Monday, April 16, 2018

WHO WAS JOSEPHUS? And Did He Really Write About Jesus?

     During my recent online debates with atheist friends about the historical existence of Jesus, one source comes up again and again - the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  Since many Christians may not know much about him, I thought I would take the time to share a little bit of what he wrote and why one passage in particular is so controversial.  So let's go in order.  First:

                                                        WHO WAS JOSEPHUS?

    Flavius Josephus was born around 37 AD - four years after Jesus was crucified.  His Jewish name was Yosef bin Matityahu, and his father was of priestly descent.  He was a Pharisee by religion and a Jewish nationalist.  During the great uprising against Rome that began in 66 AD, he fought with the Jewish rebels trying to overthrow Roman rule.  He was captured and brought before the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, more commonly known as Vespasian.  When he saw the general, Josephus (the Latin form of his name) greeted him by saying "Hail Caesar!"
    Vespasian replied: "I am no Caesar, for it is Nero who rules in Rome."
    Josephus responded: "Aye, but in a year's time you will become Caesar and rule Rome."
    Right around that time, a thousand miles away, the Roman Senate, sick of Nero's insanity, stripped him of all honors and titles and ordered his arrest. The Emperor killed himself, and civil war broke out as a series of well-connected Senators and generals tried to elevate themselves to the throne in what was called "The Year of the Four Emperors."  Finally, Vespasian and his armies marched on Rome and defeated the forces of his rival Galba, and Vespasian became the next Emperor.  He remembered the Jewish prisoner who had foretold his triumph and ordered Josephus released. 

         Eventually Josephus moved to Rome and became a member of the Emperor's household.  Regarded by his own people as a turncoat and traitor, Josephus nevertheless tried to explain to a hostile Roman audience what the Jewish revolt was all about in his lengthy history, THE JEWISH WAR, published around 75 AD.  About 20 years later, Josephus wrote a lengthy history of the Jewish people, from the time of Creation until the fall of Jerusalem.  This book is called THE ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS, and it includes the history of Jesus' lifetime.
     That leads us to the $64,000 question - did Josephus write about Jesus of Nazareth?

                                                 THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVINIUM

     In THE ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS, Book 18, Chapter 3, verse 3, we find this narrative:
 "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 to this day."
     Now, this passage, IF authentic, is a slam-dunk testimony as to the historical reality of Jesus.  It is buttressed by the fact that, later on in Book 18, Josephus describes the death of "James the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ."  Although there were many men named Jesus in First Century Judea, only one claimed to be the Christ.  This single verse from ANTIQUITIES is called the Testimonium Flavianum - the "Testimony of Flavius."  Since this passage comes after the reference to Jesus, the mention tying James to Jesus seems to follow naturally.
      Yet - Josephus was an observant Jew to the end of his days.  Would he have called Jesus "the Christ?"  This leads us to the next big question - really the most important of them all: 

                                 IS THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM AUTHENTIC?

      Obviously, atheists - especially the "Jesus Mythicists" who deny that Jesus ever existed as a real, historical person - cannot afford to admit that this passage is authentic.  However, most of these folks have very little understanding or education in the history of the ancient world, Roman or Jewish.  Bart Ehrman, an atheist who is no friend of Christianity, points out that there is not a single professional historian of the era in the ranks of the Jesus Myth movement.  Among real scholars, there are three schools of thought, as follows:

1.  The Testimonium is authentic in its entirety.  Very few scholars still try to argue this point.  The reference to Jesus is far too favorable to have come from the pen of a Pharisaic Jew, since that sect opposed Jesus during his lifetime and dismissed him as a false Messiah afterwards.  Even though the Temple priesthood was destroyed along with the Temple itself, to hail Jesus as the true "Christ" would have led Josephus to be even more shunned by his own people than he already was.

2.  The reference to Jesus is authentic, but it's been edited (interpolated, to use the scholarly term) by Christian copyists to make it more favorable towards Jesus.  This makes a great deal of sense; it also explains the comment about James being the brother of the "so-called" Christ.  The fact is, nearly every available copy of Josephus has come to us through Christian copyists, and the earliest reference to the Testimonium is from the fourth century church historian Eusebius.  Many scholars have studied the original Greek and come up with a list of words that seem to not flow with the others in this short passage.  To quote Wikipedia (not as unreliable as it once was, and a great place to begin research on any topic): "The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian interpolation and/or alteration."

3.  The entire Testimonium is a Christian forgery inserted into the text of Josephus, probably by Eusebius as he was composing his "Ecclesiastical History" in the Fourth Century.  This view is held by a minority of scholars, but touted endlessly by Jesus mythicists.  Church historian Peter Kirby tallies up the supporters and detractors as follows:  "4 scholars regarded the Testimonium Flavianum as entirely genuine, 6 as mostly genuine, 20 accept it with some interpolations, 9 with several interpolations, and 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation."  So it was, as of the 1980's, a 39-13 balance of opinion in favor of the Testimonium as being at least partly authentic. 

    So what did Josephus originally write?  There are two variant manuscripts that may preserve something close to the original wording of the passage.  An Arabic copy from the 10th century AD records the passage thus:   "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus.
His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. and many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."

This reading certainly reflects a different tradition than the better known Greek version, and sounds closer to what a Jew like Josephus might have written.

There is also a Syriac copy of the Testimonium Flavianum that preserves a very similar text, with one slight change in wording: "Pilate condemned him to be crucified, and he died" instead of "to be crucified and to die."

     So did Josephus write about Jesus?  The majority of scholarly opinion today argues that he did, but that the original text was interpolated to reflect a more Christian view of Jesus than the original. What did Josephus originally write?  No one can know for sure - barring the discovery of a text that predates Eusebius, which is always a distinct possibility - but one Josephus expert thinks the original may have read like this:

      "Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man, who was the most monstrous of men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man has ever done.... He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight.... And he seduced many Jews and many also of the Greek nation, and was regarded by them as the Messiah.... And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold -- these and ten thousand other wonderful things -- concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called 'Messianists' after him is not extinct." - R.Eisler, THE MESSIAH JESUS

     Modern scholarship may never completely unravel the question of what Josephus wrote about Jesus, but it seems as if the preponderance of opinion is that Josephus did write SOMETHING about him.  And there the debate rests.


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