More on Josephus on Jesus

More on Josephus on Jesus October 4, 2020

In my ongoing conversation with Christin commenter Jayman, where I wrote “The Resurrection, Fideism and Circularity” to which he replied on his own blog and I returned with “Josephus on Jesus“, I thought I would add a Quote of the Day, from a commenter here (who used this source). I thought this was worth repeating as much gets lost in comment threads:

Although Christian apologists have listed a number of ancient historians who allegedly were witnesses to the existence of Jesus, the only two that consistently are cited are Josephus, a Pharisee, and Tacitus, a pagan. Since Josephus was born in the year 37 CE, and Tacitus was born in 55, neither could have been an eye-witness of Jesus, who supposedly was crucified in 30 CE. So we could really end our article here. But someone might claim that these historians nevertheless had access to reliable sources, now lost, which recorded the existence and execution of our friend JC. So it is desirable that we take a look at these two supposed witnesses.

In the case of Josephus, whose Antiquities of the Jews was written in 93 CE, about the same time as the gospels, we find him saying some things quite impossible for a good Pharisee to have said:

About this time, there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.Citation 12

Now no loyal Pharisee would say Jesus had been the Messiah. That Josephus could report that Jesus had been restored to life “on the third day” and not be convinced by this astonishing bit of information is beyond belief. Worse yet is the fact that the story of Jesus is intrusive in Josephus’ narrative and can be seen to be an interpolation even in an English translation of the Greek text. Right after the wondrous passage quoted above, Josephus goes on to say, “About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder…” Josephus had previously been talking about awful things Pilate had done to the Jews in general, and one can easily understand why an interpolator would have chosen this particular spot. But his ineptitude in not changing the wording of the bordering text left a “literary seam” (what rhetoricians might term aporia) that sticks out like a pimpled nose.

The fact that Josephus was not convinced by this or any other Christian claim is clear from the statement of the church father Origen (ca. 185-ca. 154 CE) – who dealt extensively with Josephus – that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, i.e., as “the Christ.” Moreover, the disputed passage was never cited by early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria (ca.150-ca. 215 CE), who certainly would have made use of such ammunition had he had it!

The first person to make mention of this obviously forged interpolation into the text of Josephus’ history was the church father Eusebius, in 324 CE. It is quite likely that Eusebius himself did some of the forging. As late as 891, Photius in his Bibliotheca, which devoted three “Codices” to the works of Josephus, shows no awareness of the passage whatsoever even though he reviews the sections of the Antiquities in which one would expect the disputed passage to be found. Clearly, the testimonial was absent from his copy of Antiquities of the Jews.Citation 13 The question can probably be laid to rest by noting that as late as the sixteenth century, according to Rylands,Citation 14 a scholar named Vossius had a manuscript of Josephus from which the passage was wanting.

Apologists, as they grasp for ever more slender straws with which to support their historical Jesus, point out that the passage quoted above is not the only mention of Jesus made by Josephus. In Bk. 20, Ch. 9, §1 of Antiquities of the Jews one also finds the following statement in surviving manuscripts:

Ananus… convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.

It must be admitted that this passage does not intrude into the text as does the one previously quoted. In fact, it is very well integrated into Josephus’ story. That it has been modified from whatever Josephus’ source may have said (remember, here too, Josephus could not have been an eye-witness) is nevertheless extremely probable. The crucial word in this passage is the name James (Jacob in Greek and Hebrew). It is very possible that this very common name was in Josephus’ source material. It might even have been a reference to James the Just, a first-century character we have good reason to believe indeed existed. Because he appears to have born the title Brother of the Lord,Note H it would have been natural to relate him to the Jesus character. It is quite possible that Josephus actually referred to a James “the Brother of the Lord,” and this was changed by Christian copyists (remember that although Josephus was a Jew, his text was preserved only by Christians!) to “Brother of Jesus” – adding then for good measure “who was called Christ.”

According to William Benjamin Smith’s skeptical classic Ecce Deus,Citation 15 there are still some manuscripts of Josephus which contain the quoted passages, but the passages are absent in other manuscripts – showing that such interpolation had already been taking place before the time of Origen but did not ever succeed in supplanting the original text universally.

Pagan Authors Before considering the alleged witness of Pagan authors, it is worth noting some of the things that we should find recorded in their histories if the biblical stories are in fact true. One passage from Matthew should suffice to point out the significance of the silence of secular writers:

Matt. 27:45. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour… Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. 51. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, 53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection [exposed for 3 days?], and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Wouldn’t the Greeks and Romans have noticed – and recorded – such darkness occurring at a time of the month when a solar eclipse was impossible? Wouldn’t someone have remembered – and recorded – the name of at least one of those “saints” who climbed out of the grave and went wandering downtown in the mall? If Jesus did anything of significance at all, wouldn’t someone have noticed? If he didn’t do anything significant, how could he have stimulated the formation of a new religion?

Considering now the supposed evidence of Tacitus, we find that this Roman historian is alleged in 120 CE to have written a passage in his Annals (Bk 15, Ch 44, containing the wild tale of Nero’s persecution of Christians) saying “Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus…” G.A. Wells [p. 16] says of this passage:

[Tacitus wrote] at a time when Christians themselves had come to believe that Jesus had suffered under Pilate. There are three reasons for holding that Tacitus is here simply repeating what Christians had told him. First, he gives Pilate a title, procurator [without saying procurator of what! FRZ], which was current only from the second half of the first century. Had he consulted archives which recorded earlier events, he would surely have found Pilate there designated by his correct title, prefect. Second, Tacitus does not name the executed man Jesus, but uses the title Christ (Messiah) as if it were a proper name. But he could hardly have found in archives a statement such as “the Messiah was executed this morning.” Third, hostile to Christianity as he was, he was surely glad to accept from Christians their own view that Christianity was of recent origin, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus; p.16).

There are further problems with the Tacitus story. Tacitus himself never again alludes to the Neronian persecution of Christians in any of his voluminous writings, and no other Pagan authors know anything of the outrage either. Most significant, however, is that ancient Christian apologists made no use of the story in their propaganda – an unthinkable omission by motivated partisans who were well-read in the works of Tacitus. Clement of Alexandria, who made a profession of collecting just such types of quotations, is ignorant of any Neronian persecution, and even Tertullian, who quotes a great deal from Tacitus, knows nothing of the story. According to Robert Taylor, the author of another freethought classic, the Diegesis (1834), the passage was not known before the fifteenth century, when Tacitus was first published at Venice by Johannes de Spire. Taylor believed de Spire himself to have been the forger.

As I mentioned in my last piece on Josephus, I would go on to deal with Tacitus; this complements my last piece and does a good job of showing issues with the Christian use of Tacitus to show, supposedly, how Christian claims and the Bible intersect with extra-biblical sources and history.

 


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