Defending the Theistic View

Josephus and Jesus “who was called Christ” — Refuting Acharya S

Joseph ben Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus, was the son of a priest born in the year 37 AD. — During the first part of the  Jewish revolt he was a reluctant military commander that fought the Romans. Later in 67 AD, when many of his allies had committed suicide rather than surrender he surrendered to the Romans for uncertain reasons and provided them with information and then was released two years later in  69 AD. As a result, he has been called a traitor and a pro-Roman propagandist, though he tried to fix the Jewish image in Rome’s point of view.

The works of Flavius Josephus are an important compilation of history that, in many cases, would be otherwise unknown to us had he not written it. He is the basic source from which we learn about many important historical figures and events. He wrote extensively about King Herod the Great, the Jewish revolt of 66 AD which lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and about the census of Quirinius of 6 AD which caused the rebellion of Judas of Galilee. — These are all mentioned in the New Testament, but not to the great detail that Josephus had described them.

Many Christians have appealed to this Jewish historian for confirmation of several biblical events and personalities such as  the existence of the historical Jesus.  One of the most secular historical references is known as the Testimonium Flavianum which is attributed to him. The other is usually called “the James Passage” which only mentions Jesus in passing.

This passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum occurs when Josephus is giving a historical account of the Roman Prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate,

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. 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. (Antiquities 18: 63-64)

flavius-josephus2The passage not only acknowledges that Jesus had indeed existed, it also affirms that “he was the Christ” and was resurrected after the third day of his death, there in lies the problem. Josephus was a devout Jew, not a Christian. It is practically impossible that Josephus had acknowledged Jesus as the true Messiah (or Christ). Therefore he would not have believed that Jesus was resurrected after being crucified.

Not surprisingly the “Jesus Myth” crowd calls the authenticity of the Josephus passages into question calling the passage into question, Acharya S (a.k.a. Dorthy M. Murdock), being very prominent among them.

Ms. Murdock, in her statements about the Testimonium, in an attempt to prove that it is a forgery  mentions that early Christians such as Justin Martyr and Theophilus don’t cite it and therefore this silence indicates that they did not know anything about it. The problem with her argument is that her logic only leads her to a conclusion that was already presupposed.

— She is assuming that early Christian apologists, to defend their faith, would have cited theTestimonium to show that  Jesus existed if indeed they knew about it. The fact is that citing the Testimonium would have been practically pointless because it only would have only served to confirm Jesus’ existence which was actually never questioned by early skeptics of Christianity.

Another argument that Ms. Murdock uses is that if Josephus truly knew about Jesus he would have written more about him,

Josephus goes into long detail about the lives of numerous personages of relatively little import, including several Jesuses. It is inconceivable that he would devote only a few sentences to someone even remotely resembling the character found in the New Testament. If the gospel tale constituted “history.” [ . . . ] Moreover, the TF refers to Jesus as a “wise man”–this phrase is used by Josephus in regard to only two other people, out of hundreds, i.e., the patriarchs Joseph and Solomon. If Josephus had thought so highly of an historical Jesus, he surely would have written more extensively about him. Yet, he does not.

This argument proves nothing except that Acharya S has likely not read a lot of Josephus’ works. Josephus mentions others that were well-known in first century Judea and yet wrote little about them. His mention of John the Baptist is only a paragraph long. Josephus calls him “a good man” who taught righteousness (Antiquities 18: 116) — Also, there was another holy man which he mentions (again in only a single paragraph) called Zacharias, son of Baruch who was murdered without just cause. (Wars of the Jews 4: 334-344)

These two men were well known at the time of Josephus and yet he only dedicates a single paragraph to each. So in my opinion this refutes the assumption that just because Josephus didn’t write more extensively about Jesus that therefore he wasn’t known to him.

Also, as mentioned, Josephus speaks in high regard about John the Baptist and Zacharias but does not go into greater detail about them. — This in itself can be used to show that Ms. Murdock’s argument that if Josephus thought highly of Jesus then he would necessarily have written a longer history about Jesus is incorrect. As a matter of fact, her two arguments here can be turned around to argue for the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum because it follows the pattern of the one paragraph accounts of well-known good (or holy) men that Josephus both wrote about and respected.

Ms. Murdock complains that the Testimonium “interrupts the flow of the primary material” meaning that it is out of context. Even if it was out of context this wouldn’t indicate it is an interpolation because such digressions were much more common in Greek and Roman writings than in modern literature. Today, we would place such breaks in footnotes which wasn’t done 2,000 years ago. (Greek and Roman Historians, page 53)

She makes the claim that the consensus among scholars is that the passage is a complete forgery. To back her up she quotes several writters from the 19th century. — Interestingly enough, one of her experts that she cites is Gordon Stein who she quotes as saying that most scholars since the late 1800’s  believe the Testimonium to be  a forgery. However, on his paper (which is found here) which she cites there is a disclaimer inserted by an editor before the text which says that things have changed since Stein wrote his essay in 1982,

While there is no doubt among the majority of scholars that the Testimonium has been tampered with (and thus the entire passage cannot be authentic), a decent number of scholars believe the Testimonium is based upon an authentic core. In other words, on their view, Josephus really did write a passage referring to Jesus. (Italics mine)

I do not know if this disclaimer was already added to Gordon Stein’s paper by by the time Acharya S decided to use it as a source, but it certainly is enough to refute her claim that the Testimonium is seen as a fake by the scholarly community.

The indication (from the disclaimer) is that even though it is true that at one point (at least until 1982) the Testimonium was seen as a forgery, this is no longer the case. — The vast majority of Acharya S’ sources come from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. These facts mean that she is using outdated sources to prove her case because the scholarly opinion has shifted.

The late David Flusser, Professor of early Christianity and Judaism and Orthodox Jew, while commenting on the Testimonium says,

Although it is generally recognized that the passage concerning Jesus in the extant Greek manuscripts of his Jewish Antiquities (18:63-64) was distorted by later Christian hands “the most probable view seems to be that our text represents substantially what Josephus wrote,but that some alterations have been made by a Christian interpolator.” (The Sage from Galilee – Rediscovering Jesus Genius, page 12)

So basically, Ms. Murdock’s claims that the vast majority of scholars believe the Testimonium is a Christian forgery is not only out dated. It is completely wrong. It is true that there are certain statements in it that more than likely were not written by Josephus such as “if it be lawful to call him a man” and “he was the Christ,” but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that it is a complete forgery “in toto” as Murdock puts it.

The second Josephus passage that mentions Jesus is not quite as lengthy as the Testimonium. As a matter of fact, it isn’t even about Jesus,

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still upon the road. So Ananus assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of that Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions. And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.  (Antiquities 20, 200)

The basic objection that the “Jesus Myth” crowd brings up is that Josephus uses the term “was called Christ” in association with Jesus. — Ms. Murdock on her page only mentions this passage in passing and doesn’t go into detail about it. One of her listed sources on her page is the 19th century Christ-Myther John E. Remsberg who claims,

This passage is probably genuine with the exception of the clause, “who was called Christ,” which is undoubtedly an interpolation, and is generally regarded as such.

He goes on to claim that believing that the James mentioned in the passage is in fact Jesus Christ’s brother “accepted history of the primitive church” which says he was killed in 69 AD, not in 62 AD. To this point all I can say is that one should not confuse folklorewith true history.

As for his claim that the entire passage except for the clause “was called Christ” is authentic — Considering that the names Jesus and James were very common in the first century AD, if the means of identification were to be erased, as Remsberg apparently believed should be done, then the passage would become pretty unclear and ambiguous. It would simply be a mention of a “Jesus, brother of James.” Anyone reading the passage in the first century would likely have thought “Ok. Which ones? I know a million of them.”

Also, near the end of the paragraph, Josephus mentions another Jesus called the son of Damneus who became the high priest. (Antiquities 20: 203) This is all the more reason for Josephus to identify Jesus Christ in order to distinguish the two to avoid confusion.

Also, it is not true that the clause “was called Christ” is “generally regarded” as an interpolation. — Leading Josephus Scholar Louis Feldman says,

That, indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage — the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged — about James, who is termed (A XX, 200) the brother of the “aforementioned Christ.” (Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, page 56)

Feldman on the same page goes on to answer a charge that the passage was interpolated because of an apparent contradiction between this passage and another mention of the priest Ananus in Wars of the Jews,

As to the recent suggestion Tessa Rajak that the passage about James is a Christian interpolation because it has a derogatory view of Ananus the high priest (Josephus elsewhere praises him), we may remark that there are a number of instances in the Antiquities where Josephus contradicts what he says in the War. In any case, it would seem more likely that a forger would have been more careful than to contradict outright what Josephus says elsewhere.

Other scholars point out that the “James Passage” fits the context and that a Christian interpolator would have used “laudatory language” different than what Josephus used to describe James and especially Jesus. -A Christian would have called James “the brother of the Lord” much like the Apostle Paul does.

They also point out that the term  “λεγόμενος” (pronounced as “legomenos”) used by Josephus for the clause “was called Christ” is way too neutral for any Christian interpolator to have inserted. A Christian would have used the term in a more absolute way leaving no room for doubt that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Josephus’ language, however, neither denies or affirms Jesus’ Messiaship. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, pages 83, 84)

Finally, Ms. Murdock claims that,

Even if the Josephus passage were authentic [ . . . ], it nevertheless would represent not an eyewitness account but rather a tradition passed along for at least six decades, long after the purported events. Hence, the TF would possess little if any value in establishing an “historical” Jesus.

She claims, basically, that even if the Testimonium were indeed authentic it would not prove anything because it is not a first hand account due to the fact that Josephus was born a few short years after the death of Jesus. — This is a popular argument among the “Jesus-Myth” crowd, but it is one that makes absolutely no sense.

Josephus wrote about many people decades and even centuries after they existed. — He wrote extensively on the life of King Herod the Great, the Deposition of Archelaus from Judea, and even on the Census of 6 AD. He even wrote about the invasion of of Jerusalem by the Roman General Pompey over a century after the fact. The fact is that Josephus’ life was much further removed from these historical accounts he wrote about then he was from the life of Jesus. So if these “Jesus-Mythers” were to hold these historical accounts to the same standard that they do with the Testimonium then we would end up throwing out most of Josephus’ valuable works. But no prominent scholar or historian would ever even consider such a thing.

The same goes for several other historians such as Tacitus, Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, and others who wrote several decades or centuries after the events the report on and are still believed useful by modern historians and scholars. So the fact is that a historian writing about an event decades after the fact does not invalidate the historicity of what he reports. It does not have to be a first hand eyewitness account to be historically relevant.

Another fact is that though Josephus was born in 37 AD, about six years after the death of Jesus, he was alive when the event he covers in his “James passage” was happening. He was writing about the stoning of James which historians believe happened in 62 AD, when Josephus would have been twenty-five years of age. (After Jesus: The Triumph of Christianity, page 53) There is therefore no reason why Josephus wouldn’t have had good first hand information about this event about a man known as the brother of Jesus. – If the name and family of the man was known, then almost certainly so was the man himself.

Before I conclude, a word should be said about Ms. Murdock’s sources. — As mentioned before, most of her sources which she uses to back up the claim that the Testimonium Flavianum is a complete forgery come from the late 19th century and considering that the scholarly opinion has completely shifted since then they are therefore outdated and irrelevant.

Also, several of her listed sources who she doesn’t necessarily quote outright are early “Jesus-Mythers” such as Hayyim ben Yehoshua and John Remsburg. Neither of these 19th century “Jesus-Mythers” even had the qualifications of a scholar in the necessary field. Ms. Murdock also lists a paper among her sources from contributed by Scott Orser. But a quick look at his bio once again shows that he is not an expert in this particular field either.

It really strikes me as odd that someone who claims to be an expert in the fields of history, religion and archaeology like Ms. Murdock would resort to citing non-experts in order to prove her point. If I may say so, many amateurs have been known to use much better tactics than her in their own personal research. — I’m not trying to demean her, but honestly —

In conclusion, the arguments that D.M. Murdock uses to prove her case for the Testimonium Flavianum being a complete forgery are mostly al moot. Many scholars, despite her claims to the contrary, do in fact believe that the Testimonium is partially authentic, though not entirely. Her claims that Josephus would have written much more of Jesus if he in fact knew about him are also irrelevant because there are other well-known men that he writes about and yet only gives them a paragraph each. Also the claim that the Testimonium is out of context is irrelevant because, even if true, it was common practice to insert such digressions 2,000 years ago. — It does not help matters for Ms. Murdock that her many of her authorities are outdated and, in many cases, not even authorities at all.

The James Passage is almost universally considered authentic so even if it were true the Testimonium was thought by experts to be a complete forgery, it would still be believed that Josephus indeed gives secular first century proof of Jesus’ existence. — Also, as for claims that he didn’t have firsthand knowledge of Jesus and therefore his short mentions of him are not relevant, this is to undermine Josephus’ known accuracy as a capable historian because it is unlikely that Josephus would have been fooled into writing about a man that was said to have lived so close to his time that did not exist.


4 responses

  1. “In God we make our boast all day long” – Psalm 44:8

    Thanks for your thoughts!


    January 7, 2009 at 4:57 am

  2. Kris

    Thanks so much for writing this. I knew that the TF was under debate but I pretty much knew nothing about the debate. Thank you for educating me on a subject I have not done much research on, but now feel it is time I get started.

    January 10, 2009 at 1:09 am

  3. Pingback: Jesus, the brother of James, son of Damneus « Explanation

  4. Pingback: The Tacitean Reference to “Christus” « Debunking Atheism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s