JOSEPHUS: ONE MORE THING…

Now I have seen what Ehrman makes of the Testimonium Flavianus – he doesn’t seem to set much store by this either. But I did want to make sure to mention the other mention of Jesus Christ in today’s copies of Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus. This occurs in Book 20:

But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea… But the younger Ananus who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition… Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrin and brought before them the brother of Jesus, called Christ, James by name, together with some others and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned.  But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this, and sent secretly to the king, requesting him to order Ananus to cease such proceedings… And the king, Agrippa, in consequence, deprived him of the high priesthood, which he had held three months, and appointed Jesus, the son of Damneus.

Unlike the Testimonium, the time frame for this was during Josephus’s lifetime, and as such might seem to have a better chance of Josephus having some personal knowledge with what was being said about this as it happened.

Here’s all the discussion Ehrman makes of this passage:

Here, unlike the pagan references we examined earlier, Jesus is actually called by name. And we learn two things about him: he had a brother named James, and some people thought he was the messiah. Both points are abundantly attested as well, of course, in our Christian sources, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them.

No discussion of whether this passage, like the earlier one, might also have been tampered with (as is almost universally acknowledged about the Testimonium). No discussion as to whether the James mentioned here might not be the brother of the Jesus who is anointed High Priest at the end of the story.  No discussion of the curious notion that if this James was indeed the head of a heretical Jewish sect pious Jews would come to his defense (surely that would make an interesting tale of political intrigue!). Ehrman blandly accepts it as authentic to Josephus and that it does refer to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

Like the earlier passage, it is questionable whether Josephus would ever call ‘our’ Jesus by the title Christ, as that would pretty much make Josephus a christian.

It’s actually clever, I think, of Ehrman to try to slip this bit past his readers quickly with virtually zero discussion. A brief investigation shows that in discussions regarding the historicity of Jesus this passage in Book 20 also gets a lot of discussion over its provenance and its meaning. Earl Doherty, for one, is able to devote several paragraphs to this ‘evidence’ which Ehrman can only spare a couple dozen words on:

http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/supp16.htm#Ant20

Here is more discussion by another author of this passage:

http://vridar.org/2007/04/06/that-other-suspect-entry-in-josephus/

…and also:

http://vridar.org/2009/05/15/the-brother-of-jesus-called-christ-another-eusebian-footprint-in-josephus/

Now Ehrman may uncritically accept the passage, but no one else is obliged to do so.

One wonders if Ehrman will try to make use of this unvetted ‘evidence’ later in the book as corroboration of claims based on our christian sources…?

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SUETONIUS : WITNESS TO JESUS?

If Pliny tells us little of value regarding ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ it would appear that the alleged reference to Jesus in Tacitus is positively destructive to the general definition of an ‘historical Jesus’ as the details contradict the most common narratives built up around this figure:

Even less helpful is a reference found in the writings of the Roman biographer Suetonius, often also cited in discussions of the existence of Jesus… Suetonius indicates that at one point in his reign Claudius deported all the Jews from Rome because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus”.

Ehrman is quite correct, I think, in disparaging this supposed ‘evidence’ as less than helpful because if this is indeed the historical Jesus it indicates this Jesus did not die in Judea during the reign of Tiberius as depicted in the gospel tales (and generally accepted among Jesus historicists) but instead lived another 20 years or so and made it to Rome where he stirred up trouble. We never learn whether this Chrestus ends up crucified, either.

At least Suetonius’s Chrestus is associated with stirring up trouble and associated with Judaism, unlike Pliny’s Christ.

Some argue that Chrestus is just a misspelled ‘Christus’ and that this indicates friction among Jews over a particular messianic candidate (possibly an historical Jesus, but just as easily an historical Jacob or Ishmael).

…even if Suetonius is referring to Jesus by a misspelled epithet, he does not help us much in our quest for non-Christian references to Jesus. Jesus himself would have been dead for some twenty years when these riots in Rome took place, so at best Suetonius  would be providing evidence, if he can count for evidence, that there were Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. But this would have been the case whether Jesus lived or not, since mythicists would argue that the “myth” of Christ had already been invented by then, as had the supposed life of the made-up figure of Jesus.

On the whole, I would agree with this, except for a couple of points.

Certainly, if it is true Jews were at this time period especially prone to messianism, no doubt rival candidates could cause trouble among their partisans – even if none of the candidates were ‘our’ Jesus. Since Christ itself is merely an epithet that could be applied to anyone (indeed priests were ‘anointed’ too, and the epithet could apply to them) there’s no guarantee that ‘Jews arguing about Christ’ has anything to do with a putative ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. We’d need a lot more detail than we have for this to count even as evidence for Christians in Rome at this date.

Taking Suetonius at face value, it would seem that we merely have someone whose name is (or is known as) ‘Chrestus’ – a not uncommon proper name in those days – was the instigator of rioting the purpose of which is unknown. It could have been about something completely unrelated to messianism at all. It could have been food prices, or housing discrimination, or anti-semitism.

Thus far we have a couple of instances, sometimes taken to be referring to ‘Jesus’, which do not come to anything much when we look at them dispassionately.

At best they indicate the existence of christians, which no one seems to deny.

 

 

 

PLINY THE YOUNGER – WITNESS TO CHRIST

To begin, let’s look at what Pliny has to say about the christians he had to deal with:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.

Note that there is no ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found in the writing of Pliny. Just saying…

Ehrman quite rightly underscores this fact:

This is all he [Pliny] says about Jesus: the Christians worshiped him by singing to him. He does not, as you can see, even call him Jesus but instead uses his most common epithet, Christ. Whether Pliny knew the man’s actual name is anyone’s guess. One might be tempted to ask as well whether he knew that Christ was (at one time?) a man, but the fact that he indicates the songs were offered to Christ “as to a god” suggests that Christ was, of course, something else.

Indeed, we could further wonder whether these christians knew the Christ they worshiped by any another name, such as Jesus. Or whether they thought the Christ they worshiped had recently been crucified on earth (or more specifically Palestine) anytime in the previous 100 years.

That the few words Pliny records about his christians does absolutely nothing to say anything about an historical Jesus (let alone a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ who’d been crucified) tells us quite a bit about the sort of thing that has to be accepted as evidence to make a case for a specific historical reality.

That even under torture Pliny couldn’t get such basic ‘facts’ about the supposed ‘historical Jesus’ tells us even more: there is perhaps a stunning ignorance among some who are called christians about the gospel narratives which emerged around this time. They seem to have no clue that Christ was named Jesus, that he was crucified, that he lived at a specific time in a specific place, or taught anything or warned about the coming ‘end of the world’.

Including Pliny on a list of ‘witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth’ seems rather like padding out the list.

 

*****

 

I realize I should try to tease out more what an ‘historical Jesus’ entails: thus far I’ve only put a focus on the phrase ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ because that’s part of the title of Ehrman’s book. In the introduction Ehrman describes him:

How is it that a scarcely known, itinerant preacher from the rural backwaters of a remote part of the empire, a Jewish prophet who predicted that the end of the world as we know it was soon to come, who angered the powerful religious and civic leaders of Judea and as a result was crucified for sedition against the state – how is it that within a century of his death, people were calling this little-known Jewish peasant God?

Contrast this story to what information can be gleaned from Pliny – no Jesus, no apocalyptic preaching, no Judea, no Judaism, no crucifixion.

There’s a rather largish gap between the two. Yes, Pliny’s christians are worshiping a god they call christ, but there’s nothing that indicates recent Judaic roots.