Although biblical scholars who are more skeptical about the Gospels (than Evangelical Christian biblical scholars) do sometimes make general statements about the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross being highly probable, when we look into the details of their views about the Gospels and about the stories about Jesus being crucified, we see that they don’t actually have adequate grounds for their confident judgments that Jesus’ crucifixion and death on the cross are firmly established historical facts.
I am in the middle of examining Luke Johnson’s “method of convergence” and his application of this method to some key claims about Jesus from the Gospels.
In Part 3 of this series, we saw that based on Johnson’s skeptical view of the Gospels, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ alleged trial by Pilate and crucifixion by Roman soldiers is NOT sufficient to firmly establish the historicity of these events, but that confirmation from various “outsider” (non-Christian) and “insider” (Christian) non-narrative writings can, according to Johnson, make these two claims highly probable.
In Part 4 of this series, we saw that Johnson’s “method of convergence” is justified by an analogy with an example where ten EYEWITNESS accounts of an event have some agreements and some disagreements. Since there are NO EYEWITNESS accounts of the life or the death of Jesus, this analogy is both misleading and dubious.
We also saw that in a table (presented by Johnson in The Real Jesus) listing seventeen different claims about Jesus that are based on the Gospel accounts and supported by various other “outsider” and “insider” writings, that about half of those claims were trivial, vacuous, or very vague, so that the “evidence” from “outsider” and “insider” writings supporting these claims is worthless or insignificant in relation to confirming the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts or even the “historical framework” of the Gospels.
Then we began to focus in on two of the most significant claims in Johnson’s list:
13. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)*
15. Jesus was crucified (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)*
Claim (15) in particular is supposed to be highly probable, because it is supported by multiple “insider” writers as well as multiple “outsider” writers. However, on closer examination we discovered the devil hiding in the details: the dating of Hebrews and 1 Peter are such that they might well have been composed AFTER 70 CE, after the Gospel of Mark was written. Thus, neither Hebrews nor 1 Peter can reasonably be considered to be GOOD “insider” sources of information about Jesus, since they might well have been written AFTER the account of Jesus’ alleged trials and crucifixion in Mark was circulating among Christians, and thus they would NOT be independent sources of information about Jesus. We were left with just the letters of Paul as the only “insider” source to confirm the crucifixion of Jesus.
Claim (15), however, is also supported by two “outsider” writers, according to Johnson. So, let’s take a closer look at the evidence from those “outsiders”. Here, again, we will find the devil lurking in the details.
Johnson points to the famous Testimonium Flavianum passage (from Antiquities 18.3.3), composed by the Jewish historian Josephus. The paragraph-length passage includes this sentence:
And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him [Jesus] to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. (quoted in TRJ, p.114)
The first thing to note here is that Josephus was NOT an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, nor to the trial of Jesus before Pilate, nor of the crucifixion of Jesus, as Johnson clearly admits:
The biggest deficiency in the outsider accounts concerning Jesus is that…they are not the result of direct observation. The outsiders are either observing the movement that was associated with Jesus after his death, or relating what they have heard about the movement; what they say about Jesus in connection with that movement must therefore have been filtered through either other observers or the accounts of insiders as they were related to others. (TRJ, p.113)
So, at best, an outsider account provides non-eyewitness testimony in support of Gospel accounts which are also written by non-eyewitnesses (who do not identify which events or details, if any, are based on testimony of eyewitnesses).
The second thing to note about this passage in Antiquities is that this very paragraph was tampered with by Christian copyists, as Johnson himself points out:
The passage clearly contains Christian interpolations, and many critical scholars formerly regarded the entire passage as spurious. (TRJ, p.113)
Johnson goes on to state that scholarly opinion about this passage has recently shifted:
Recent scholarship, however, …has been more favorably disposed toward the hypothesis that the passage contains the nucleus of a passage about Jesus written by Josephus himself. (TRJ, p.114)
Given just what Johnson says about scholarly views on this passage, it seems clear that it is, at best, only somewhat probable that Josephus wrote the sentence quoted above. Many scholars formerly believed the whole passage was inserted by a later Christian copyist. Even though scholars are now “more favorably disposed toward the hypothesis” that part of this passage is from Josephus, that does NOT make it certain that the hypothesis is correct. At best is it moderately probable (say, a probability of .7 ) that the hypothesis is correct.
But EVEN IF the hypothesis is correct, that does NOT imply that the specific name “Pilate” appeared in the original, nor that the phrase “condemned him to the cross” was in the original. Those could still be pieces inserted by a later copyist EVEN IF part of this passage about Jesus was from the original text written by Josephus. Thus, if it is moderately probable that parts of this paragraph were written by Josephus, it would only be somewhat probable (say, a probability of .6 ) that the specific details we are interested in were written by Josephus. Rather than having evidence consisting of a claim by the Jewish historian Josephus that Jesus was crucified by order of Pilate, what we have is evidence that makes it somewhat probable that Josephus made this claim.
But on closer examination, even if Josephus did indeed write the sentence in question this passage is worthless as evidence to provide some significant support for a Gospel claim about Jesus. In making an historical case for the existence of Jesus, the biblical scholar Bart Ehrman tosses aside this famous passage from Antiquities:
My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’ death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived his information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation. There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he most certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of some kind (there weren’t any). But as we will see later…there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier. So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus. (Did Jesus Exist? p.65)
To be more specific, the Gospel of Mark was composed about 70 CE, so stories circulating about Jesus in the last decade of the first century would probably have included events and details that derived from the Gospel of Mark (or one of the other canonical Gospels), including events like Jesus being on trial before Pilate, and like Jesus being crucified by Roman soldiers.
Just as we tossed aside the “insider” accounts of Hebrews and 1 Peter because they might well have been composed AFTER 70 CE, and AFTER the Gospel of Mark, so we ought to do the same with every reference to Jesus by Josephus in Antiquities, because that work, as Johnson himself admits, was composed about two decades AFTER the Gospel of Mark:
Josephus was a participant in and observer of the events leading to the disasterous war against Rome in 67-70 C.E., and wrote the Antiquities close to the end of the first century. (TRJ, p.113)
Because Antiquities was composed many years after the Gospel of Mark began circulating among Christians, it cannot be used to provide any significant support for the historical reliability of the Gospels or for the “historical framework” of the Gospels.
The second “outsider” writing that Johnson points to for support of claim (15) is even more pathetic than Antiquities. Johnson quotes from The Passing of Peregrinus written by Lucian of Samosata:
…whom they [Christians in Palestine] still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced a new cult into the world. (The Passing of Peregrinus 11-13, quoted in TRJ, p.116)
Lucian of Samosata was born nearly a century after the traditional date for the death of Jesus, so obviously Lucian could NOT have been an eyewitness to the life or the death of Jesus. The Passing of Peregrinus was written not too long after 165 CE, probably about 170 CE, so Lucian wrote this satire on the life of the cynic philosopher Proteus Perigrinus a full century AFTER the Gospel of Mark was composed and began to circulate. Therefore, any references to Jesus in The Passing of Peregrinus are worthless for providing any significant support for the historical reliability of the Gospels or for the “historical framework” of the Gospels.
In fact, this work by Lucian of Samosata is so late that in his case for the existence of Jesus, Ehrman does not even bother to quote from, or even to mention, this work when discussing non-Christian sources of information about Jesus:
I start with a brief survey of sources that are typically appealed to as non-Christian references to Jesus. I will restrict myself to sources that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died since writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent and reliable witnesses to his life but were undboutedly based simply on what the authors heard about Jesus, probably from his followers. (Did Jesus Exist?, p.50)
Just as we tossed aside Hebrews and 1 Peter because they might well have been written AFTER 70 CE, and just as we have tossed aside Antiquities because it was clearly written AFTER 70 CE, we very definitely ought to also toss aside The Passing of Peregrinus because it was written a full century AFTER 70 CE, a full century AFTER the Gospel of Mark was composed and began to circulate.
Let’s review what we have discovered from looking into the details of Johnson’s “method of convergence” as applied to claim (15).
We started out with three “insider” authors, and two “outsider” authors providing confirmation of claim (15), in addition to the four canonical Gospels. It was because of there being multiple “insider” and multiple “outsider” writings that support claim (15) that Johnson concluded that this central Gospel claim was highly probable.
But as we look into the details of this argument, we find that there is, at most, just ONE good “insider” author who confirms (15) NOT three “insiders”, and there are ZERO good “outsider” writers that confirm (15). Given Luke Johnson’s skeptical view of the Gospels, we cannot assign a high probability to (15) just on the basis of the Gospel accounts of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus. But instead of having FIVE different writers, consisting of three “insiders” and two “outsiders”, who confirm this element of the Gospels, the devil in the details shows that we actually have ONLY ONE good “insider” source, the letters of Paul, and NO good “outsider” writings, to support the Gospel accounts on this point, and that does not seem sufficient to make claim (15) highly probable.
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.