Youtube now has a PowerPoint presentation of Lena Einhorn’s hypothesis on Jesus and the Egyptian Prophet/the Shift hypothesis.
It is a somewhat longer version (45 min. ) of the presentation Lena made at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in 2012. I like the idea of visual presentations over text posts. I might do something similar one day.
I am glad I did not mention it here at the time now because the page became more interesting in the following week with an exchange between Carrier and Einhorn. Lena Einhorn points out that she feels her “hypothesis itself is largely left unexplored” in Carrier’s review.
Lena further draws attention to the apparent irony of her work gaining attention by those who favour the Christ Myth theory since her own argument is that Jesus did exist, only not in the time setting found in the gospels and not as the sort of person portrayed in them either. This raises the problematic question of what we mean by “Jesus” whenever the question of his historicity surfaces. We need to have some idea of how to recognize the person we are looking for and the only guides to help us are the canonical gospels, yet we know the gospels portray a theological construct and not a historical figure! It is inevitable, therefore, that most people who look for the historical Jesus do look for someone resembling the mythical Jesus of the gospel narratives. Lena Einhorn breaks this circularity by identifying reasons to believe that the core events and persons found in the gospels match those of a couple of decades later according to the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.
Carrier stresses his own conviction that the evidence is best explained without any need to postulate a historical Jesus at all. Einhorn replies:
The problem in comparing a hypothesis such as mine (“Jesus existed, albeit in another time, and this is the evidence”) with one suggesting he never existed, is that the latter is built largely on Evidence of absence. What I do in my book is line up evidence for his presence in the 50s (and for the New Testament as a historical text of the Jewish rebellion, lying hidden underneath a literary/devotional/supernatural narrative). It would have been a somewhat knotty exercise for me to challenge Evidence of presence with Evidence of absence (“what I just showed you never existed”).
She adds further explanation:
No, the time shift theory is not built only on the numerous similarities between Jesus and the messianic leader Josephus calls “the Egyptian” (the large following, the prophecy of the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem, the betrayal to the authorities, the violent reaction of the authorities, the pivotal events on the Mount of Olives, previous time spent in Egypt, and in the wilderness). It is built on a slew of additional parallels between the Gospels and Acts, on the one hand, and events Josephus places in the 40s and 50s CE:
*The activity of robbers, lestai
*Known crucifixions of Jews
*An insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19)
*A messianic leader gathering people on the Jordan river, who is subsequently decapitated by the authorities
*An attack on a man named Stephanos (Stephen) on a road outside Jerusalem
*Two co-reigning high priests
*A conflict or war between Galileans and Samaritans, limited in time
*Galileans on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals being stopped in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56)
*A conflict between the Roman procurator and the Jewish king (Luke 23:12)
*A Jewish king with a prominent and influential wife (Matthew 27:19)
*A procurator slaughtering Galileans (Luke 13:1)
*A procurator and a Jewish king sharing jurisdiction over Galilee (Luke 23:6-7)
*Likely noms de guerre such as “the Zealot”, “Boanerges”, “Bariona”, or “Iscariot”
*The death of Theudas (Acts 5:36)
*A messianic leader who had previously spent time in Egypt, and in the wilderness, who prophesies about tearing down the walls of Jerusalem, and who is defeated by the authorities on the Mount of Olives
The 20s and 30s are – not only according to Tacitus, but also according to Josephus – a period when no robbers, no crucifixions, and no Jewish messianic leaders are reported. To name only a few discrepancies.
But most of it is there in the late 40s and 50s.
One of the illustrations Lena Einhorn posts in her reply to Richard Carrier:
Once more exploring a question raised by Lena Einhorn in A Shift in Time— this time with doubts….
Was Jesus originally the Egyptian prophet we read about in the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus? Lena Einhorn seems to think so in A Shift in Time where she lists seven points in common between them. I won’t discuss those seven points but will look at her seventh:
And last, but not least, “the Egyptian” is defeated on the Mount of Olives, which is where Jesus was arrested. It is also from there that both men have declared their prophecies [that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down].
Actually Jesus predicted the walls of the buildings, in particular the Temple, would be pulled down, not the walls of Jerusalem. I have thought of the Egyptian as attempting to re-enact Joshua’s feat of miraculously having the walls of a great city collapse while Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua) spoke of the destruction of the Temple. But that’s a caveat we’ll set aside for now but return to later.
To begin, let’s be sure we have the picture. Josephus writes about the Egyptian twice, first in Wars (written about 78 CE) and second in Antiquities (about 94 CE). Here’s what he tells us:
But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a sorcerer, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him;
these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to domineer over them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him.
But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.
War of the Jews 2.261–263
Then about fifteen years later Josephus wrote:
There came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs.
He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down.
Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive.
But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more.
Antiquities of the Jews 20.169–172
The story has changed in some details over those fifteen years. The event itself is set in the 50s CE. Josephus first writes about it around 20 or more years later. That’s about the same time span between today and the catastrophic raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Josephus appears to be saying that the Egyptian’s plan was to attack Jerusalem without any thought of a miracle to open the gates for them.
Approximately thirty five years after the event (compare today’s distance from the assassination attempt on President Reagan) Josephus introduces the Egyptian’s prophecy to command the walls of Jerusalem to do a Jericho.
So unless I am missing something hidden by a poor translation it seems that there is room for doubt that the Egyptian really was known at the time to have told his followers that the walls would obey his voice. One can imagine people talking about this fellow and mockingly asking how he could possibly have seriously thought he would take over Roman occupied Jerusalem, and how from such scoffing someone suggests he probably thought he could repeat the Jericho miracle. Or maybe he really did make such a declaration and Josephus simply failed to mention it in his first account. However that may be, years later when the event was recalled this detail did become part of the story. Who knows if it was Josephus’s memory or if he picked up the detail from someone else?
What, then, connects the Mount of Olives setting in the story of the Egyptian with our accounts of Jesus?
In my previous post I said I was wanting to explore in depth some of Lena Einhorn’s observations. One that I consider most striking concerns the climactic crucifixion itself. We are so used to hearing that crucifixion was a very common method of execution for rebels in Roman times that we don’t pause to ask questions when we read about Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus along with two “thieves” or “robbers” (translated “bandits” in the NRSV):
Mark 15:27 — And with him they crucified two bandits [λῃστάς – lestes], one on his right and one on his left.
Matthew 27:38 — Then two bandits [λῃσταί – lestai] were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
In the Gospel of John we find Barabbas, the one freed in exchange for Jesus, described the same way:
John 18:40 — They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit [λῃστής – lestes].
Now λῃστής (lestes) is the Greek word for “robber”, but the historian who has left us an account of the Jewish War with Rome and the many decades prior to that event, Josephus, uses λῃσταί (the plural of λῃστής) to describe anti-Roman Jewish rebels. Josephus was writing around the same period that many scholars believe the evangelists were composing the our canonical gospels.
The gospel use of “lestai/rebels” to describe Barabbas and the two who were crucified with Jesus is not new. It is found in the scholarly literature readily enough.
Einhorn takes the next step and examines the times Josephus tells us the lestai were active. I have summed up Einhorn’s observations in the following table.
Accounts of “lestai” activity by Josephus
Beginning of Roman occupation
4 BCE – 6 CE
Crushing of Census revolt
No references of lestai activity
Time of Jesus
Return of direct Roman rule after death of Agrippa I
Lead up to the war with Rome, 66-70/73 CE
There is an exception that Einhorn points out:
The only hint about activity during Jesus’s time is a sentence in War, saying that “Eleazar the arch-robber,” active in the 50s, together with his associates “had ravaged the country for twenty years together.” In Antiquities, however, it only says that Eleazar “had many years made his abode in the mountains.” (A Shift In Time, p. 45)
At this point I am reminded of my earlier posts, Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? and Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?. In those posts we saw reasons to think that Josephus in Antiquities was compelled to revise certain aspects of his earlier account (War), presumably under pressure from other Jews in Rome who took umbrage at his earlier portrayals of other parties involved. Recall Josephus himself was a less than admirable self-serving traitor. If so, when thinking about Einhorn’s comparison in the quotation above we have a little more reason to give more weight to the Antiquities reference.
Lena Einhorn proposes a radical rethink of Christian origins and does so in a welcome methodical and understated manner. Far from being a sensationalist weaving of data into a mesmerizing filigree of yet another conspiracy or gnostic theory, Einhorn lays out clearly and concisely the evidence that she believes has been overlooked and on the whole leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions, keeping her own conclusions largely in the background. By the time I had finished the book I found myself thinking that if there is evidence for the Jesus of the gospels being based on a historical person it could well emerge through an argument like Einhorn’s. While I am not ready to embrace her own conclusions (I think much more data needs to be thrown into the mix for a full explanation) her book nonetheless raises very interesting questions.
The dust jacket blurb includes the line by Professor Philip R. Davies, “this book should make us think.” And it does.
Anyone familiar with the Gospels and Acts who has out of curiosity also read Josephus has surely been struck by periodic reminders of what we find in the New Testament narratives and thought, “Interesting, but of course it can be nothing more than coincidence because the Jesus story happened much earlier.” By taking these “coincidental” allusions and analysing them more systematically in comparison with the Gospels and Acts, Einhorn asks us to think through their implications and address new questions.
Einhorn’s thesis is that many allusions and apparent anomalies in the Gospels and Acts coincide with and find historical setting in the events and personalities in the two decades leading up to the Jewish War with Rome. That is, about twenty years after the New Testament historical setting of the Jesus narrative. Sometimes further support for this “shift in time” comes from other sources (both Christian and Jewish) outside the writings of Josephus.
Einhorn has a gift for presenting complex data in a clear and comprehensible way for anyone not familiar with the history of the various regions around Syria-Palestine in the first century, or with the fundamentals of historical Jesus scholarship. Her frequent bar chart and table illustrations assist the reader in keeping track of the multiple parallels between the history found in Josephus and the Gospel-Acts accounts and their respective chronologies. Each brief chapter expounds a single thematic parallel.
An example of the parallels discussed: In the Gospels-Acts narrative we find reference to the death of Theudas preceding the death of Jesus; allusions to activity of rebel-bandits and the crucifixions of them; a hostile Galilean-Samaritan rift; an attack on an otherwise unknown Stephen that precipitates a new wave of widespread violence; two contemporaneous high priests, conflict between the Roman procurator and a Jewish king; a Roman slaughter of Galileans; a visit of a messianic figure to the Mount of Olives just prior to the violent dispersal of his following . . . . None of these phenomena are testified beyond the New Testament to have been found in the time of Jesus and early Church (around the year 30 CE), yet curiously all are found recorded by Josephus about twenty years later. As one who has also tried to draw attention to the absence of evidence for popular messianic fervor in early first century Judea I found Einhorn’s observations very attractive.
Are they real?
Are the parallels “real”? Einhorn herself raises this question several times but has enough respect for readers to allow them to decide. She is content to point out the unusual concentration of them within a narrow time frame and it is this detail that cries out for an explanation. We know coincidences do happen, sometimes quite complex ones. Recall the parallels between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations even allowing for some exaggeration and invalid data. We do have a natural tendency to find patterns “even where none exist”. At the same time scholars studying the Gospels in relation to the wider literature of the day (e.g. Dale Allison Jr, Andrew Clark, Dennis MacDonald, Thomas Brodie are just a few examples whose work has been discussed on this blog) have established criteria for identifying “real parallels”. Two criteria that regularly appear in such lists are the density of the parallels and their ability to generate new understanding of how and why the text may have come about. This is where the strength of the parallels in Einhorn’s thesis lies.