2021-12-20

Updates – Late gospels and Josephus’s guilt-inspired prophecy

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by Neil Godfrey

I have finally added two more chapters to the Bruno Bauer Gospel criticism and history page — check the right-hand column under the Pages heading.

Two points of particular interest to me in those new chapters:

1. Bauer argues for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being second-century works, post-dating Justin Martyr. He does so for much the same reasons I have posted here: although Justin knows some details that appear in both of those gospels, there are reasons to think he is using some other source that the authors of Luke and Matthew also used. What might that source have been? Justin knew it as the Memoirs of the Apostles. Bauer does think that much of the nativity narrative that we read in Matthew’s gospel was contained in those Memoirs. My own reading of Justin is that his Memoirs of the Apostles further included references to Damascus in his nativity scene while our author of the Gospel of Matthew omitted those. Bauer points out the inconsistencies in our gospel accounts, especially in Luke, and argues that the original gospel from which our canonical Luke is built up originally began at 3:1 — “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius….”. Quite so.

2. The other point of special interest is Bauer’s discussion of a supposedly widespread belief in the Near East in a prophecy that a king would arise from there to rule the world. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote about this in connection with the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. In Bauer’s view, Suetonius learned of this piece of information from the historian Tacitus who derived it from Josephus. And where did Josephus get the idea from? His guilt: he was being criticized for his poor job of defending his people against the Romans and knew he was to blame; to cover his guilt and make a desperate attempt to survive he decided to go over to the Roman side and in his role as a priest knowledgable in the sacred texts to declare that Vespasian and Titus had been prophesied to rule the world. The passage he most likely was thinking of was Daniel 9:26 — the people of a coming prince would destroy the city and the sanctuary.


2021-10-13

Finding Jesus in (or through) Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

No, this post is not about the Testimonium Flavianum, that disputed passage about the “crucified-under-Pilate-Jesus”. It is about other figures in the works of Josephus that various authors have proposed are the original persons from whom the Christian myth was derived. Possibly the most well-known one that comes to mind is Jesus ben Ananias, the “mad man” who cried Cassandra warnings of doom on the city of Jerusalem before being hit with a stone catapulted by the Romans. Others have embraced the possibility that an earlier person, Jesus ben Saphat, was the “original Jesus”. His scene was in the Galilee area where he castigated wayward rivals by appealing to the Law of Moses and attracting “low-class” followers like “seamen” before making a fateful journey to Jerusalem. Another view sees Josephus’s account of “the Egyptian” as the true original. He gathered followers at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem before meeting his demise. Others have even argued for the Roman military commander, Titus, as the template for details in the gospel narratives. One such view interprets Jesus’ call to his disciples to “fish for men” as an ironic twist on the moment when Romans butchered rebels who had fled into the lake of Galilee.

I wonder if the ability to identify different persons acting out scenarios that remind us of this or that in the gospels is because the first evangelist, in seeking a way to frame the first story about a life of Jesus, drew inspiration from, among other sources, what he had read in works by Josephus.

Some readers will feel uncomfortable with such an idea because it would mean the first gospel was not composed until the last few years of the first century at the earliest. Might not the author have been drawing on his memory of persons and events quite independently of any reading of Josephus, and if so, have even written the gospel before Josephus wrote Antiquities? Different readers will come to different conclusions on the likelihood of that explanation.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these purported precursors of the gospel Jesus.

Jesus son of Ananias

The scholar and churchman Theodore Weeden is associated with many parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and the gospel Jesus. I have set out his 23 points of parallel items on a separate webpage:  http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm This Jesus made a nuisance of himself by crying “Woe Woe to Jerusalem”, its people and its Temple but was dismissed as a harmless madman by a Roman authority before meeting his fate. You can read the other details set out in two columns on the linked page. Some of the more significant incidents in common include the presence of Jesus ben Ananias in the Temple prior to his death, his quotation of Jeremiah, his silence before his Roman interrogator, his subsequent flogging and loud cry at his death.

I find it hard to imagine this particular figure having any historical existence at all. He appears amidst a list of divinely sent signs that Josephus says were harbingers of the city’s destruction. He looks very much like a stock figure of doom, of a Cassandra figure whom people are ordained to ignore and mock but only to their own peril. Hence I have doubts about the view, that some have expressed, that the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Mark was drawing on memory of a real figure. If Josephus was the source of the figure then yes, the first gospel was indeed written later than commonly said.

The parallels are too many and specific to be discounted as coincidence. I can imagine our evangelist taking the model of ben Ananias — his assumed madness, his prophetic declaration of doom, his silence at his trial, his being flogged — and relating some of those sorts of details to what he was imagining about Jesus from the Scriptures: rejection by his own family, as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant being silent before his accusers, and so forth. The Jewish Scriptures presented him with a theme, a motif, but a relevant narrative application inspired by Josephus, modified for his new setting, of course, assisted with fleshing out a narrative context for those themes.

Jesus son of Saphat / Sapphias

Frans J. Vermeiren in A Chronological Revision of the Origins of Christianity argues that beneath the peaceful gospel Jesus lies a darker, more violent figure: think of his saying about “not coming to bring peace but a sword”, his assault on the temple, the fleeing herdsmen from the scene where Jesus confronted “Legion”, and so forth. From this perspective, Vermeiren sees the various references to the rebel military leader Jesus ben Saphat in Josephus’s writings as significant. This Jesus was active in Galilee. His followers were the lower class, including sailors.

Even though this Jesus was certainly a historical figure might we not imagine a similar influence as with Jesus ben Ananias at work on the creative mind of the gospel author? The idea of Galilee as a setting may have already been floated through a prophecy in Isaiah 9 (though it is not until Matthew that we find an explicit appeal to this passage as the source for the narrative setting); if so, then one can imagine his ears pricking up when he hears about another Jesus who gathered followers in Galilee. When he learned from Josephus that this same Jesus appealed to the Law of Moses when castigating his countrymen then surely he, the author, must have turned over such a figure and event in his mind. The gospel Jesus was to be the origin of the new “philosophy” or what became Christianity, so the idea of twelve disciples surely came to him from his reading of the twelve sons of Israel who became the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But did the idea of making the first of those disciples of the new Jesus’ “fishermen” derive from the Josephan rebel’s followers including many “sailors”? Is that why we have come to read of Jesus walking along the shore to find and call his first disciples?

There were numerous literary precursors for a travel narrative available to our author but one can imagine him reading of Jesus’s flight from Galilee, probably to Jerusalem, as having some creative influence as well.

The Egyptian

We have discussed Lena Einhorn’s Shift in Time thesis in other posts. In one of those posts, we focused on Josephus’s account of a false prophet, known to be a magician, and an Egyptian, who called his followers to the Mount of Olives. From there, he promised them, they would see the walls of Jerusalem collapse as they had done for Joshua (=Jesus).

Now the evangelist had the model of the OT messianic figure, David, ascending the Mount of Olives in deep grief, fearing for his life, pursued by his enemies (2 Samuel 15). Yes, the biblical models for a suffering messiah were there, but how to fit these models into a new narrative for the one to become the “mother of all Messiahs”? I can imagine this author thinking about that more recent calamity befalling a prophet on the Mount of Olives. Yes, that would be an idea: let his Jesus who has travelled from Galilee pronounce destruction on the city of Jerusalem and on the eve of his fate he also, at that moment, walks up the Mount of Olives with his disciples.

Einhorn further explores the possible significance of Josephus describing a Theudas, active in the Jordan River region and who was beheaded, prior to the Egyptian episode. Again, it is not hard to imagine one looking for a new narrative to associate some of this detail with a sub-plot of the precursor of his new Jesus.

Conclusion

I have not covered in depth any of the cases that have been made for the Josephan figures pointing to “the real Jesus” behind the Jesus of the gospels. I confess I have found each of the above hypotheses that attempts to establish its respective figure as the original Jesus lacking when it comes to explaining how the details of the story changed into what we read in the gospels today. If, however, we begin with our first evangelist filled with biblical interpretations and motifs (silence before accusers, ascending the Mount of Olives, calling followers) is it not easier to conceptualize the relevance of the Josephan passages for helping him flesh out those isolated ideas into a coherent narrative?

 


2021-04-16

John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism?

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by Neil Godfrey

I conclude* continue here my posts presenting Rivka Nir’s case for the John the Baptist passage in the Antiquities of Josephus being a Christian interpolation. All of these posts are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer. (* I had expected to conclude the series with this post but as usual, checking sources and being sure I get the argument correct takes more time than I usually anticipate). All bolded highlighting in the quotations is my own; italics are original.

Jewish or Christian Baptism? — What did John’s Baptism Look Like?

Nir identifies five defining characteristics of the baptism of John that we read about in Antiquities.

Here is the relevant section from Antiquities 18.116-118 (18.5.2)

John who was called Baptist . . . who was a good man and one who commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice (δικαιοσύνῃ) toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism. For [John’s view was that] in this way baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body, because the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness (δικαιοσύνῃ). . . And . . . others gathered together [around John] (for they were also excited to the utmost by listening to [his] teachings) . . . 

(Translation by Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 32)

Character 1: Christian terminology

Nir submits that the terms used in the Josephan passage “derive from the lexicon of Christian theology.” That certainly appears to be true with respect to the epithet assigned to John, “the Baptist” (βαπτιστής). Though Josephus uses other forms of the word for immersion, dipping or washing elsewhere, “the Baptist” — βαπτιστής — is found nowhere else in Josephus and is specific to the New Testament as an epithet for John.

Mason:

for someone who did not know Jewish tradition or Christian preaching, the rather deliberate statement that this was ‘the wetted’ or perhaps ‘the greased’ would sound most peculiar… Since Josephus is usually sensitive to his audience and pauses to explain unfamiliar terms or aspects of Jewish life, it is very strange that he would make the bald assertion, without explanation, that Jesus was ‘Christ’ (Ant. 20.200). That formulation, “the one called Christ,” makes much better sense because it sounds like a nick-name. . . . [I]t would make sense for Josephus to say, “This man had the nickname Christos,” and he could do so without further explanation. (Josephus and the New Testament, 166)

Nir further posits that we should expect Josephus to explain the meaning of the epithet if he did write it, just as, for example, Steve Mason argues that Josephus would be expected to explain the epithet “Christ” to non-Jewish audiences if he did use it of Jesus. Against this, in my view, and as Nir herself notes in a footnote, Mason further suggests that Josephus would not be expected to explain the meaning if the epithet was introduced as a nickname — e.g. Jesus who was called Christ, John who was called the Baptist.

The problem highlighted by Nir is as follows:

What would Greek and Roman readers unfamiliar with Christian sources understand by this term? They were familiar with the verb βάπτω, which means ‘to dip/be dipped’ or ‘to immerse/be submerged’, and with the verb βαπτίζω, which in classical sources denotes ‘to immerse/be submerged under water’.49 How would they understand a designation referring to someone who immerses others with this particular immersion? How could Josephus use this designation without defining it?50

49. Metaphorically: soaked in wine. See Oepke. ‘βάπτω’, TDNT, I. p. 535.

50. Rivka Nir cites Graetz, Abrahams, Mason and Webb. I have expanded on the difficulties Abrahams raises for Nir’s argument below.

Abrahams argues that the passage overall is genuine but acknowledges the possibility that the epithet “the Baptist” is interpolated:

The terminology of Josephus, I would urge, makes it quite unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. For, it will be noted (a) Josephus does not use βάπησμα which is the usual N.T. form; (6) he does use the form βάπτισις which is unknown to the N.T.; (c) he uses βαπτισμός in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does occur in Mark (vii. 4) or even in Hebrews (ix. 10). It is in fact Josephus alone who applies the word βαπτισμός to John’s baptism. Except then that Josephus used the epithet βαπτιστής (which may be interpolated) his terminology is quite independent of N.T. usage. (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33)

Others reply that Josephus does explain the term, if indirectly:

In his first editions Graetz accepted Josephus’ account of John as authentic. But in his later editions of the Geschichte der Juden he strongly contends that the passage is spurious. He urges that Josephus would not have described John as the “Baptist” (τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ) without further explanation. Graetz does not see that it is possible to regard these three words as an interpolation in a passage otherwise authentic. But it is not necessary to make this supposition. For it is quite in Josephus’ manner to use designations for which he offers no explanation (cf. e.g. the term “Essene”). And the meaning of “Baptist” is fully explained in the following sentence, Josephus using the nouns βάπτισις and βαπτισμος to describe John’s activity.

(Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 33 — Rivka Nir cites Abrahams but the fuller quotations are mine.)

Abrahams (in both the paragraph above and in the side box) sounds more damning than his argument actually is. Yes, he is correct Josephus uses baptisis (βάπτισις) “which is unknown in the New Testament” and baptismos (βαπτισμός) “in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does appear in Mark(vii. 4) or … Hebrews (ix. 10).” But what Nir points out is that those words are part of the “lexicon of Christian theology” as witnessed by Athanasius Alexandrinus, Origen and Chrysostom. They are not the words Josephus normally uses (λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι — louesthai or apolouesthai) when describing Jewish immersions. Those early fathers testify to the use of those terms in relation to John’s baptism as well as Christian baptism more generally.

Characteristic 2: a collective baptism into an elect group

The key section here is Continue reading “John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism?”


2021-04-05

What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Many scholars assert that behind the obviously interpolated words about Jesus in the Antiquities of the Jews Josephus did in fact write something, either mildly positive or neutral in tone, about him. The problem with that assertion is that it is well recognized among scholars of Josephus that the Jewish historian absolutely hated everyone who, they believe, was taken to be some sort of messianic figure. Accordingly, some scholars propose that what Josephus originally wrote about Jesus was indeed a negative assessment. Hence the ongoing slide into imaginary sources so familiar to historical Jesus studies. What we read in the writings of Josephus about Jesus is beyond the scope of Rivka Nir’s exploration of John the Baptist in The First Christian Believer. But what I found interesting was that one of her reasons for questioning the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities falls into the same basket of reasons for questioning the authenticity of the Jesus passage.

Palestine was riddled with prophets in the decades leading up to the War of 66-70 and John the Baptist (and Jesus, too) should be examined in this context, we so often read in the scholarly literature. The usual suspects trotted out are

  • the Samaritan prophet who led crowds to Mount Gerazim in expectation of finding sacred vessels hidden by Moses
  • Theudas who led a large crowd to the Jordan River in expectation of it parting just as in the days of Joshua
  • the Egyptian prophet who led a crowd to the Mount Olives from where they expected to see God tear down the walls of Jerusalem
  • the prophet from the wilderness who took people out into the wilderness

The attitude of Josephus to all of these prophets is well known. He branded them “false prophets, imposters, deceivers, swindlers, deluders” (Nir, 46) and he blamed them, along with “bandits and robbers” and other rebels for the destruction of the temple at the hands of Rome.

How can we reconcile?

So how can we understand writing about John the Baptist so positively? Nir writes:

44 The word στάσις means rebellion or struggle against the governing authorities, or conflict between two civilian groups: see Ant. 18.62.88 . . . ; and νεώτερος conveys the idea of social-political change or revolution: ‘With this significance the term is often used negatively by those supporting the status quo which is being challenged by that which is ‘‘radically innovative”’ (Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 37 . . .). 

His abhorrence of these prophets is consistent with his opposition to whoever sought to undermine the legitimate government and strove after any kind of change or revolution. In the passage at hand, John is described as contesting the legitimate regime and instigator of revolution: Herod feared that ‘eloquence [John’s] that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition [στάσις]’ and ‘decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising (νεώτερος), than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake’. The two terms (στάσις and νεώτερος) imply that John’s activity had rebellious overtones and the potential for political ferment.44

How then can we reconcile Josephus’s negative stance toward these rabble-rousers with his sympathy for John? And not only does Josephus describe him positively, he even justifies those Jews who saw the annihilation of Herod’s army as divine punishment for John’s execution: ‘But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance (μάλα δικαίως).

(Nir, 46f)

Nir notes that some scholars (Schürer, Meier) raise the possibility that Josephus might have made an exception for John the Baptist because of his asceticism. My response to that suspicion is to ask why Josephus did not breathe a word about John’s asceticism. The asceticism of John is an idea that comes from the gospels where it serves an evident theological function as a foil to the teaching of Jesus. If Josephus thought of John as qualitatively different from the other prophets whom he despised then surely we would expect him to make that difference explicit.

At this point Rivka Nir takes up what she considers the primary reason for doubting the authenticity of the Josephan passage: the description of John’s baptism. We’ll look at that in a later post.

Differences between John the Baptist and those other prophets

Continue reading “What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?”


2021-04-03

On John the Baptist per Josephus – and the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s continue looking at Rivka Nir’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews was not part of Josephus’s original work. We continue from John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities. But be warned. I get sidetracked and explore the broader evidence for both Christian and Jewish views on divine retribution for killing prophets and especially focus on the story that appears to have been the paradigm for all such accounts — the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles.

In my previous post the point was made that the John the Baptist passage appears to have been dislocated from where it would more naturally fit. That is, we have this flow of thought ….

  1. Josephus informs readers that Herod and the king of Nabatean Arabia, Aretas, had a quarrel.
  2. This quarrel, Josephus relates, was over Herod plotting to divorce Aretas’s daughter.
  3. Aretas went to war against Herod and defeated him.
  4. Herod then appealed to Tiberius, the Roman emperor, to punish Aretas. Tiberius ordered his general Vitellius to invade Aretas’s kingdom and bring Aretas back to Rome dead or alive.
  5. The John the Baptist passage appears here as the explanation, according to some Jews, for why Herod’s army had been defeated
  6. Vitellius is said to obey Tiberius’s order and his march towards Aretas’s kingdom is described, along with how he pulled back from his venture on learning of the death of emperor Tiberius.

Rivka Nir suggests that the more natural place for Josephus to give the supposed reason for Herod’s defeat would be between #3 and #4 above.

Rivka Nir also points to the discrepancy between the gospel’s dating the death of John to the time of Jesus (presumably about 30 CE or a little before) and the Josephan account that is set at 36 CE. “How could Josephus claim that the Jews credited Herod’s defeat to John’s death, which preceded it by six years?” (p. 44) But I wonder why the gospel timing of JB’s death should be taken as any more authoritative than Josephus’.

Further, the idea that Herod was defeated in war as divine punishment for unjustly killing a figure prominent in the Christian tradition reminds us of later Christian authors — Hegesippus, Origen and Eusebius — blaming the fall of Jerusalem on the unjust execution of James the brother of Jesus. Nir sees both accounts — the unjust murders of John the Baptist and James the Lord’s brother — as “presumably based on the causal relationship created by Christian theology between the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and the temple’s destruction.”(pp. 44f)

I was interested in the evidence for the early Christian authors promoting this idea of a causal relationship between the crucifixion of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem so followed up as many of Nir’s citations as I could. Here is what I found (all bolded emphasis is mine): Continue reading “On John the Baptist per Josephus – and the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada”


2021-03-29

John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been sidetracked from blogging regularly for a while now so I’m long overdue for continuing Rivka Nir’s case (The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist) for the John the Baptist passage in Josephus being a Christian interpolation. Previous posts are

Now I have to confess my exploration of John the Baptist since last year has been the result of following up Gregory Doudna’s chapter in a festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson. So far I have not posted in depth on Greg’s views but the summaries I have set out with links to the chapter online have generated some discussion: see

In this post the specific point made will serve both Nir’s and Doudna’s views. Nir argues for Christian interpolation; Doudna for a misplaced Josephan passage.

Nir points to James H. Charlesworth’s criteria for identifying interpolations in apocryphal writings. Criteria #2 and #3 would just as easily point to a misplaced passage as a foreign interpolation:

  • (2) if the passage is not integrated into the context syntactically;
  • (3) if the passage is easily removable and upon its removal the text’s sequence becomes clear.

Nir adds another but its relevance applies to examining the passage from a perspective that does not concern us in this post. Here we look at how the passage fits syntactically.

Rivka Nir directs our attention to the thought immediately preceding and then immediately following the John the Baptist passage as earlier addressed by Léon Herrmann — and noted by others, too, as we have seen in several posts over the years. It’s not a new observation but I think it is worth setting it down here again for reference.

Immediately before the JB passage (paragraph 115):

So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the charge that Tiberius [καὶ Τιβέριος μὲν] gave to the president of Syria.

and immediately following (paragraph 120) the JB passage:

So [δὲ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, having with him two legions of armed men; he also took with him all those of light armature, and of the horsemen which belonged to them, and were drawn out of those kingdoms which were under the Romans, and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais.

Nir’s comment:

On removal of the passage, paragraph 120 flows smoothly and uninterruptedly from paragraph 115 and the order of events and correct syntactical structure are retained: Tiberius commands and Vitellius acts. (Nir, p. 44)

Nir adds another point,

Furthermore, Josephus had already explained how ‘all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas’s army’ (Ant. 114), his seemingly historical explanation for Herod’s defeat which is placed in the appropriate context. Why, then, would Josephus need to provide an additional explanation? And why place it at a distance from his first explanation, and moreover in a way that interrupts the factual sequence?

It may be worth adding another detail Nir references, one made by John P. Meier in volume 2 of A Marginal Jew (pp. 59f): The JB passage can be read as an inclusio, as a self-contained capsule.

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 

The bolded opening and closing words contain the same concepts:

  • the Jews
  • opinion/thought
  • destruction of Herod’s army
  • divine punishment
  • justly deserved
  • John executed

None of the above (except arguably for Nir’s added “another point”) is inconsistent with Greg Doudna’s view, as I understand it. We will see different interpretations enter with further discussion. What the above does suggest, however, is that the John the Baptist passage as understood by readers in the Christian tradition was not original to the book 18 of Antiquities.


Nir, Rivka. First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. V. 2. Mentor, Message, and Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 1994.



2021-03-09

Early Thoughts on Authenticity of the John the Baptist Passage in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing Rivka Nir’s case for questioning the authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities…. (First post is here.)

Nir informs us in The First Christian Believer,

By the nineteenth and early twentieth century, historians were suggesting that this passage was a Christian interpolation. (p. 42)

As a general rule, I like to follow up and check the grounds for statements like that. For readers who also would like to know who these early historians were and what they actually said I post here quotations from the sources cited by Rivka Nir.

Heinrich Graetz

This sentence translates as…

Meanwhile, the point is easily settled. Josephus’s narrative [account] about John [the Baptist], his capture and his death (das. 2, 2), is a brazen interpolation like that about Jesus (das. 3, 3), which is has now generally come to be viewed as a forgery.

Graetz, Heinrich. “Von dem Tode Juda Makkabi’s zum Untergange des judäische Staates.” In Geschichte der Juden : von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart, 3:278 (note 3). Leipzig, Leiner, 1888. https://archive.org/details/geschichtederjud03grae/page/276/mode/2up

-o-

Samuel Krauss

Translation:

The question of the authenticity of the Johannes passage in Josephus has not yet been definitively answered; it is at any rate suspect.

Krauss, Samuel. Das Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen. Berlin: Georg Olms, 1902. p. 257 https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Tu9dpJx1M2oC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

-o-

Next is that passage I asked for help to translate.

Emil Schürer

Die Echtheit der Josephusstelle ist nur selten angefochten worden (auch Volkmar setzt sie ohne weiteres voraus ; gegen dieselbe : J . Chr . K . v . Hofmann , Die heil . Schrift Neuen Testaments , VII . Thl . 3 . Abth . Der Brief Jakobi 1876 , S . 4 f . ) Zu ihren Gunsten spricht allerdings, dass die Motive für die Gefangensetzung und Hinrichtung des Täuters so ganz anders angegeben werden als in den Evangelien. Da aber Josephus an anderen Stellen sicher von christlicher Hand interpolirt worden ist, so darf man auch hier nicht allzusehr auf die Echtheit vertrauen. Bedenken erweckt namentlich das günstige Urtheil über Johannes, der doch nur nach gewissen Seiten hin dem Josephus sympathisch sein konnte, nämlich als Asket und Moralprediger, aber nicht als der das Volk mächtig aufregende Prophet des kommenden Messias.

Translation with thanks to all those who contributed via email, Facebook and this blog.

The authenticity of the Josephus passage has only seldom been challenged (Volkmar also assumes it without further ado; against the same: J. Chr. K. v. Hofmann, Die heil .schrift Neuen Testaments, VII. Thl. 3rd Abth Der Brief Jakobi 1876, p. 4 f.) In their favor, however, the fact that the motives for the imprisonment and order of the masters are given so completely differently than in the Gospels. But since Josephus was certainly interpolated by a Christian hand in other passages, one should not trust too much in the authenticity here either. The favorable judgment about John arouses concern, who is only sympathetic to Josephus in certain respects could, namely as an ascetic and moral preacher, but not as the prophet of the coming Messiah, who might excite the people.

Schürer, Emil. Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi: Einleitung und politische Geschichte. Vol. 1.364 (note 24). J. C. Hinrichs, 1890.

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=KMTIX-nJwusC&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA364

Rivka Nir stated that Schürer thought Josephus’s positive attitude towards John was suspicious. But when I read the revised English translation of Schürer’s volume I met a different conclusion:

The passage of Josephus was known to Origen (c. Cels. I, 47). Eusebius quotes it in full (HE i 11, 4-6; DE ix 5, 15). Its genuineness is rarely disputed. In its favour is the fact that the motives for the imprisonment and execution of the Baptist are entirely different from the Gospel version. But since the text of Josephus has certainly been retouched by Christian scribes in other passages, the theory of an interpolation cannot be absolutely excluded. Suspicion is aroused by the favourable verdict on John, but against this it should be borne in mind that as an ascetic and moral preacher, he might have been viewed sympathetically by Josephus.

Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol. 1. Revised and edited by Geza Vermes & Fergus Millar. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973. p. 346 https://books.google.com.au/books?redir_esc=y&id=p75tWhrwGT8C&q=known+to+Origen#v=onepage&q&f=false

Vermes and Millar introduce an emphatic statement that Origen knew the passage in Josephus about John the Baptist, yet Origen’s testimony is ambiguous at best as we saw in the previous post.

Vermes/Millar further make the positive suggestion that “the theory of an interpolation cannot be absolutely excluded” but the intent of the original words is in fact negative according to the several translations generously offered by those who responded to my request:

  • given that other passages in Josephus were doubtless interpolated by Christian hands, one cannot place blind trust in authenticity.
  • since Josephus is interpolated by Christian hand in other places, one cannot trust its authenticity all too much in this case
  • one can’t completely trust this translation either (as it was influenced by a Christian perspective)
  • since Josephus was certainly interpolated by Christians (a Christian hand) in other places, one should not trust too much in the authenticity here either
  • since Josephus has clearly been interpolated in other places, one must not be altogether trusting of the genuineness of this passage

The Vermes/Millar revision presents an opposite idea, leading readers to think that, “Okay, theoretically there is some small chance it is an interpolation”; while other translations suggest, “Given what we know of Christian editing elsewhere we need to be cautious and not be too quick to assume authenticity here.” Continue reading “Early Thoughts on Authenticity of the John the Baptist Passage in Josephus”


2021-03-03

John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Of making many posts about John the Baptist there is no end, and much discussion may weary, or stimulate, the flesh. Here’s another one. This post is the first in a series of perhaps three that intends to raise awareness of Rivka Nir‘s case for the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus being a Christian interpolation. It comes from her book, The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist.

Nir begins by setting out the reasons scholars generally accept the Josephan passage about John the Baptist [JB] as authentic.

But first, here is the passage:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).

First reason: there are significant differences between the Josephan and gospel portrayals of JB

The scholars who argue for the authenticity of this passage base their case primarily on the differences, modifications and even contradictions between Josephus and the Gospel version. It is reasonable to assume, they argue, that had the hand of a Christian interpolator intervened here, he would fully align the passage with the Gospel account. (p. 33)

I am immediately reminded of Ken Olson’s discussion (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Forger) of how effective forgery works on readers psychologically in the case of the Secret Gospel of Mark. Indeed, Rivka Nir returns to the very same idea later in her discussion with respect to the Josephan passage of JB. But for now, let’s look at those differences that scholars have thought give assurance the Josephus passage is genuine.

Unlike the gospel authors, Josephus

The absence of an apocalyptic and messianic message for JB is said to be consistent with Josephus’s interests throughout his writings — to avoid offending Roman readers with mention of apparent messianic rebel movements against Rome. At the same time, Josephus wished to present the Jewish culture as embodying enlightened philosophical traditions so he portrayed JB as a popular ethical philosopher instead of a prophet of end-times.

Scholars have argued that the gospel account is needed to explain why crowds flocked to JB since they would more likely be attracted by a message of imminent judgment and messianic time than ethical philosophy. The evangelists were also just as motivated to remove suggestions that JB was a political threat as Josephus was to remove messianic associations.

Hence the accounts are viewed as complementary with their differences.

  1. does not associate JB with Jesus or Christianity
  2. gives JB no eschatological, apocalyptic or messianic interest
  3. plants JB in a real political-historical background
  4. gives political reasons for Herod Antipas’s hostility towards JB (fear of mob uprising: contrast gospels where hostility is personal hatred, in particular from Herodias who is not mentioned by Josephus)
  5. has JB imprisoned in Machaerus and executed shortly afterwards (contrast gospels where no place is given and the imprisonment appears to be for a considerable time before his execution)
  6. sets the execution of JB around 35 CE (contrast Gospel of Luke where it appears around 28-29 CE)

Scholars interpret these differences as an indication that there was a tradition about JB independent of the gospels.

Yet, at the same time, these scholars attempt to reconcile this testimony with the Gospels. (p. 34)

Reconciliation is found in the following:

  1. the need for repentance or righteous living in association with baptism
  2. crowds follow John
  3. Josephus’s statement that John had an influence over the attitude of the crowds towards Herod Antipas couples nicely with the gospel account Herod was worried by JB’s criticism of his marriage

Accordingly, these two testimonies are interrelated, complementary and unintelligible independently of each other; and their divergences derive from the difference in point of view, in authorial interest and the tendencies underlying each source, and, in fact, we have one tradition under different mantles. (pp. 34 f)

Second reason: the JB passage has the same vocabulary and style as the surrounding passages

They note, for exampie, Josephus’s inclination to verbosity, his peculiar vocabulary and linguistic forms, his usage of circumlocution, his heavy reliance on participles (participium) and the infinitive (infinitivus) and genitive absolute (genetivus absolutus), in his attempt to imitate classical Greek style, especially Thucydides. Of the many expressions characteristic of Josephus’s style in Ant. 17-19, scholars emphasize his usage of the following paired terms: piety toward God/fear of God (εύσεβεία πρός τόν θεόν) and righteousness (δικαιοσύνη). The conjunction of eusebia and dikaiosunë is typical of Josephus, encapsulating the essentials of ethical philosophy in his time, and is part of the apologetic arsenal in his effort to present Judaism as a philosophical tradition embracing the highest universal virtues. (P. 36)

Third reason: the JB passage appears in all of the manuscripts

Fourth reason: the JB passage is mentioned by Origen

Origen writes, ca 248 CE, in Against Celsus 1.47

I would like to have told Celsus, when he represented the Jew as in some way accepting John as a baptist in baptizing Jesus, that a man who lived not long after John and Jesus recorded that John was a Baptist who baptized for the remission of sins. For Josephus in the eighteenth book of the Jewish antiquities bears witness that John was a Baptist and promised purification to people who were baptized.

So how does Rivka Nir meet the above challenges in order to argue that the passage was not penned by Josephus? Continue reading “John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus”


2020-11-14

Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”


2020-03-22

If Josephus Wrote About the American Rebellion . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

From Wikimedia

In the winter of 1779 large numbers of these brigands gathered together in the hill country near Philadelphia, at a spot named Valley Forge. They were led by an ex-officer named Washington, who had been impelled by ambition to repudiate his oath of allegiance and place himself at the head of the rebels. From this favorable position they carried out raids on those peaceful farmers in the vicinity who remained loyal to the government. The brigands received much encouragement from the scribblings of a dissolute mechanic named Benjamin Franklin, now almost senile, who in consequence of having printed a number of almanacs for the lower classes considered himself a man of letters. 

Imagined by: Roth, Cecil. 1959. “The Jewish Revolt Against Rome:The War of 66-70 C.E.” Commentary, no. 27 (June): 513–22.

Josephus was a traitor. He went over to Roman side so we can imagine that he needed to justify himself in his account of events. If we read a historical narrative of the American War of Independence by Benedict Arnold we might expect a work written in the vein of the above imaginary quotation.

The point: We can’t read Josephus’s account of the war naively. It is a problem for historians to tease out “the true motives and attitudes behind the actions and personalities which we know only from Josephus’s jaundiced pages.” (Roth)


2020-01-31

Guest Post: Further Thoughts on the “We Passages” in Acts

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by Greg Doudna

[I have copied the following comment by Greg Doudna to a post here so the thoughts do not get lost in the comments section and are easier to read and engage with. Format slightly changed — Neil]

–o–

The argument that the “we” passages of Acts are an origin story of the church at Rome starting from Troy, sort of like the way (here in the northern hemisphere) the Pilgrims on the Mayflower is a foundation story told each Thanksgiving of how “we” Americans came to North America from Europe . . . is intriguing. Without gainsaying the intriguing positive part of your argument, an objection is that in its present form, Acts does not make a point of starting from Troy. Yet the “we” from Troy to ending up in Rome is sufficiently striking that it seems there must be something to what you suggest, here and in your previous series on this on Vridar (all of which I went back and read). That is, on the one hand, something seems to be there, but on the other hand it seems so subtle it seems questionable that the author of Acts intended it or that ancient first readers would have noticed. Therefore let me make some probings that might address this objection, basically in terms of a source interpretation.

1.

First, that the “we” is the final author of Acts, despite the presentation of Acts that that is the case, cannot be correct on chronological grounds of the dating of Acts. Much literature and argument here with which you and most here are familiar, but here is one that I have not seen cited here or receive much attention anywhere yet, but which appears solidly and independently to argue for, indeed may establish, a mid-second CE dating of Acts: Laura Nasrallah, “The Acts of the Apostles, Greek Cities, and Hadrian’s Panhellenion”, JBL 127 (2008): 533-566. Also and separately arguing for the same mid-2nd CE dating, David Trobisch, “The Book of Acts as a Narrative Commentary on the Letters of the New Testament: A Programmatic Essay”, pp. 119-127 in Gregory and Rowe, eds, Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts. Andrew F. Gregory, C. Kavin Rowe (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

2.

Second, that the “we” reads as the author or the author’s circle inviting readers’ identification vicariously–an inclusive authorial “we”–is the portrayal, yet that cannot be correct historically, therefore it is deception on the part of the actual author. Third, while earlier comments you have made show well that Acts is not history in the sense of Thucydides or Josephus, and is fiction-like, at the same time I question that it is properly called fiction either. Were not ancient romances and actual ancient fiction understood by readers to be just that–entertaining stories, not to be taken too seriously, not history? (Like Jesus’s parables or Aesop’s fables.) But Acts reads as intended by first authors and readers to be understood as history, tendentious history, but history, analogous to the way colonists’ might answer outsiders if asked “where do you come from? how did you get here?” Acts seems to be analogous to conscious writing of a foundation story, constructed history, not meant to be objective but to establish a shared foundation story understood emically as history . . . “our history”, “history as we have decided it to be” . . . in a text which explains–as a claim of history–why salvation history has come to where it now is, in Rome. (With the harmonization of Peter and Paul founding figures and the golden age of the first generation all part of this.) The “we” device works with this in Acts’ final form literarily.

3.

From here I now move to increasingly tentative conjecture. The starting point is the “we” passages may be from a source reworked. It is generally understood that Acts has worked from and reworked other sources, such that it is not unreasonable to suppose the “we” itinerary may be one more. I am not going to try to prove that, but assume that for purposes of conjecture going forward, in which, if that assumption is correct, some interesting possibilities may or may not emerge.

4.

Fourth, it has been brought out (Hyldahl, Justin Taylor and others) that the “we” passages connect together in what reads as originally a single itinerary, despite reading in present-form Acts as separated in narrative over a period of years. The conclusion seems to be that an original itinerary has somehow been “exploded” with narrative filler in between sections of an original connected “we” source itinerary.

5.

Fifth, though I do not have space to go into this point here, suffice it to say I am convinced the ship voyage from Jerusalem to Rome of Acts, and the ship voyage of Josephus to Rome in Vita, are the same ship and shipwreck. I do not find fully convincing that the similarities in details are explicable in terms of literary tropes; instead, it is two versions of the same ship and voyage. I perceive that the only reason this is not more recognized is because of a perception of a chronological discrepancy of ca. two years. Yet the dating of Paul’s voyage to Rome in Acts depends on the datings of the Felix/Festus and Festus/Albinus accessions which continue to be recognized as problematic, uncertain, and debated as to specific years. The argument for identity of the two ship voyages seems to me to be sufficiently strong as to itself justifiably introduce weight on the still-unresolved issues of the dating of the Felix/Festus accession.

6.

Continuing, sixth, the strong study of William Sanger Campbell, The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character (Leiden: Brill, 2007) is of interest, in arguing that “we” replaces the role of Barnabas narratively. As Acts has it, Barnabas exits the picture at 15:39 before the “we” narratives begin at 16:10, but Acts has arguably mixed up and rearranged story fragments and doublets in its narrative construction. I suggest (this is not Campbell) that the long-disputed mystery of who “we” is may be resolved as: it is the voice of Barnabas. The voice is that of Barnabas, of the original source where we read “we” in the second part of Acts.

7.

This then raises the question of who was Barnabas? I suggest consideration, seventh, that Barnabas could be none other than Josephus, and that the “we” source, which ends at the point of Paul’s trial in Rome, could be something of an ancient account, in first-person voice, of a legal advocate for Paul, namely Josephus, somehow related to Paul’s trial in Rome.

Begins and ends with Josephus?

Continue reading “Guest Post: Further Thoughts on the “We Passages” in Acts”


2020-01-18

Review, parts 9 and 10a. Jesus as Lawgiver and Miracle Worker (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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by Neil Godfrey

In chapter 9 M. David Litwa sets the Jesus narrative, specifically as told in the Gospel of Matthew, in the context of literary tropes surrounding ancient lawgivers.

Solon of Athens: See his life by Plutarch and Diogenes Laërtius

Lycurgus of Sparta: See his life by Plutarch and Herodotus

Numa of Rome: See Plutarch

Zoroaster of Persia: See Internet Archive

Minos of Crete: See Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Charondas of Sicily: See Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Zaleucus of southern Italy: See Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Mneves (Menas) of Egypt: See Diodorus Siculus (scroll down to para 94)

Zalmoxis (Salmoxis) of Thrace: See Herodotus and Strabo (scroll down to paras 39-40)

And, of course, not forgetting . . .

Moses: See Philo, parts 1 and 2; Josephus; Hecataeus; Artapanus

It seems more likely that Jesus was thought to have a coherent “message’ only after his death and so we have several different creations of it. . . .

[E]ither Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, for that matter, John did not know clearly what Jesus’ teachings were; or they didn’t care; or that they did know but disagreed with him so that they revised what he taught into something else; or that they did know what were said to be his teachings, did not trust those reports, and revised accordingly. Something odd is going on here. . . . .

When Sanders, standing in here for nearly all Jesus research scholars, says, “I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher,” I am baffled. Mark doubts it (4:10-12, 8:17-21), neither Paul nor John pay any significant attention to those teachings, Luke cares little about the matter (taking Acts as representative of Luke’s bottom-line assessment). Scholarship, theological and historical both, is in a state of near conceptual chaos regarding the message of Jesus the Teacher: countercultural wisdom sage, peasant Jewish Cynic, Pharisaic rabbi, antipatriarchal communalist, eschatological preacher? If he had a coherent message and neither we nor his known near contemporaries know for sure what it was, he ought not to be thought, first and foremost, to have been a great and challenging teacher.

(Davies, Jesus the Healer, 12 f)

A few scholars (I’m thinking of Stevan Davies) even question the extent to which Jesus should be thought of as a teacher, or at least they draw attention to the doubts they have that we can even know what he taught.

Rewriting a biblical miracle for a gentile audience

Chapter 10 on the narratives of Jesus as a miracle worker I found of more interest, perhaps because this aspect of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.

Here Litwa’s philosophical introduction on the nature of miracles is too embedded in apologetics for my taste. He prefers to think of “inexplicable” events and repeats the apologetic argument that plausibility is culturally determined, that everything follows a law of nature as determined by God but that some of these divinely created laws or events we simply don’t yet understand. He writes

In the ancient world, plausible miracles could parade as historical; implausible ones were often labeled “mythical” (mythodes).

(Litwa, 136)

The first example of a “plausible miracle” raises problematic questions when it comes to how we are meant to understand Jesus’ miracles, however. According to Litwa’s reading Josephus used the “miracle” of Alexander’s crossing of the Pamphyialn Sea as a precedent that gave credibility to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

The story that the Pamphylian Sea receded before Alexander’s army, however, was apparently credited. According to historical report, Alexander’s entire army in all their heavy equipment passed through a sea channel that would have normally drowned them. This account was first told by Callisthenes of Olynthus, official historian of Alexander’s campaign and an apparent eyewitness of the event. Callisthenes assimilated Alexander to Poseidon by writing that the Pamphylian Sea “did not fail to recognize its lord, so that arching itself and bowing, it seemed to do obeisance [to Alexander].”5

Josephus mentioned the Pamphylian Sea miracle to make plausible his historiographical account of Moses parting the Red Sea.6 He knew that qualified and respected historians presented Alexander’s sea miracle as historiography.7 He even remarked that “all” historians agreed that the sea made a path for Alexander’s army.8 Thus Josephus felt justified in presenting his own (Jewish) sea miracle as an actual event in the past.

(Litwa, 136)

But there’s a but. Josephus changed the story as found in the Book of Exodus so it read more like a rare and coincidental natural event like the account of Alexander’s crossing. Here is Exodus 14:21-25 Continue reading “Review, parts 9 and 10a. Jesus as Lawgiver and Miracle Worker (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)”


2020-01-14

Miracles with Multiple Jewish and Roman Eyewitnesses

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by Neil Godfrey

Gillis, Marcel; The Angels of Mons; Atkinson Art Gallery Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-angels-of-mons-65958

If we accept the common dating of Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, around 75 CE, then consider what this means for the historicity of the following events. Apply the reasoning of those who argue for the historicity of New Testament miracles. Josephus declares he is recording events no more than ten years earlier and he speaks of eyewitnesses.

First a star stood over the City, very like a broadsword, and a comet that remained a whole year.

Then before the revolt and the movement to war, while the people were assembling for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the 8th of Xanthicos at three in the morning so bright a light shone round the Altar and the Sanctuary that it might have been midday. This lasted half an hour. The inexperienced took it for a good omen, but the sacred scribes at once gave an interpretation which the event proved right.

During the same feast a cow brought by someone to be sacrificed gave birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple courts,

while at midnight it was observed that the East Gate of the Inner Sanctuary had opened of its own accord – a gate made of bronze and so solid that every evening twenty strong men were required to shut it, fastened with iron-bound bars and secured by bolts which were lowered a long way into a threshold fashioned from a single slab of stone. The temple-guards ran with the news to the Captain, who came up and by a great effort managed to shut it. This like the other seemed to the laity to be the best of omens . . . .

A few days after the Feast, on the 21st of Artemisios, a supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I have to relate would, I suppose, have been dismissed as an invention had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. Before sunset there were seen in the sky over the whole country, chariots and regiments in arms speeding through the clouds and encircling the towns.

Again, at the Feast of Pentecost, when the priests had gone into the Inner Temple at night to perform the usual ceremonies, they declared that they were aware, first of a violent movement and a loud crash, then of a concerted cry: ‘Let us go hence.’

(Josephus, Jewish War, 6)

A star “over a city” is as nonsensical to us as a star positioned over the house where Jesus was found. And comets do not stay around for a full year. But how could Josephus get away with writing such things within ten years of them supposedly happening unless they were true and could not be contradicted by eyewitnesses, both Roman and Jewish?

Josephus further tells us that priests saw and interpreted the signs and priests would hardly lie. They were, after all, attempting to tell the masses that what they had seen should be interpreted as a sign from God carrying a different message.

If the cow giving birth to a lamb had been said to have happened in a cowshed or behind an outhouse then we could dismiss it easily enough. But how could Josephus expect to get away with saying it happened right in the middle of the Temple courts? Surely there were scores of eyewitnesses.

As for the appearance of angelic armies in the sky being confirmed by eyewitnesses, we can well believe it. We know the same type of event was recorded but a mere month after the battle at Mons in 1914: see the Angels of Mons.

 


2019-04-02

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

Preface

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.