Tag Archives: Josephus

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

Clare K. Rothschild

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

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

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

9  C. Ap. 1.50:

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

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

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

Concerning B.J., Mason writes:

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

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

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

See also

The discussion is likewise older than Thackeray:

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

Steve Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interpolations in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Judas the Galilean, Zeal and Zealots

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

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

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

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

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

6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage

Josephus does, in Jewish Antiquities, have two passages on the emergence of Christianity and the persecution of its followers, involving Jewish jurisdiction, but both are suspected of being interpolations. (Efron 1987, p. 333)

Warning: this post addresses a small section of a work by Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, that was not been well received by all reviewers. John Collins, for example, wrote of the section that I cover here:

The final chapter, on the Great Sanhedrin, is peripheral to the main theme of the book. E. denies that there was any uniform tradition about the Great Sanhedrin, but finds that the NT Sanhedrin “was created in the bosom of Christian theology” (p. 337).

Efron’s book shows extensive familiarity with the history of scholarship and is richly documented, but it is a work of apologetics rather than of history. For E., the solidarity of pietism and the Jewish state is primary. Any contrary view is “distorted.” Equally, anything that seems to anticipate Christian theology cannot be Jewish. (Collins 1990, p. 373 — my emphasis)

Louis Feldman is less harsh in his review but nonetheless identifies the bias. Efron attacks contemporary scholarly reconstructions of various intra-Jewish political rifts and conflicts in “a strident tone” and dismisses anything that would blur Jewish distinctiveness from Christianity:

The main, and most controversial, thesis of this work is that the Hasidim and the Hasmoncans cooperated throughout their revolt against the Syrian Greeks, and that this cooperation continued with the later Pharisees. The reconstruction of this period often rests upon the Pseudepigrapha, notably the Psalms of Solomon. But Efron dismisses such evidence as betraying a hidden Christian viewpoint . . . (Feldman 1994, p. 87)

You have been warned. Read at your own peril. Read critically (as you always do).


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Many readers are familiar with the passages. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, describes Jesus as “a wise many if one ought to call him a man” and even states that “he was the Messiah” and his followers were righteous “seekers of the truth”, he performed miracles, was unjustly condemned to death at the instigation of the Jews, appeared to have been resurrected three days later, etc. If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of “Judaism”.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius quoted the passage but the third century Origen did not see it in his copy of Josephus.

But don’t many scholars agree that the passage as it stands cannot have been written by Josephus while remaining certain he must have written something about Jesus nonetheless? Many do. Efron’s opinion of these efforts:

Various proposals, speculations and attempts to reconstruct from it some authentic core have produced only dubious hypotheses.213

213 . . . . The scholars positing authenticity (complete, partial or emended) have recourse to casuistic speculations or arbitrary textual alterations. See R. Laqueur, Der jüdische llistoriker Flavius Josephus (Giessen 1920), p. 274ff.; H.St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (New York 1967, repr. of 1929ed.),p. 125ff.; F. Dornseiff, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” ZNW 46 (1955): 245ff.; A. Pelletier, “Ce que Josephe a dit de Jesus,” KEJ 124 (1965): 9ff.; D. Flusser (see n. 190), Yahadut u-Mekorot ha-Natzrut, p. 72ff .; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Gr. Rapids Mich. 1974), p. 32ff.

And once more:

Classic examples of the practices of Christian copyists and editors in transposing suitable additions and adding them to Josephus can be found in the Slavonic version of Jewish War.

The arguments have gone back and forth “for generations” (Efron’s words) and we have posted at length on them here.

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he 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: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. (Antiquities, 20.9.1)

We have also discussed the second passage at length. But Efron has more to add and the rest of this post sets out why he also rejects this passage as genuine to Josephus.

Efron observes that this second passsage (see inset) portrays the Sanhedrin in a way very similar to the New Testament’s viewpoint: very harsh, even evil. Likewise the Sadducees are said to be “very rigid” or “severe”, translatable as “savage” (Efron), more than any other Jews. And Ananus belongs to this “savage” sect and is further described as “extremely bold and brazen”.

Enough good citizens, however, complained to the authorities about the injustice against James committed by Ananus and had him removed from the priesthood.

1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views

Efron sees in these portrayals of the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees and Ananus too much New Testament. In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.

Could not Josephus have changed his mind by the time he wrote Antiquities?

It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.216 Acts of the Apostles, however, in a picture resembling the dubious episode outlined above, stresses the unfavorable aspects of Ananus (Annas) the high priest, and his Sadducee retinue, avidly persecuting the Christians without pity.218

216 Bell. II 563, 648, 651, 653; IV 151ff., 162ff. 193ff., 208ff., 288ff., 316ff.; Vita (38) 193ff.;(44) 216, (60) 309.

218 Acts 4:6ff.; 5:17ff.; Luke 3:2; John 18:13ff. To the two forged passages should be added the extremely suspect testimony in Josephus (Ant. XVIII 116 ff.) on John the Baptist carrying out a baptismal ceremony in the Christian spirit to atone for sins, without a sacrifical offering and without the Temple, contrary to the Torah. The term “the Baptist” and the man, unknown in Jewish tradition, as is baptism to obtain forgiveness for sins through purification of the body after purification of the soul (as in Heb. 10:22) show this to be a Christian version. A number of scholars came to this conclusion long ago: D. Blondel, Des Sibylles (Paris 1649), p. 28 ff.; Richard Simon (Mr. de Sainjore), Bibliotheque Critique, vol. 2 (Paris 1708), p. 26ff.; H. Graetz, Geschichle (see n. 8 above), vol. 33, p. 293 ff. Origen (n. 223 below) already knew the dubious passage: Contra Celsum 147. (Efron 1987, pp. 334-35)

2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts”

Who are the “most equitable of citizens” who opposed the Sadducees? The Josephan passage is vague. To Efron, read more »

Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For McLaren,

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

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

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

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

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

Judas the Scapegoat

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

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

Professor James S McLaren

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

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

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

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

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

and study of provenance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

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Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus

Paul Hopper
Paul Hopper

A volume on linguistics and literary studies published last year contained a chapter by Paul Hopper, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, titled A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63. The chapter can now be downloaded from academia.edu. (I was alerted to this through a post by Peter Kirby on Biblical Criticism & History Forum.)

Here is the abstract of the chapter:

Abstract: Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities introduces Jesus the Messiah into his history of the Jews, and appears to report events corresponding closely to those of the Gospels, including Jesus’s crucifixion on the orders of Pontius Pilate. A longstanding dispute exists about the authenticity of this text. The present article offers a narratological analysis of the passage, comparing the styles of event reporting in the passage with the three other episodes in Josephus’s Pontius Pilate sequence. The study concludes that the uses of the Greek verb forms such as aorists and participles are distinct in the Jesus passage from those in the other Pilate episodes, and that these differences amount to a difference in genre. It is suggested that the Jesus passage is close in style and content to the creeds that were composed two to three centuries after Josephus. (my bolding in all quotations)

Hopper’s conclusion is even more direct: read more »

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

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

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:

I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)

I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:

It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.

If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.

Another form of proof-texting

Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.

Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”. read more »

The Myth of Judean Exile 70 CE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who started the myth?

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

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

read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #10: Josephus as Evidence & the Arabic Version of the Testimonium


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate


Tim O’Neill (TO) rightly says of some of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus:

After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence. (O’Neill, 2011)

Yet curiously not a single aspect of evidence addressed by either David Fitzgerald (DF) or himself in his reviews of DF’s work has hit on anything that he finds ambiguous or difficult to interpret. In every point of disagreement TO suggests DF is nothing but a liar or a fool.

The first unambiguous retort TO makes to DF’s treatment of Josephus is the dogmatic assertion that Josephus mentions Jesus twice. No argument. No ambiguity. No uncertainty.

Josephus does mention Jesus – twice.  So any Myther book or article [arguing the Christ Myth thesis] has to spill a lot of ink trying to explain these highly inconvenient mentions away.

Then again,

[T]he passage has Josephus saying things about Jesus that no Jewish non-Christian would say, such as “He was the Messiah” and “he appeared to them alive on the third day”.  So, not surprisingly, Fitzgerald takes the usual Myther [Christ Myth] tack and rejects the whole passage as a later addition and rejects the idea that Josephus mentioned Jesus here at all.

Interpolation a “mythicist” argument?

This is most curious. The actual fact is that most mainstream scholars until after the Second World War generally agreed that the entire passage was an interpolation. Or if not entirely an interpolation, the fact that it had been tampered with at all rendered it useless as historical evidence. I have quoted the evidence for the prevalence of these views in my post, What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus.

Today, however, it seems that “the majority of scholars” accept the contrary view, that Josephus did indeed say something about Jesus beneath the obvious Christian overlay. Given that most New Testament scholars are ideologically predisposed to belief in Jesus, and that Josephus’s testimony is the only non-biblical evidence we have from the first century for Jesus, I would not be surprised if a majority did think this. But so what? If a significant minority still leans towards the view that the entire Josephan passages is a forgery or useless as evidence, then it hardly seems reasonable to dismiss this view as the preserve of Christ Myth supporters.

Sociological explanation for the revised view of Josephus as evidence

The evidence is essentially the same. (Although in 1971 Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium were also brought to light.) What has changed are the trends in interpretation of the evidence.

One sees a possible explanation for this new trend in Alice Whealey’s 2003 book, Josephus on Jesus, and again in her article, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic” in New Testament Studies, Vol. 54, Issue 4, Oct 2008, pp. 573-590. In the latter she explains:

In fact, much of the past impetus for labeling the textus receptus Testimonium a forgery has been based on earlier scholars’ anachronistic assumptions that, as a Jew, Josephus could not have written anything favorable about Jesus. Contemporary scholars of primitive Christianity are less inclined than past scholars to assume that most first-century Jews necessarily held hostile opinions of Jesus, and they are more aware that the line between Christians and non-Christian Jews in Josephus’ day was not as firm as it would later become. (p. 575)

This says loads. It is a virtual confession that the shift in interpretation has been motivated to a significant extent as a reaction against both real and perceived strains of anti-semitism in earlier scholarship. The error here is that the personal bias and values of Josephus himself are trumped by an impulse to undo an earlier generation’s sins of negative stereotyping. The context in which the passage occurs is also bypassed. Josephus personally loathed any movement that stood in opposition to the political and religious status quo under Roman rule. Taking seriously both the personal bias of Josephus and the context in which the Testimonium Flavianum is found (it is in a list of calamities befalling the Jews in which the TF fits as comfortably as a pimple on one’s nose), even the so-called “neutral” core of that TF is problematic. read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate


Tim O’Neill (TO) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

One would expect to find in TO’s review of DF’s book, Nailed!, therefore, at the very least, an honest acknowledgement of arguments in that book. Unfortunately anyone reading TO’s review would have no idea of DF’s overall argument on any point TO chooses to address.

Since I began these posts taking the trouble to expose TO’s bluff, ignorance and pretentious nonsense, the good man himself has responded by saying my posts are “nitpicking” and symptoms of a man “obsessed with him”. I can only smile with contentment over a job done reasonably well if that’s the best his vanity can muster in his defence.

Now it’s time to address TO’s criticism of DF’s discussion of the evidence of Josephus for the historicity of Jesus. This will take a few posts to complete. Let’s begin the way any honest reviewer of a work should always begin — that is, set out the arguments of the author one is reviewing. Since TO forgot this step I will outline the first of DF’s points here, and then we will compare TO’s initial critique.

I hope that these posts will have more value than they might if they were nothing more than responses to TO’s nonsense. Hopefully issues and arguments will be raised that some readers will find informative for their own sake.

DF’s chapter 3 is titled “Myth No. 3: Josephus Wrote About Jesus”. The first passage he addresses is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” from book 18 of the Jewish historian’s Antiquities of the Jews. It translates as:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.

He was (the) Christ.

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.

And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs?

All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.

Tim O’Neill (TO) writes some very true words that enable us to identify a “careful” and “honest” treatment of a work:

What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013)

So let’s see if TO himself has followed his own advice and given his readers a “careful, honest or even just competent treatment” of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book.

Read TO’s second part of that above sentence:

but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position – that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels – even exists.

It is very difficult to approach a topic calmly and with dispassionate reasoning if one is predisposed to have a deep loathing for what one believes is in the printed page. It is almost impossible in that mood to grasp the original meaning of what one is reading. One will project into the page what one believes is there. One needs to let go of all defensiveness in order to read stuff like that fairly and respond meaningfully. That’s no excuse, of course. Any competent writer will recognize that sort of bias, confess it, and work against it.

As we saw in our previous post DF does indeed not only “acknowledge this middle ground position” but he frames his book with it: the opening pages and closing chapter are dedicated specifically to it. The same position further appears throughout the body of the book. So TO does not simply fail or neglect to deal with the full argument of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book, he ‘carelessly, dishonestly or even just incompetently’ tells readers the opposite of the truth about its contents. I am reminded of several James McGrath’s “reviews” of Earl Doherty’s Neither God Nor Man. If “mythicism” is such an incompetent and silly proposition why do people need to write brazen falsehoods in order to refute it?

But maybe we are being harsh and he was tired and distracted while reading the arguments in DF’s Nailed that he tells his readers are not there.

So let’s give him another chance.

Another of TO’s damning indictments begins:

Fitzgerald insists that there are elements in the story of Jesus which should have been noticed by historians of the time and insists that there is no shortage of writers then who should have recorded some mention of them . . .  (O’Neill 2011)

He quite correctly quotes DF to support this:

There were plenty writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus’) region and its happenings …. We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs. (Fitzgerald, p. 22)

DF did say that these other writers, both Roman and Jewish, did have enough interest in Palestine of the day to make mention of it in their writings — and he does say that their writings “included” mention of “several failed Messiahs”.

Manipulator or Debater?

TO then moves in to close the semantic trap. He accuses DF of saying that “scores of writers” wrote of failed Messiahs in Palestine: read more »