Tag Archives: Josephus

Much More Fully Informed History for Atheists — A Scholarly Introduction to the Two Jesus Parallels

In mid-March this year James McGrath alerted readers to a new post by Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists, Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures, commending it for its take down of “amalgam Jesus” theorists for supposedly uncritically and emotionally concocting excuses to disbelieve in a historical Jesus. O’Neill inferred in his post that there was nothing “scholarly and credible” about parallels between a certain Jesus son of Ananias, a mad-man who Cassandra-like proclaimed doom for Jerusalem at the hands of the surrounding Roman armies, and the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of Mark. He also strongly inferred that drawing parallels between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy provided ample justification for dismissing parallels between two written narratives about different Jesus figures.

In response I have demonstrated that contrary to O’Neill’s attempt to inform readers “what is scholarly and credible and what is not” scholars have indeed engaged in scholarly discussions about what some of them describe as “astonishing” and “striking” parallels. I have also posted (in a post and another in a comment) on two scholarly responses debunking as logically fallacious the attempt to use the Lincoln-Kennedy parallels in the way O’Neill uses them.

Better Informed History for Atheists — Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

Even Better Informed History for Atheists: The Lincoln – Kennedy Parallels Fallacy

Still Better Informed History for Atheists — More Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

Now, in what I expect will be my final post demonstrating the scholarly status of discussion about the relationships between the two Jesus figures, the one in Josephus’s Jewish War and the other in the synoptic gospels, specifically the Gospel of Mark, I will copy the preface by Mahlon Smith to the publication of Ted Weeden’s thesis in Forum, Westar’s academic journal, Fall 2003.

To begin, notice the scholarly status of the persons introducing the thesis in Forum:

Mahlon H. Smith is the new editor of Forum. He recently retired as Associate Professor and former chair of the Religion Department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. He is co-author with Robert W. Funk of The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition (1990), and served as program chair of the Jesus Seminar (1991-1996). He created and maintains the academic website, Virtual Religion Network.

Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. is author of an influential study of the composition of the first synoptic gospel, Mark—Traditions in Conflict (1971, 1979). From 1969-1981 he served as professor of New Testament at several schools that became partners in the Rochester Center for Theological Studies (Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Crozer Theological and St. Bernard’s Seminaries). He recently retired as senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Rochester, NY (1977-1995).

Here is Smith’s preface to Weeden’s thesis on the parallels, from pages 133-134:


This issue of FORUM represents a departure from our usual format in that it is devoted to publication of a single important provocative thesis. Ted Weeden’s carefully argued case that the canonical gospel narratives of Jesus of Nazareth’s confrontations with temple and Roman authorities in Jerusalem are modeled on the story of a later peasant prophet with the same given name, Jesus son of Ananias (Yeshu bar Hanania), has far-reaching ramifications for both the question of the historical Jesus and gospel criticism in general.

Scholars have long proposed that the gospels conflate two originally distinct strands of tradition about Jesus: one stemming from Galilee, the other from Jerusalem. Weeden’s thesis goes further in claiming that they also confuse two distinct Jesuses and that the structure and many details of gospel accounts of Jesus in Jerusalem represent fictive imitation of the description of the later Jesus preserved in Josephus’ account of the Jewish War 6.300-309.

In his original thesis Weeden avoided objection by any who date the gospels earlier than Josephus by assuming that the hypotext imitated by the gospel writers was the oral tradition about Jesus son of Ananias cited by Josephus rather than any written draft of the Jewish War itself. After discussion by the Jesus Seminar, however, Weeden revised his position to conclude that Josephus himself created the story of Jesus son of Ananias and that Mark used his account. If this is the case, Mark could have been composed no earlier than 80 ce. That argument is presented here in an epilogue to the original paper.

As Weeden notes, other scholars have previously called attention to similarities between the gospels’ depiction of Jesus of Nazareth and Josephus report about Jesus son of Ananias. But this is the first detailed case for the evangelists direct dependence on the latter story using the classic Greek rhetorical convention of creative imitation (mimesis).

This thesis has significance for both source and redaction criticism, for it identifies a story independently preserved in an extant text (Josephus Jewish as a source for the gospels of Mark, Luke and John. Widespread acceptance of Markan priority by scholars trained in literary criticism has led to important advances in understanding the composition of the later synoptics. But the lack of demonstrable literary models for the narratives of Mark and John has inevitably made interpretation of these authors’ redactional strategies more speculative and tentative. By tracing structural and thematic parallels between Josephus’ story of Jesus son of Ananias and Jesus of Nazareth’s confrontations with authorities in Jerusalem, not only in Mark but also in aspects of the Lukan and Johannine accounts that differ from Mark, Weeden builds his case for the widespread and enduring influence of the story of the second Jesus upon the early Christian imagination and makes Luke’s and John’s differences from the Markan narrative less arbitrary. For, if Luke and John altered Mark’s account to conform more to another hypotext, their departures from their presumed Markan paradigm cannot be credited to idiosyncratic tendencies of the gospel redactors.

Weeden lays out his case in five sections. In part 1A on Markan dependence, he surveys assessments of parallels between the stories of the two Jesuses noticed by other scholars, adds others, and argues that the cumulative literary Gestalt in the sequence of these parallels suggests intertextuality between these accounts. Then, Weeden points out that tensions in Mark’s own narrative where the author abandons themes he had previously used which parallel the story of Jesus son of Ananias reflect Mark’s own Christological and pastoral interests.

In part IB Weeden explores Mark’s identification of his subject as Jesus of Nazareth, concluding that this is a deliberate attempt to prevent confusion with the more recent prophetic figure named Jesus. Finally, he tests his theory of Markan imitation of the story of Jesus son of Ananias by weighing it against methodological criteria for identifying textual mimesis in Greek literature and citing examples of Mark’s creative reworking of stories of David.

In part 2 Weeden explores Luke’s departures from Mark’s Passion narrative, lays out parallels between Luke’s account of Jesus’ trials and the story of Jesus son of Ananias, on the one hand, and the oracles of both Jesuses against Jerusalem, on the other, and argues that these indicate deliberate mimesis rather than mere coincidence.

In part 3 Weeden examines parallels between distinctive features of the Johannine accounts of Jesus’ hearings by Judean and Roman authorities and the story of Jesus son of Ananias, including John’s emphasis on Jesus’ confrontations during feasts and his uncharacteristic emphasis on Jesus’ silence under cross-examination.

In part IV Weeden summarizes his conclusions and details the implications of his findings. An addendum details his case for the northern Palestinian provenance of Mark’s gospel; and a subsequent epilogue reaches the conclusion that Josephus himself modeled the story of Jesus son on Ananias on the figure of Jeremiah and that Mark depended directly on Josephus’ account.

Weeden’s thesis was the focal point of debate at the Fall 2003 session of the Jesus Seminar. Unfortunately, this issue has been delayed by the untimely death of FORUM’s editor, Daryl Schmidt, who devoted more than a decade to insuring the quality of the contents of this journal.

—Mahlon H. Smith


FORUM new series 6,2 Fall 2003

Perhaps a kind reader might like to leave a comment on History for Atheists advising readers of what scholars deem to be “scholarly and credible“.

And thanks to the very kind reader who sent me a copy of the Forum article.

Still Better Informed History for Atheists — More Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

In my recent response to Tim O’Neill’s attempt to dismiss the significance of the parallels between Jesus son of Ananias in Josephus’s Jewish War and the Jesus of the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mark, as without any scholarly merit (see Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures), I set out the evidence for at least ten reputable biblical scholars who take the parallels and the question of their significance seriously. O’Neill was inferring that Richard Carrier’s discussion was an unscholarly outlier but it clearly was not.

I now have access to another scholarly discussion of those parallels so for the sake of completeness I can now add a couple more names of biblical scholars who have taken note and considered the significance of the parallels.

David R. Catchpole calls the parallels “strikingly similar”:

The scheme of the proceedings against this man is strikingly similar to the case of Jesus.

1. A Jewish arrest followed by examination and beating.

2. Evaluation in religious terms, followed by delivery to the procurator.

3. Silence of the accused.

4. A savage procurator who yet refuses to execute the accused.

5. Jewish pressure, but resisted this time and followed by the man’s release after scourging.

(Catchpole, 62)

And I. H. Marshall and other Institute for Biblical Research Fellows:

Both I. H. Marshall and other IBR Fellows raised the possibility, given the numerous verbal parallels, of some sort of literary relationship between J. W. 6.5.3 and the passion tradition.

(Evans, 361)

Craig Evans added his own argument that the parallels indicate similar judicial processes independently undergone by both Jesuses.

Although this possibility was not vigorously pursued during our time of discussion, perhaps a brief reply would be useful. First, the “parallels” comprise no more than nouns of place and context and verbs that mark the various steps in the judicial and penal process. In other words, the parallels are precisely what one would expect in cases where routine actions are being described. Second, aside from the single parallel cluster where we have a common verbal root, preposition, and Roman governor as object, there are no instances of parallel sentences or phrases. Literary relationships are suspected when there is a high concentration of common vocabulary, especially phrases and whole sentences. In short, I think that the common vocabulary adduced above indicates common judicial and penal process, but not literary relationship. There is no indication that the story of one Jesus influenced the telling of the story of the other Jesus.

For alternative views to those of Evans see the previous post. What is significant in this context is that Evans’ view is one of many found in the scholarly debate. Scholars do indeed consider the possibility of a literary or “oral tradition” relationship between the two Jesuses as worthy of scholarly discussion. Only someone uninformed could declare that attempts to argue for a literary relationship are unscholarly as per the History for Atheists post.

Catchpole, D. R. 1970. “The Problem of the Historicity of the Sanhedrin Trial.” In The Trial of Jesus. Cambridge Studies in Honour of C. F. D. Moule, edited by Ernst Bammel, 47–65. Naperville, Ill., A. R. Allenson. http://archive.org/details/trialofjesuscamb00moul.

Evans, Craig A. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. Boston: Brill.

Better Informed History for Atheists — Scholars assess the Two Jesus Parallels

A week ago James McGrath alerted readers to a new post by Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists commending it for its take down of “amalgam Jesus” theorists for supposedly uncritically and emotionally concocting excuses to disbelieve in a historical Jesus. It has taken me a week since that alert but I have finally caught up with O’Neill’s Jesus Mythicism 4: Jesus as an Amalgam of Many Figures. His primary target is one L. Aron Nelson a.k.a “Aron Ra” 9 whom he presents as someone bearing

all the hallmarks of someone who has educated himself on the subject, without much idea of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.

Scholarly discussion at XTalk (Crosstalk) on the parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and Jesus of Nazareth was active in 2003 and again in 2005.

With that introduction we should expect to be informed of some of the scholarly responses to the ensuing arguments he critiques. (To avoid an over lengthy post I will focus on but one point in O’Neill’s essay and that will be his rebuttal of the claim that the Jesus of the gospels was to some extent based on Jesus of Ananias in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, written some time between 74 and 79 CE. Other points can be addressed separately if warranted.)

Despite O’Neill’s attempt to address one who in his eyes had not “much idea of what is scholarly” and “credible” in the eyes of scholars, O’Neill himself fails to indicate that he has any awareness of the relevant scholarly discussions, let alone that those scholarly discussions essentially undermine almost everything he writes. His own attempts at take-down arguments have gained no traction among scholars engaged with this particular question. In this post I will provide the evidence from scholars that they do find the parallels significant and worthy of serious discussion with some suggesting that one Jesus was indeed in part based on the other.

Here is the Josephus passage with the key areas to be compared in red.

The Whiston translation of Josephus’ War of the Jews (6.300-309)

But, what is still more terrible, there was one Jesus, the son of Ananus, a plebeian and a husbandman, who, four years before the war began, and at a time when the city was in very great peace and prosperity, came to that feast whereon it is our custom for every one to make tabernacles to God in the temple, began on a sudden to cry aloud, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!” (Jer.7:34 LXX) This was his cry, as he went about by day and by night, in all the lanes of the city. However, certain of the most eminent among the populace had great indignation at this dire cry of his, and took up the man, and gave him a great number of severe stripes; yet did not he either say any thing for himself, or any thing peculiar to those that chastised him, but still went on with the same words which he cried before. Hereupon our rulers, supposing, as the case proved to be, that this was a sort of divine fury in the man, brought him to the Roman procurator, where he was whipped till his bones were laid bare; yet he did not make any supplication for himself, nor shed any tears, but turning his voice to the most lamentable tone possible, at every stroke of the whip his answer was, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” And when Albinus (for he was then our procurator) asked him, Who he was? and whence he came? and why he uttered such words? he made no manner of reply to what he said, but still did not leave off his melancholy ditty, till Albinus took him to be a madman, and dismissed him. Now, during all the time that passed before the war began, this man did not go near any of the citizens, nor was seen by them while he said so; but he every day uttered these lamentable words, as if it were his premeditated vow, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” Nor did he give ill words to any of those that beat him every day, nor good words to those that gave him food; but this was his reply to all men, and indeed no other than a melancholy presage of what was to come. This cry of his was the loudest at the festivals; and he continued this ditty for seven years and five months, without growing hoarse, or being tired therewith, until the very time that he saw his presage in earnest fulfilled in our siege, when it ceased; for as he was going round upon the wall, he cried out with his utmost force, “Woe, woe to the city again, and to the people, and to the holy house!” And just as he added at the last, “Woe, woe to myself also!” there came a stone out of one of the engines, and smote him, and killed him immediately; and as he was uttering the very same presages he gave up the ghost.

Tim O’Neill associates the argument with Richard Carrier and appears not to be aware that Carrier was presenting a well-known observation among professional scholars.

Here at least we have someone called Jesus who is obviously not Jesus of Nazareth and his story has at least some parallels with elements in the Jesus stories. The argument that these parallels indicate derivation and that the story of Jesus was in part based on that of ben Ananus is articulated in detail by … Richard Carrier

Carrier actually credits the argument to two other highly renowned scholars, Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. and Craig Evans:

Indeed, even how Mark decides to construct the sequence of the Passover narrative appears to be based on the tale of another Jesus: Jesus ben Ananias, the ‘Jesus of Jerusalem’, an insane prophet active in the 60s ce who is then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (roughly in the year 70). His story is told by Josephus in the Jewish War, and unless Josephus invented him, his narrative must have been famous, famous enough for Josephus to know of it, and thus famous enough for Mark to know of it, too, and make use of it to model the tale of his own Jesus. Or if Josephus invented the tale then Mark evidently used Josephus as a source. Because the parallels are too numerous to be at all probable as a coincidence.86 Some Mark does derive from elsewhere (or matches from elsewhere to a double purpose), but the overall scheme of the story in Josephus matches Mark too closely to believe that Mark just came up with the exact same scheme independently. And since it’s not believable that Josephus invented a new story using Mark, we must conclude Mark invented his story using Josephus—or the same tale known to Josephus. . . . There are at least twenty significant parallels (and one reversal)…

86. Theodore Weeden, ‘Two Jesuses, Jesus of Jerusalem and Jesus of Nazareth: Provocative Parallels and Imaginative Imitation’, Forum N.S. 6.2 (Fall 2003), pp. 137- 341; Craig Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Studying the Historical Jesus (ed. Chilton and Evans), pp. 443-78 (475-77).

(Carrier, 428-29)

Given the tone of Tim O’Neill’s study up to this point a reader will expect to be led to a conclusion that “Carrier’s parallels” (they are in fact the parallels presented by scholars in the peer-reviewed scholarly literature) are going to be proved nonsensical or at best without significance. Will O’Neill’s rebuttals equally apply to two highly notable New Testament scholars, Weeden and Evans?

Carrier’s list of parallels are derived from Weeden so in the interests of presenting as fully as possible what is found among the peer-reviewed scholarly publications I will give here Evans’ list of parallels from another essay of his (I do not yet have access to the one Carrier cited): read more »

Imagine No Interpolations

What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.

What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.

What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?

What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)

What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?

What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?

Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?

I don’t think so. read more »

Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2)

Continuing from Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

The reasons Luke-Acts has been considered a form of ancient history writing:

  1. Like other ancient historiography the work begins with a prologue announcing its superiority over what has gone before;
    • Steve Mason notes that unlike the preceding gospels Luke-Acts, as a two volume work, narrates a changing or developing historical movement (see p. 9 of the article for details; I think of the way the author has restructured the events in the gospels in order to )
  2. Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
  3. Like other historical writing of the day Luke-Acts constant changes of scene, notes on geographical and  political details, episodes of high drama such as storms at sea and encounters with murderous enemies, and speeches.

Mason addresses works of Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) and Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel) — there are posts on Pervo and Alexander here and here — that dispute the ‘historical’ character of Luke-Acts. In response Mason observes that the line between ancient historiography and ancient novels may not be so easy to discern given, in addition to the nature of ancient historiography, the difficulty in “defining” the ancient novel. Perhaps, but I think that’s another question for another chapter or article. In short, to Mason nothing can be gained by assigning Luke-Acts to another genre since writers were simply too willing to innovate and mix elements that we think of as belonging to separate genres.

The reasons against considering Luke-Acts as a form of historiography:

  1. The prologue of Luke-Acts does not identify the author and anonymity defeated the whole point of ancient prologues to historiography. The point was establish “the author’s character and unique moral assessment of the past.” (I have set out my view that the historian used his identity in order to establish confidence among readers of his work that he was in a position to know and to give his work authoritative status.)
    • Josephus did not identify himself in the prefaces to his later works but he certainly did “introduce himself magnificently” in his first work (and again in his closing section). The author of Luke-Acts does nothing like that.
  2. The next point has long been decisive for me: “The effect of the missing author-identification in Luke-Acts is greatly compounded by the complete absence of historia-language, or Thucydides’ preferred συγγράφω and cognates, along with any suggestion of knowledge from open-ended inquiry—if we leave aside the prologue’s covering reference to the author’s careful observation—or the political analysis that was history’s reason for being. Even though the author shows himself well aware of political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean, and is happy to use them as furniture, this is simply not a work of political or historical analysis comparable to other histories. By comparison with any other histories, Luke-Acts is far removed from historiography in both its characteristic language and its prevailing ethos: the stories of Peter and Paul proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.” It is rare to read an article acknowledging this start difference between Luke-Acts and other histories.
  3. I quote in full (p. 11, my bolding as always):
    • In place of normal historical analysis, the author boldly announces his subject matter as ‘the deeds that have been fulfilled among us’ and the observation and reception of truth by those who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word/teaching’ (1.2-3). Historians were not supposed to be anyone’s servants or emissaries, a posture antithetical to history’s purpose of truth-seeking inquiry. The anonymous author does briefly stress his efforts to get the story straight, in the prologue, but the story itself comes from revelation. The work’s many episodes of heavenly and angelic visitation as revelatory of the most important truths undercut any notion of a historian’s authority, which derives from rigorous inquiry and his own moral character. Of this there is no trace in the anonymous Luke-Acts.
    • That the most important truth comes via revelation is reinforced throughout the two-volume work at all crucial junctures: infancy narrative, explanatory angelic appearances at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the decisive revelations to Peter, Paul, and the early community. Equally, the account is driven by wondrous deeds beyond the ken of historical inquiry, from Jesus’ divine birth through his many miracles and resurrection to the signs and wonders performed by his emissaries.

It is at this point that Steve Mason parts company with the critical studies that have sought to understand Luke-Acts as a form of history writing by focusing on details in common with works of Greco-Roman historians. Yes, the comparisons are significant, but at the same time we ought not to lose sight of “the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.”

We should not, then, become so fixated on the parallels with Graeco-Roman historiography, as I would suggest Cadbury, Lake, and Foakes Jackson were, that we miss the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.

Reconciling the historiographical and non-historical features of Luke-Acts

It is here that Steve Mason finds Josephus useful for understanding Luke-Acts and its mix of historical and even “anti”-historical features. read more »

Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

The author of Luke-Acts was following an ideal that Josephus had presented as a superior feature of Jewish historical writings: that history learned from revelation (e.g. works of Moses) was superior to the uncertain and often disputed historical inquiries of the Greeks.

I think Steve Mason has nailed Luke-Acts. I think, as a specialist in Josephus, he has identified something crucial in Luke-Acts that appears to have been more generally overlooked.

Up till now I have posted at length scholarly proposals that Acts is a work of ancient fiction, that its prologue follows the pattern found in technical medical or military or mathematical treatises rather than those found in works of ancient historians, and I have even ventured to suggest that Josephus would have deplored the gospels, and by extension Acts, as serious history – a post I now see is badly flawed in places. Most recently we looked at some findings from the Acts Seminar Report.) Well, having read Steve Mason’s paper I now think the author of our canonical version of Luke-Acts was more in tune with Josephus’s ideals than I had suspected. (Some readers will know of Steve Mason’s earlier book, Josephus and the New Testament, which includes a chapter offering reasons to think the author of Luke-Acts knew the Antiquities of Josephus. We have also posted, and plan to post further in depth, on Mason’s newer work, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74.)

Steve Mason

The following is taken from a paper Mason has just uploaded on academia.edu, Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.

When Biblical Scholars Took the Lead in Critical Studies

I was fascinated and sobered to learn that there was a time when biblical scholars took the lead over their classicist peers when it came to critical study of their literary sources.

So we should not imagine that biblical studies merely followed classical trends. In fact, critical study of the Old and New Testaments largely paved the way for critical history as a discipline, including ancient history. It was not until the late 1970s through the 1990s that such authors as Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, and Pausanias were subjected to searching study as genuine authors, who had crafted their narratives to serve their moral and thematic purposes, rather than as mere transmitters of data. This post-Hippie period corresponded roughly to that in which redaction- and composition-critical research flourished in OT and NT studies.

(p. 4)

I had not appreciated the full extent to which the studies in Acts by Cadbury, Foakes Jackson and Lake had been so ground-breaking.

To write the important second volume, they enlisted the controversial Quaker, classicist, pacifist, and agnostic Henry Joel Cadbury, later of Harvard but then at Andover Seminary. Cadbury agreed with Foakes Jackson and Lake about the need to understand Acts in light of ancient historiography, and letting the theological chips fall where they may

. . . . 

He was ahead of his time in calling for scholars to pay more attention to the nature of ancient historiography. In order to responsibly understand and use this crucial account of Christian origins, he was saying, one needed to understand how people generally wrote about the past 2000 years ago (BC 2.7–8). Understanding Acts this way, as ancient historiography, was not merely different from proving is historicity. It required a different mindset because it directed scholars’ attention to how things were being said rather than to the underlying facts.

. . . .

So, having laid out this rather bracing summary, by 1920 standards in the Anglophone world, Cadbury began comparing the Lucan double-work with other creations of ancient historiography. And he found Luke-Acts—to which he compared the Jewish historian Josephus—to be in general agreement with contemporary historiographical practice. In the 1920s, this was a huge advance. In many respects, Cadbury was far ahead of his time. I say that because even in the field of Classics, although a few scholars were thinking about the artistic qualities and literary freedom of some historians, it would take another half-century—after the ‘literary turn’ in the humanities— before such perspectives were broadly applied. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood told his Oxford undergraduates in 1926 that ‘the average professional historian is far less critical in his attitude to Herodotus than the average professional theologian in his attitude to St. Mark’.

read more »

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

read more »

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 »

Did the Roman Emperors Use Josephus to Help Pacify the Jews?

The Caesar’s Messiah myth proponents appear to involve Josephus in some sort of conspiracy to pacify the Jews. Their primary method, according to their view, is that Josephus was involved in the creation of the Christian religion as a kind of pacifist-messiah cult to replace their traditional supposedly militaristic messiah cult said to be found in their Scriptures.

I recently had a difference of opinion with Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar’s Messiah, over whether Josephus’s history of the Jewish War was an “official” history. I had written that it was not an “official” history in the sense that it was commissioned or ordered to be written and vetted by the emperor. (The claim I was responding to was that “Josephus was employed to write the official history” and that is quite simply incorrect.) Joseph Atwill was nevertheless right to correct me insofar as I should have added that the emperor Titus, Vespasian’s son, at least did like Josephus’s history and ordered it published, at least according to Josephus’s own account. In his Life or autobiography Josephus boasted about his history of the Jewish War:

Now the emperor Titus was so desirous that the knowledge of these affairs should be taken from these books alone, that he subscribed his own hand to them, and ordered that they should be published; and for king Agrippa, he wrote me sixty-two letters, and attested to the truth of what I had therein delivered…

Why would Titus have done that if the Caesar’s Messiah theory of Atwill is correct and that history of the war apparently exposed the “truth” behind the gospels, that Jesus was a pacifist foil to Titus the conqueror?

Yet there were many other historians writing about that war at the time and Josephus compares his work with theirs:

Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it; while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record. . . .

Yet the writers I have in mind claim to be writing history, though beside getting all their facts wrong they seem to me to miss their target altogether. For they wish to establish the greatness of the Romans while all the time disparaging and deriding the actions of the Jews. But I do not see how men can prove themselves great by overcoming feeble opponents! Again they are not impressed by the length of the war, the vastness of the Roman forces which endured such hardships, and the genius of their commanders, whose strenuous endeavours before Jerusalem will bring them little glory if the difficulties they overcame are belittled.

However it is not my intention to counter the champions of the Romans by exaggerating the heroism of my own countrymen: I will state the facts accurately and impartially.

Josephus is telling readers what they would have expected to hear about other historians of the time, that they wrote flattering propaganda extolling the power and all-round superiority of the Romans while deriding the weakness and ineptness of their enemies, the Jews. Josephus, on the other hand, did point out certain failings of the Roman soldiers and the courage of his own countrymen. His own Judaeans, he writes, gave the Romans their money’s worth in order to win their victory.

The question must be asked, then, why did Titus, according to Josephus, prefer his work rather than one of the many other historians of the day? Why would Titus have ordered more widely disseminated a work that did not ostensibly flatter the Romans or denigrate the Jews?

I think Steve Mason in his study of the Jewish war gives a cogent answer to that question:

Why, then, might Titus have promoted Josephus’ work?

Titus was reportedly a man of the arts and letters (Suetonius, Tit. 3.2). Pliny’s dedication of his Natural History declares Titus an excellent judge of literature, with unmatched ability in oratory, letters, and poetic composition.226 Granted Pliny’s hyperbole, such interests might suffice to explain some level of support for his protege turned author Josephus. Titus recognized quality when he saw it, and might have preferred Josephus’ obviously knowledgeable account to the thin agitprop of the Flavianist hacks.227

Second, the obvious independence of Josephus’ War could have been useful. After all, Christians would exploit Josephus’ work precisely because it was so clearly Judaean that it could not be suspected of bias toward them (Chapter 1).

Third, after the war it was in the rulers’ interest to rehabilitate Judaeans, the dominant and traditionally stabilizing ethnos of southern Syria (Chapter 4). Would not such a mature political analysis by one of the region’s prominent aristocrats, written from realist premises, help everyone to settle down? Titus’ endorsement and broader dissemination of Josephus’ War could help to tamp down lingering hostilities and unproductive reprisals as in Alexandria and Antioch (cf. Ant. 12.122-24).

(Mason, pp. 129-130)

That to me sounds more likely than the Caesar’s Messiah hypothesis. Josephus was as prepared to point out failings of the Roman armies at times as well as the courage of his own people against them. read more »

Fishing for Parallels

“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. — Jeremiah 16:16


And passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. — Mark 1:16 -17


They lay in heaps in the blood and dust, like fish that fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in the meshes of their nets onto a bend of the beach, to lie in masses on the sand gasping for the salt sea water till the bright sun ends their lives. Thus, like a catch of fish, the Suitors lay there heaped upon each other. — Odyssey, Book 22, 380ff


Nakht escapes from the clap-net in which the divine ‘fishermen’ seek to trap him (spell 153A). Papyrus of Nakht, late 18th or early 19th Dynasty, c. 1350-1290 bc.


On this papyrus the illustrations to two spells, 153A and 153B, appear side-by-side. Both concern the deceased escaping from a net stretched by the gods to entrap her. The vignette of spell 153A, at the right, shows an open clap-net stretched between two pegs, one of which bears a human head. The text relating to this spell contains the deceased’s declaration of knowledge of the components of the net, by means of which she avoids being caught in it. . . . To the left is the vignette of spell 153B, ‘for escaping from the catcher of fish’. Three gods are shown hauling on a large net which they are dragging through the water to catch those who are unworthy of entering the next world.


  • Homer. 1946. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books.
  • Taylor, John H., ed. 2010. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead : Journey through the Afterlife. London: The British Museum Press.



Does Josephus intend to bring to mind an image of “fishing for men”?

This post is a post-script to Why Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah is “Type 2” mythicism

The synoptic gospels depict Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men”. The context indicates that Jesus wants them to gather people to Jesus, to have many Israelites repent and follow Jesus. The most obvious source for the image is Jeremiah 16:16. Look at it in context:

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

We know the authors of the synoptic gospels drew upon the “Old Testament” writings for many of their images and ideas.

Joseph Atwill, however, introduces an alternative explanation for the image of the disciples being called to fish for men in Caesar’s Messiah. Atwill sees “fishing for men” in the gospels as a cynical re-write of an actual battle on the lake of Galilee between Romans and Jews, and argues that the slaughter of Jews in that context was the original source for the concept of Jesus (a cipher for a Roman emperor) telling his followers to “fish for men”. Below I have copied his suggested source as Josephus narrates the battle along with my commentary on how it might relate to Atwill’s thesis. I have additionally raised a few questions about the narrative that I would be interested in following up — how much was Josephus fabricating the scene? The section is from the Jewish War 3:10

But now, when the vessels were gotten ready, Vespasian put upon ship-board as many of his forces as he thought sufficient to be too hard for those that were upon the lake, and set sail after them.

The battle on the lake of Galilee is about to begin. The Romans prepare in numbers to take on the Jews who had fled into the lake on their small boats.

[Question: Whose ships were the Romans boarding if the Jews had already fled in available ships?]

[Update 15th November 2018: My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

Now these which were driven into the lake could neither fly to the land, where all was in their enemies’ hand, and in war against them; nor could they fight upon the level by sea, for their ships were small and fitted only for piracy; they were too weak to fight with Vespasian’s vessels, and the mariners that were in them were so few, that they were afraid to come near the Romans, who attacked them in great numbers.

The Jews who had fled in the ships were now isolated, unable to return to land because of the Roman forces there. Their ships were too small to take on the Roman forces, and they were too few in number, so they attempted to keep their distance from the Romans who were coming towards them in larger ships and greater numbers.

[Again, where did the Romans’ ships come from? It appears from the account that the Romans had larger ships than those of the Jews. If correct, did the Romans take time to build them? If they did, then could not the Jews in the smaller ships have sailed well away to some other part of the lake? Or were they completely surrounded? And if they were surrounded, then what need was there for the Romans to go to the trouble of building larger ships to pursue them? Why not simply let them die there?]

[Update 15th November 2018: As above — My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

However, as they sailed round about the vessels, and sometimes as they came near them, they threw stones at the Romans when they were a good way off, or came closer and fought them; yet did they receive the greatest harm themselves in both cases.

They catapulted (presumably, rather than threw by hand) stones at the Romans. Some came closer to a Roman ship to engage in combat but only for the worse.

[Presumably the Romans in fact came up to the Jewish ships when they could catch them. Where did the stones that the Jewish forces threw come from? Did they gather them up before boarding? Did they have supplies for the light infantry slingers left over that they took with them?]

As for the stones they threw at the Romans, they only made a sound one after another, for they threw them against such as were in their armor, while the Roman darts could reach the Jews themselves; and when they ventured to come near the Romans, they became sufferers themselves before they could do any harm to the ether, and were drowned, they and their ships together.

Here we have an extension of the previous sentence. The significant difference of detail added this time is that Josephus tells us that those Jewish forces who made contact with the Romans in their ships were slaughtered. The Romans were able to sink their ships and fend off any Jewish attacker so that all the Jewish soldiers on board were killed by direct Roman action or indirectly by drowning.

Here we finally come closest to any conceivable image of “fishing for men”. For the first time “men” (Jewish) are said to be in the water, but drowned. They are not “fished” for in any sense that I can imagine.

As for those that endeavored to come to an actual fight, the Romans ran many of them through with their long poles. Sometimes the Romans leaped into their ships, with swords in their hands, and slew them; but when some of them met the vessels, the Romans caught them by the middle, and destroyed at once their ships and themselves who were taken in them.

Again we have an expansion on the previous image. Sometimes the Romans soldiers were able to leap into the Jewish ships and begin their slaughter; other times the Roman ships rammed and broke up the Jewish ships.

And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands;

Here we continue the extended elaboration of detail of the contact between the Romans and Jews on the lake. We have seen how the Jewish forces were overwhelmed by the ramming Roman ships so that many were struggling to stay alive after their ship was wrecked and they were left in the water. Some of the desperate Jews swam towards whatever ship they could see only to find that they had approached a Roman ship. They were duly dispatched.

One can understand “fishers of men” referring to a gathering of people in a way fish are gathered in nets. And that’s the image that comes to mind in Jeremiah 16:16. But I suggest the image is far removed from Josephus’s account. Simply hacking at drowning remnant of a force doe not strongly bring to mind an image of “fishing”. read more »