I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.
All the same notes apply re my modifications of some sections of the translation, additional notes and hyperlinks.
3. Tacitus and Josephus
The information we get from Ehrman about Tacitus and the Testimonium Taciteum, which he highly values, on 2 (two!) pages of the book is not enough to keep skin and bones together. We are only briefly informed about the content and the historical background of this testimony, but about the problems with it Ehrman has almost nothing at all to say. Ehrman speaks of the Roman historian Tacitus and his “famous Annals of Imperial Rome in 115 CE” (p. 54) and the passage that reports on the burning of Rome and the subsequent persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to Ehrman, Tacitus is said to have considered Nero the arsonist, but this is not true. If Ehrman had studied the text more thoroughly, he would have noticed that although Tacitus assumes that Nero was interested in the burning of Rome, he leaves the question of guilt in the balance – unlike Suetonius, to which Ehrman presumably refers. In any case, there are mass executions of Christians, here called “Chrestiani“, some of whom are torn apart by wild dogs and others burned alive to illuminate the imperial park at night. In this context, there is now also talk about the author of this name, Christ (the “Chrestus”, as the magnifying glass on the cover of this website shows), who was “put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”
Ehrman sees here a testimony to the historicity of Jesus, even though he admits that the text does not speak of Jesus but of Christ and that it is based on Christian sources. Moreover, Ehrman suggests that some mythicists argue that the Testimonium Taciteum was not written by Tacitus but interpolated “by Christians, who copied them [Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius]” (p. 55).
Unfortunately, however, he keeps the arguments they put forward for this viewpoint to himself – if he knows them at all. Ehrman considers these arguments to be a merely a trick to explain everything that doesn’t fit the bill as a later falsification.
However, the radical critics who speak of interpolation will certainly have given reasons. What are they?
Since Ehrman remains stubbornly silent, let’s name a few. They arise from a (literary-critical) consideration of the context in which the passage of Tacitus is embedded. The 42-43rd chapter was about Nero’s lively building activity. After the fire in Rome, the emperor first used the situation to create new parks and gardens, and then to build houses and apartments according to a new, more spacious design. Chap. 45 continues this theme after the section on the persecution of Christians with an introductory “interea” (meanwhile). Now it is emphasized that the money for the building projects came primarily from the provinces and that even some temples in Rome were robbed of their gold to finance the emperor’s projects.
The text that has been handed down thus offers an extremely strange train of thought: Nero has the Christians burned, the people have pity on them – “meanwhile” (interea) the Roman Empire is being plundered. It is obvious that such a nonsensical train of thought could by no means have been the intention of the narrator. Between chapters 44 and 45 there is no connecting point to which the “interea” could refer. If it is to establish a meaningful connection, it can, in terms of content, only tie up to Ch. 43 but not to 44: Rome is being rebuilt – in the meantime the empire is being plundered for it! Ehrman does not need to be convinced by this argument. But he should at least know it so that he can deal with it. Continue reading “Prof. “Errorman” and the non-Christian sources — Part 3: Tacitus and Josephus”
I discuss here my reading of Chapter 5 of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Here he looks at the problematic nature of the gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus.
Lataster discusses how historical Jesus scholars attempt to get around the problem that there are no primary sources for a historical Jesus. This absence leads scholars to focus on
1) the character and limitations of presumed oral traditions that bridge the gap between the gospels and the historical Jesus;
2) memory theory, what we theorize and know about social and individual memories.
Both of these studies do indeed raise awareness of problems for a historian’s access to a historical Jesus and Lataster cites numerous scholars who have contributed to our awareness of these problems. I suggest, however, that much of the discussion is at best a footnote to a debate over whether there was a person of Jesus at the start of Christianity. After all, the problems relate to the reconstruction of such a Jesus. If Christianity had some other origin then memories or oral traditions cannot have any relation to “a historical Jesus”.
The most famous extra-biblical reference to a historical Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus. Lataster’s discussion is a thorough coverage of the weaknesses of attempts to salvage even a smaller core of the surviving sentences, again citing a range of recent scholars who have expressed serious reservations about Josephus ever having said anything at all about our Jesus. I was pleased to see a detailed quotation from a publication by a distinguished professor in the field of linguistics, Paul Hopper. (Interested readers can see the quotation in an older post here.) As for the second passage in the Antiquities of Josephus, one which appears to be an after-thought reference to a Jesus related to a certain James, Lataster highlights Richard Carrier’s argument that the Jesus referred to is Jesus son of Damneus. (See David Fitzgerald Responds for details of the argument.) Carrier’s view makes some sense but I am not entirely sure it resolves all questions and for that reason I prefer Earl Doherty’s original discussion as the more satisfactory. But either way, there are significant problems with the view that Josephus identified James as “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ”, both in syntax and context. It is important to address both Josephan passages but as Lataster notes,
it is important to realise that even if authentic, these verses do not necessarily confirm the existence of the Historical Jesus.
(Lataster, p. 200)
Josephus is writing decades after the supposed historical Jesus and adds nothing to what is known from other sources, the implication being that there is no reason to suspect that either passage had any source other than Christians, either as Josephus’s late first century source or as later copyists of his work.
Lataster’s comprehensive discussions of other ancient sources mentioning or interpreted as alluding to either Jesus or Christ — Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud — draw in both scholarly rebuttals and common answers that as far as I am aware have never been countered by anyone attempting to use them as evidence for a historical Jesus. A new point concerning Pliny’s letter about Christians to emperor Trajan is also covered: Enrico Tuccinardi has applied a stylometric analysis that strongly indicates the entire passage is a forgery.
As for the canonical gospels, Lataster reminds us of the major obstacles to accepting them as sources for a historical Jesus. They are late documents, at least forty years after the narrated crucifixion, and they are accepted by critical biblical scholars as mythical or theological narratives of Christ, not a historical person. Whatever the form of Jesus behind them — historical or mythical — they are nonhistorical elaborations that have come to hide whatever that original concept was. Lataster buttresses his point with citations from critical biblical scholars. One such noteworthy name is that of the pioneer of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk:
As an historian, I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations… In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only prob abilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings.
(Robert Walter Funk, “Bookshelf: The Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 8, no. 1 (1995): 9., in Lataster, p. 219)
Given the prevailing near consensus that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel it is reasonable to consider the possibility that all subsequent references to and portrayals of a historical Jesus can go back to that gospel. Lataster cites Bart Ehrman to this effect:
If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.
(Lataster, p. 220, citing Erhman from https://ehrmanblog.org/gospel-evidence-that-jesus-existed, accessed 05/04/2017.)
If it all begins with Mark . . .
What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.
What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.
What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?
What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)
What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?
What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?
Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?
I don’t think so. Continue reading “Imagine No Interpolations”
I have collated 21 Vridar posts on the Testimonium Flavianum into a single page of annotated links. See the ARCHIVES by TOPIC, Annotated in the right margin. Look under Pages.
Or jump straight to Jesus in Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum to see the annotated list.
An email update this morning informs me that linguist Paul Hopper has uploaded to his academia.edu page another copy of his earlier paper, A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:631, that was published in 2014 in Linguisitics and Literary Studies. There is now a new link to the paper. The paper is a few years old now and I’ve posted about it before but no matter at all: the email notice this morning gives me another opportunity to bring it to the attention of readers not aware of it.
In my previous post, Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus, I quoted the abstract and conclusion of Paul Hopper’s paper. Here I quote a few lines on different aspects in the body of the paper.
After a detailed discussion of verbal forms in the Testimonium Flavianum passage compared with those in the adjacent Pilate episodes we move to a discussion of the “macrolevel” of narrative structure. (I have added bolding to and changed some of the layout of the original text.)
The Aquifer episode
But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition. — Antiquities, 18, 3, 2.
The time organization in the Testimonium is strikingly different from that of the surrounding text. For example, the narrative of the Aquifer [see box right] is filled with particular details –
the rioters shouting insults,
the Roman soldiers going among the crowd in Jewish dress,
the order to the demonstrators to disperse,
the overreaction of the soldiers,
and the bloody suppression of the riot.
At each point we know not only what the actors did, but why they did it, and what the causes and effects of their actions were. The Aquifer episode, like the other episodes involving Pontius Pilate, has an event structure. Time in these episodes is kairotic, that is, it is qualitative time (kairos) experienced by individual actors.9 . . . .
By contrast, the temporality of the Testimonium is chronic (chronos), that is, it is part of the general temporality of human history. It takes place in a more remote perspective of slow changes and general truths; it is temps conjoncturel, the time of social movements and social reorganization. It has a bird’s-eye view of its subject, scanning the entire life of Jesus and his influence in no particular order, anachronistically (Genette 1980:34). . . . . So the Testimonium belongs to a different kind of time from the rest of the Jewish Antiquities. The temporality of the Testimonium derives from its presumed familiarity to its audience, which in turn is more compatible with a third century or later Christian setting than a first century Roman one. . . . .
The next point is a comparison of the Testimonium‘s “emplotment” with the preceding Pilate episodes.
The Aquifer story is a narration in which a situation is established and the characters interact, and there is a resolution. It has a plot in the way that recent narrative theorists have stipulated. . . . The same is true of the other two Pilate episodes. . . . . The careful crafting of emplotment is an essential part of Josephus’s skill as a historian.
The Testimonium has no such plot. From the point of view of its place in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, it does not qualify as a narrative at all. The Testimonium could not be understood as a story except by someone who could already place it in its “intelligible whole”, the context of early Christianity. The Testimonium gains its intelligibility not through its reporting of novel events but by virtue of being a “repetition of the familiar” (Ricoeur 1981:67) – familiarity here meaning familiarity to a third century Christian readership, not to a first century Roman one.The “intelligible whole” posited by Ricoeur as the indispensable foundation for a story does not lie, as it does for the other events told by Josephus in this part of the Jewish Antiquities, in the larger narrative of the interlocking destinies of Rome and Jerusalem, but instead in the Gospel story of the Christian New Testament, and it is from the Gospels, and the Gospels alone, that the Jesus Christ narrative in the Testimonium draws its coherence and its legitimacy as a plot, and perhaps even some of its language. It is not just that the Christian origin of the Testimonium is betrayed by its allegiance to the Gospels, as that without the Gospels the passage is incomprehensible. Once again to draw on Paul Ricoeur, the Testimonium does not so much narrate to first century Romans new events, but rather reminds third century Christians of events already familiar to them.
And then a look at genre, and a comparison between the TF and credal formulas vis a vis the historical narrative of Josephus.
The Testimonium is anchored in a radically different discourse community from that of the rest of the Jewish Antiquities. The Testimonium reads more like a position paper, a party manifesto, than a narrative. Unlike the rest of the Jewish Antiquities, it has the same generic ambiguity between myth and history that Kermode (1979) has noted in the Gospels as a whole. . . . . It is, in other words, a political interpolation. It serves to validate the Christian claim of the crucifixion of the sect’s founder during Pilate’s administration, and, by positioning its text within that of the genre “history”, with its ethos of truth, to warrant the historical authenticity of the Gospels. But told as a series of new events to a first century Roman audience unfamiliar with it, the Testimonium would have been a bizarre addition and probably quite unintelligible.
The Testimonium Flavianum
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, (9) those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; (10) 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. — Antiquities, 18, 3, 3.
The Testimonium Flavianum qualifies poorly as an example of either history or narrative. Where, then, does it fit generically? The closest generic match for the Testimonium is perhaps the various creeds that began to be formulated in the early fourth century, such as the Nicene Creed (325 CE).10 Some credal elements are clearly present:
Jesus was the Messiah;
he was crucified under Pontius Pilate (passus sub Pontio Pilato, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed);
he came back to life on the third day after his death;
the movement founded by him – the Christian church – continues to flourish;
he performed miracles;
the biblical prophets foretold many details of his life.
Less specifically credal, but similar in character to the creeds, are its length (77 Greek words, comparable to the 76 words of the Latin Apostles’ Creed and the 91 words of the Greek Apostles’ Creed)11 and the sycophantic tone of the confirmed believer (“had a following among both Jews and Gentiles”, “appeared to them alive after the third day”, “the biblical prophets foretold his many miracles”). The unmotivated introduction of Jesus immediately after the openingginetai (“there happened”) is also structurally reminiscent of credal formulas such as credo in unum deum etc.
. . . . . . The Testimonium reflects what had by the third century CE become a commonplace of Christianity: that culpability for the death of Jesus rested with the Jews.12 It is made clear in the Testimonium that Pilate’s agency is indirect: the true agents are “the first men among us”, the Jewish leaders who effect the “indictment” of Jesus, Pilate’s role being limited to pronouncing the death sentence. The “among us” is unequivocal: responsibility for the death of Jesus lies with Josephus’s fellow-countrymen, the Jews, not with the Romans, and in this too the Testimonium is hard to reconcile with Josephus’s denunciation of Pilate’s crimes against the Jews. The Josephus of the Testimonium is represented as aligning himself with the Christians (versus the Jews) and admitting that the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah lies with the Jews; it need hardly be said that such an admission on Josephus’s part is inconceivable.
But the above is taken from only the last three pages of Paul Hopper’s twenty plus page article. See the link below to download the paper or read it online.
Hopper, Paul. 2014. “A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63.” In Linguistics and Literary Studies / Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft, edited by Monika Fludernik and Daniel Jacob, Bilingual edition, 147–69. Linguae & Litterae, Book 31. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter. https://www.academia.edu/37321029/A_Narrative_Anomaly_in_Josephus_Jewish_Antiquities_xviii_63.
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.
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: Continue reading “Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus”
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.
[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. Continue reading “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) expresses a most worthy ideal in an exchange with David Fitzgerald (DF):
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. Continue reading “O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #9: Josephus, 1 – Dave Fitzgerald on the Testimonium”
Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.
In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
We saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is an independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”
Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.
Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:
- Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
- Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?
The Question of Authenticity
Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.
In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.
And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that
- summarizes the work and character of Jesus
- tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
- says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians
and in the course of that summary, the same passage says
- Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
- that Jesus was the Christ
- that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20, Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.
We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:
- It is entirely original to Josephus
- It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
- It is a mixture of original and insertion.
Meier excludes the first two options:
- It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
- It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus
Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.
That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.
Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.
Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest. Continue reading “Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus”
Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.6
What Did Jews Have to Say?
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Philo of Alexandria
- the Testimonium: entirely interpolation or an authentic residue?
- is an authentic residue “neutral”?
- is the Testimonium intrusive or a digression?
- silence of Christian commentators on Testimonium before Eusebius
- how could Josephus have felt ‘positive’ or even neutral toward Jesus?
- is the Testimonium’s language the language of Eusebius?
- changes to the Testimonium and its location
- the case of Antiquities 20
- The Jewish Talmud
- why are there no traditions about Jesus going back to the 1st century?
* * * * *
Non-Christian References to Jesus
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 56-68, Jewish Sources)
Philo of Alexandria
Bart Ehrman, in his survey of the non-Christian witness to Jesus, turns next to the Jewish category. He first dismisses the silence about Jesus in the writings of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria as something unsurprising, since by his death (probably by 50 CE), Christianity had not yet penetrated to Egypt. That may be the case, but this does not mean that a philosopher living in Egypt, just around the Mediterranean corner from Palestine, especially one whose philosophy about God and the mediator Logos was a close antecedent to that of Paul, was completely isolated from news of Judean events, or from new ideas being bandied about in the very field of thought Philo was engaged in.
What we do know from Philo’s writings
Moreover, we know from his writing that Philo was familiar with Pilate and his objectionable activities in Judea. He would not, of course, know about every rebel or criminal executed by the governor, but considering the developments which supposedly followed this particular execution, and considering his interest in the sect known as the Therapeutae to which the early Christian community in Judea would supposedly have borne a strong resemblance, it would not be infeasible for him to have noticed the latter and especially what was presumably being made out of its human founder.
We have writings of Philo up to the year 41 CE, but it could be argued (Ehrman does not) that, even had he taken notice, commenting on that notice was something he simply didn’t get around to doing. The silence in Philo is therefore not overly significant, it’s just another void to add to the overall picture.
But the most important Jewish historian of the era is another matter. Josephus has been a battleground in the ‘clash of titans’ and understandably so. The last half-century of scholarship has focused mainly on whether the passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum in Antiquities of the Jews, Bk.18 contains an authentic original by Josephus which Christians later only made additions to. This is a bandwagon which virtually every New Testament scholar these days has hopped onto, as though the maintenance of an authentic original is seen as crucial to Jesus’ existence.
What scholars used to say
It should be noted, however, that prior to the Second World War, many scholars were quite willing to postulate that Josephus made no reference to Jesus at all. See, for example, Maurice Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History?, p.35 (that both passages can be “suspected of interpolation”); or Charles Guignebert, Jesus, p.18 (“It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere”). The latter, in regarding the Testimonium as a complete forgery, suggested: “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter” (Ibid., p.17).
Who proofread this book? I
Curiously, Ehrman says he will deal with Josephus’ two references to Jesus “in reverse order,” gives us a brief description of the Antiquities 20 passage, then “before dealing with” the mythicist claim that it’s an interpolation, he switches over to the Testimonium in Antiquities 18, calling it the “second passage.” One gets an impression more than once in this book that Ehrman simply went with his first draft, and without benefit of editor.
The suspicious passages
Though most of the present readers will know this passage like the back of their hands, I’ll give Ehrman’s rendition of it according to “the best manuscripts”:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3) [DJE?, p. 59]
The problem parts of this passage, as Ehrman recounts them, are well known: Continue reading “6. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Jewish Sources”
Poor Josephus. He is made to bear such a burden of evidence for the sake of Jesus. Socrates’ burden on the other hand is very light. People who knew Socrates wrote about him and we can read their accounts today. Some of these people tell us they were his students and devoted followers. Another was a playwright who irreverently mocked Socrates as someone whose head was always “in the clouds”. None of this leaves us with absolutely ironclad certainty that such a figure was historical but it does give us reasonable confidence. Without the writings of followers of Socrates we would never be sure if Socrates was a fictional character. Without the mockery of Aristophanes we would have more reason to wonder if there was a real person behind the name Plato selected as a literary master-voice through whom to express his own thoughts. Even so, a few have voiced the possibility that Socrates was not historical. But most of us have been satisfied to think of him as a real figure who instigated controversy in Athenian society and won a devoted following of students.
Jesus, though, is known only from one source of tradition, Christianity itself, until we reach at the earliest the latter years of the first century (and even within that tradition itself there is not a single one who claims to have been an eyewitness of the Galilean healing-teacher. It is not insignificant that this same tradition, in all of its many variations, seeks to spread belief in this person. The very idea of the twelve disciples of Jesus is problematic for several reasons. (The links are to earlier discussions of the evidence for them.)
So it is very important for some people to hang on tightly to the passages in Josephus that mention Jesus. Josephus, even though he wrote near the end of the century, a good 60 years after Jesus was supposed to have died, is the only first-century account independent of the Christian tradition and so the only non-Christian witness to the historicity of Jesus within a long generation of his death. One scholar has even gone on record as saying that because of Josephus the evidence for the existence for Jesus is comparable to that for Socrates! Now that is a desperate claim. Nothing about Josephus comes close to matching multiple eye-witness sources. Continue reading “Socrates, Jesus and the broken reed of Josephus”
Continuing from my previous two posts my little roll on Jesus Not A Myth by “anti-mythicist” A. D. Howell Smith (1942). . . .
I love reading those book reviews that introduce me to the arguments under review. I have read many worthless reviews that pique my interest in their subjects despite their efforts to turn me away. One was by a seasoned scholar who blasted George Athas’s publication of his thesis on the Tel Dan inscription. The reviewer spent most of his time attacking Athas personally (he was too much an academic novice to be attempting to discuss such a serious topic!) and appealing to the authority of traditional views. That sort of review raises my suspicions that there is something in a work by the likes of Athas that the reviewer cannot handle, so I am more curious to find out what it is.
Albert Schweitzer also outlines arguments of various mythicists of his day in order to explain what he believes are their weaknesses (and even strengths in some cases).
So it is with Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth. It is not easy to track down older books on mythicism, but I was lucky to stumble across Jesus Not a Myth some years back and find it a valuable resource to catching glimpses of the contents of mythicist arguments early last century — and, of course, to compare rejoinders to those arguments.
Here is another excerpt, this time on the evidence of Josephus, pp. 15-18. Continue reading “How they used to debate the evidence of Josephus for the historical Jesus”