Josephus on Jesus? Why You Can’t Cite Opinions Before 2014

On whether Josephus actually ever mentioned Jesus, usually you hear people claim “the consensus is” or “such-and-such renowned Josephus expert said” that he did, so shut-up already, nothing more to see here, “move on!” Well, there are two reasons you can’t do that anymore.

General Principles

First, of course, if a consensus can never be proved wrong, then it isn’t a consensus worth citing. Because only a field that accepts that evidence can overturn a consensus has any claim to being a legitimate area of knowledge. The only thing that makes science respectable is that it is dedicated to changing its conclusions upon new evidence or argument. And this is true of any knowledge field, including history. Take that away, and you are no longer citing an expert opinion about what is actually known; you are just counting up who backs what dogma regardless of what the evidence says. And what do you want? Knowledge, or dogma? Own it. So we know when to dismiss you as no longer a part of any evidence-based concern for the truth.

But that’s the most general point. It can still be the case that a consensus has been well and properly challenged, and still remains unmoved because that challenge wasn’t backed by enough evidence or a firm enough logic to change any honest opinion. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which it is. Let’s be honest, in Biblical Studies, the biases and motivated reasoning are so intense and widespread, it’s a challenge to find any consensus worth trusting in it. But one thing we know for certain is that an expert opinion has no value whatever if it is uninformed. If a scientist insists no data storage device is capable of retaining its integrity beyond a few centuries, you can’t cite their opinion to that effect anymore because they obviously weren’t keeping up on the literature—a mechanism now exists that has a credible room-temperature shelf life in the billions of years.

Expert opinions are only of value if they are up-to-date.

Christian apologists (and an inordinate number of even non-Christian historians in the Biblical Studies field) have a sad tendency to keep citing, even quoting, expert opinions from ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, as if those opinions had any value anymore. But all too often, they don’t. Because so much has happened, so much has been discovered, in just the last ten years—much more so the last half century—that the only expert opinion worth citing now, is one that is based on having evaluated all that new information.

In the case of the historicity of Jesus, until experts actually read the peer reviewed literature of their own field, they are not citeable authorities on the subject anymore. Just like that scientist who didn’t know about the latest peer reviewed research on data storage technology. Their opinion isn’t worth anything. Only when they are up-to-date, and can respond honestly to the evidence and discoveries recently published on a subject, do they have an opinion that can at least claim to be informed. Whether that opinion is correct is another matter; but it can’t even claim to be correct until it’s at least based on up-to-date information.

And normally in any other honest, legitimate knowledge field, the process works like this: a new theory is published under peer review; a large number of experts (everyone, in fact, who claims to be an expert on the point in question) examines those peer reviewed findings; thy confer and some publish, also under peer review, any factual or logical errors in that study that undermine its results, or admit they and their peers could find none; all relevant peers accept that process; and as a result, the new theory then becomes the new consensus.

An example of this playing out in a legitimate science is the theory that ulcers were caused by a treatable bacterium and not stress. Every expert balked. So one of the theorists infected himself and documented the effects; and he and a colleague published a lot of other corroborating research verifying their hypothesis. Many scientists tried their damnedest to find something wrong in their research, but could point to no factual or logical error of any significance. The remaining experts in the field saw that, and conceded the theory was therefore most likely correct. Those two guys now have a Nobel Prize for it.

Notice how Biblical Studies does not follow this process. They spew dogma to rationalize ignoring any new peer reviewed findings they don’t like, without even having read them, much less properly or honestly finding anything factually or logically wrong in them that has any significant effect on the results. And instead of actually becoming informed and honestly vetting the new results under peer review, they refuse to read the study at all, declare it false without any examination, and threaten or browbeat anyone who says otherwise. That deligitimizes Biblical Studies as a field of knowledge. Collateral damage, I guess. (See the example of Craig Evans.)

The same sad story plays out even on minor subjects in that same field. Although with perhaps less vehemence, when those topics aren’t quite the same terrifying threat to the entire faucet of money and support that whole field relies on to stay employed.

The Josephus Case

No one can ever cite any expert opinion on whether Josephus mentioned Jesus, if that opinion was published before 2014. Why? Because so much new research has been published on the subject in the last ten years, that opinions published earlier were uninformed (the latest important findings were published in 2013 and 2014, but crucial new results have come out from 2008 on; and one from way back in 1995 that has been ignored until now). Anytime someone cites or quotes someone saying Josephus mentioned Jesus, ask them, “When was that published?” Because if it was published before 2014, it doesn’t count. It’s like that scientist who says no data storage lasts beyond a few centuries. Because he wasn’t up to date on his own literature.

The same goes for anyone who cites “the consensus” or says “experts say” or any such variant of the same type of claim. Ask, “A consensus based on the research published up to 2014? Experts who were aware of all the relevant peer reviewed findings up to 2014?” If the answer is no, then you have the same point: they are all like that scientist who didn’t keep up with the facts. That consensus has no value. Those experts are not sufficiently informed for us to know their opinion holds anymore.

One way a field stays informed, is by having presenters give summaries of the latest research on a topic at a conference. And so that’s what I just did last weekend: I presented a paper summarizing the research of mostly the last ten years on the references to Jesus in surviving manuscripts of Josephus, at the Society of Biblical Literature regional meeting in Notre Dame. I included the material I blogged about before (The Josephus Testimonium: Let’s Just Admit It’s Fake Already), but went even further in describing and analyzing it.

You can download the handout I distributed at my talk here. Below I will overview and summarize its contents for my readers here.

What’s Happened of Late

We know Josephus published the Jewish War about 75 A.D. And no mention of the Christian Jesus is in it. Josephus then published the Jewish Antiquities about 93 A.D. And in surviving manuscripts of that today, there are two references to the Christian Jesus: the Testimonium Flavianum (in book 18) and a reference to James the brother of Jesus (in book 20).
 The first is a brief fawning paragraph about Jesus whose authenticity has been widely doubted for centuries. How much of it is authentic, or if any reference to Jesus existed there at all, remains widely debated. The second is a single line that connects the execution of a certain James to Jesus “the one called Christ” without any explanation. That has been doubted by some experts over the decades, but accepted as authentic by most.

1. New Findings

In my talk I point out how recent publications by myself (Richard Carrier), Louis Feldman, G.J. Goldberg, Paul Hopper, Ken Olson, and Alice Whealey shed new light on what happened, altering what we should conclude about what Josephus originally wrote. No expert opinion on the authenticity of either passage is citeable, if it isn’t informed by their published research on it over the last ten years.

In my handout, I include a brief traditional bibliography (principally Paget 2001, Van Voorst 2000, and Whealey 2003) that’s still required reading on the matter (which readings in turn reference everything earlier worth considering). But it’s also out of date. To get up to date, and thus have a fully informed opinion on this subject, requires having read everything on the new essential bibliography I include on page 2.

There I include Whealey 2016 not because it’s essential reading, though, but because it exemplifies the problem of declaring opinions without referencing or even being aware of what’s been published on the subject over the ten years prior. That’s an uninformed opinion. It’s therefore worthless. Even though it was published after 2014! So it’s not even enough, evidently, to cite opinions published after 2013. You also have to check if those opinions took into account the latest research since 2008! If they didn’t, then they are, again, useless, unciteable.

2. Overview

Among the things we have confirmed now is that all surviving manuscripts of the Antiquities derive from the last manuscript of it produced at the Christian library of Caesarea between 220 and 320 A.D.
, the same manuscript used and quoted by Eusebius, the first Christian in history to notice either passage being in the Antiquities of Josephus. That means we have no access to any earlier version of the text (we do not know what the text looked like prior to 230 A.D.), and we have access to no version of the text untouched by Eusebius (no other manuscript in any other library ever on earth produced any copies that survive to today). That must be taken into account.

The latest research collectively establishes that both references to Jesus were probably added to the manuscripts of Josephus at the Library of Caesarea after their first custodian, Origen—who had no knowledge of either passage—but by the time of their last custodian, Eusebius—who is the first to find them there. The long passage (the Testimonium Flavianum) was almost certainly added deliberately; the later passage about James probably had the phrase “the one called Christ” (just three words in Greek) added to it accidentally, and was not originally about the Christian James, but someone else. On why we should conclude thus I’ll explain shortly.

Both these additions may have been made by, or at the direction or under the supervision of, Eusebius…or his predecessor at the library, Origen’s successor, Pamphilus. The possibility that Pamphilus was the culprit has been overlooked by everyone in print so far. I mention it to further inform anyone who would ponder the options here. Evidence establishing Eusebius as the author is stylistic (I’ll summarize that shortly), but as Pamphilus taught Eusebius, it’s possible the stylistic features of Eusebius that are found in the Testimonium are actually the stylistic features of Pamphilus that were picked up by his student. As we don’t have any of the writings of Pamphilus, we can’t check to rule him out on stylistic grounds. (And it’s worth noting, every argument that has been attempted to rule Eusebius out, does not apply to Pamphilus; although I’ve never found those arguments very compelling anyway.)

Besides those observations, six things in all have changed since opinions were last declared on this subject:

  • Reliance on the Arabic version of the Testimonium must be discarded.
  • Attempts to invent a pared-down version of what Josephus wrote are untenable.
  • The Testimonium derives from the New Testament.
  • The Testimonium doesn’t match Josephan narrative practice or context.
  • The Testimonium matches Eusebian more than Josephan style.
  • Previous opinions on the James passage were unaware of new findings, and therefore require revision.

The Arabic Testimonium

On how this evidence is now obsolete, and opinions based on it no longer citeable, see my previous article The End of the Arabic Testimonium. It’s important, because most of the expert opinions people cite as supporting the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum, were based on assuming the Arabic fragment supported that conclusion. So the fact that it was proved not to in 2008 means all those cited opinions are now worthless. They are not only uninformed, they were in fact misinformed.

The Traditional Case against the Testimonium

The Wikipedia translation of the Testimonium Flavianum (or TF) reads as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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 Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Six traditional arguments against the authenticity of any part of this still stand and carry weight. None have been refuted. They can only be answered with balancing arguments in favor (such as citing the Arabic fragment, which as just noted is now invalid). I discuss them in more detail in my book (Ch. 8.9 of OHJ). But in short:

  • The TF doesn’t fit the context of JA 18.62 and 65 (e.g. it does not describe “a disaster befalling the Jews” nor explain the rising tensions between Jews and Romans leading to war).
  • The TF is implausible from a Pharisaic Jew (e.g. calling Jesus the messiah; saying he fulfilled prophecy).
  • The TF is improbably brief (just contrast it with the religious controversy immediately following in the JA, covered in eight times more length, yet on a far more trivial incident).
  • The TF is improbably obscure (contrast how Josephus writes about other sects, teachings, and actions, and how he always explains obscure terms like “Christ” or “Christian”).
  • The TF was unknown to Origen (despite his explicit search of Josephus for Jesus material in his answer to Celsus) and all other Christian authors before the 4th century.
  • Rewriting the TF to ‘solve’ these problems is always baseless speculation, not empirical argument

Additionally, it should be noted that it has already been observed under peer review by multiple experts that Josephus assiduously avoids calling anyone a Christ or messiah, but always uses a coded means to describe them instead, by associating such figures with Joshua (the original conqueror of Israel) and illustrating the apocalyptic expectations of their followers, neither of which is done in the Testimonium, whose author seems quite unaware of either trend in Josephus. This argues strongly against Josephan authorship. Had he mentioned anything here about Jesus being a messiah or messianic pretender, he would have followed the model he uses no less than four times elsewhere (OHJ, pp. 68-70 and 245-46). Quite conspicuously, Jesus is not a member of Josephan Christ reference class. Which is unexpected, and therefore improbable, on any theory of Josephan authorship.

New Results Still Being Ignored

Since 2008, in addition to toppling the argument from Arabic, peer reviewed research has worsened the case for authenticity even further. In reference to my new bibliography (p. 2 of my handout):

  • The content, concepts, and sequence of the TF matches the gospel summary in Luke 24 (Goldberg 1995).
  • The style of the TF is more Eusebian than Josephan (Olson 2013; Feldman 2012).
  • And the narrative structure of the TF is not even remotely Josephan, but is a perfect match for Christian creedal statements (in respect to the treatment of time, story, emplotment, and apologetic: Hopper 2014).

Moreover, all manuscripts of the JA are descended from the one used and possibly even produced by Eusebius (Whealey 2008; Carrier 2012). And yet apart from them, there is no evidence the JA ever contained the TF in any form. These findings are being ignored even in new publications (e.g. Whealey 2016). And yet no opinion is citeable that isn’t informed by these findings and based on them.

The TF derives from the NT (Goldberg 1995)

In a published finding still commonly overlooked, G.J. Goldberg demonstrated so many coincidences between the Testimonium and a core segment of the Emmaus narrative in Luke 24 that accident is no longer a plausible explanation. I’ve written about this before. These coincidences include, Goldberg says, “detailed structural coincidences” that are “not found in comparable texts of the era,” and “coincidences at difficult textual points, the most peculiar being the participial form of the ‘third day’, unique [here and in] Christian literature,” and “a rare first person usage,” and “the presentation and terseness concerning Jesus’ deeds, the predictions of the prophets, and the sentencing.” All match the Emmaus narrative. None make sense coming from Josephus.

Goldberg also notes that “the vocabulary cluster [of the Greek words] ‘Jesus, man, deed’ … which are the first three major nouns of the Testimonium” is peculiar because “only [the Emmaus] passage of Luke shares this cluster” in all other literature. And “one finds this to be only the first indication of a series of location correspondences, nearly synonymous phrases occurring in analogous positions in each text.” On top of that, Goldberg says, “the Testimonium and the Emmaus narrative employ at” many points the same “odd or obscure form of expression,” like that strange way of saying “third day.”

Regarding the sequence match, as Goldberg puts it, “one can read[…] the text of Luke, halt[…] at each noun or each verb of action, and then look[…] to the Josephus text for a corresponding phrase at the same location.” He then shows there are 19 elements in the TF that are in the exact same order as the same 19 elements in the Emmaus narrative. As follows:

[Jesus] [wise man / prophet-man] [mighty/surprising] [deed(s)] [teacher / word] [truth / (word) before God] [many people] [he was indicted] [by leaders] [of us] [sentenced to a cross] [those who had loved/hoped in him] [spending the third day] [he appeared/spoke to them] [prophets] [these things] [and numerous other things] [about him]

There is a 20th element that also matches between them: identifying Jesus as the Christ. That is the sole element presented out of order from the Emmaus narrative. Goldberg also overlooks a 21st correspondence: both the matching part of Luke and the Testimonium begin with the same verb in the same position, “it comes to pass / it came to pass” (exact same verb, exact same place, just differing in tense).

Likewise the same brevities are in both the Emmaus narrative and the Testimonium. As Goldberg notes, one major “puzzle is why both Josephus and Luke used only [the] word [‘deeds’], coupled with one strong adjective, to cover the acts of Jesus,” and why they both gloss over who the “leading men among us” were, or what motivated them or the Romans to kill Jesus, or what Jesus taught, or what “the prophets” (which prophets?) predicted that Jesus fulfilled. As Goldberg rightly says, “Josephus gives less information on the deeds and words of Jesus than he does for John the Baptist,” or “the impostor Theudas,” or  “any number of other individuals.”

In fact, “The brevity of this section is uncharacteristic of Josephus the historian,” who, “as many examples will attest, is interested in presenting the conflicting sides of an argument and, in general, in reasoning about the actions of his subjects” (an observation reinforced by Hopper, as we’ll soon see). Again, “a good example for us is Josephus’ description of a contemporary of Jesus with a comparable career, John the Baptist.” Goldberg correctly notes how “John’s teachings are described,” as is “the reason why John gives Herod cause for alarm,” and “Herod’s decision and the reasoning behind it,” and likewise his execution “and its consequences.” Somehow the Testimonium neglects telling us any such detail. And that is extremely unlike Josephus…which means, extremely improbable from Josephus.

If we add all this up, the conclusion is clear. As Goldberg puts it:

If not due to a common source, these coincidences can have only two other explanations. Either they are due to chance; or the Testimonium is not, in fact, authentic, that it is the composition of a later Christian writer, and that this writer was in part influenced, directly or indirectly, by the excerpt from Luke.

Goldberg rightly rejects the chance accident hypothesis, as being the least probable of the three. But he then implausibly opts for the common source hypothesis. His only argument for it, though, is that it solves “a number of mysteries that have bothered commentators of the Testimonium,” like “What does Josephus mean by calling Jesus a wise man? What was the nature of the accusation by the leaders? If the passage is authentic, why does it approximate to a Christian creed?” These indeed are all improbable on a hypothesis of Josephan authorship. But Goldberg suggests, “all these questions fall away if it were true that Josephus did little but rewrite a concise narrative that had, so to speak, crossed his desk.”

There is a fatal problem with Goldberg’s only argument: Josephus would never use a source so slavishly and unintelligibly as that. As even Goldberg admits, he never does—it is as opposite his style as any practice can be imagined. Which is precisely why that’s not a plausible hypothesis. It is arguably even less probable than chance coincidence. It is certainly nowhere near as probable as Christian forgery.

Which brings us to Hopper’s analysis…

The TF Is Not Josephan in Structure (Hopper 2014)

Linguist Paul Hopper demonstrates extensively and formally that the TF is so wildly contrary to how Josephus tells stories that it can’t have been written by him; and that the TF in fact matches another genre of literature so perfectly—the Christian creedal statement—that wholesale forgery is by far the most likely explanation of it. I’ve written about this before. I’ll mention first that in his research Hopper erroneously classifies Josephus as a pagan historian rather than a Jewish one. And I found that annoying. But his linguistic and narrative analysis is robust and well-argued. So I’ll let that gaffe slide.

Hopper correctly observes that “the Testimonium does not so much narrate to first century Romans new events, but rather reminds third century Christians of events already familiar to them.” For example, “unlike the event reporting in the other Pontius Pilate episodes, we are not told in detail what Jesus did” and “Jesus is throughout a passive participant rather than an active agent.”

In fact, Hopper points out there are only four aorist verbs forming the structure of the whole TF. Two of them refer to Jesus, but only in passive or middle voice; they are not active verbs, which is not how Josephus usually writes about actors in his narratives. Then there are the other two aorists, which oddly are both negated verbs: his followers “did not” cease loving him and the Christian tribe “did not” cease continuing. Hopper says, “The use of the negative in [the other] two of the four aorists…suggest[s] here that the author is contradicting unheard voices that question the truth of the chronicle,” which sounds more like Christian apologetics.

Similarly, Hopper notes how “Pilate’s involvement in the condemning of Jesus [is] relegated to a peripheral clause” and “the blame for this action is transferred to the Jewish elders,” which is another peculiarly Christian apologetical view; and the opposite of the Pilate narrative Josephus was building up to this point and after. Moreover, Hopper observes, “the grammatical structure of the Testimonium is at odds with that of the [whole] sequence of Pontius Pilate, in which the chief protagonist is Pilate himself.”

Then there is the peculiar change in the treatment of time. The Testimonium, Hopper notes, “takes place in a more remote perspective of slow changes and general truths,” in contrast with the other Pilate episodes Josephus narrates, wherein there is, as Hopper puts it, “event structure,” and “at each point we know not only what the actors did, but why they did it, and what the causes and effects of their actions were.” Just as Goldberg noted, too. In other words, Josephus narrates intelligible stories. The Testimonium does not look anything like that. It does not look anything like any other paragraph anywhere in the entire collected works of Josephus.

Hopper rightly concludes that “the temporality of the Testimonium derives from its presumed familiarity to its audience, which in turn is more compatible with a third century or later Christian setting than a first century Roman one.” Likewise, as Hopper says, “the careful crafting of emplotment is an essential part of Josephus’s skill as a historian” and yet “the Testimonium has no such plot.” Once again, “the Testimonium gains its intelligibility not through its reporting of novel events,” as Josephus usually conveys, “but by virtue of being a ‘repetition of the familiar’,” a practice that only makes sense within a common faith culture. Hence, “familiarity” here means “familiarity to a third century Christian readership, not to a first century Roman one.”

Hopper explains that the import of the Testimonium’s story:

…does not lie—as it does for the other events told by Josephus in this part of the Jewish Antiquities—in the larger narrative of the interlocking destinies of Rome and Jerusalem, but instead in the Gospel story of the Christian New Testament; and it is from the Gospels, and the Gospels alone, that the Jesus Christ narrative in the Testimonium draws its coherence and its legitimacy as a plot, and perhaps even some of its language. It is not just that the Christian origin of the Testimonium is betrayed by its allegiance to the Gospels, as that without the Gospels the passage is incomprehensible.

Because none of it, as presented, makes any sense. What is a Christ? Why was he called that? What deeds? What teachings? Why did anyone love him? Why did anyone hate him? What prophets? What prophecies? Why was he killed? What is meant by his appearing on a third day afterward? Why are we even being told any of this? What does it have to do with the portrait of Pilate Josephus is building, or with why the Jews went to war with Rome, or with anything Josephus has any motive to relate?

Indeed, Hopper says, “The Testimonium is anchored in a radically different discourse community from that of the rest of the Jewish Antiquities. The Testimonium reads more like a position paper, a party manifesto, than a narrative.” In fact, “the closest generic match for the Testimonium is perhaps,” Hopper says, “the various creeds that began to be formulated in the early fourth century.” I would emend that statement: the genre he refers to began not in the fourth century, but in the second. We see the very same genre, for example, already in the creedal statements constructed by Ignatius and Justin. This is pointed out by Goldberg, who quotes those and cites many other comparable texts that confirm Hopper’s point: the TF matches that genre of literature; not the histories of Josephus. Indeed, the section of the Emmaus narrative Goldberg compares the TF to is almost a prototype of that very genre.

As Hopper puts it, the Testimonium is generically comparable to all these other creedal statements in four bold respects:

  • its extreme brevity;
  • its sycophantic tone;
  • its introduction ad hoc as if a separable declaration from the surrounding text;
  • and its inclusion of several creedal elements, such as: the declaration of Christhood; being crucified by Pilate; risen on the third day; that he performed miracles; was foretold by prophets; and that the church continues to flourish.

In all, Hopper’s analysis must be taken into account when evaluating the authenticity of the Testimonium, as must also Goldberg’s analysis. No opinion can be informed that ignores them. Yet most expert opinions have been published unaware of them, and are therefore unciteable.

And the same can be said of the most recent work by Olson…

The Language of the TF Is More Eusebian Than Josephan (Olson 2013)

Both of Olson’s works I include in the new bibliography (p. 2 of my handout) were published in 2013. I’ve written about them before. Taken together, they thoroughly establish that the vocabulary and phrasing of the Testimonium matches Eusebius in every peculiar case, while frequently not matching Josephus.

For example, phrases common in Eusebius but nowhere else in Josephus include: ”

  • “wise man”
  • “teacher of human beings”
  • “worker of amazing deeds”
  • “Christian…tribe”
  • receiving godly things “with pleasure”
  • “the truth” in the plural to mean the truth of God
  • and the exact phrase “and myriads of other things”
  • and the exact phrase “to this very day”

Likewise many concepts in the TF are peculiar to Eusebius. For example, the belief that Jesus won over many Jews and Greeks during his ministry, is a peculiar Eusebian trope. And of course, Josephus never elsewhere uses or explains the word “Christ”; whereas a Christian not only readily would, but would also be the only sort of author likely to forget that the intended readers of the Antiquities don’t know what calling him that means.

As Olson concludes, “Both the language and the content have close parallels in the work of Eusebius of Caesarea, who is the first author to show any knowledge of the text.” Olson logically concludes Eusebius is the Testimonium’s most likely author. Which may be true. But as I explained earlier, there is at least one more suspect, Pamphilus.

In Olson’s conclusion, he refers to the collection of arguments against forgery assembled by Van Voorst:

In summary, the six arguments against Christian authorship of some elements of the Testimonium that Van Voorst has culled from the scholarly literature do not hold with respect to Eusebius. At the very least, this should remind us to be wary of arguments from authority. The fact that one or more scholars has endorsed a particular argument does not mean it is sound. Even if one were to reject the overall conclusion that Eusebius wrote the text, it would not change the fact that [the works of Eusebius demonstrate that] these six arguments are based on false premises about what a Christian writer would or would not have written. Arguments about what a generic Christian writer is likely to have done always need to be checked against the actual practices of real Christian authors.

And that’s a really important warning. A lot of the expert opinions on the Testimonium are based on false or unproven claims about what was typical of the time. You have to actually go and look, and actually show what was usual or unusual. You can’t just assume you “know” what a writer would or wouldn’t do. I elaborate on this point in Carrier 2014 in ways that require expert consideration before deciding the matter. I’ll explain that point next.

But in the end, there is actually no evidence for the Testimonium being written by Josephus, that is not also equal or stronger evidence for it being written by Eusebius (or Pamphilus). And indeed, one should admit, the TF is actually literarily awful, so simplistic, unintelligible, and awkward that almost any well educated Greek would have been embarrassed to have written it. And the reasons (collected by Goldberg, Hopper, and Olson) for concluding Josephus would never have written such a literarily awful paragraph are so overwhelming, I cannot see any reason to continue to defend such a thesis.

So we should always ask…

What motivates so many unreasonable efforts to rationalize the authenticity of the Testimonium? Historians who defend it, are almost certainly not being objective. They seem so biased in favor of a deep need that Josephus mentioned Jesus, that they will rationalize away any evidence against it, and hang their certainty on any implausible assertion supporting it. And when that’s the case, everyone should step back and re-examine their needs and motives, and make a concerted effort to consider the evidence objectively. In other words, ask yourself… What if the TF wasn’t about Jesus?

The James Reference

As far as I’m concerned that’s already sufficient to end any further effort to defend any part of the TF. Josephus didn’t mention Jesus Christ there and that’s just the end of it. That leaves the other supposed reference to Jesus Christ in Josephus. But to understand why that must be just as bogus, requires, indeed, comparing it to the TF…

Again, the Wikipedia translation of the Testimonium Flavianum reads as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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 Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

That not a single sentence of this paragraph makes any sense coming from Josephus—not one line of it matches his practices anywhere else in his writings, but quite conspicuously contradicts them—I summarize in Carrier 2014 in the new bibliography (Ch. 8.9 of OHJ). Anyone who would gainsay that conclusion must confront what I observe there (as well as all the traditional arguments against its authenticity, and all the new evidence against it, that I just surveyed, especially Hopper 2014 and Olson 2013). But what is additionally conspicuous is how unlike the other passage on Jesus still cited in Josephus this paragraph is…

The Wikipedia translation of the James passage reads as follows (I’ve broken it into paragraphs):

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus.

Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

But as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Notice how much detail is in this passage that is characteristic of Josephus as a historian: it’s three times longer than the Testimonium, yet about a much less significant event (the tumultuous transition of the high priesthood from Ananus to Jesus); we are presented with the causes and effects and reasons and motives for nearly every actor’s decisions and moves in the story; it’s a narrative with a plot, and with a lot of detail that explains what is happening and why; it cross-references things a Gentile reader might not be familiar with, such as why Ananus being a Sadducee would cause him to act this way, it even includes a back-reference to inform the reader that Josephus discussed the Sadducee sect earlier—where we find he did indeed summarize their teachings.

This is all missing from the Testimonium.

The TF is inexplicably too brief for Josephus to have written it—covering far more astonishing and momentous claims, yet in a third as many words. It explains no one’s motives, explains none of the reasons for anything in it happening, and does not explain the teachings of this new sect being described. It has hardly any narrative plot, and it explains nothing a Gentile reader would need explained. It doesn’t tell you what Jesus or the sect of Christians taught. It doesn’t even tell you what he did (what deeds? what fulfilled prophecies? why was he killed? how did he appear or live a third day?). It also, notably, doesn’t mention James or any family of Jesus—at all, much less as being among the Christian followers who succeeded him; nor does it mention any Christians ever being persecuted—at all, much less why.

The Testimonium therefore has no knowledge of the James passage—it does not prepare the reader for it, or even seem aware it’s coming; and the James passage has no knowledge of the Testimonium—it doesn’t refer to it at all. Unlike the way Josephus refers to his previous discussion of Sadducees to explain the actions of Ananus, he doesn’t think to refer to any discussion of Christians to explain the fate of James. The specific violations James was accused of were wholly uninteresting and unimportant to Josephus. Merely that he shouldn’t have been killed, that it was too trivial a technicality of Jewish law to warrant it, a conclusion with which the Jewish elite all agreed—a strange thing if they are supposed to be persecuting, even outlawing Christians.

These are serious problems any defender of this text must contend with. But even besides that, no expert opinion on this is sound that is not informed by reading Carrier 2012, the latest peer reviewed research on this matter. There I demonstrate (and you can find that article reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ):

  • This James passage was unknown to Origen (despite his explicit search of Josephus for Jesus material in his answer to Celsus). All claims to the contrary until now have been mistaken on that point.
  • Because in fact, it’s objectively evident that Origen mistook a story about James in Hegesippus as being in Josephus (a kind of mistake I document Origen sometimes made).
  • All other accounts of the death of James the brother of Jesus do not match this one in Josephus; they therefore had no knowledge of this passage being about the Christian James (Eusebius is the first author to ever think so; and the first to ever quote it from Josephus).
  • We know Acts used Josephus as a source text for historical color, yet the author of Acts never noticed this passage as being about Jesus Christ (which is inexplicable, given that if it was, then it shows Jews being punished for persecuting Christians, exactly the kind of thing the author of Acts strove to include; instead, Acts never mentions this James even being martyred).
  • If Josephus had written this passage as about the persecution of Christians, he would have explained things, as is his style consistently in all his historical writing; only a Christian would just assume all those obscure things were already known to the reader (like what a “Christ” was; that James was a Christian; that Jews sought to kill Christians; and why, we must then suppose, the Jewish elite and Roman authorities opposed the killing of James if he was a Christian).
  • The words tou legomenou christou, “the [one] called Christ,” is for these and many other reasons most likely a marginal note (by Origen or Pamphilus, or another scribe or scholar in the same Library of Caesarea), expressing belief rather than fact (possibly trying to find the passage Origen claimed he’d seen here but mistakenly saw instead in Hegesippus).
  • That marginal note was then accidentally interpolated into the manuscript produced or used by Eusebius (which would have been a copy of the one used by Origen), a very common form of scribal error.
  • Possibly by replacing ton tou damnaiou, “the son of Damneus,” in the same place. That same line is repeated at the end of the story. Repetition of that identical phrase a few lines after may have led a scribe to suspect the marginal note was correcting a dittograph (an accidental duplication caused by a previous scribe skipping some lines by mistake, starting at the “wrong” Jesus in the story). But more likely, that duplication is exactly what Josephus meant: Ananus is punished for killing the brother of Jesus ben Damneus by being deposed and replaced by Jesus ben Damneus.

All arguments against interpolation in print to date have assumed the entire passage was interpolated (not just the one phrase) and that it was deliberate (instead of accidental or conjectural). Consequently, none of those opinions is citeable. Because they have not taken into account this alternative theory of the evidence or the evidence in support of it.

Personally, I think it’s clear: Josephus never mentioned Christ here, either. And again, I think this would be readily admitted by any expert…were this not Christ we were talking about.

Concluding Example

I will conclude with an example of another problem plaguing opinions in this matter.

Any expert you cite in order to reckon a consensus on the authenticity of these passages not only has to be informed (having read and honestly considered all this new published work since 2008, as well as the overlooked work of Goldberg in 1995: see the bibliography on page 2 of my handout), but they also have to know what they are doing.

A classic example of failing at that is provided by Christian apologist Roger Pearse, who published a “rebuttal” to Louis Feldman (Feldman, the Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius and the TLG) in which Pearse claims Feldman erred in noting that a particular temporal construction in the TF is un-Josephan but very much Eusebian. Pearse’s claim is based on checking the TLG (an essential resource for ancient historians; we all use it) and claiming to have found Feldman was wrong. But, well, what really ends up being shown…is that Pearse is incompetent. He put in the wrong search string!

Pearse incorrectly searched eis eti te nun rather than eis eti nun, evidently unaware that te is a particle that isn’t grammatically relevant to the phrase’s meaning (it’s more like punctuation in Greek, and means something like a very soft “and“, marking the relation of the clause to the surrounding sentence structure; it has its own meanings and other uses, but here it’s just a punctuator). The actual phrase is eis eti nun. When you search just the phrase in the TLG, without the incidental particle, it appears 99 times…93 of them in Eusebius alone! The other six are all post-Eusebian (one use each in John Stobaeus, Didymus Caecus, Procopius, Eustathius, the Chronicon Paschale and the Etymologicum Magnum). In other words, in the whole of Greek history, until after Eusebius, that phrase is uniquely Eusebian. It not only was never used by Josephus. It was never used by any Greek author ever. And yet Eusebius used it nearly a hundred times! That’s about as strong a stylistic marker as you can find. It’s almost alone proof conclusive that Eusebius wrote the TF (unless, again, Pamphilus did, and Eusebius adopted his liking for this phrase from Pamphilus).

If we add the particle te before nun, the only appearances in all of Greek literature are in Eusebius and the TF. That also doesn’t look good. Even the very similar phrase eiseti nun appears in Greek literature only up to the time of Polybius (who wrote in the 3rd century B.C.), 16 times in all, but never again in history—except by Christian authors. Clement of Alexandria being the first to pick it up (he uses it 3 times in extant writings). But the next Christian author to use it is…Eusebius! Who uses it a whopping 62 times. After that it appears occasionally in Christian writers over the centuries and into the Middle Ages. The idiom is never used by Josephus.

So Pearse’s response to Feldman is just an embarrassing error. When you use the TLG search engine correctly, you definitely confirm Feldman’s point: the use of that idiom in the TF is so bizarre it’s practically a dead giveaway for a Eusebian forgery.

Let this remind you to make sure that any expert you cite the opinion of is not only informed, but also competent. Also, to see even this single piece of evidence, and still think the TF is authentic, has to be proof positive you are irrationally biased—and you need to see to that.

-:-

12 comments

  1. Justin Legault February 16, 2017, 7:16 am

    Awesome! Thanks for posting this! I don’t even know why people still mention Josephus’ passages. It should be a close and shut case by now.

    Reply
  2. Regarding the desperate and stubborn drive by historicists to defend the authenticity of the Josephus references, would it be because of how shaky the gospels are as evidence for historicity? It seems to me that historicists need Josephus as a source of credibility to historicity given the increasing acceptance to mainstream scholarship and the general public of the wholly fictitious mythological nature of the gospel narratives.

    Reply
    1. John MacDonald May 28, 2017, 7:19 pm

      Mythicists sometimes cite Origen (Contra Celsum 1.47 and Commentary on Matthew 10.17), who certainly knew Book 18 of the Antiquities and cites 5 passages from it, as explicitly stating that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as Christ.  This seems to exclude Origen as being aware of the relevant passage in the Testimonium Flavianum as we have it today, but doesn’t it ALSO imply Origin’s copy of Josephus’ work did say “something” about Jesus, enough for Origen to conclude that Josephus didn’t think Jesus was the Christ? 

      Reply
      1. No. Origen doesn’t say Josephus said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ. Origen only said he didn’t. Which is an inference, not a citation: Origen is just saying in a prolix way that Josephus wasn’t a Christian. When Origen is reporting what Josephus said, he says he’s stating something he said. (Even when he’s wrong and mistaking something someone else said for something Josephus said.)

        So that actually rules out any reference to Jesus in Josephus known to Origen. Origen was tasked by Celsus with finding anything in Josephus that corroborated anything in the Gospels. All Origen could find was a reference to John the Baptist, and a reference to James (which he then confused with the account in Hegesippus). If there had been any reference to Jesus, Origen would have quoted it or cited it. Especially if it was negative. Because Origen is standing on the authority of Josephus; the reason why his being not a Christian made him a valuable source to Origen rhetorically. If Josephus said anything negative, Celsus (or any critic ever, who is reading what Origen is writing) would be able to cite that back at him and turn Origen’s own source against him; so Origen would need to include a preemptive apologetic against any negative thing Josephus said. That’s how ancient rhetoric operated. That Origen never does that, shows there wasn’t even a negative statement against Christians in Josephus that Origen’s critics could ounce on and that Origen then would have to apologize for or run damage control on.

        Reply
        1. John MacDonald June 2, 2017, 12:25 pm

          It seems difficult to say. For Origen to conclude “But he himself, though not believing in Jesus as Christ,…” there would seem to have to be something in those writings of Josephus that were available to Origen , that made him think so. The mere absence of any mention of Jesus wouldn’t seem to be enough.

  3. Dear Richard,

    Many thanks for the link!

    First, could you please revise your post to make plain to unwary readers that particles should *not* be ignored in understanding Greek texts? Failure to attend to them in translation is a classic mistake, as I’m sure you know. It would be a shame if some youngster failed his Greek class through a vague memory of your remarks. (Unless Greek in the US is really in a worse state than I think that it is?)

    I’m not quite sure why you thought that I made a mistake. I just tested the statement as Feldman made it. I’m glad that you’ve managed to find a way to make it work better for your theory.

    May I say that I think you could make your point much more simply than you do? Surely what you want to say is that, if we start with a search phrase of “eis eti nun”, we can still consider the Josephus reference as a match, even though it has the extra “te”, because the particle is just a nuance, rather than a substantive difference? That statement is obviously correct. I think Feldman probably *did* do it that way round.

    With all good wishes,

    Roger Pearse

    Reply
    1. Certainly, I will make the remark clearer to avoid that misunderstanding.

      And yes, the issue is, the particle isn’t a part of the generic phrase (and thus isn’t a style marker connected with this phrase), any more than a comma in this sentence is. No one would ignore a hundred uses of “the issue is” in my writings, and none in the vast corpus of another author, by saying “, the issue is ,” is not in my writing and therefore “the issue is” is not a stylistic marker pointing to my authorship being more probable than theirs.

      Of course, the te particle can play a more substantive part in other generic phrases in Greek. But this isn’t one of those. Here the particle is simply structuring this phrase’s position with respect to the sentence break where it’s placed. And as such it isn’t meaningless in any use, even here, just as commas aren’t meaningless in English. But they play a different role in stylometrics than the phrases punctuated with them do.

      Reply
  4. Steven C Watson February 17, 2017, 6:20 pm

    I had to laugh at what was used to illustrate the article you linked to about new data storage tech. The Bible. Really?

    Reply

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