to that of Biblical narrative. (p. 275)

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea,
A certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah:
And his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

And they were both righteous, walking before God
In all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
And they had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren;
Both were well stricken in years.

Couchoud then outlines the narrative we know from Luke 1:8-38 and that I won’t repeat here. read more »


Sifting fact from fiction in Josephus: John the Baptist as a case study

by Neil Godfrey
Palace of Machaerus

Machaerus: According to Josephus it was controlled by Herod's enemy but the same Josephus? says Herod still used it as his own! Image by thiery49 via Flickr

The Jewish historian Josephus writes about both genuine historical persons and events and mythical characters and events as if they are all equally historical. Adam and Vespasian, the siege of Jerusalem and the last stand at Masada, are all documented in a single work of ancient historiography.

Is there some method or rule that can be applied to help us decide when Josephus is telling us something that is “a true historical memory” and when he is passing on complete fiction?

Is Genre the answer?

We cannot use genre as an absolute rule. Genre can offer us some sort of guide to the intentions of the author. But Josephus is no better than Herodotus or the historical books of the Jewish Bible when it comes to freely mixing mythical accounts and historical memory within the same ostensibly historiographical scrolls. Genre can deceive the unwary. The myth of Masada has long been accepted as “historical fact” largely because it forms a literary and ideologically aesthetic conclusion to the demonstrably historical report of the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Some information used by Josephus is known without any doubt to be historical because it is independently witnessed by both archaeological remains and external — “controlling” — literary witnesses. But archaeology has also given us reason to believe that the numbers of sieges and conquests of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century was doubled for literary-theological reasons. read more »


Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus

by Neil Godfrey

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 »


How they used to debate the evidence of Josephus for the historical Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from my previous two posts my little roll on Jesus Not A Myth by “anti-mythicist” A. D. Howell Smith (1942). . . .

I love reading those book reviews that introduce me to the arguments under review. I have read many worthless reviews that pique my interest in their subjects despite their efforts to turn me away. One was by a seasoned scholar who blasted George Athas’s publication of his thesis on the Tel Dan inscription. The reviewer spent most of his time attacking Athas personally (he was too much an academic novice to be attempting to discuss such a serious topic!) and appealing to the authority of traditional views. That sort of review raises my suspicions that there is something in a work by the likes of Athas that the reviewer cannot handle, so I am more curious to find out what it is.

Albert Schweitzer also outlines arguments of various mythicists of his day in order to explain what he believes are their weaknesses (and even strengths in some cases).

So it is with Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth. It is not easy to track down older books on mythicism, but I was lucky to stumble across Jesus Not a Myth some years back and find it a valuable resource to catching glimpses of the contents of mythicist arguments early last century — and, of course, to compare rejoinders to those arguments.

Here is another excerpt, this time on the evidence of Josephus, pp. 15-18. read more »


5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

by Neil Godfrey
Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich

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Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery. read more »


Engaging E. P. Sanders point by point: John the Baptist

by Neil Godfrey
John the Baptist

Image by Sacred Destinations via Flickr

Of John the Baptist Professor E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) writes:

That John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account. Further, the depiction of John and his message in the Gospels agrees with Josephus’s view: the preaching in the desert; the dress, which recalled Elijah; the message of repentance in preparation for the coming judgment. These features correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship. (p. 92)

Associate Professor James McGrath called on anyone sceptical of the historical Jesus to engage a scholar like Sanders point by point (and cited Jesus and Judaism specifically) and see if they can arrive at different conclusions for historicity.

I have already covered the point in Sanders’ own chapter 1, the Temple Action of Jesus. Here I look at just a small detail, but one about which Sanders makes some remarkably strong assertions about historicity and even external controlling evidence for historicity.

Compare what Sanders writes above with the actual account of Josephus that Sanders says supports everything he says. From

Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.

How much of what Sanders’ says is “correctly unquestioned” really “agrees with Josephus”, as he clearly infers.

The evidence for John being an eschatalogical prophet?

Read the Antiquities passage again and you will see it is simply not there. There is not a breath of a hint that John was an eschatalogical prophet. But Sanders knows this, so why does he say “that John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account”?

That John was an eschatological prophet is less clear in Josephus, who here as elsewhere probably downplays eschatalogical features. (p.371)

Sanders seems to miss the axial point here. The reason Josephus downplays eschatalogical features, if he does indeed do that here, is because he makes it clear elsewhere he is personally viscerally opposed to such rebellious notions. If he suspected as much of John the Baptist how could he possibly have spoken about him favourably, without a hint of censure at any point at all?

But what evidence is there here in Josephus that such expectations are played down at all? There is no hint of any such expectations in John’s teaching according to Josephus. In the Gospels scholars often claim that Matthew and Luke and John downplay the scene of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel by (a) having Jesus either apologize for it (Matthew) or (b) not linking Jesus’ baptism with John (Luke) or (c) not mentioning the baptism of Jesus (John). But in Josephus we have no evidence to suggest to us that Josephus had any notion of John being an eschatological prophet.

So why does Sanders claim that Josephus implies that he did preach an eschatological message? Answer:

[Josephus] writes that Herod had him executed because he feared that trouble would result. Baptism and piety do not account for that reaction, and a message of national redemption is thus made probable. (p.371)

Look at Sanders’ reasoning here. He rejects the narrative of Josephus as we have it because it is implausible. It reads, just like the gospels, as a fairy tale. The gospel narrative of John’s death is just as plausible as the reason we read in Josephus, and both reasons are quite similar to each other. Herod fears the very popular John denouncing him for his sins, so has him arrested.

Thus in Herod’s motive for arresting John, Josephus and the gospels closely agree. But Sanders does not find this reason plausible in either tale.

Rather than ask the question, then, about the veracity of Josephus’s portrait of John, Sanders seeks to save his historicity by conjuring up an element from the gospels: that John was preaching the end of the present age and a new age of judgment to come.

Sanders then claims, with dizzying circularity, that the Josephus account supports the Gospel narrative!

read more »


That ‘brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ storm in Josephus’s teacup

by Neil Godfrey
The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius ...

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Much ado is made of this phrase about “Jesus who is called Christ” — that second reference in Josephus to Jesus. Many hang a lot of weight on it and even say it is the clinching evidence that proves Josephus knew of and spoke about Jesus in more detail elsewhere. By identifying James here as the brother of Jesus called Christ, it is logical to think that Josephus is referring back to an earlier discussion of his about that Jesus.

That might sound like an obvious explanation. But there are serious difficulties with it. And there are very good reasons for a quite different explanation.

(This post is a summary of more extensive ones I made some time ago. It recently posted this on another forum somewhere, and have decided to keep a record of it here as well.)

Some difficulties with the current phrase, “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” in Josephus (Book 20 of Antiquities):

  1. The phrase does not identify which Jesus is the brother of James. Jesus was a common name, (there are 20 so named in Josephus), and few scholars believe Josephus ever wrote that any Jesus was “Christ”.
  2. It is inconsistent with the way Josephus normally re-introduced characters after their last mention being some time earlier
  3. It leaves unexplained why this James (supposedly renowned for his law-based life yet charged with breaking the law?) was murdered
  4. It is inconsistent with the other accounts of James being a Christian (the high priest would not have been so unpopular if James had been a Christian)
  5. It is inconsistent with the other non-Josephan accounts of the death of James. In other accounts, we read of a large gang of Jews collectively murdering him along with their leaders (with no reference to Ananus as in Josephus).
  6. It would be one of only 2 places in all of Josephus’s works where he says someone was said to be a Messiah or Christ — not even other clearly would-be messiahs were so described by Josephus
  7. It creates an unusual word order. Why would a passage about the wickedness of Ananus, with James as a target of his wickedness, be introduced by reference to a relative of that target, especially if Christ was not originally used in the book 18 passage earlier?

So the presumption that this phrase is original to Josephus encounters several difficulties.

Given these difficulties that arise with this phrase, and the history of other uses of this phrase as an identifier of James in early Christian literature, the case for interpolation is far from being ad hoc.

One case (not mine) for it being an interpolation is as follows:

1. There was an early Christian legend that the fall of Jerusalem was the consequence of the Jews killing James the Just. This legend is always retold with the phrase that identifies James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

2. This legend is always said to have been located somewhere in Josephus (or much later in the similar sounding name of Hegesippus)

Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 10.17

And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the “Antiquities of the Jews” in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.

Eusebius’ Church History 2.23.20

Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says,”These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.”

Jerome: On Illustrious Men Chapter 2

Hegesippus, who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem . . .”

3. Despite this legend and its attribution to Josephus, we have no record of this tradition in any of the works of Josephus.

4. We do have in Josephus the identifying phrase that is always associated with this tradition, the construction of which is generally noted for its unusual word order.

5. This tradition attributing the fall of Jerusalem to the murdered James is not consistent with the orthodox Christian view that should have attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.

6. According to many modern interpretations that this James in Josephus was a Christian leader, the narrative that we do find in Josephus would have us believe that Jews were so favourably disposed towards Christians and a Christian leader that they were all outraged over the persecution of one of them. This flies in the face of all our other evidence about the attitude of these Jews towards Christians.

Is there a single explanation that covers:

(a) the statements that the story of the murder of James who is always identified as “the brother of Jesus called Christ” was found in Josephus; and

(b) the fact that we have no such explanation in our copies of Josephus; and

(c) the unusual position of the story’s accompanying phrase “the brother of Jesus called Christ” in Josephus?

Yes, there is such an explanation.

Note that Jerome attributes the story to Hegesippus and not to Josephus, as had Eusebius and Origen before him.

(A fuller discussion on the possible confusion of Hegesippus and Josephus can be found here.)

Given the similar sounding names of Hegesippus and Josephus, it is not impossible that Origen confused the two names in his memory when attributing the explanation that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jame’s murder to Josephus. Eusebius repeated Origen’s mistake.

An unorthodox Christian scribe at some point attempted to make up for the absence in Josephus of the story of James’ murder by inserting it into Josephus. Perhaps he believed, following Origen and Eusebius, that it should have been there, so put it there. Or maybe it was inserted for some other reason, even earlier, and Origen and Eusebius really did read it in their copies of Josephus. This scribe also, of course, included the identifying phrase “brother of Jesus called Christ” that had always accompanied the story.

Later, an orthodox Christian copyist who believed that Jerusalem would have fallen for its murder of Jesus, not James, removed the passage. He retained, however, the nice touch of the identifying phrase for James, “the brother of Jesus called Christ”.

This explanation has the advantage of being able to explain the following:

  1. how it is that there was an early Christian tradition about the story of James’ murder being found in Josephus, while none of our copies has such a story
  2. the unusual construction and position in Josephus of the phrase “brother of Jesus who is called Christ”

This explanation also has the advantage of consistency with the literary culture of interpolations of that era. I have discussed this in previous posts and more fully in A literary culture of interpolations and Forgery in the Ancient World and Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients.

The explanation has the further advantage of explaining why the phrase appears to be used as an identifier of James, when it in fact fails completely to do so. Josephus, after all, referred to several people by the name of Jesus, but not once to any by the label of Christ. At least this, I believe, has been the majority view, even at times the consensus, among scholars over the past hundred years and more.

It also explains why the phrase is positioned, unusually, before its subject, James.

It also has the advantage of explaining its curious echo in the most popular of all Christian gospels, that of Matthew — in Matt. 1:16, 27:17, 27:22. Also in John 4:25 and Justin Martyr First Apology 30.

Icon of James the Just, whose judgment was ado...

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