Jesus, the Resurrection, and Josephus

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This article is part of a conversation on Medium between Gerald R. Baron and myself. The subject matter is hopefully interesting enough to encourage others to read. The central question is the resurrection of Jesus and whether we can believe in it. A peripheral question has entered the debate — was there ever a Historical Jesus? I’ll outline in what follows where we have got to so far, so there is no need to have read the previous articles. For anyone interested, however, Baron’s first article about his belief in the resurrection can be found here, my response here, and his response here. Although he has addressed that to me personally, I am choosing to respond in the third person, which I assume will feel more appropriate to other readers.

In my first response I outlined the reasons, and some evidence, why one might not believe in the resurrection. The main point is that the motif of a dying-and-resurrecting saviour god was a mythologem frequently found in paganism, which would seem to have been adopted by the Catholic Church, based on their understanding of the relevant texts, thereby turning mythology into history. They wanted to create a single religion to unify the Roman Empire, under the orders of Constantine, and presumably did this in order to appeal to pagans. Christianity as we know it was therefore formalised at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.

If one is going to accept the claims of conventional Christianity, that the story of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is true history, then this is one argument that must be taken seriously, and convincingly refuted. The standard approach in science is to say that, if there is a simple and credible explanation, then this should be accepted rather than seek a more complicated one. It would seem appropriate to follow that practice here. Along similar lines, although I am not a fan of Carl Sagan and do not like to quote him in support, the resurrection of a truly dead person is a very extraordinary claim, and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is why, in my earlier response, I focused on the reasons not to believe it. If we can find good reasons to dismiss those, then we can begin to consider the reasons for actually believing.

Baron’s response has four sections, the second of which is entitled ‘The biblical account of the resurrection cannot be trusted’, which is what I’ll concentrate on here. (I may write further articles about the other three, or respond to him personally about them.)

He says that “the historical accuracy of the biblical record is well established by virtually all measures of historicity”. It would be interesting to know precisely what he meant by this, but superficially this claim is nonsensical. It is certainly controversial, since much of the Biblical scholarship of the last 200 years has come to a very different conclusion. I would suggest that only scholars already heavily committed to Christianity could say this. In any case how would it be possible to establish the accuracy or otherwise of the story in Luke that Mary was visited by an angel who announced that she would be impregnated by the Holy Spirit? How could we establish the historical accuracy of the claim that Mary was a virgin? It is obvious that in the twenty-first century we have no way of knowing whether these stories were historically accurate or not.

I’ll assume, however, that he is saying merely that the Bible is accurate on the main issue we are discussing, the resurrection of Jesus. The same argument applies — how could we possibly know for certain? We can only rely upon the testimony of the Gospels, canonical or otherwise. The canonical ones were chosen precisely because they contained the message that the Church wanted to promote. They cannot be cited therefore as evidence of the historicity of the story. (Regarding the resurrection, there are difficulties even within these chosen four.) We don’t know who wrote them, or what their authors’ motives were. We also don’t know what sources were available to the writers, and can only speculate. More relevant, we don’t know to what extent they have been edited and adapted by later Christians, although we are fairly certain that this has happened.

Baron then cites the Jewish historian Josephus as evidence of his claim to the historical accuracy of the biblical record, and tells me that he has a copy of Josephus’ history in his library, as if that adds authority to his argument. (For what it’s worth, I also have the complete works of Josephus in my library.)

Before I discuss whether Josephus offers any evidence to support Baron’s position — spoiler alert, I don’t think it does — as a brief aside I’ll just mention that, if we were to choose Philo or Justus of Tiberius who were both contemporaries of Jesus, we would come to precisely the opposite conclusion — there is no mention whatsoever of Jesus. Philo was probably the most significant writer of that period. We have approximately 50 surviving works by him including historical texts. Pontius Pilate is mentioned frequently, but there is no mention of Jesus. Justus lived near Capernaum, somewhere Jesus is said to have stayed. He wrote a history extending from Moses to his time, but makes no mention of Jesus¹.

Baron says that “one must be willing to ignore much scholarship on this point to seriously advance the idea that Jesus never existed”. He refers me to the Wikipedia page on Josephus, saying that I “suggest the mere existence of Jesus is open to question”, and implying that this will convince me otherwise.

My initial response is that it’s not me that’s suggesting that, rather various authors/scholars who have studied all the relevant material; I am merely repeating their arguments. The counter-argument is also true; you would have to ignore much scholarship to claim that the existence of Jesus is true beyond all reasonable doubt.

So, let’s examine the works of Josephus and that Wikipedia entry, to see whether these add support to the claims of Jesus’s existence and his resurrection. Wikipedia says that Josephus contains merely two references to Jesus (which is not much for someone of such apparent significance). These are in the Antiquities. I’ll begin with the briefer one, the mention of Jesus as the brother of James. That does seem to be good evidence of Jesus’s existence, and modern scholarship largely agrees - this is also stated in the Gospels. However, one could argue that this is reasonable evidence that Jesus was a normal human being, part of a family, not God incarnate, therefore contradicting the Christian message. The longer passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (to be discussed below), refers to Jesus as a wise man and the Messiah who was resurrected. The Wikipedia entry itself says that this is rejected by almost all modern scholars in its present form. So why is Baron referring me to this article as evidence to support his claim?

There are other references to Jesus by ‘Josephus’ in one version of The Jewish Wars. These are not specifically mentioned by Wikipedia, but I assume that they are what is being referred to in the section called ‘Slavonic Josephus’. There ‘Josephus’ says that Jesus the miracle worker was brought before Pontius Pilate, who concluded that he was “a benefactor, not a criminal, or agitator, or a would-be king”. Because Jesus had miraculously cured Pilate’s wife of an illness, he decided to let him go. However, he claims that Jewish priests then bribed Pilate to allow them to crucify Jesus, which would have been “in defiance of all Jewish tradition” (Jewish Wars 406). Regarding the resurrection, and apparently arguing for it, Josephus says that Jesus’s dead body could not have been stolen by his disciples. This had been a claim made by critics of Christianity to explain how the resurrection might have been staged. Josephus says that guards were posted around the tomb, 30 Romans and 1,000 Jews (ibid. 407).

Now let’s have a look at why these passages are considered inauthentic. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy say: “For hundreds of years these passages in Josephus were seized on by Christian historians as conclusive proof that Jesus existed. That is, until scholars began to examine the text a little more critically. No serious scholar now believes that these passages were actually written by Josephus. They have been clearly identified as much later additions. They are not of the same writing style as Josephus and if they are removed from the text, Josephus’ original argument runs on in proper sequence”². (In that last sentence the authors say ‘they’, but are referring to the Testimonium Flavianum.) They invite anyone doubting this to read The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist by R. Eisler³, who says: “As a matter of fact, not a single Greek, Latin, Slavonic or other Josephus text has come down to us which has not passed through the hands of Christian scribes and Christian owners” (p 38). Regarding the interpolations he says that “the critics of this passage are philologists, its defenders theologians” (p 41)⁴. By ‘theologians’ we can assume he means Christian theologians.

Freke/Gandy describe the passages from The Jewish Wars as spurious, and say that they are confined to an appendix known as the ‘Slavonic additions’”. Wikipedia itself says that they are reckoned to be “the product of an 11th-century creation as part of a larger ideological struggle against the Khazars”, and have “little place in the ongoing debate over the authenticity and nature of the references to Jesus in the Antiquities”.

Now let’s consider the Testimonium Flavianum, in more detail. (This is now the only remaining passage in Josephus relevant to this discussion.) This is where Josephus apparently claims that Jesus was the Messiah. Here is the translation as it appears in Wikipedia: “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”.

This is the text which Freke/Gandy are primarily referring to when they say: “They have been clearly identified as much later additions. They are not of the same writing style as Josephus and if they are removed from the text, Josephus’ original argument runs on in proper sequence”. This argument of Josephus (which may come as something of a surprise to anyone not already familiar with this material) is that his fellow Jews had misunderstood the prophecy, and that the Roman Emperor Vespasian is to be the prophesied ruler of the world! As Freke/Gandy say: “It is absolutely inconceivable that Josephus could have, quite suddenly, broken with his style of writing, all his philosophical beliefs and his characteristic political pragmatism to write reverentially about Jesus!” (p 168). Especially, we might add, since he would then be contradicting himself about the true Messiah.

Further evidence of this is that Origen, one of the most important scholars among early Christians (that is to say, before the notorious Council of Nicea), “tells us that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ since he did not believe in any Jewish Messiah figure”⁵. Josephus was actually contemptuous of the various ‘Messiahs’ active at his time. He lumped ‘religious frauds and bandits’ together and considered them to be the cause of Jerusalem’s destruction.

Freke/Gandy continue: “Early Christians who, like us, searched for historical evidence of Jesus’ existence, would have seized on anything written by Josephus as conclusive proof. (That is what I perceive Baron to be still doing.) Yet early Christians do not mention Josephus. It is not until the beginning of the fourth century that Bishop Eusebius… suddenly produced a version of Josephus containing these passages” (p 168). The Wikipedia article concurs: “The earliest secure reference to this passage is found in the writings of the fourth-century Christian apologist and historian Eusebius… (who) quotes the passage in essentially the same form as that preserved in extant manuscripts. It has therefore been suggested that part or all of the passage may have been Eusebius’ own invention, in order to provide an outside Jewish authority for the life of Christ”. That has indeed been suggested, an early example being the noted historian Edward Gibbon, who called the Testimonium Flavianum a “vulgar forgery”, saying that it took place “between the time of Origen and that of Eusebius”⁶.

I therefore find it extraordinary that Baron can refer me to this Wikipedia article in support of his thesis. It would seem that Eusebius, finding little or no reference to the existence of Jesus and his resurrection in Josephus, decided to insert it himself. He may have presented himself as a historian, but he appears to have been more of an unethical propagandist. Robert M. Grant, a modern historian of the early church period, asks the question: “Did the Father of Church History write history?”⁷. It would seem that he did.

Eusebius was a key player, if not the principal architect, of the Council of Nicea, which standardised Christianity under the orders of Emperor Constantine, whom he called “most beloved by God”. He further said that the Council brought the fourth-century church to “a state of uniform harmony”⁷. What he meant by this pleasant-sounding term was that the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea imposed its own preferred version of Christianity upon its followers, thereby suppressing all debate about, for example, the nature of Jesus. It would seem that Eusebius was quite happy to write fiction in order to advance his agenda. (Two of these earlier alternative understandings are now known as Adoptionism, and Docetism. They were declared heresies in order to impose this “state of uniform harmony”, and those who argued for them were persecuted. So much for free speech and philosophical debate!)

There is therefore clear reason to believe, apart from one mention of Jesus being the brother of James, that any reference to Jesus in Josephus’ works is a Christian fiction, added later to promote the Christian message. On that point the Wikipedia article says that, while the majority of scholars nevertheless hold that the Testimonium contains “an authentic nucleus referencing the execution of Jesus by Pilate”, it was then “subject to Christian interpolation or alteration”. However, “the exact nature and extent of the Christian redaction remains unclear”.

There is therefore compelling evidence that the only passage in the whole of Josephus which appears to support unequivocally the Christian message is a fiction. That Baron suggests Josephus as evidence of anything at all to support his case, I believe undermines his argument rather than enhances it. To put it less kindly, you have to be fairly desperate to cite Josephus as evidence of the resurrection.

On the subject of the one perhaps authentic reference to Jesus in Josephus — that he was the brother of James — the Catholic Church still manages to be hopelessly confused. Although the idea had been circulating earlier, around 390 CE it was considered orthodoxy that Mary had been a perpetual virgin, even though there are several references to Jesus’s brothers and sisters in the very gospels that the Church chose as its canon. This forced them to concoct all sorts of arguments as to why they were not Jesus’s real brothers and sisters, even though some of the advocates of this doctrine presumably thought that the Bible was the infallible word of God.

The romanticized engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works, Wikipedia

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. source The Original Jesus, Elmar Grüber and Holger Kersten, Element Books, 1985

2. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?, Thorsons, 2000, p167

3. The Dial Press, 1931

4. as 2, p 358

5. as 1, p 6

6. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classics, p 529

7. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-72/problem-of-eusebius.html

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com