Friday, August 30, 2013


It is interesting to see the oddities in analysis of the evidence that are produced by prejudice. I cannot think of any other word for it, even though the source of the prejudice may be open to debate and even though it may be mostly unconscious (unconscious bias in science is the most dangerous kind).
Consider the famous passage on Jesus that appears in the writings of Josephus. Most scholars acknowledge that Josephus could not possibly have written it in the way we have it in the Greek that has come down to us. But that is where their sensible analysis ends.
In the Greek, Josephus says that Jesus was the Messiah and that he rose from the dead on the third day. He even adds “if indeed one ought to call him a man,” after identifying Jesus as a wise man. Everyone knows Josephus would never have said these things. Josephus was not a Christian and would not have been making statements of Christian faith.
But most scholars go too far when they surmise that these were complete insertions by a later Christian editor. This claim is maximal reconstruction of the text, which should never be done unless you have excellent evidence to back it up. In the absence of such evidence, it is more likely that Josephus said something about Messiahship and rising from the dead which was later slightly altered than that he said nothing at all about these things.
For example, it is quite conceivable that he said Jesus’ followers said or claimed or believed that Jesus was the Messiah and rose from the dead. It would have been easy for a later cleric to just remove the qualifying part about Jesus’ followers believing these things and turning these statements into absolute claims by Josephus. But originally, Josephus reporting what others were saying makes a lot more sense.
Is there any evidence that this is what Josephus wrote? Yes, there is. There is a version of this passage from Josephus preserved by a Christian cleric, Agapius, writing in Arabic. In the Arabic testimony, Josephus indeed says that his followers reported that Jesus rose from the dead and that perhaps he was the Messiah. Shlomo Pines who provided us with a translation and commentary explains how the Arabic for ‘perhaps’ may have been a mistranslation from a Syriac version which was likely ‘He was thought to be the Messiah.’ In fact, that last phrase is exactly what is found in another version from Michael the Syrian, a Christian cleric writing in Syriac.
These versions accord with minimal reconstruction of the Greek text which is better than leaping to the maximal reconstruction engaged in by most scholars. But this is not the prejudice I am getting to, although this could be taken as one example of biased scholarship. The prejudice I want to address here is much more serious and may help explain why scholars have chosen the path of the big leap.
The most startling difference between the Greek text of Josephus and these other versions is one I have not mentioned. No one likes talking about it. In the Greek, Josephus supposedly relates that Jesus was “accused by men of the highest standing amongst us,” that is, Jewish leaders, before Pilate. What does it say in the Agapius Arabic text and in Michael the Syrian’s? Agapius has absolutely nothing about Jewish leaders. Pilate condemns Jesus and has him crucified. Jewish leaders do not appear at all. Michael the Syrian mentions Jewish leaders but not as accusing Jesus of anything. They testify to something. What is not clear, as the text seems to have been altered. Michael makes it seem that they testified that they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and as a result, Pilate condemned him to the cross. This makes no sense. Jewish leaders testifying that he was not the Messiah would be a reason not to crucify Jesus. If they had said they too thought he was the Messiah , that would be more of a reason to execute Jesus because it would make him more dangerous. Not believing him to be the Messiah would have made him less dangerous. So there has been some tampering.
The important point is that both Agapius and Michael the Syrian give us more believable versions of Josephus as they are more consistent with the rest of Josephus than the Greek. The Greek version tells us something that Josephus could not possibly have written. Nowhere else in his writings does he give an example of Jewish leaders indicting a fellow Jew before a Roman governor. If Josephus had talked about Jewish leaders accusing Jesus before Pilate, it is so unlike anything else he reports that he would have taken a moment to explain what accounts for this exceptionally odd behavior. This is precisely what no one wants to admit.
Scholars have correctly doubted several items in the Greek text of Josephus on Jesus, but no scholar has ever expressed doubt about that sentence referring to Jewish leaders. We know, they all know, that this passage is not what Josephus originally wrote. Therefore, the whole thing can legitimately be subjected to more analysis. Yet every single scholar has excluded the sentence on Jewish leaders from any doubt. Why? Because blaming Jewish leaders is their holy first principle that no evidence must be allowed to disturb. And that itself is disturbing.
That is the reason scholars ignore Agapius and Michael the Syrian. These other versions would help give us a version closer to what Josephus actually wrote. They provide a sensible minimal reconstruction of the Greek. But scholars avoid it because to pay attention to their versions would cast doubt on the idea that Josephus ever blamed Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus. That cannot be allowed to happen. So better to bury Agapius and Michael the Syrian out of sight. If that is not a clear sign of prejudice, I don’t know what is.
The thing I keep wondering about is what is the one big thing anyone could do to confront scholars with their prejudice. How can you make someone see that they are giving an utterly biased recitation and interpretation of the facts? I have no idea what that is. I thought I might devote my next post to pondering what the one big thing might be, but I suspect I am not going to find an answer. Maybe I’ll never find it. It is so completely depressing.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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