Sunday, February 26, 2017
There is one piece of evidence more than any other that reveals how biased historical Jesus scholars are. It is the passage on Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities (18.3.3). In the Greek version that has come down to us, Josephus says that Jesus “was the Messiah” and on the third day after he died, he was “restored to life.” Most scholars realize that Josephus would not have written about Jesus like this. But every bit of reasoning they employ after that correct insight is way off the mark.
In the first place, scholars simply assert that an ancient Christian cleric must have inserted these remarks. Making stuff up wholesale is not generally how ancient writers operated. Rather than outright invention, they more usually worked with what was given them and tweaked it to suit whatever purpose they had. So, for example, it is more likely that Josephus might have written that his followers believed or reported Jesus was the Messiah, and someone later altered this to turn it into a statement about Josephus’s own belief. Same goes for the statement about the resurrection.
Do we have any evidence that Josephus originally wrote something about what Jesus's followers were claiming about him? Yes, we do, but the scholarly world ignores it. This Josephus passage was preserved in the 10th century in Arabic by a Christian cleric named Agapius. Shlomo Pines published a monograph on it in 1971. In this version, Josephus says that Jesus “was perhaps the Messiah.” Pines gives reasons why he thinks Agapius made a slight error here. Agapius was likely working from an original Syriac text which said that “He was thought to be the Messiah” (by his followers), or possibly “it seemed [to his followers] he was the Messiah”; the Syriac for “it seemed” could have become “perhaps” in Arabic. In this version, Josephus also says his followers “reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion,” but he of course does not judge whether they were right or not.
All this is quite plausible as something Josephus could have written. It is certainly more believable than the Greek. So why don’t scholars consider it or even acknowledge it? The majority never mention it. In my opinion, it is because of another feature of the Agapius text which scholars find unforgiveable, though they would never admit this.
In the Greek version, Josephus says that Pilate condemned Jesus “upon hearing him accused” by Jewish leaders. Scholars never express doubts about this part. Even though they know that the Greek text of Josephus has been altered in some ways, they never extend this doubt to the line about Jewish leaders accusing (or indicting) Jesus. This is rather amazing as there is nothing else in Josephus like this. If Josephus had ever written such a preposterous sentence, he would have acknowledged how unusual it was for Jewish leaders to help Rome prosecute a Jew and he would have offered some explanation as to why such an unusual thing happened this time. But nothing like this is in the Greek text and yet scholars totally accept it.
And what does the Agapius version say? He simply has “Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.” That’s it. Jewish leaders do not appear at all in Agapius. That actually makes some sense, because nowhere else in Josephus do Jewish leaders help Rome prosecute or execute Jewish troublemakers.
Now it gets more complicated, as it turns out there is yet another version by Michael the Syrian in which Jewish leaders are mentioned but not as bringing charges against Jesus; rather they testify to something, but what exactly is not made clear. It would make this post too long to go into it in more detail. The general point is that we have other texts which give us plenty of reason to doubt that Jewish leaders sought to accuse Jesus of anything, not to mention that Josephus never gives any other examples of Jewish leaders behaving like this. The original Josephus text probably did say something about Jewish leaders, but did not blame them for what happened to Jesus.
This is the real sticking point for most scholars. In a genuinely fair system of scholarship, the Agapius text of Josephus would get plenty of attention. But it gets virtually none in historical Jesus studies because this field is committed to the principle that Jewish leaders must be blamed for Jesus’s death. Any sources that contradict this are considered out of the question. The ideology of surrounding Jesus with Jewish enemies wins out over the evidence. How is that a decent thing to do?
© 2017 Leon Zitzer