Friday, December 04, 2009


What if I said their names all in one breath? Jesus Sarah Vowell Francine Prose Rachel Donadio Laura Miller. True to my word, I am mentioning all their names in every post from here on in. Only people outside the field of historical Jesus studies will ever be able to create an impact, a shake-up, big enough to set things straight and save historical memories.

And don't say: We're not experts on the historical Jesus. We don't know enough to challenge scholars. You don't have to be an expert to see the writing on the wall, to see a complete failure to report the evidence accurately.

So what's the lesson for today? What does that ancient 1st century historian Flavius Josephus tell us about Jesus?

It appears in Book 18 of his Antiquities. Scholars call it the Testimonium Flavianum. Most scholars say we cannot learn anything from it and we will never know what Josephus originally wrote because the Greek text we have has been corrupted by later Christian clerics who altered it to produce statements of Christian faith like "He was the Messiah" and "he appeared to them restored to life on the third day", things Josephus would never say.

But the majority of scholars are not entirely truthful. First, these scholars do not tell you that they are happy the text is corrupted. It means, they say, that we will never know what Josephus really said and that will keep us safe.

Second, most hide the fact that we have other versions of what Josephus wrote, preserved in Arabic and Syriac (not to mention what Origen and Jerome told us about this), and the Arabic in particular (from a 10th century Christian, Agapius) does not have those statements of faith. (The oldest Greek copy of Book 18 of the Antiquities goes back to the 11th century.)

I won't go through all the dates and data. Shlomo Pines discussed them in An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (1971). He also discusses a Syriac version from Michael the Syrian (12th century). The Agapius Arabic translation was probably based on an 8th century Syriac text.

In the Agapius version, Josephus says "Perhaps he was the Messiah" (Pines explains why the original Syriac probably said "he was thought to be the Messiah", which is what Michael the Syrian has). And we have here "his followers reported that he appeared restored to life on the third day", not the blanket, unqualified statement that is in the Greek. This is much more believable as the authentic Josephus.

Some scholars try to get out of this by claiming that Agapius was paraphrasing. A specious objection. Even if true, what matters is whether Agapius was paraphrasing accurately. There is no reason to believe he wasn't. No Christian would paraphrase "He was the Messiah" into "Perhaps he was (or, he was thought to be) the Messiah". Nor would a Christian paraphrase and introduce "his followers reported that ..." into the text.

So why are scholars avoiding these other versions of Josephus' passage on Jesus? Because they help to exonerate Jewish leaders in the death of Jesus and this is a no-no in New Testament scholarship. The Greek text says Pilate had Jesus crucified upon an accusation by Jewish authorities. But Agapius does not have that at all. Only Pilate is blamed for Jesus' death, Jewish leaders are never mentioned. Period. Michael the Syrian does mention Jewish leaders but not as accusing or indicting Jesus, rather they testify to something and it is not clear what. I think I know but it would take too long to explain here.

The important point is that neither Agapius nor Michael have Josephus saying that Jewish authorities urged Pilate to execute Jesus. So this part of the Greek text would also seem to be a later Christian alteration. That is what scholars want to avoid facing.

There are real historical memoires out there. In the Gospels too. Someone just has to create enough controversy to force scholars to pay attention.

Leon Zitzer

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