Recent Debate on Josephus and Jesus
Recently, I have been having an exchange in my other Wordpress blog concerning my post on Josephus (which you can find here and here). So far the exchange has been pretty friendly, despite the disagreements. I thought it would benefit everyone to read the exchange. I'll also add some additional comments on at the end.
You have obviously worked hard at this but I must respectfully disagree. The problem is that no serious Josephus scholar denies that Josephus said something about Jesus. The passages about James and John the Baptist are not controversial. Yes Christians did add to Josephus’ bare bones account of Jesus but that does not change the fact that there was something there in the beginning to add to. Why did the early church fathers not use Josephus? Because once the Christian additions are removed, it is not that helpful. All it tells us is that Jesus was around, which was something no one was denying. The Gospels and Paul were much more useful for their purposes. That Jesus existed is almost universally agreed upon from Christian, non-Christian, religious non-religious, biblical, religious studies and historical scholars. To deny his existences is like bringing back the flat earth theory or suggesting that the sun revolves around the earth.
Thank you for your comment. But you are grossly mistaken. The passages are obviously in dispute, or scholars would not be disagreeing on them. You are assuming, as I’ve shown in this blog post (which I must question whether you read it) and many others here, and elsewhere.
Instead of assuming the very point in dispute, I hope next time you’ll be goodly enough to refute the arguments I present. While I appreciate criticism, your post was just blind accusation and false assertion. I would recommend you read the post in question before replying next time.
The best to you,
I re-read your post and I am still very unconvinced. I focused on the big picture because your post comes across as if it was pre-decided: “Jesus did not exist, therefore Josephus could not have mentioned him and so no lets see what questions and inconsistencies we can find Josephus to cast doubt on his report.” As I already mentioned, the early lack of reference to Josephus by the early church fathers is because the existence of Jesus was a non-issue. Even the Talmud, despite its 6th century date has traditions much earlier, assumes Jesus existed, while still being critical of him. Steve Mason makes a very good case for the basic witness of Josephus while acknowledging Christian additions. I have not seen any quotes by Josephus scholars supporting your thesis. Are there any? Yes you quote George Wells, but a professor of German does not really qualify as a Josephus scholars. Yes, there are sone strange things in Josephus with these passages but when you study Josephus as a whole, not just trying to attack the passages about Jesus, you find that he is full of strange things and inconsistencies. He is not a 21st century western historian! I encourage you to read John Dominic Crossan’s (a scholar far from being an evangelical apologist so I hope you give hime a chance) Historical Jesus, where in the first half of his book he does a great job of working through Josephus’ agenda and how these passages fit into his overall argument. If there is a specific part of your argument that you would like to discuss, let me know. Thank you though for starting this discussion. The questions you ask are good, even if we disagree on the answers.
Thanks again for your reply. I’ll ignore the cases of hyperbole which make up a large portion of your reply, because it makes you look bad and I do not think you know what you’re talking about. In that regard I’ll break down your reply to me and answer the main assertions you’ve laid down.
1.) You say the existence of Jesus was a non-issue to early church fathers. I would agree. The question isn’t whether or not Jesus existed to them, but rather in what regard did he exist? Certainly Paul believed in Jesus, but in what way? You are making a leap in logic, and doing so with “Gospel-colored glasses.” You are assuming the very point in dispute, once more - that Jesus had to exist historically for people to believe in him. Maybe Augustine believed Jesus was a real historical individual, but did the Gospel of Mark? I doubt it. Certainly Matthew didn’t. They were writing edifying fiction, like Tobit, or Ester, or 1 Enoch, or the Testament of Abraham. None of these characters were real either, but in the novelization, the authors of these works assumed the historicity as well.
2.) There are many Josephan scholars who find a lot of trouble with the Testimonium. In fact, in his Loeb series on this issue, Louis Feldman lists several who agree with its tampering. But here comes the major problem with scholarship - many assume the authority of a consensus without question, and do so with the same “Gospel-colored glasses” that you have on at the moment. Several decades ago, the Old Testament was considered to be a historically founded document based on the hypotheses of Eissfeldt, Alt and Albright. It was a consensus - until somebody challenged the literary borrowing taking place in the text, and then another did, and another, until we come to today, where now nobody uses the Old Testament as a historical source, nor try to defend the Biblical accounts as anything more than a selection of literature. Your concern with this issue shows a naivety about you, especially with how scholarship functions as a whole.
3.) Josephus was not a historian at all. Josephus was an apologist, writing to a largely Gentile audience to promote his idealism while fictionalizing his own cultures history. Did Alexander the Great really have a dream with God who told him he was going to defeat Persia? And once that happened, did he march on Israel because of their treason, only to find that they believed and worshiped the God he had his dream about? Of course not. Josephus fictionalized the whole event. He fictionalized a lot of events. People assumed his historical reliability but only in the past. Today, there are serious doubts about his reliability. And many don’t even trust what he has to say concerning recent events. Much like Philo, Josephus easily fudged numbers, made estimates that were way off count, and probably exaggerated his own rule in the Jewish War.
4.) Dominic and I know each other. I consider him a colleague. He was even on my show a few months back, where he could not defend the authority of the Josephan passage. I still find his books excellent, but even he admits that he starts from a presupposition. You should listen to that show. I also do not think Crossan knows of the Slavic version of Josephus which contain even more numerous and more apparent forgeries than the Greek or Arabic versions, which prove more consistently that Christians were inserting whole passages in Josephus everywhere.
5.) The Talmud (Which even Crossan admits comes way to late to be used as historical verification of Jesus) is considered part of the Toldoth Yesu, or specifically, the Jewish writing polemics against the Christians. They assume the historicity because at the time they were collected the historicity of Jesus had already been assumed. This was 300 years after the first ecumenical council and the Gnostics had all been (save for the Cathars) extinguished. You mention of the Talmud does not bode well for you here.
6.) Your disagreement with me using Wells is humorous, being that your use of Crossan is a hypocritical move. Crossan is not a Josephan scholar either. You show your naivety again when you assume that only Josephan scholars matter in this debate. Not at all. A monograph is a monograph, and a scholarly publication is just that. The facts presented are what matter, not qualifications.
Again, I’ll remind you that this debate does not begin nor end with this Josephus entry. I have several others which conclusively paint a very detailed look at the socio-cultural world of the 1st Century ancient Near East. In fact, I succeed where Crossan fails - in all his books he assumes the historical reliability of Mark, while showing how Matthew and Luke utilized tropes and mimetic writing to create their stories, all the while Crossan ignores (because of his presuppositions) the same use of tropes by Mark. Crossan also assumes the reliability of the Q hypothesis, and doesn’t seem to realize, yet agaon, that there are parallels where “Q” is really just the reuse of earlier tropes found in scripture and other Greek tracts (pointed out by Burton L. Mack). Additionally, Crossan’s painting of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, drawing on phrases that obviously come from the Septuagint which again he is unaware of. And the position that Jesus really said something similar to the children, about having to be like them to enter the kingdom of God, is also right out of the scripture. Again the question is asked, did the author of Mark think he was writing history, or was his intent scripture reinterpretation, a common genre of writing among Diaspora Jews (which Mark was)?
The best to you,
I hope you are not dismissing my statements as the ravings of another zealous fundamentalist. I am actually published in this field, although I am certainly no Josephus scholar. I will attempt to respond to some of your points.
1) Jesus’ existence was accepted by the New Testament and early church fathers, not just as a theological construct but as a historical figure. Have you read the church fathers? Irenaeus considered him historical enough to debate whether Jesus died at 30 or 50. Paul also accepted Jesus as historical not just as the glorified Christ (although that was his emphasis). There is some info on my blog http://www.1peter315.wordpress.com on that.
2) I know that many Josephus scholars comment on the tampering. But you have not offered one scholar who accepts it as a complete falsehood. It is interesting that you quote the John Meier article in passing and yet when you read that article, he makes it clear that it is based on some authentic Josephus material (By the way, in your footnotes it should be Bible Review and not Biblical Review). As for the consensus - and you accuse me of hyperbole! The change in OT scholarship you mention came about because of some recognized scholars in the field working with the material in a careful way. We do not have anything like that with the Testamonium. To say that because one consensus was seriously challenged means that we should abandon the Testamonium consensus because MAYBE one day something like that will happen here is pretty poor logic.
3) Sure there are problems with Josephus. He said all kinds of things (which makes it funny that they think he would be conservative in mentioning Jesus). But just because he said some fantastic things about Alexander does not mean we question Alexander’s existence. Josephus took historical events and reshaped them for his own purposes.
4)I will look into that.
5) The Toldoth Yesu is something separate from the Talmud. The Toldoth Yesu are a collection of Jewish medieval legends and folk stories about Jesus. The Talmud as a 6th century work should be used carefully but it was not created in the 6th century, it includes earlier traditions and it assumes the historical figure of Jesus.
6) You must be kidding with this one? Do you really believe that a New Testament scholar who has studied the same time and culture as Josephus is no different than a German scholar writing about Josephus? You seem intelligent, please don’t tell me that you really believe that. This is the problem with the Jesus myth authors. Most of them have very little formal training in any of these areas but they would suggest that they are ready to overturn all of recognized scholarship in religion and history on these matters. The book I co-wrote, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Clements 2006) is a response to Tom Harpur who at least has a Ph.D. in New Testament. But Harpur’s Pagan Christ is based almost completely on the work of Gerald Massey (no formal education) and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (Ph.D. in theosophy). If any of this was true, you would think that someone in the recognized academic world (most of who are NOT evangelical Christian) would have seen some of this or would agree now that the truth has been revealed. Instead we have amateur “scholars” writing books that sell because of our love of controversy and at the same time with no scholarly support.
If you are open minded about this subject, I hope you will read our book and at least look at the other side. I certainly am willing to read both sides.
Thank you for your patience. The lecture last night went very well, I am pleased with the questions I received and the audience was great. Some fifty people showed up, it was very exciting to see such an interest in what I had to say. I was very humbled, but I shall not waste your time with details. On to the point at hand.
To make it clear, I am not dismissing you because you are or are not a fundamentalist zealot. In fact I’m not dismissing you at all; I was more or less ignoring your attempts at hyperbole. But I do not want to linger on such negativity. So let us both move on.
With that out of the way, let’s look at your points:
1.) I have read the church fathers, in fact I have the ten volume set of all the Ante-Nicene fathers, and the Lightfoot edition, as well as the new LCL edition of the Apostolic Fathers. I feel though, that like many scholars which have preceded you, you are looking at the earliest texts with “Gospel-colored glasses.” This is not necessarily your fault. In other words, this is more of a “Johnson mistake” instead of a “Nixon mistake.” The most important thing you mentioned, though, is Irenaeus’ very interesting discussion on the age of Jesus at his death. How fascinating that this information would not have been passed down accurately, especially if Jesus was said to have been killed under Pilate, and born in the time of Herod. And these traditions preceded Irenaeus, so it is odd that he would not agree with them. You may suggest that this is due to the fact that he came later, and that information was transmitted in a way that made it unstable and inaccurate. Well, that helps my point. Even in Paul’s day, Paul had trouble with the different factions of Christians running around making all these claims “I am with Cephas, I am with Paul, I am with Christ, I am with such and such…” And then there was that gross misunderstanding where people thought Paul was the Christ…but, if Jesus had just lived ten years prior, and his disciples still lived and had been sent unto the nations, why is it that Paul is being confused as Jesus? Very odd indeed. The poor communication between sects of Christianity seems so strikingly similar to those problems that arise out of a growing legend. One that was never intended to be meant as fact, but because of misinformation, probably in the Diaspora, it became “fact.” Sort of like how Dionysus was said to have had been entombed at Delphi, with the limbs by which the Titans had pulled him apart. People flocked there, just to see the tomb. Was he really buried there? No. It was all allegorical, and became fact. That the early church fathers sought to make this history does not surprise me. Today, we still have fundamentalist Christians attempting to historicize a lot of events we know never happened. But I digress. You really should read more of my blogs.
2.) There are several, although you will probably dismiss them on whatever grounds you deem it. Aside from G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, and Frank Zindler, the scholars who are “more worthy” (in your eyes perhaps) are Thomas L. Thompson, Robert M. Price, and Richard Carrier. All three have doctorates (in Carrier’s case, a M.Phil. and two masters, and is going for his doctorate now). All have a focus in antiquity, and both Price and Thompson are “atheist Christians” – a philosophical idealism which makes them pretty impartial. I think your dependency on consensus is hurting you. Consensus’ come and go – the consensus in many areas is already shifting in so many areas. From the use of Homer’s epics as a mimetic model for the Gospel author of Mark, to the dating of Luke-Acts to the second century. Your being content with the fact that assuming the consensus will change as “poor logic” is actually poor logic. Because it has changed, so frequently, in so many ways. You say you’re published in this field. If that is the case, I would expect you to have understood that by now. As for your conclusion on the change and shift in O.T. scholarship, you are uninformed. I know personally the scholars who instituted the change. I am, myself, a part of the Copenhagen school, which is the most heavily published on the new scholarship of Old Testament studies. It was Van Seters and Thompson who wrote the books which made scholarship take a second look. It wasn’t field work – it was argumentation based on the best possible explanation. It may have used the field results of dig sites, but in that same regard, we have no archaeological evidence for a Jesus either. Not to mention contemporary accounts.
3.) Your dismissal of this fact, so nonchalantly, is troublesome. No, you’re right, we don’t question Alexander’s existence because we have a whole ton of archaeological evidence for him. I would however question the existence of the high priest in that story – which Josephus probably just invented. I would not doubt the existence of Pilate in the Gospel stories similar to the way I wouldn’t doubt the existence of Alexander, but like the high priest, I would question Jesus’. We also have archaeological evidence, inscriptions, or testimonies to both Pilate and Alexander which are not in dispute. The Josephan passage is in dispute. This is why I say you are assuming the case in point. If it were not in dispute, I wouldn’t be disputing it, now would I? And I am not the only one.
On a side note, Josephus also talks about Moses, but we do question Moses’ existence, and the patriarchs. Fictionalizing history was a commonplace among Jewish literature. It didn’t stop with the Gospels, it continued. The Gospels were just a part of that fictionalizing. It continued long after, such as the reinterpretation of the Gospels by later Christians. The Gospels became a part of scripture for them, just as Jews fashioned new histories of the Patriarchs (1 Enoch, Testament of Abraham, Testament of Elijah), and just as the scriptures were a springboard for creativity to Hellenistic Jews, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters, were a springboard for creativity as well. So much so, that rhetoricists wrote up fake letters assigned to Paul and the disciples as part of the Second Sophistic period, much like they fashioned fake letters of Apollonius, Diogenes, Aristotle and Plato, Philostratus, and many others.
4.) Thank you.
5.) You are correct that the Toldoth Yesu is separate from the Talmud, that was a flaw in my phrasing. I apologize. Yet, you assumption that it includes earlier traditions is speculative. Oral tradition is only known to us through the writing down of that tradition – but we only have the tradition that was written down. We can not ever know what the tradition was prior to that moment, nor if the author was true to the tradition, or changed the tradition to fit their own motivations. To claim “earlier traditions” is a step towards speculation. It is a dirty road one should not venture so carelessly.
6.) I’ve already responded to this subject above.
I do look forward to our continued correspondence.
That’s great that you had good turnout. It is encouraging when people come out to learn. I did a lecture in response to Tom harpur’s book and I was going to cancel it because there was a blizzard that day. To my surprise, fifty people came out and we had a wonderful discussion.
As for our discussion on Josephus, I am not sure it can go any farther. The fact is that by far the majority of scholars (not just Christian) accept a core testimony in Josephus and even more so in the historical existence of Jesus. Consensus does not prove anything but until the tide turns, it must be taken into account. If Jesus was not such a controversial figure, people would not read the Gospels and Josephus and say: “Obviously he is only a mythological construct.” We would assume by what we have in the Gospels, Paul and Josephus that he was real, even if we disagreed on the details.
The parallel with OT scholarship is not exact. While most scholars do not use archaeology any longer to try and prove the Bible, the Copenhagen school have yet to win the day in OT studies. Many intelligent scholars continue to believe in a Davidic kingdom and his ancestors. Even so, those who deny the historicity of Jesus are far from where the Copenhagen school is.
As for the church fathers, I think you misunderstand. The disagreements about details of Jesus’ life are not evidence against the historicity. If there was not a strong belief in the historicity, there would be no point in working out the details. We do not argue those things when it comes to Osiris or Mithras. Look at Origen. If anyone you would expect him to allegorize the Bible to the point where Jesus disappears as a historical figure. But Origen warns his readers to not lose the literal historical core of the Gospel.
I don’t expect to change your mind and I am sure that you don’t expect to convince me. We have both presented our positions and now we must agree to disagree.
My advice to you is to continue to seek the truth. Take care!
You say, “Consensus does not prove anything but until the tide turns, it must be taken into account.”
You are absolutely correct. It should be taken into account - but it should NOT be taken for granted. Please consider that carefully.
You also state that, “If Jesus was not such a controversial figure, people would not read the Gospels and Josephus and say: “Obviously he is only a mythological construct.” We would assume by what we have in the Gospels, Paul and Josephus that he was real, even if we disagreed on the details.” - You are again very correct. But literary criticism of the Gospels is only a very recent speciality. It started with Charles Talbert, advanced through Mary Ann Tolbert, and has really started to gain popularity with Dennis R. MacDonald. To so easily dismiss a new, growing field because it has not yet spread beyond the historical critical area of scholarship is again, I’m sorry to say, naive.
Again you grossly misunderstand the debate on the Old Testament. You say, “While most scholars do not use archaeology any longer to try and prove the Bible, the Copenhagen school have yet to win the day in OT studies.”
There is not a single scholar today who would publish a disagreement with the Copenhagen school. In a monograph put out called “In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel”, after ranting and raving, the conclusions were that the Copenhagen school was right, not the other way around.
You then almost border on the absurd when you claim, quite erroneously that, “Many intelligent scholars continue to believe in a Davidic kingdom and his ancestors.” - Yes, they believe it, but they would never publish an article on the subject - the evidence does not match their belief. You can wish that belief and fact were the same thing, but in the end they are not the same. Please remember to separate the two.
And again, to the absurd, “Even so, those who deny the historicity of Jesus are far from where the Copenhagen school is.” - This is a testament to your ignorance of the literature put out by the Copenhagen school. Considering that Thomas L. Thompson wrote an excellent book called “The Messiah Myth” in which he makes the case that the historicity of Jesus is in serious doubt.
You write, “As for the church fathers, I think you misunderstand. The disagreements about details of Jesus’ life are not evidence against the historicity.” - That is wishful thinking.
“If there was not a strong belief in the historicity, there would be no point in working out the details.” - That is also wishful thinking. Working out the details is part of legendary development! This is why the looking at the details in the different accounts helps us review the legend as it forms and grows - such as the resurrection account in all four Gospels and in Acts with the ascension. Again, it is troublesome you are compartmentalizing these details.
“I don’t expect to change your mind and I am sure that you don’t expect to convince me. We have both presented our positions and now we must agree to disagree.” - I find this rather disheartening. I think it ironic that you tell me to “seek the truth” - but are so unwilling to continue this discussion. I am a critical historian, Stephen. That does not mean my mind cannot be changed. If you can present a very good argument, I would have no choice but to agree with you. I am not intellectually dishonest, my friend. Your claim that you will not change your mind is a sign of close-mindedness, not of an open mind.
In any case, I have appreciated our discussion. The best to you and good luck in your endeavors.
So far the conversation has been very stubborn, but hopefully it will take off with my recent reply. He makes an odd statement that I should be open to reading up on the historicist side, but I had told him that Crossan had been on my show. I also have a large amount of 1st-3rd Historical Jesus Quest books. In fact a review of all three quests is a part of my opening chapter of my book.
In any case, any and all thoughts are welcome. And if you want to add to the debate, feel free to add a reply here.