Even if the Entire Testimony of Josephus on Jesus is Authentic,
It's Apologetically Worthless
By Harry H. McCall at 2/17/2014
Josephus composed his four works in thirty volumes in while in Rome and in Greek. These are chronologically: the Judean War (ca. 79 CE), the Judean Antiquities (20 volumes) & his Life (93 -94 CE) and finally Against Apion (ca. 98 CE) , but in this vast amount of literary work, only a short paragraph mentioned the Jesus of Christianity; thus the theme of my post.
The testimony of Flavius Josephus (37 -100 CE) on Jesus or what scholars refere to as the Testimonium Flavianum (here after TF) has been hotly debated as to whether it is authentic (completely or in part) as the only proof - apart from the New Testament - that Jesus existed. This has been best expressed in a detailed study on the subject by Alice Wheatly:
"In modern this text, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, has been considered to be the only extra-Biblical witness to the historicity of Jesus. In ancient and medieval times it was the most frequently quoted passage from Josephus' works, and it played no small role in making Josephus the most widely read Greek-language historian of the pre-modern Western world. In the sixteenth century the text was pronounced a forgery by some scholars, creating an intellectual controversy that has not been resolved even today." (1)
The literature on the subject was reviewed in 1973 by Paul Winter who noted, "The literature on this subject is so vast that only a selection of references can be given here." (2)
What I would like to in this post is to stop beating this dead horse of textual authenticity dealing with the internal problems of the TF and look at some solid external reasons why this passage on Jesus (as well as two others by Josephus) should be rejected. So for argument's sake, let's assumes that the TF was, without question, written by Josephus in its entirety or that what we have in our late medieval manuscripts is exactly what Josephus wrote.
In other words, without the internal Literary Textual Criticism dealing with the TF, would not remove all the debates once and for all by proving that a Historical Jesus existed in Roman-Palestine in the 1st century BCE? Not if we factor in the advances of current historical research on the Bible as well as how Josephus subjectively, uncritically and apologetically use sources to create his Judean Antiquities. But let's review some general objections Christian apologist have used to defend Josephus' statements on the Bible in general and the Gospels in particular.
Objection 1: Josephus was an accurate and truthful historian
Ironically for those who claim either authenticity or some theory of interpolation for the TF, Josephus's Judean Antiquities has more in common with other non-canonical Jewish texts composed at that time such as the huge number of Biblical Pseudepigrapha forged for apologetic purposes by modifying and expanding older religious stories to prove some historical and theological points.(3)
Thus, while using the LXX account as well as Pseudo-Philo (4) as templates, Josephus intent was to write an apologetic Jewish history for the Greco-Romans (gentile) world so people that understood Herodotus' view that the Greeks owed a great debt to the ancient Egyptian civilization. Josephus used the antiquity of Egypt for proof that the Jews were just as ancient by adding forged material in the story on how the Judean patriarch Abraham first taught the Egyptians mathematics, science and philosophy (Ant. I: 166 - 168). For Josephus, the fabrication of new material or on par with Scripture written during and after the Second Temple Period meaning it was just flat out lying for apologetic reasons to create new converts.
Using Genesis as a starting template, Josephus has Adam and Eve's son (Seth) descendants founding astronomy by studying " . . .the heavenly bodies and their orderly arrangement." (Ant. I: 69), but even more important, Josephus embellishes Abraham as having superior knowledge of all the ancient science and philosophies has him describing how the universe to the extent that this Jewish Patriarch even uses the natural world to proves monotheism (Ant. 1: 155 - 156).
Josephus' apologetic inventions and lies about Jewish history don't stop with either Seth's family as astronomers or fabricated material about Abraham, but Josephus continues on with more embellishments of Moses who (like Abraham) Josephus claimed he used a form of Natural Theology as a basis for the Torah (Ant. 1: 18 -19, 34) which, in turn caused him to also rejected the corrupt myths of polytheism in favor of the pure virtue of monotheism (Ant. 1: 22 - 24).
Contrary to the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 4: 10), Josephus presents Moses as mentally gifted child (Ant. 2: 229 - 30), who after serving as a brilliant Egyptian commander whose intelligence "surpassed in understanding all who ever live" (Ant. 4: 328) presents a clear rival story to that of the founder of Rome, Romulus, and Dionysius of Harlicarnassus' account of Aeneas (Ant. 4:326). (5)
For Josephus, the use lies to describe Biblical figures (mostly unknown to the gentile world) freely extended beyond Abraham and Moses, but to Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Samson Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon and Daniel. (6)
Objection 2: Even if Josephus added totally fabricated additions to the Biblical accounts, by his very mention of Jesus; he proved Jesus existed!
This is best expressed by one atheist Tim O'Neill at the end a long essay attacking a fellow atheist.
"How much of the passage is or isn't authentic is entirely beside the point: if anyof (sic) it is an authentic mention of Jesus by Josephus, the Mythicist goose is well and truly cooked. And the fact remains that the consensus of scholarship by experts Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic or Calathumpian is that Josephus did mention Jesus here."
Simply put, this would the same as claiming that because Jesus (Luke 17:26) or the Epistle of 1 Peter (3: 20) mentioned Noah (and the Flood), then both a man name Noah and a worldwide floor must have been real and historical.
Just because Josephus mentioned a name, are we to consider that these were real historical people? So if we are to accept Jesus as historical because of the TF, then why not also use Josephus to prove that there were a real historical Adam and Eve (Anquities1:34); there was a factual Garden of Eden (Anquities, 1:51); ancient Snakes could talk (Anquities 1: 42 -43); there was a Tower of Babel (Anquities 1: 115 -18); the Patriarchs were all historical people (Anquities 1: 104 - 6); there was a historical Israelite leader named Moses (Anquities1: 16) who wrote the Torah (Anquities1:18) and so on we could go.
What one is forced to admit is that Josephus uncritically swallows everything in the Hebrew Bible, the LXX and the Targums on simple faith just as any Christian Fundamentalist does, but he goes past this and makes these Biblical figures apologetically larger than the legendary embellished myths they already are so he can prove to his gentile readers that ancient Jewish leaders were blessed by their god just as the any of the famous leaders of ancient Greco-Roman traditions were. (7)
The debate over whether Josephus wrote a statement on the existence of a historical Jesus Christ has been apologetically driven due to the fact that for the first 200 years, there is totally nothing apart of the New Testament itself that Jesus ever existed. The debate over the TF has been so closely focused that most engaged in this debate have failed to see the forest (Josephus's world view and credibility) for the tree (or I should say trees as all three statements by Josephus, be they the TF, the account on James as the brother Jesus or the passage about John the Baptist) share all the problematic symptoms of Gospel stories being created in Asia Minor in Hellenistic Greek using one of the most popular names of the so-called Old Testament. The Hebrew popular name of Joshua (Greek Jesus) had a Semitic etymology that carried a theological meaning more so than any other that, Yahweh is Salvation . . . a well chosen name (8) that would have been readily understood by Jews living in the Hellenistic Diaspora, who (after the destruction of the Second Temple) saw the failure of the Israelite god to act in saving the Jewish state as an embarrassment for which neither the land, the Torah nor the tradition Jewish god had any real credibility especially after the destruction of his personal house; the Temple in 70 CE.
Thus, the discussion must be shifted away for a narrow focus on whether or not the TF was written by Josephus to the much wider context of Josephus's character, where he wrote, why he wrote, who he was writing for and how he understood reality, truth in relation to the free hand in used in creating a so-called historical apologetics.
This paradigm shift must now face the fact that if Josephus had either firsthand knowledge about Jesus or reliable sources, then why didn't he mention the Gospel Jesus in his Judean War which dealt in considerable detail with the Jewish struggles, first against the Greeks then against the Romans ending not only with the destruction of Jerusalem with its Temple, but with fortresses of the countryside such as Masada. Thus, if indeed Jesus had actually been a historical figure living in Roman Palestine's turbulent political climate of the first century and who was killed, not by the Jews over blasphemy, but by the Romans for sedition . . . as King of the Jew, then why was such a major historical figure not mentioned by Josephus in his Judean War?
Finally, though Josephus boosts about the fact that his ancestry is from a long and distinguished line of line of priest (Life 1:1 - 9) who served in the Jerusalem Temple and though he states further that he studied philosophy (really theology) first under the Pharisees, then under the Sadducees and finally under the Essenes (Life 1: 10), not once is the name Jesus mentioned even though the Gospels (followed by most New Testament scholars) present Jesus as a major leading figure in first century Roman Palestine. If the TF did support any historical facts claimed for Jesus, then what a better place to boost as Josephus loved doing (Anquities 20: 262 - 66) or that he, like the founder of "the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." both were Jewish leaders famous for their intelligence. (9) What we likely have is Josephus using an a the beginnings of a myth being fabricated at the time in totally in Greek in Asia Minor, the home of St. Paul who also have not firsthand knowledge of Jesus.
Excursus: On the Faith of two Scholars in Jesus
(It's amazing how some scholars see Jesus as a revolutionary figure such as portrayed by Richard Horsely who claims there was a historical Jewish Jesus leading a section of resistance against imperial Rome (10) or even a historical Jesus as a so-called Failed Apocalyptic Prophet formulated by Dale Allison. (11) Ironically, both these scholars are totally dependent on the New Testament (primary the Gospels) to construct their image of Jesus even though they have no proof any of the Gospels were written in first century Roman Palestine or even date prior to 200 CE! (Even the John Ryland's Papyrus P 52, a very small scrap of papyrus dated on now contested paleographic evidence was found in Egypt, but so were most all the Coptic Gnostic texts such as the Sayings Text know as the Gospel of Thomas used to reconstruct Q. (12) Moreover, when we consider that both Horsely (13) and Allison (Princeton Theological Seminary) make their living training people for or in the ministry, neither are likely to saw off the religious financial limb they are sitting on. The fact both do believe in a Historical Jesus (in some form or another with evidence gleamed almost entirely from the New Testament) makes both religious believes using circular reasoning apologetically by default. Basically, Horsely and Allison have done little more than what we find Josephus doing with the famous mythical personalities of the Hebrew Bible; simply using their ideas to embellish a mythical Jesus until he seems reasonably historical.)
With historical evidence for Jesus Christ almost none existent outside the New Testament (apart from late Gnostic and Apocryphal gospels) the Christian faith has had to look for its early origins over a historical desert landscape for its illusive founder Jesus Christ who left no defined religion, nor any facts to call home for Christianity. But like an eternal gold miner digging in history in a mine of faith and hope for almost two-thousand years, any stone deemed of value is better than nothing no matter how convoluted it is with impurities. When the historical bed rock has yielded nothing for centuries, the very mention of the name Jesus Christ makes a chip of mica shine like a flak of gold.
Whether or not Josephus wrote any or all of the TF (or for that matter any of the three sections dealing with Jesus, James or John the Baptist) is not the central issue. What is of primary importance is the credibility of the author, his apologetic reasons for writing, where did he get his information, how much of his text did he embellish by forging new information so that the Judean Antiquities could either equal or, more likely surpass all other ancient traditions from Egypt as well as literature from the Greco-Roman world.
Ironically, for the central figure of the Christian faith (a Historical Jesus), Josephus's testimony as a credible witness in the courtroom of historical truth is little more than fools gold.
1) Alice Wheatly, Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), p. 203.
2) Paul Winter "Excursus II - Josephus on Jesus and James" in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ vol. I (trans. Of Emil Schurer, Geschichte des judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi, (1901 - 1909), (a new and rev. English version edited by G. Vermes and F. Millar, Edinburgh, 1973), p. 428 - 41. Winter breaks the controversies into three scholarly categories: 1. Defending authenticity; 2. Against Authenticity; and 3. Maintaining the theory of interpolation. Although this survey is now 41 years old, little has changed. Besides the TF (Antiquities,Book 18, 3:3), but let's also assume both the section on James (Antiquities 20, 9: 1) and the death of John the Baptist (Antiquities, Book 18, 5:2) are genuinely part of his Judean Antiquities also preserved without any redactions or interpolations in a pure form.
3)See my post: The Illusive Search for Truth in the Biblical Foundations of Judaism and Christianity http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-illusive-search-for-truth-in.html
4) This is noted by Louis Feldman: "We may well be tempted to look upon Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquites as Josephus's model, especially if the date of that work, as most scholars agree, is shortly before or (more likely) shortly after the great revolt against the Romans." Louis Feldman, Josephus's Interpretation of the Bible, (California, USC Press, 1998), p. 16.
5) As noted by Louis Feldman: "Cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus' account of the disappearance of Aeneas (Ant. Rom. 1.64.4), in which case some conjectured that he had been translated to the gods, and the disappearance of Romulus (Ant. Rom. 2.56.2), in which darkness descended upon him from a clear sky, and the people believed that he had been caught up by his father Ares. Cf. Acts 1: 10: 'And he [Jesus] had said this, as they [the apostles] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.'" Louis Feldman, Judean Antiquities 1-4, vol. 3 (ed. Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Leiden: Brill, 2000) Note 1121 p. 472. 6)
6) This is covered in detail by Feldman, "Josephus's Biblical Portraits" in Josephus's Interpretation of the Bible, p. 221 - 658.
7) With modern critical Biblical scholarship has finally having been divorced from its past subjective Biblical Archaeology, we now know that the following Biblical events once believed to be historical by Josephus and NOT historical but simply religious myths:
a. First, in the nineteenth century, the story of the Garden of Eden and the Flood was disproven as original with the Jews (so-called "Ancient Israelites") in earlier cuneiform texts. So there was no Eden or Noah's flood, but texts from Sumer, Babylon and Assyria were stolen and re-edited in a modern alphabetic language called Hebrew. b. Then there was the question of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) as the founder of Israel and monotheism. This too has been proven to have been simply made up in late Judaism in the late 60's by T.L Thompson (The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham) and early 70's and John Van Seters (Abraham in History and Tradition). c. Then there was the major story of the Exodus and Moses which, again, William Propp has basically shot to hell in his 2 vols. on Exodus in the Anchor Bible series. d. Then it was the mighty Israelite leader, King David ("a man after God's own heart") who has been shown time and again to have been an invention (I could list a half dozen books on this subject, with yet another one due out in Kindle this year. (Oh yes, the Tel Dan Stele; like two words (house of David)) proves the extensive and detailed accounts given in the Biblical story about David are true.) e. Then there is a story about the son of David, Solomon who has left us no trace of his existence. f. We know now that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. g. We know David did not write the Psalms especially those assigned to him. h. We know Solomon did not write either Proverbs or The Songs of Solomon. i. We know that the Jesus of the Gospels knowledge of the ancient world of the Hebrew Bible was no better off than the religious people who created him.
8) This is fact emphasized when we consider that Josephus mentions other Jesus figures not counting the other Jesus personalities of the time. This list (2-14 ) was taken from Emil Schurer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, vol. 1, (revised by G. Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black, 1973), p 431. 1. Jesus the son of Sirach Source: Author of the book, Wisdom of Ben Sirach. 2. Jesus the son of Ananias Source: Josephus (Judean War 6: 5, 3) 3. Jesus the son of Damnai Source: Josephus (Judean Antiquities 15: 9, 1) 4. Jesus the son of Gamaliel Source: Josephus (Judean Antiquities 20: 9, 4) 5. Jesus the son of Phabi Source: Josephus (Judean Antiquities 15: 9, 3) 6. Jesus the son of Shapphias Source: Josephus (Judean War 2: 21, 3) 7. Jesus the son of See Source: Josephus (Judean Antiquities 17: 13, 1) 8. Jesus the son of Thebuti Source: Josephus (Judean War 6: 8, 3) 9. Jesus the son of Sapphas Source: Josephus (Judean War 2: 4, 4) 10. Jesus the rival of Josephus Source: (Life 22 / 105 -11) 11. Jesus the brother-in-law of Justus of Tiberias Source: Josephus (Life 35 / 178, 37) 12. Jesus the son of Gamala Source: Josephus (Judean War 4: 3,9) 13. Jesus the Galilean Source: Josephus (Life 40: 200) 14. An undefined Jesus Source: Josephus (Life 48 / 246) 15. Bar Jesus Acts 13: 6 16. Confusingly, there were even two Jesus figures crucified in Matthew 27: 17 that scribes reworked into one in the Gospel of Matthew (27: 17) as pointed out by Bruce Metzger in his A Textural Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., 1994 p. 56 states: "In a tenth century uncial manuscript (S) and in about twenty minuscule manuscripts a marginal comment states: "In many ancient copies which I have met with I found Barabbas himself likewise called 'Jesus'; that is, the question of Pilate . . . " (So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" In closing, Metzger notes that "A majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the original text of Matthew had the double name in both verses and that was deliberately suppressed in most witnesses for reverential consideration" or we might more accurately note for apologetic / theological purposes." Thus, to keep orthodox theology kosher, all 19 of our English translations don't even include this disturbing original verse and state: "Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"
9) Like the twelve year old Jesus is said to have done: "Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.' Luke 2: 46 -7) Compare this to Josephus's own account: "While still a boy, really, about fourteen years old, I used to be praised by everyone because [I was] book-loving: the chief priest and principal men of the city would often meet to understand the legal matters more precisely with my assistance." (Life 1: 8) What is clear from both the Gospel of Luke and Josephus is that lying to make one appear larger than life is a common motif.
10) Horsely seems to have made a scholarly career by making a historical Jesus the modern founder of Liberation Theology: Jesus and Spiral of Violence (1993); Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus ( 1999); Jesus and Spiral of Violence Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (2002); Message and the Kingdom (2002); Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance (2008); Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (2010); The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving beyond a Diversionary Debate (2012); John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel (2013); Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine (2013).
11) Although built on the Apocalyptic theology of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, Allison has presented this theological view in a revised form in such books as End of the Ages Has Come: Early Interpretation of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus (1985); Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (1991) and Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2013).
12) The problematic dating of P 52 will be taken up on a future post.
13) It's interesting that during a YouTube interview done in 2013, Horsely refers to the member the Jesus Seminar as "liberals" at time mark 3:44 then proceeds to brag about educating pastors with his political view of Jesus.
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