Criticism of the Apologetic use of Josephus

I’ve been interacting with some apologists lately.  One of the issues that came up was Josephus and whether he refers to Jesus in the Testimonium Flavianum.  I don’t care about the issue in and of itself.  Even if Josephus refers to Jesus, this is still a reference after Jesus’ death.  There is no reference to Jesus or any of the events in Jesus life while Jesus was alive.  Besides, proving that some person mentioned a person named Jesus really doesn’t prove anything.  ‘Jesus’ is just a name.  The theological and supernatural beliefs of Christians can’t be justified by history, but for some reason Christians think it does. 

History is not a science.  Even the soft sciences have more claims for objectivity than New Testament scholarship.  When someone says that scientists have come to a consensus, I tend to respect their authority.  However, the concensus of New Testament scholars doesn’t really add up to much.  Most New Testament scholars are Christians trained at Christian schools.  According to their beliefs, they have strong motivation to prove orthodox opinion.  And, as many of them teach at Christian schools, their jobs even might be risked if they voiced criticisms too openly.

Some of the scholars doubt Jesus historicity are scholars in fields such as ancient languages and history.  These fields are directly relevant to New Testament studies, but apologists tend to dismiss these scholars because their opinions are inconvenient.  As an example, when an apologist says that most Josephus scholars accept Josephus, it’s simply pleading to authority.

For anyone who wants to explore the criticisms for themselves, I’ll offer two articles about Josephus by Earl Doherty and two thread discussions where there are links to other info including an article by D.M. Murdock.  After those links, I’ll offer a link to and some excerpts from the discussion page on the Wikipedia article about “Josephus on Jesus”.

Modern Consensus on the Testimonium

I’m a little afraid to reopen this can of worms, but the article now says that significant number of scholars consider it [the Testimonium] genuine. Really? As in, Josephus actually wrote “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “He was [the] Christ” and “he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”? Despite Origen’s assertion that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and his failure to quote any of these miraculous passages (even though he does quote the other reference to Jesus as brother of James several times, despite its being far less interesting to a Christian apologist)? I find this difficult to believe. If “a significant number of scholars” really does believe this, it should definitely be backed up by specific references at this point in the article. If “geniune” just means that Josephus wrote something about Jesus here, I suggest this section be reworded, as it is very misleading. Grover cleveland 17:48, 7 March 2006 (UTC)

You’re right. It’s a big, nasty can of worms, which is why I haven’t changed that bit.
I think the best thing to help put “most scholars” in perspective is to realize that most scholars who study these things are Christians in Christian institutions. None of them would reject the entire passage outright for fear of losing either their faith or their job…yet, all, combined, rip each and every minute little piece of it to shreds. Take a step back, and it’s clear that the overall consensus is that the passage is 100% bullshit…yet, at the same time, all the (Christian) individuals insist that their favorite tiny piece of it is real (and that, by extension, that proves that there must have been something real there to begin with).
But, back to the point, it /is/ fair to say that significant numbers of scholars think it’s genuine. It’s also fair to say that significant numbers of Americans think that Saddam Hussein was intimately involved with the September 11, 2001 attacks. In neither case does the majority opinion have any bearing on the reality under discussion, but that doesn’t make the observation of the popular opinion any less valid. TrumpetPower! 18:31, 7 March 2006 (UTC)
Under Wikipedia:Verifiability, this claim should be backed up by references, particularly as it seems to contradict other parts of the article that make the arguments against authenticity. I think it is significantly damaging to the article as a whole and should be removed, unless someone can come up with supporting evidence. Grover cleveland 18:58, 7 March 2006 (UTC)
If you want to tackle it, go knock yourself out. But, if you follow the references and links in the Wikipedia article, you’ll find that, yes, a significant number do indeed hold to the authenticity of at least part of the passage. Incidentally, you’ll also find that all of those who do claim it’s (at least partially) authentic are Christian. Do a census of all modern scholarship on the matter, and I’m pretty confident you’ll find a majority who claim some kind of authenticity…but, then again, the overwhelming majority of scholars who study this sort of thing are Christian. If you include not just modern scholars but historical ones, the consensus is truly overwhelming. But, then again, it wasn’t even possible to claim otherwise and remain alive for much of history….
Of course, to do it right, you’ll also have to define, “scholar.” Only those with teaching positions at accredited universities? What about widely-published authors, fellows at museums, the Vatican…? And, even then, what have you proven? Of what significance is majority opinion on the matter?

Bulk of xx.9 in dispute?

Well, don’t keep us all in suspense–what’re the problems? TrumpetPower! 23:38, 18 March 2006 (UTC)
Well, one of the first paragraphs in that section says the passage is “accepted as authentic by scholars”. Then it goes into detail about the debate, and then seems to present an argument (OR?) on why all the scholars are all wrong. And it doesn’t even give Well’s hypothesis to explain the passage (that the text was origionally a marginal note by a Christian scribe that eventually ended up in the main text). My suggestions would be to at least give citations, and state exactly who is making what claims. —Andrew c 17:11, 19 March 2006 (UTC)
Good points. “[A]ccepted as authentic by scholars” probably needs to read, “accepted as authentic by most scholars.” (Personally, I’m troubled by this whole “scholars” nonsense. First, there’s the problem of establishing what a “scholar” really is–frankly, it seems like it’s usually used as code for “Christian apologist in a seminary.” Further, it’s got that whole argument-from-authority thing going on. Let’s rely upon the facts themselves, not on some nameless person’s interpretation of said facts, hmmm?) I don’t have information on Well’s hypothesis handy, but don’t let that stop you–dive right in! TrumpetPower! 17:23, 19 March 2006 (UTC)

Possible typo / mistake?

From ‘Arguments against authenticity, Origen’:

“The Christian author Origen wrote around the year 240. His writings predate the earliest quotations of the Testimonium.”

In 93, the Jewish historian Josephus published his work Antiquities of the Jews…The one directly concerning Jesus has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum”

These statements are contradictory; Origen’s work is descirbed as coming nearly 150 years after the Testimonium, so by definition could not predate it. If the sentance is meant to suggest that the events covered by Origen happened earlier than the events covered by Josephus or that Origen’s source material predates Josephus’ even tho it was written 150 years later or that Origen’s work is the earliest to refer to the Testimonium then it should be changed to state this explicitly.

Also, I think there should be some reference to the fact that even if Josephus’ account is not a forgery, it is still not a first hand independant eyewitness account of Jesus’ life – I believe that the main source of conention of the hitoricity of Jesus is the lack of such accounts outside of the bible. A publication 60 years after an event that relies on only 2nd or 3rd hand information is obviously far more useful than one written 300 years after an event relying on word-of-mouth fokelore, but it is still not sufficiently conclusive for this debate. I think a short, passing mention of this should be made at some point in the article in order to frame the importance of the document & debate, since if people believe this is somehow a definitive document on ‘proving’ the existnce of a historical Jesus then partisan defense or attack of its authenticity is more likely to occur.

Mb667584 14:31, 5 January 2007 (UTC)

There is no contradiction. Josephus wrote The Antiquities in 93. Origen wrote around 240. The earliest quotations of the Testimonium are found in the works of Eusebius who wrote later. Grover cleveland 23:51, 5 January 2007 (UTC)

4 thoughts on “Criticism of the Apologetic use of Josephus

  1. Partially on the right track. However, historical necessarily implies documentation of both the period and the context; which is Judaic, not post-135 C.E. Roman Hellenist.

    You’ll find historical, rather than Christian-histerical, at:

  2. Josephus was alive in the first century of the common era. However, there is no evidence of the Testimonium Flavianum prior to the third century. So, the context is that it is first recorded by Eusubius who is known to lie and make things up. Josephus was Jewish, but Eusubius was Christian.

    As far as I can tell, there isn’t much reason to assume that Josephus wrote it. Even though it’s theoretically possible he wrote the Testimonium Flavianum, some scholars point out that it doesn’t fit in with his other writings.

  3. A couple or responses. I was surprised that you would discount Josephus because he wrote a few years after Jesus’ death. Should we begin to doubt the existence of Alexander the Great since all the accounts of his life are centuries after his death? As for scholars being Christian and trained in seminaries, you must check your facts. Some are for sure, but there are probably more trained in secular universities. A Religious Studies approach is much different than a seminary approach and yet they agree that Jesus lived and that Josephus said something about him. Also, there is a growing number of non-Christian New Testament scholars. Bart Ehrman is an atheist and yet we would disagree with much of the Jesus myth stuff. One of my New Testament professors was Jewish. There are large numbers of non-Christian New Testament scholars.

    I am also curious as to what you would expect to find in the first century about Jesus. When we look at what the church is now, you could say they should have known and made a big deal of everything. But at the time Christianity was just a small movement, one religion among many religions. Why should the Romans notice? In an illiterate society, most of the people could not have written their thoughts on Jesus’ teaching. Also the climate of that area does not allow for the survival of writings unlike the drier Egypt. Aside from the Dead Sea Scrolls, very few writings have been found in Israel. We have what should be expected, accounts by some of his followers (Gospels and Paul) and brief mention by Josephus. Anything else would be a surprise.

  4. The doubt isn’t of Josephus existing. The doubt is whether he mentioned Jesus because the earliest source of it is from Eusebius in the 4th century. Eusebius was known to be a very untrustworthy source of information.

    It very well may be the case that Josephus mentioned the name Jesus. However, the name ‘Jesus’ was a common name at the time.

    Anyways, I wasn’t arguing that it was definitely inauthentic. I merely was pointing out that it is still debated.

    Why should the Romans have noticed? Because the gospels claimed the Romans took great notice of Jesus. Plus, the gospels claim an eclipse happened during Jesus’ crucifixion and that is the type of thing that astrologers of the time would’ve recorded. Furthermore, there were many historieans living in the area including Jewish historians who would be very concerned about recording the life of a messiah claimant.

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