We return here to the question of the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus found in our copies of Antiquities of the Jews by the first century Jewish historian Josephus.
Not many years back Earl Doherty wrote for this blog:
Finally, there is the question of what is meant by Trypho’s remark in Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8):
But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .
As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.Eddy and Boyd, whom Doherty is addressing, do acknowledge that “some scholars interpret Trypho as denying that Jesus existed” but they do not identify any of those scholars. Louis Feldman is the first scholar I have encountered. One would expect a seriously critical discussion to have cited the scholars alluded to and not vaguely left the reference as an unidentified “some”.
But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.
Interestingly, another highly respected scholar on Josephus, Louis M. Feldman, wrote thirty years earlier, presumably without any conscious awareness of a Christ Myth debate, the following:
A point that has not been appreciated thus far is that despite the value that such a passage would have had in establishing the credentials of Jesus in the church’s missionary activities, it is not cited until Eusebius does so in the fourth century. This is admittedly the argumentum ex silentio, but in this case it is a fairly strong argument against the authenticity of the passage as we have it, especially since we know that Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century (Dialogue with Trypho 8) attempted to answer the charge that Jesus had never lived and was a mere figment of Christian imagination. Nothing could have been a stronger argument to disprove such a charge than a citation from Josephus, a Jew, who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death.
Feldman in none of his writings of which I am aware expresses any doubt about the historicity of Jesus. On the contrary, he even argues (in the same work quoted above) that the Testimonium Flavianum should be treated as the earliest non-Christian evidence for Jesus.
What I find of some significance is that a scholar seemingly unaware of any debate over the historicity of Jesus interprets the words Justin puts into the mouth of Trypho, and of equal significance, of course, the arguments Justin used to affirm that what he had to say about Jesus was not based on a “groundless report” or “invention”.
Feldman, Louis H. 1982. “The Testimonium Flavianum: The State of the Question.” In Christological Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Harvey K. McArthur, edited by E. Berkey and Sarah A. Edwards, 179–99. New York: Pilgrim Press.