Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Historical Jesus

Jewish Sources

FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS (37 – 100 A.D.) Josephus was a first century pharisee and historian of both priestly and royal ancestry who provided important insight into first-century Judaism. Josephus was born only three years after the crucifixion of Jesus, making him a credible witness to the historicity of Jesus.

“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 among 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 tribes of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.”Antiquities XVIII, 3:2
Skeptic Interjection: Could this passage have been altered or interpolated by early Christian authors?Answer: Some think this passage is a complete interpolation while some believe the passage is authentic. However, the general consensus among scholars is that Josephus most likely made some sort of mention to Jesus but that the original text became distorted over time. 
1: The vocabulary found in the Testimonium is consistent with the vocabulary used in other passages in Antiquities. The phrase Now about this time is used at the beginning of this passage as well dozens of other passages. It’s also doubtful a Christian forger would have referred to Jesus as simply a wise man but then go on to assert claims of His divinity. Yet, Josephus uses this word to refer to many other notable (and purely human) figures. Josephus also uses the description of Jesus’ miracles as wonderful [astonishing, surprising]works. Lastly, Josephus refers to Christianity as atribe- just like he does many other times in reference to both major and minor sects.
2: Once the disputed words (printed in regular font in the above passage) are removed, Josephus’ thought process flows just as well. This lends credence to the possibility the passage wasn’t wholly interpolated but perhaps altered. When we omit the disputed words, the passage seems consistent with what an orthodox Jew would say concerning Jesus:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion
of the principal men among us, had condemned him
to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not
forsake him. And the tribes of Christians so named
from him are not extinct at this day.”
3: Greek and Arabic translations of the Testimonium contain disclaimers preceding the suspicious declarations such as “Jesus who was believed to be the Christ” and It has been reported that He appeared to them alive again on the third day.” If anything, this could lead to the speculation that Christian authors did not add to the text but edited it by deleting the disclaimers!
4: The earliest versions of Antiquities contain the passage as it is presented above. Objection: The
earliest surviving copy dates from 10th century A.D. (plenty of time from the publication of Antiquities 
to alter or interpolate the passage). Answer: This is true. We do not have an extant copy of Antiquities dating from before 10th century A.D. What we do have however, is several citations of this passage by other authors prior to the 10th century).
5: Many defenders of the Testimonium’s authenticity speculate that if it had been wholly interpolated by a Christian, they most likely would have inserted the passage next to the John the Baptist references. Though I understand their reasoning, I feel this argument is based on conjecture instead of evidence. The alleged Christian forger could have had just as much reason to insert this passage next to the John passage, the Pilate passage, or the James passage.
1: This passage seems to interrupt the continuity of Josephus’ thought process in the previous and subsequent verses. Answer: Interruptions are frequently found in Josephus’ works since he composed his histories during different sittings. Furthermore, Josephus was known to use the assistance of scribes during his writings which could easily resolve this issue.
2: The passage contains proclamations an orthodox Jew would not make such as Jesus being the Christ.

Answer: In other translations (Greek and Arabic) the suspicious statements contain disclaimers such as “Jesus who was believed to be the Christ” and It has been reported…” This presents the theory Josephus was recording the beliefs regarding Jesus and not necessarily his personal opinion (as a responsible historian should do).
3: Early Christian authors like Origen and Justin Martyr do not mention this passage in their writings.

Answer: Not sure what the motive is behind this objection because Origen does reference the other passage by Josephus yet critics claim the reference is “too late” to be reliable. But, for argument’s sake if we assume this passage did exist in the form most scholars believe it did, the early church fathers might not have felt the need to refer to it. The [original?] passage serves as evidence for the historicity of Jesus- a topic not hotly debated at this point as the burden of proof revolved around His divinityObjection: Origen attests to the historicity of John the Baptist in his work Contra Celsus when it wasn’t even being debated. He could have cited this passage too. Answer: In Origen’s Contra Celsus the divinity of Jesus was being debated- not his existence. Though Josephus allegedly admits to Jesus performing miracles, he does not state how. It would have made no sense for Origen to cite the Testimonium since it doesn’t either dispute or confirm Celsus’ claims. Furthermore, even if the original Antiquities still existed in Josephus’ own handwriting, critics would say he either drew his information from Christian sources or was to late to be considered reliable!
4: Josephus’ Jewish Wars also contains this passage so it must be a forgery. Answer: This is false- the
Testimonium is not found in the Jewish Wars. To the contrary- Skeptics criticize that the Testimonium is
not found in The Wars but should have been!
5: Josephus should have written more regarding Jesus if the passage was genuine. Answer: What topic or how much an author writes about a topic is their prerogative. Also, since Josephus believed Jesus was just another messianic pretender and false prophet, it would have made little sense for Josephus to have written volumes concerning His life and actions. It would be similar to a modern a Christian author exhaustively recording the life of Jim Jones or David Koresh. Josephus most likely held Jesus in the same regard and felt he warranted little mention.
“So [Ananus] assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.” Antiquities XX 9:1
Skeptic Interjection: Is it possible this passage was interpolated by early Christians? Answer: It must be noted that no copy of Antiquities has ever surfaced without the above text quoted as it is above. Critics are suspicious of the so-called Christ statement yet this reference (rather than the Christ) shows

Josephus was not condoning the belief but simply documenting it. Also, this passage concerns the actions of the priest Ananus- Jesus and James were not even the primary focus of this verse! Lastly, this passage is cited in other early works which attests to its authenticity.
Even if we dismiss the disputed words in Josephus’ Testimonium, we still see he testifies to a number of things in the above two passages:
  • Jesus lived in the first century
  • He performed wonderful works (miracles)
  • Some believed Jesus to be the Christ
  • He was a teacher
  • He had many followers
  • He was tried by Pilate
  • He was crucified
  • He was the founder of Christianity
  • James was the brother of Jesus
THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD The Babylonian Talmud is an ancient record of Jewish history, laws, and rabbinic teachings compiled throughout the centuries. Though it does not accept the divinity of Jesus, it confirms the belief He was hanged (an idiom for crucifixion) on the eve of the Passover.
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) [Some texts: Yeshu/Jesus the Nazarene] was hanged [crucified]. Forty days before the execution, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”
Skeptic Interjection: How can we know the Talmud is documenting Jesus’ existence and not only stating the rumor surrounding a myth?Answer: In the above excerpt the Talmud mentions Jesus’ ability to perform miracles but tries to dismiss it as sorcery. If the writers were simply refuting myth, they would most likely have dismissed the tale as a rumor- not assign alternative theories to defend their position.
Skeptic Interjection: How can we know this passage is a reference to Jesus and not another individual with the name Yeshu?Answer: Though it is possible this passage could refer to another individual, we know Jesus was killed during the Passover, we know He was crucified (a Jewish idiom for hanged), we know He was accused of practicing sorcery by the pharisees (for His miracles), and He was ultimately arrested for the sin of blasphemy (enticing Israel to apostasy). Furthermore, there are other translations which read Yeshu the Nazarene which give us even more reason to believe this passage pertains to Jesus.