Jesus Unscriptured: Josephus

“This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context.”

Question from C.L.H.:
Christians sometimes point to “independent sources” or historians of Greek or Roman history in validating the existence of Jesus and historical truth of the Bible.

For example: Flavius Josephus wherein he writes about Jesus the Christ.

“Chapter 3 – Sedition Of The Jews Against Pontius Pilate. Concerning Christ, And What Befell Paulina And The Jews At Rome

3. 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.”
(from Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

I know there are several other historian accounts that are often referenced, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.

What are we to make of this “history”?

Answer:
The other day I covered independent references to Jesus, and the evidence for him in general. I’ll focus on Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum this time.

In my other piece I said that the document was a battlefield. It’s been disputed since the 17th century, because although it’s the most direct (and flattering) extra-Biblical mention of Jesus we have which was apparently written in the first century, there are many reasons why it might not be entirely genuine.

Its positive affirmations are a major sticking point. It says, without qualification, “He was [the] Christ.” Elsewhere it says he rose from the dead after three days. Josephus isn’t obviously saying that this is what Christians think, he’s apparently flat out saying it happened.

This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context. He also did a lot of what amounted to PR work for the Romans who weren’t keen on prophesied kings. Had he actually written and released this passage at the time, as is, he’d have been thrown to the lions figuratively or literally.

The passage comes to us via a set of Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 11th century. That means about a thousand years went by in which changes might have been made. In the third century, after reading the Testimonium, the Christian historian Origen wrote that Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Christ”. The version he read at the time, therefore, was likely to have given a different impression than the one we have.

From this fact alone, apart from the likelihood that the Testimonium was changed at some point to be more Christian-friendly, we can deduce one more thing: that Josephus probably did write something or other about Jesus. That isn’t saying much, because in his original piece he might simply have recounted the story preached by Christians without saying that any of it was fact.

I won’t go through the other arguments against it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty to argue about.

In general, documents such as the Testimonium Flavianum reveal credibility issues as soon as you scratch the surface. That doesn’t mean they’re all false, it just means that the standard of evidence they provide isn’t earthshaking right now.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: What makes science and history more true than religion?

“Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions was found in the approval queue. I’m answering them here in Ask from the Past, and this is the last one.)

Question from Nym:
Hello.

I was recently in a debate against something on the topic of religion (namely, Christianity) vs science. I was debating for the scientific side. It was going well, but then he brought up a couple of questions that I didn’t know how to respond to.

1. What makes science so accurate?

Here, he was explaining to me how science is “proven wrong a lot more than Christianity is.” He brings up the example where he claims that the Bible says the world is spherical (he says the word used in Hebrew means “spherical”), whereas science didn’t prove this until much later. He later goes on to say that since science is proven wrong so many times, how can we accept it as truth? I explain that we can’t completely prove anything, but then he says why we should accept science over religion if it is sometimes wrong. His final statement regarding this part of the debate is “[One] should spend less time arguing why religion is wrong and more time arguing why science is accurate.” The one thing I did not want to fall back on is the word “faith.” I mean we can reproduce experiments and get similar results, but how do we know that this is really the true nature behind what we are observing? The scientific method does exist so that it can adjust when something is proven wrong, but we can’t really be certain when we’ve reached the pinnacle of truth.

2. Is believing in history not the same as believing in religion?

I brought up how Jesus’ existence is disputable, using the 40 year gap between his supposed death and the story of Saul of Tarsus; how there was no historical account of Jesus in that gap of time. He rebuttals, “They were all persecuted.” I couldn’t respond to this one. Any more explanations I could use would be very helpful.

Something else he said included “How can you believe anything in history over the Bible?” I see where he was getting at. For example, how can we prove that Napoleon existed? History says that he did, but what can do to prove that? We may have historical accounts of people who were supposedly there during that period, but how do know if those are reliable; at least, any more reliable than accounts in the Bible? We can’t really prove anything other than what we observe, and even then, who’s to say that our eyes don’t deceive us?

Thank you very much for reading.

Answer:
A lot of apologists think of using the “historical” Jesus and Biblical ties to modern science as bringing out the big guns. They’re tough to rebut if you don’t have the answers on you, especially if you’re not familiar with the Bible quotes they use.

I’ll tackle the spherical earth claim first: the passage is most likely Isaiah 40:22 which says, “He sits upon the circle of the earth…” The Hebrew word in the original text that translates to “circle” is gh, which unsurprisingly means “circle”. It’s rwd that means “sphere”. (I got that from a bible study site, mind you.) If this is what your opponent was referring to, he was wrong. The author of the Book of Isaiah (whether Isaiah or not) might have been referring to a flat earth, or the circle of the horizon as visible from a high place, or any number of things.

It’s true, scientific information is found to be false all the time. That information which replaces it is nearly always more accurate. Furthermore, it’s usually found to be false in small ways; that the Earth is 100 million years older or younger than was estimated last time, for example. That’s hardly a reason to chuck it all out and say it’s 6000 years old instead of over four billion.

While I’m on the age of the Earth, it’s been found to be billions of years old in many different ways. Whenever anything on the planet is dated to more than ten thousand years ago, a doctrine of Christianity (among others) is proven wrong again. Every generation that goes by without Jesus returning is a further contradiction of his supposed prediction that he’d be back within just one, unless he meant something out of the ordinary by “generation”. Christianity at least rivals science when it comes to being wrong.

Absolute truth is probably unattainable as long as the absolutes of the universe (if any) are unknown to us, but we can try to get closer all the time. Long before we reach that point, we reach a point where even if our underlying hypotheses are wrong, they approximate the truth closely enough to be useful. When science reaches that point, it’s able to make concrete predictions which can then be tested. This is one major area where it deviates from the Bible: what predictions can that be used to make which can be tested in the near future, as opposed to interpreting it in hindsight to match events which have already happened (much, much easier, and not just with the Bible)?

Getting on to Jesus, the authors of the New Testament were likely persecuted even after they’d written and distributed it. What I find more interesting is that they would have been very old when they did, as 25-30 years was the life expectancy at the time, or if later people wrote it then it was all second-hand.

While we can never be absolutely certain of history, a bit like science, evidence accumulates which can give us a great deal of confidence in it. Here’s a sample of what we have of Napoleon that we lack for Jesus:
– Consistent likenesses, from life-size statues to portraits for which he posed in person to coins which were minted and used during his lifetime.
– Writings by the man himself, starting from a manuscript he wrote at 17 and ending very shortly before his death in exile.
– First-hand accounts by hundreds of people, all of them undisputed real people, of personal dealings with him and his appearances before hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens, written within days of the events…rather than accounts mostly written in the third person by a handful of authors so disputed as to be effectively anonymous, of his appearances before hundreds, most of whom were illiterate (the literacy rate in first century Israel/Palestine was about 3%), written years or decades later.

Once you stop looking for absolute certainty, you start to judge these things on their actual merit. One can be far, far more confident in a historical Napoleon than a historical Jesus. It worries me that this was not plain to your opponent.

SmartLX