BEFORE WE DIVE INTO THE SCRIPTURES…

Ehrman’s go to place to find real historical evidence that a Jesus of Nazareth really lived is going to be the writings of christians – that seems to be the trend. As we’ve seen, he’s admitted there’s no archaeology, no first person accounts, no mentions by disinterested third parties to make a firm basis for belief in this matter.

Ehrman discounts Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus though many who argue Jesus is real do depend on these sources. There’s one more ‘source’ Ehrman dismisses which comes up from time to time which I think deserves mention:

In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud. This is not because it is relevant, but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant. The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings. Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers. The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.

Given Ehrman’s description of the Talmud, it would seem very relevant if indeed as many claim Jesus was an early Jewish teacher. If we are going to speculate that some oral history of a Jewish teacher reached the ears of Josephus, Roman governors, and pagan historians then who better to have recorded something authentic about this Jewish teacher than the Jewish people who would presumably have been his audience? That would be the first place I’d look.

Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. One of the problems even with these very late references is that Jesus is not actually called by name even though it is reasonably clear that he is the one being referred to.

Well, that doesn’t look good. Apparently everybody all over the Empire is talking about Jesus the Jewish teacher except Jewish people in the places where he supposedly made a spectacle of himself. It’s like finding references to Queen Elizabeth I everywhere in the world except England and in every language but English.

Ehrman mentions passages alleged to be about ‘our’ Jesus: one naming him ‘Ben Panthera’ and another mentioning ‘Yeshu had five disciples’ and being executed (in a perhaps biased account, according to Ehrman) around the Passover festival. Ehrman does not quote extensively from these accounts, but I find them very interesting.

http://www.angelfire.com/mt/talmud/jesusnarr.html

If indeed these accounts preserve any authentic information they seem to point to a Yeshu (that’s Jesus to you and me) having had his career about 100 years before the christian tales place him. This does not look good at all for Ehrman’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ as this Jesus of the Talmud is also styled ‘the Notzri’ which is a term from the Hebrew Bible and not a place name at all. So perhaps there was an ‘historic Jesus’ after all, but he’s just not the one you thought he was going to be.

Sure, it could be a coincidence. A pretty big coincidence.

 

 

 

 

 

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…?

JOSEPHUS: THE MAIN EVENT!

Flavius Josephus has been the linchpin of arguments for the historicity of Jesus since he was ‘discovered’ by christian apologist Eusebius in the 4th century AD. Likewise, Ehrman makes much of this:

…on two occasions, at least in the writings as they have come down to us today, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth.

The ‘two mentions’ in current copies of Josephus occur in his work Antiquities of the Jews in books 18 and 20, which was published at the end of the 1st century AD. It was probably due to these passages which Eusebius made use of that we owe the survival of any work of Josephus at all, as his ‘witness to Christ’ was of importance to the christian scribes and copyists who transmitted these texts over the centuries.

It is in Book 18 that the famous Testimonium Flavianum occurs – extolling Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and praising the faith of his followers:

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 at this day.

Finding any credible person in literature who confessed Jesus was the messiah and a ‘worker of wonders’, a teacher of truth and wisdom, who died on the cross and rose again… well that was certainly something worth preserving!

For centuries this was regarded as being authentic words of Josephus, a notable Jew. Jesus was the Messiah. Take that, unbelievers!

But Ehrman is cautious about swallowing this testimony whole:

The problem with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus. We know a good deal about him, both from the autobiography that he produced and from other self-references i his writings. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. But this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make: that Jesus was more than a man, that he was the messiah, and that he rose from the dead in fulfillment of the scriptures. In the judgement of most scholars, there is simply no way Josephus the Jew would or could have written such things. So how did these comments get into his writings?

Indeed, once the stranglehold of christian hegemony over scholarship began to weaken after the Enlightenment, secular scholars were free to reject this passage completely as an obvious forgery inserted by pious frauds. The scholarly consensus (including Christians, by the way) for about 100 years was that the mentions of Jesus Christ in Josephus are spurious – not original to Josephus at all in any way, shape, or form.

However, any scholarly consensus is tenuous because it can be overturned in the light of new evidence or new arguments (something Ehrman should remember when citing ‘the consensus’ as evidence). And efforts have been undertaken in the past few decades to rehabilitate Josephus in defense of the historicity of Jesus.

The big question is whether a Christian scribe (or scribes) simply added a few choice Christian additions to the passage or whether the entire thing was produced by a Christian and inserted in an appropriate place in Josephus’s Antiquities.

And that is indeed what some scholars are arguing: Josephus said something about Jesus and only the most purple phrases are embellishments of christian forgers.

Indeed, a sort of cottage industry has sprung up among scholars trying to come up with what they imagine the ‘original’ mention of Jesus might have been. Someday these ‘imaginary Testimoniums‘ will perhaps be collected together like the various translations of Basho’s famous frog haiku.

However, it must be noted that it is almost universally agreed that the Antiquities has been the target of forgers, and that the text is corrupted where Jesus is ‘mentioned’. Surely that should give anyone pause in considering it as evidence of historicity.

Ehrman professes not to be persuaded by arguments by Christians, historicists, or mythicists that the whole Testimonium is spurious.

But that is not the main point I want to make about the Testimonium. My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this. And here is why. Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium. That would show that by 93 CE – some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death – a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him. And where would Josephus have derived this information? He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.

Which is exactly right: the most likely source for Josephus (or anyone else for that matter) writing long afterwards about Jesus – the supposed obscure dead peasant – would be from christians and their dogmas (not the most disinterested sources of information). So even if Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus are all swallowed whole not one of them stands as an independent source of information useful to an historian.

Having demolished the likelihood of any of these authors as knowing anything about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, where then is reliable information about this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to be found?

TACITUS: MORE PROMISING?

A reference in Tacitus is the last of three supposed ‘pagan’ references to ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (though the first two cited, Pliny and Suetonius don’t mention either a Jesus or a Nazareth).

In 64 AD a terrific fire swept through Rome (such fires occurred again 5 and 16 years later) – Tacitus claims rumors spread that Nero set the fires deliberately.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., Crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Now this story is more promising as it has this Christ associated with Judea and with public execution during the time of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate. Still not quite ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ yet, but at least a little closer.

It would be good to consider before going any deeper into this what the passage really tells us : Tacitus, writing 50 years later claims that Nero blamed Chrestians for the fire and that these people got the name of their sect from Christ who was executed in Judea by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius.

Now from whom could Tacitus have gleaned this information? The most obvious source for knowledge about what christians believed are christians themselves. And is this notion of a messiah killed by a Roman governor of Judea a second century belief among christians (when Tacitus was writing)? Or is this what the christians during the reign of Nero believed? How would Tacitus find this out?

Or did, perhaps, Tacitus examine some Imperial records of executions in Judea to determine the truth behind the origins of the appellation ‘chrestian’ (as some apologists assert)? Seems like a lot of work looking through hundreds and thousands of such records to support a mere throwaway line in this tale of Nero’s awfulness. And if indeed such a record existed and Tacitus read it, we would expect Tacitus to have gotten the name of the guy who was executed, and gotten Pilate’s official title correct. I find it unlikely such records existed – especially after so many major fires in Rome during the intervening 80 years.

It’s my judgement that the most likely source for the notion of an execution of a messianic claimant by Pilate in Judea to be contemporary with its inclusion in Tacitus’s history.

Some mythicists argue that this reference in Tacitus was not actually written by him – they claim the same thing for Pliny and Suetonius, where the references are less important – but were inserted into his writings (interpolated)  by Christians who copied them, producing the manuscripts of Tacitus we have today.

It would be interesting to note who these ‘mythicists’ are, just in case we wanted to discover by what arguments they support such hypotheses. You’d think a scholar of Ehrman’s caliber would rebel at writing such a vague claim about other scholars. Oh, well…

The mythicists certainly have a reason for arguing this: they do not want to think there are any references to Jesus in our early sources outside the New Testament, and so when they find any such reference, they claim the reference was not original but was inserted by Christians.

So instead of considering the reasoning behind or evidence offered in support of the hypothesis that there may have been an interpolation in this case (as we know was not uncommon during this era of hand-copying) Ehrman treats us to ‘reasons’ –  motives – why these un-named mythicists make the claim. If Ehrman did his research, surely he could have done better than such a blanket ad hominem slur!

It seems rather odd that Ehrman claims to be able to read the minds of people whose names he doesn’t appear to know! A rather peculiar kind of ESP is on display here: if we are to credit Ehrman’s assertions it’s enough to take a wild guess at the motives of a scholar to dismiss them. No need to resort to being the least bit familiar with their reasoning or even being able to name the people you are attacking. Is he afraid if he names these people a reader might actually look them up and find they do present evidence and arguments? Is his case that weak?

In the end, Ehrman admits that this supposed reference, like the others, isn’t very helpful to the historian:

…the information is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus. How would Tacitus know what he knew? It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example)…

Yes, it would seem that even if these three references are genuine, they only are evidence of the existence of christians (which no one denies) and some of their beliefs. They do not seem to offer much by way of independent confirmation of any claims by these christians, or today’s christians, or today’s historicists about a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Yet in about any discussion about the existence of Jesus it is inevitable that these same names will be dropped although any examination of their ‘witness’ shows it to be based on rather late hearsay many decades after the ‘fact’.

So, having drawn a blank on the ‘pagan’ authors, we’ll have to begin to consider more partisan writings about Jesus…

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.