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 This is not because it is relevant, but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant.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?