Jesus Without A Trace

just say no jesus

Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

(Ed. Note: This is the 21th post in Frank Zindler’s Speaking Frankly About Jesus blog which is dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. This is part M of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)

Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!

We come now to Philip Jenkins’ apologetic dealing with the claim that “Jesus does not feature in early non-Christian literary sources who might have been expected to mention him.”

This actually is something of a straw-man argument. The fact that Jesus of Nazareth does not feature in any early non-Christian source is not the issue; there is no trace of him at all! Unless he actually was the wonder-working magician of Orthodox tradition, no one would expect to find his name in the headlines. The problem is, he is not even accorded notice in footnotes. Once again, if Jenkins wishes to be able to explain away the lack of notice of Jesus of Nazareth in ancient sources, he must come clean. He must admit that all the important magical events of the gospels and Acts never happened. In short, he needs to renounce Christianity before proceeding further in this line of argument.

Although there is no logical need to continue analyzing his argument until he makes such a concession, I shall continue not only because some secular scholars such as Bart Ehrman have found merit in such argumentation, but because it’s fun to poke holes in gas-filled balloons. Jenkins writes:

“As we have his writing today, the historian Josephus has a description of Jesus which, beyond doubt, is a bogus interpolation by a clumsy Christian editor. Josephus assuredly wrote no such thing as the Testimonium Flavianum. It is however all but certain that Josephus originally had a reference to Jesus at that point, although it was probably demeaning or hostile, and that is why it was changed. Some scholars think that what he actually wrote can be reconstructed plausibly, others think it has been lost beyond hope. I have an open mind on that.”

Where to begin? Jenkins opens with an interesting gambit. He tells us that “the historian Josephus has a description of Jesus which, beyond doubt, is a bogus interpolation by a clumsy Christian editor,” but then doesn’t quote the interpolation or give any hint of its context. In my 2003 The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, I devoted a lengthy chapter (“Faking Flavius”) to the evidence surrounding the forging of the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Flavius Josephus’ alleged testimony to the historicity of Jesus). I devoted another long chapter (“James the Just, John the Baptist, and other perversions of Josephus”) to other interpolations into Josephan manuscripts, including some that have not survived. (The book is still available on Amazon.)

I began by saying this is an interesting gambit on Jenkins’ part because, by sacrificing an apologetic pawn in the board-game of reality—admitting that the so-called Testimonium Flavianum is a fake, he immunizes the reader against any itch to look further into the subject when he falls back on the popular apologetic stratagem of claiming that nevertheless it is “all but certain” that Josephus had some reference to Jesus there—“probably demeaning or hostile.” It might be expected that the reader will be sufficiently disarmed and—not having been apprised of the context of the unquoted passage—will concede the argument without further inquiry. Hopefully, the reader will not ask just why it is “all but certain” there was a hostile reference at that spot and will be reassured by the final “concession” that “I have an open mind on that.”

What the reader probably doesn’t know, and I’m pretty sure Jenkins doesn’t know either, is the interesting text history of the Testimonium—including its insertion into the Old Slavonic version of Josephus’ other major work, The Jewish War. (The original insertion, the one Jenkins is referring to, is in his Antiquities of the Jews.) Neither Jenkins nor his readers will know that an early Jewish Greek manuscript of Antiquities (datable to before the fifth century) contains a finely detailed Table of Contents which makes no mention of anything relatable to the Testimonium, nor is there any note of James or John the Baptist. However, a fifth or sixth-century Christian, Latin version of the index indicates them all to have been present where now we find the three. Hardly surprising, considering the long, fraudulent course of Christian progress!

The Testimonium first appears in the later works of Eusebius [c264–340 CE], although it is absent from his earlier works, and nearly every secular scholar thinks that Eusebius was the forger of the passage. After all, in his treatise Praeparatio Evangelica he scandalously titles the thirty-second chapter of the twelfth book “How it may be Lawful and Fitting to use Falsehood as a Medicine, and for the Benefit of those Who Want to be Deceived.”

No earlier authority—Christian or otherwise, hostile or friendly—knew anything of the imposture. That included Church Fathers who actively sought out attestations of their god-man—figures such as Justin Martyr [c100–165 CE], Tertullian [c160–c225 CE], Clement of Alexandria [c150–c215 CE], and Origen [c185–254 CE]. The Testimonium also was unknown to Irenaeus [late 2nd century], Cyprian [mid-3rd century], and Arnobius [late 3rd century]. Oh, I almost forgot that ancient authority on Josephus, St. John Chrysostom [c347–407 CE], who would have made great use of the testimony had it been found in any of his manuscripts of Josephus.

We cannot end discussion of this subject without noting another glaring instance of Jenkins’ facility in whirligig reasoning. “Some scholars [probably the Catholic author John P. Meier] think that what Josephus actually wrote can be reconstructed plausibly…” This begs the question that the Testimonium is not entirely a forgery and excludes the possibility (indeed the near certainty) that Josephus wrote nothing at all about Jesus of Nazareth at this point. The Testimonium Flavianum intrudes clumsily into Josephus’ narrative and there is no room for even a hostile mention of Jesus or Christ.

I have printed the entire Testimonium Flavianum in an Appendix at the end of this posting. I have included the entirety of the long paragraph 2 of Book 18, chapter 3 of Antiquities of the Jews—the paragraph immediately preceding the Testimonium (paragraph 3)—as well as the beginning of paragraph 4 that follows it. Readers can see for themselves how perfectly paragraph 4 follows paragraph 2, and how ridiculous it would be to consider the Jesus story “another sad calamity” that “put the Jews into disorder.”

Before ending this critique I must note yet one further important point. In his earlier book, The Jewish War, Josephus also discussed the tumult surrounding Pilate’s governorship—the same story that in Antiquities is followed immediately by the Testimonium Flavianum. In the earlier work, this is not the case, although it will be recalled that much later that “deficiency” was repaired by an interpolation into the Old Slavonic version of The Jewish War.

Next time we shall examine the other interpolations into Josephus—interpolations that Jenkins thinks are bona-fide evidence of Jesus and his alleged brother James.


The Testimonium Flavianum in Context

Antiq. Book 18, chapter 3. (Whiston translation)

¶ 2. 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 [25 miles]. 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 clamour 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 t place where they might surround them. So be bade 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.

 ¶ 3. 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 [Messiah]; 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.

¶ 4. About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder; and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome. I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt about the temple of Isis, and will then give an account of the Jewish affairs…

Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist. 

(Photo credit: Eric Lin via Flikr;

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