The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 1/Section 2

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We have next to see how we stand in relation to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 A.D.), the contemporary and political opponent of Justus of Tiberias. He is the first profane writer who can seriously be quoted for the historicity of Jesus. Josephus wrote three large works—the history of the Jews, the history of the last Jewish war, and a defence of the Jewish religion. In these, according to the theological view, he cannot have had any occasion to deal with the appearance of Jesus, an episode of no significance in the history of the Jews, or with Christianity. At the time when he wrote the body was almost extinct as a Jewish sect, and in any case of no consequence whatever. Moreover, the theologians say, it would have been very difficult for him to deal with it from the point of view of either side.

But Josephus has mentioned much less important persons who, like Jesus, set up a messianic movement, and suffered death for it.

Josephus has left us a luminous portrait of Pilate. He depicts him in all his brutality and unscrupulousness.[1] Can we suppose that he refrained from telling how, in the case of Jesus, his compatriots forced the proud Roman to yield to them? Or did he know nothing of any such occurrence? Is it possible that he never heard of the exciting events which, as the gospels relate, occurred in the metropolis of Judaea—the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, while the people acclaim him as the expected Messiah, the growing anger of the ruling parties, the taking of Jesus by night, the disturbance before the Governor's house, the abandonment of one of their own people by the Sanhedrim to the hated Roman authorities, the disappearance of the body from the grave, etc.? It would not be very easy to show that Jesus and his affairs would seem “insignificant” to Josephus in writing the history of the Jews, and that the sect brought into existence by him would seem unworthy of mention. At that time the Christian movement is supposed to have reached a prominent place in public life and attracted general attention. Can it be called an insignificant thing when a new religious sect enters into such rivalry with the old religion, from which it has sprung, as is ascribed to early Christianity in the Acts of the Apostles,[2] and this a very short time after the death of its founder? We have only to recall the three thousand souls who are supposed to have been baptised in one day at Jerusalem, in the very heart of the Jewish cult! It is, of course, an enormous Christian exaggeration; but, in any case, Christianity must have made great progress before the destruction of Jerusalem, if we are to put any faith whatever in the account of its early years given in the New Testament.

It has been suggested that Josephus concealed the whole messianic movement among his people from the Romans, and wished to represent the Jews to them as extremely harmless, peaceful, and philosophical citizens; and that this explains his remarkable conduct. In other parts of his works, however, Josephus does not make the least difficulty about the messianic agitations of the people of Palestine. In the Antiquities,[3] for instance, he gives the episode of the false Messiah who induced the Samaritans to go up with him to the holy mountain Gerizim, where he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses was supposed to have buried there, and thus he could inflame them to rise against their Roman masters. He tells of Judas the Gaulonite, who stirred up the people against the census of Quirinius.[4] He also relates how Theudas pretended to be a prophet and said that he could by his sole word cause the waters of the Jordan to divide, and so allow those who followed him to cross over in safety.[5] Does anyone seriously believe, in fact, that Josephus could have concealed from the Romans, who had long ruled over Palestine and were most accurately informed as to the disposition of their subjects, the messianic expectations and agitations of his compatriots, and represented them as harmless, in works which were especially concerned with their strained relations to their oppressors? It would be much the same as if a Pole, writing the history of his country, were, in order to avert unkindly feeling from his compatriots, to say nothing of their dream of a restoration of the ancient kingdom of Poland, and represent the Poles as “extremely harmless, peaceful, and philosophical citizens”!

As a matter of fact, it is hardly less ridiculous to make any such tender feeling for the sensitiveness of Rome the ground for the remarkable silence of Josephus, as [Heinrich] Weinel and many other theologians do, than for von Soden, another theologian, to declare that Josephus would have been “embarrassed” to pass judgment on the Christians and the head of their sect from either side.[6] What sides does he mean? From the Roman side? But it might be a matter of complete indifference to them what judgment a Josephus would pass on what was—so von Soden would have us believe—in the eyes of the Jewish historian, the insignificant sect of the Christians? Does he mean from the Jewish side? They would entirely agree with him if he condemned it. Is it suggested that he had a favourable opinion of the Christians? This is, in point of fact, the view of J. Weiss, and it harmonises very well with the predilection of Josephus for the Essenes. It seems to him an indication of “a friendly, or at least impartial, disposition” that Josephus does not mention the Christians and their founder. He therefore rejects the view, put forward by Jülicher, that Josephus said nothing about the Christians because their sect might discredit the Jewish faith. According to Jülicher, it is “not difficult to guess” why Josephus omitted the Christian sect from his narrative: “not from shame and not from hatred, but because he could not very well at the same time represent the Jews, in whom he was primarily interested, as supporters of the Roman monarchy and of human civilisation, and describe the Christians (of the first century), who were regarded as enemies of the whole world, as an outcome of his pacific Jews. To be silent about them was a cleverer tactic than vigorously to shake them from his coat-tails”(!). It is remarkable what astounding things these theologians will say. Would not Josephus have done better, if he were minded as Jülicher says, to have separated himself as widely as possible from the Christians? “In the same way as he condemns the zealots,” says Weiss, “who were responsible for all the misfortunes of his country, he would have had a fitting occasion to brand the fools or fanatics who had drawn such false conclusions from the sayings of the prophets; to him especially the Christians must have been the fittest lightning-conductor.” According to Weiss, therefore, the silence of Josephus is “no sign of hatred of the Christians, but rather the reverse. An enemy of the Christians would certainly have drawn attention to them in order to relieve Judaism of the charge of having anything to do with the sect.” “His silence is all the more puzzling” (p. 90). May not the simple explanation be that in the time of Josephus the Christians did not differ sufficiently from official Judaism to require special mention? Must we not conclude from this silence of Josephus that he knew nothing about Jesus, though, if Jesus had really existed and things had occurred as tradition affirms, he ought certainly to have heard of and mentioned him, just as he mentions a John the Baptist and refers to other pretenders to the messiahship and disturbers of the people? Weinel maintains that Josephus would only count as a witness against the historicity of Jesus if he spoke of Christianity and was silent only about Jesus (p. 107). But what if he had no occasion to speak of it because our whole modern view of the rise of Christendom, and the part it played during the first century, is radically false?

Josephus, however, is not silent about Jesus. In his Jewish Antiquities (xviii, 3, 3) we read: “About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed he should be called man. He wrought miracles and was a teacher of those who gladly accept the truth, and had a large following among the Jews and pagans. He was the Christ. Although Pilate, at the complaint of the leaders of our people, condemned him to die on the cross, his earlier followers were faithful to him. For he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as god-sent prophets had foretold this and a thousand other wonderful things of him. The people [sect?] of the Christians, which is called after him, survives until the present day.”

Here, it would appear, we have what we seek. Unfortunately, the genuineness of the passage is by no means admitted. There are two opinions on it. According to one view, the whole passage is an interpolation; according to the other, it has merely been altered by a Christian hand.

Let us examine the words of Josephus which remain after the expurgation of the supposed possible interpolations. They are as follows: “About this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He had a large following among the Jews and pagans. Although Pilate, at the complaint of the leaders of our people, condemned him to die on the cross, his earlier followers were faithful to him. The sect of the Christians, which is called after him, survives until the present day.” Immediately before this Josephus tells of a rising of the Jews, due to a bitter feeling at the conduct of Pilate, and its bloody suppression by the ruling power. The words that immediately follow the passage are: “Also about this time another misfortune befell the Jews”; and we are told of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Tiberius on account of the conduct of some of their compatriots.

What is the connection between the reference to Jesus and these two narratives? That there must be some connection, if Josephus himself has written the passage about Jesus, goes without saying, in view of the character of the writer. Josephus is always careful to have a logical connection between his statements. The repression of the Jews by Pilate must, naturally, have been regarded by Josephus as “a misfortune.” We likewise understand the concern of the Jewish historian at the expulsion of his compatriots from Rome. These two episodes are directly connected by their very nature. But what have the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus to do with them? If Josephus really considered the fate of Jesus as a misfortune of his people, why was he content to devote to it a couple of meagre and lifeless sentences? Why was he silent about the followers of Jesus? We have already seen that the reasons usually advanced for this silence are worthless. From a rational point of view, Josephus had no occasion whatever to put the passage about Jesus in the connection in which we find it. That, on the other hand, the later Christians had every interest in inserting the passage, and inserting it precisely at this point, where there is question of events in the time of Pilate and of the misfortunes of the Jews, is clear enough; it must have been to the Christians a matter of profound astonishment and concern that in such a connection there was not a word about Jesus, whose name was for them intimately connected with that of Pilate. And was not the condemnation of Jesus at the demand of the Jewish leaders really the greatest misfortune that the Jews had ever incurred?[7] In the edition of Origen published by the Benedictines it is said[8] that there was no mention of Jesus at all in Josephus before the time of Eusebius (about 300 A.D., Ecclesiast. Hist., 1, 11). Moreover, in the sixteenth century Vossius had a manuscript of the text of Josephus in which there was not a word about Jesus. It seems, therefore, that the passage must have been an interpolation, whether it was subsequently modified or not. We are led to the same conclusion by the fact that neither Justin, nor Tertullian, nor Origen, nor Cyprian ever quotes Josephus as a witness in their controversies with Jews and pagans. Yet Justin, at least, could have had no better argument than the testimony of a compatriot in his dialogue with the Jew Trypho. Indeed, Origen says expressly that Josephus did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah.[9]

The same difficulties arise in regard to the other passage in Josephus,[10] where the Jewish historian tells how the younger Ananus (Hannas), at the time when the governor Festus died and his successor Albinus was as yet on the way, summoned a Council, brought before it James, the “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” and had him and some others stoned for transgression of the law (62 A.D.). It is extremely doubtful whether James is understood by Josephus to be the corporal brother of Jesus, as brotherhood might very well mean only that he belonged to the Jesus-sect. In that sense Josephus would merely be saying that James was a “brother of Jesus,” or leader of those who venerated the Messiah (Christ) under the name of Jesus. It is more probable, however, that this passage also is a later interpolation, as [Karl August] Credner[11] and Schürer are disposed to admit. Weiss also (88) regards this passage in the text as a Christian interpolation; and Jülicher too says, in his essay on “Religion and the Beginning of Christianity,” in [Paul] Hinneberg's Kultur der Gegenwart (2nd ed. 1909), that Josephus leaves Jesus “unmentioned” (loc. cit., 43).

We understand, therefore, why Origen knows nothing of the passage. In his polemical work against Celsus he does not mention it when he comes to speak of James,[12] though he refers to another in which Josephus represents the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment of the Jews for having put James to death; which certainly does not accord with the facts.