Brother AACOOLDRE : The testimony of Josephus to Christianity

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    SomuchoftheearlyhistoryofChristianity iswrappedin obscurity that additional evidencefromanysourceisalways welcome. Apart from the writingsofthe NewTestamentand the other early Christianliterature,the most important single author is Josephus.

    But to evaluate the testimony of Josephus isan exceedingly

    difficultanddelicate problem. Practically allhiswritings are manifestlypropaganda,written with certain. more or less evi dent purposes. Acquainted as he waswith Greek letters andlearning,writing under the patronage ofthe Roman emperors, a Jew, a Pharisee,learned in the wisdom of his people, ofpriestly birth and from the royal Hasmonean line, apparently an intense patriot, and certainly proud of his race and itstraditions,hewaseager toprovetothe world several importantpropositions.

    At times his personal interestsare uppermost,as when he

    wishes to depict in the most favorable light,to both Jews and Romans, hispart inthe Jewish rebellion of66-70. Again, as a Jew, he strives to arouse interest among the cultivated Greeks and Romans for his despised people, for their laws, their customs, their literature, and their history. In his pains to prove his own righteousness,his loyalty to his own peopleand atthesametime toRome,aswellasinhisattempts to demonstratethe superior cultureof his people,hedoesnot scruple at times todistort hisaccount.

    Again, he was so proud of his rhetorical trainingand his ability to produce fine writing,that he sometimes allows the hard factsofhistory tosufferforthesakeofbeautifulrhetorical phrases. But when all this is properly discounted, we still have in Josephusan invaluable sourcefor much ofJewish his tory and customs.

    His direct references to Christ and Christianityare of the scantiest. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to avoid mentioning the new religion. Further, he never uses the word uwT p,t and nowhere, throughout his voluminous work,

    1Apartfrom the two passagesdiscussedbelow, Antt.18, 63-64, and

    3 137


    doeshediscuss or explain the messianic hope,soindispensable foraproperunderstandingoflater Jewishhistoryandespecially of the Jewish War, around which practically all his literary workcentered.

    In thetext ofJosephus, asitispreservedtous,wehaveonly three, very brief, references to anything connected with the newmovement. Unfortunately, themostimportantofthese references is probably spurious. These passages are: (1) a reference to James, the brother of Jesus; (2) an account of John the Baptist;and (3) the doubtful passage concerning Jesus himself.

    HesaysofJames 2:"So he(Ananus,thehigh priest) assem bled the sanhedrinof judges and brought before them James, thebrother ofJesus,theonecalledtheChrist,3andsomeothers; and whenhehadformed anaccusation against themasbreakersofthelaw,hedeliveredthem tobestoned."4

    ThepassageregardingJohn theBaptist 5 isasfollows:"Now someofthe Jews thought that thedestructionofHerod's army camefrom God,and that very justly, asapunishmentofwhat he did against John that wascalled the Baptist. For Herod slew him who was a good man and commanded the Jews toexercisevirtue, both asto righteousness toward oneanother and piety toward God. For thus (he said) the baptism would beacceptable tohim if they used it not for the forgiveness of somesins, but for the purification ofthe body,supposing that the soul wasthoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Nowwhenthe others camein crowdsabout him,for they were greatly pleased by hearing his words, Herod, whofeared lest thegreat influence John had overthe peoplemight put it into his powr

    ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best by puttinghim to death to prevent any mischief hemight cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late.

    20, 200, he nowhere employs the word Xpto--r6sor Xpto--rta. tnoel,ither does he uee the Hebrew word Meo-o-la.s.

    11Antt.20, 200.

    3Perhapsbetter,"the so-called Christ."

    'Translationsbased on Whiston,London, 1872.

    & Antt.18, ll6-l9.

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    Accordingly,he wassent aprisoner, out of Herod'ssuspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle Imentioned before,and was there put todeath."

    The thirdpassage,the one referringto Jesus, isasfollows:

    "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if one might call him aman, for he wasadoer of wonderful works, ateacher ofsuch men as receivethe truthwith pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Hellenes. This was the Christ. And when Pilate,at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him;for he appeared alive to them again the third day,astheprophets ofGodhadforetold theseandten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians,sonamed from him, are not extinct to this day."6

    All three of these passages are of great importancefor the

    history of early Christianity. In the reference to James, Josephuscalls him the brother of Jesus, "the one called the Christ,"or "the so-called Christ."7 Here XptCJ'TO<> is thought of as being a more or less technical term for the founder of the sect of Christians. Josephusis careful not to assert that Jesus isthe Christ, but that heiscalledthe Christ.

    In the account of John the Baptist no hint is given that he had the slightest connection, either directly or indirectly, with Christ and Christianity;and, further,there seemsto be at times an underlying controversialtone. Thus·while the Christianaccounts in the NewTestamentagree that the bap tism ofJohn wasfor the remission ofsins, Josephus expresslystates that Johnbaptized "notfor the remission of sins." Theother points atvariance with the NewTestamentstory ofJohn arewellknownandhaveoften beendiscussed. ApparentlythispassagewascomposedwithaviewtocontrovertingtheChristian claims. Similarly,the passage about James, with its summary dismissal of Jesus as"the one called the Christ,"or "the socalledChrist,"couldhardly be calledpro-Christian.

    Wearenowreadytoconsiderthethird andmostimportant passage, the one containing the account of Jesus. In spite of the very ingenious explanations and tours de force of


    Burkitt8andHarnack9intheinterpretation ofthispassage, according to whichall other scholars both ancient and modern have totally misunderstood its plain statements, this account could hardly have been written by anyone but a Christian, whichJosephus evidently wasnot.

    The stylistic and other evidence against its genuineness has been well summed up by Norden,10 and it is unneces sary to repeat it here. All the manuscripts of this part ofthe Antiquities contain this passage, it is true, but the oldestof these manuscripts is of the eleventh century. Itformeda part of the text of Josephus as early as Eusebius,11 and islater quoted by Jerome/2 Isidorus,t3 Cassiodorus,14 and manyothers. Yet the testimony of Origen,15 earlier than any ofthese, tells heavily against its authenticity. Origen, who was well acquainted with the works of Josephus, twice expresslysays that Josephus disbelieved in Jesus as the Christ. Apparently,then,thispassageisaChristianinterpolation,inserted at this point, betweenthe time ofOrigen, about 280,and thatofEusebius,about 324.

    From whatweknowofJosephus,weshould infer that heis opposed to Christ and to Christianity,something upon which scholars aregenerally agreed, although wedonothaveasingle direct statement in any of his extant writings to that effect. Now,Origen isdoing his best to make out acaseagainst the scofferCelsus,and it is rather remarkable that he should cite Josephus as disbelieving in Jesus as the Christ, unless there weresome more explicit statementof Josephusto that effect. Itseemshighly probable that Origen baseshis assertion about Josephus onsomedirectstatementmadebytheJewish historian, butnow.lost.

    From the sixteenth century, when Scaliger first suspected

    8 Josephusand Christ,in Theol.Tijdschrift,47 (1913), 135-144.

    9Der jild.Geschichtschr.Josephusu. J.C.,in Internat. Monatschr.7

    (1913) 1037-1067.

    10Josephusu.Tao.ilber J.C.,in Neue Jahrbb.31 (1913) 637-666.

    11H.E.I,11, 7f.; Demonstr.Ev. III,5, 105f.;Theoph. V, 44.

    12De Josepha.

    13IV, ep. 225.


    15Contr.Cels. I,47; Matth.13, 55.


    this passageofJosephus,anenormous amount hasbeenwritten aboutit.16 Practicallyallscholarsofgoodrepute who have investigatedthequestion, are agreedthatthepassageisspurious, the work ofa well-intentionedChristian interpolator,but of a veryskilful interpolator,whowasthoroughlyfamiliarwith his author. Itcomesin the part of the Antiquities dealing with theadministrationofJuclaeabyPilate,andthis wouldbeavery appropriate place for its insertion. Itis still hotly debated whether or not somestatementof Josephus about Jesus stood hereoriginallyandwas supplantedbytheinterpolation. The evidence of Origen, just cited, slight as it is, would be in favor of the belief that originallyan anti-Christian statement stood here.

    Itwould indeed be remarkable if Josephus,who mentions John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus, did not mention Jesus also. The manner in which James is casually introduced as the brother of Jesus, "the so-called Christ," presumes that Christ isalready knownand would ratherpoint to afuller descriptionofhim elsewhere. Itwould seem inex plicable that these secondary charactersof Christianity shouldbe described, and no mention made of Christ himself, themoresothat Christianityat this time wassowidely knownandwasattractingsomuch attentionfrom the Roman authoritiesP The fact that the JewishWarwascomposedsometwenty yearsearlier than the Antiquities,whentheChristianswere stillacomparativelyobscure sect,would account for the omission in that workofany reference to the newmovement. Besides,if thepassage63-64,regardingJesus,isexcisedasspurious and nothingstoodthereoriginally,there isarealdifficulty,ifnotanimpossibility, ineffectingasatisfactoryjuncture ofthefinalwordsof§62with the opening wordsof§65.

    Webelievethat there issomeimportantadditional·evidence

    from Josephus, whichthus far hasnot beenadduced in the controversy. This may become more evident from a careful study ofthe context ofthis passage,an indispensableprocedure in problems of this nature,but too often neglected.

    All in all, this section ofthe Antiquities,18, 55-89,isa re-

    18Earlierliteraturein Schiirer,I,544 f.

    17Cf.Tac. Ann. 15, 44; Sueton.Claud.25,Nero 16.

    markable one,and will repay acareful analysis. Itdeals with the administration of Pilate in Judaea 26-36 A. D., in the midst of the account of which is inserted the story of two scandals at Rome, in 19 A. D. The section opens (18, 55) with an account ofPilate'sprocuratorshipin Judaea,his diffi culties with his Jewish subjects, whose character he so little understood,andthevarious riotswith whichhehadtocontend.

    First(18, 55-59), hehadtrouble because,contrarytoJewish laws,hebrought the Roman standardswith images upon them into Jerusalem. His next difficulty (18, 60-62), was due to his taking some of the temple treasure and divertingit to secular use,for the purposeofbringing awater supply toJeru salem. This riot hequelled onlyafter killing agoodly numberof Jews. The next section (18, 63-64) isthe much discussedone,giving anaccount ofJesus. Thefollowing paragraph(18,

    65-80) relates with much apparentgusto a scandal at Rome.

    Inthis, a Roman gallant,oneDecius Mundus, issmittenwith passion for a certain Paulina, a high-born, virtuous Roman matron,and heobtains hisendsthrough thehelpofthe priests ofIsis. Theserepresent toPaulinathat shehasfound especial favor in the eyesofthe god Anubis, whodesires her to spend the night with him inhistemple. Sheobeyswhat shebelieves to be the injunctionof the god,and spends the night in the temple-withMundus-allthe while believing that he is the god Anubis. As a consequence of this fraud, the emperor Tiberiusgaveorders tocrucify the priests ofIsis, demolish her temple, and throw her image into the river Tiber. The fol lowing section (18, 81-84) relates the story ofFulvia,another gullible woman,whowasduped through her pietyandswindledout ofa..considerable sum byfour scheming Jews. Asaconse quence of this latter scandal, Tiberius banished all the Jewsfrom Rome. From Tacitus (Ann.2,85) weknow that boththesescandals tookplaceinthe year19. Thefollowing section(18,85-89) dealswithanother riot,this timeinSamaria,whichPilate suppresses with such harshnessthat he is recalled toRomeand hisadministrationin Judaea is ended.

    Now,since the procuratorshipof Pilate in Judaeacovered the years 26-36,it ishard to understandwhyJosephus should go out ofhis wayat this point to relate a couple of scandals at Rome, takingplace in the year 19, and having nothingto


    dowith Pilate and his procuratorship. Furthermore,the first of thescandals,whichJosephusrelateswithsuchawealthof circumstantialdetail, hasnoconnection either forward or back ward,withtheremainder ofhisaccount,orwithJewishhistory.

    Whythenisthis chroniquescandaleuseinserted atall? Since itisinserted,whydoesit appear at preciselythis point,break ing the chronological connection? For immediately after recounting these two scandals, Josephus proceeds to tell of thefurthel' difficulties Pilate was having in Palestine, and ofthe final riot in Samaria which wasthe immediate occasionofhis recall.

    Iamconvincedthat the insertion ofthesetwoscandals isin

    placehere,and wasmotivated bythe passageabout Christ,im

    mediately preceding, asit stood in its original form.

    AsIhavealready indicated,it seemsprobable that an antiChristian passage stood here originally. Many have tried toreconstructitscontents, buttheevidenceisnotsufficienttogivereliable results, or results upon which scholars have beenabletoagreeasbeingprobable.

    However,from the opening sentence ofthe following section

    (18, 65) and from the fact that this section (65-80) recounts the story of Mundus and Paulina,involving a scandal of this nature,we may infer at least two probable elements of the original accountofJosephus concerning Jesus.

    The sentence immediately following the account ofJesus is:

    a7rYJtVW.YfL£vat uvVTvyxavovuw.

    This sentence evidently refers tosomething preceding which had thrown the Jews into confusion (£8opvfi£t) and had been the occasion of riots and tumults among them. We should infer,then,that Josephus attributes someuproar,tumult,or confusion among the Jews to the influence of Jesus, either directly or indirectly. He would probably thus class Jesus alongwithJudasofGalilee(Antt.18,4:ff.)asoneofthosewho had been the cause of tumultsamong the Jews and thus an ultimatefactor inbringingonthe Jewish Warandthe destruc tion of Jerusalem,with all their attendantwoes.

    The fact that this is followed bythe story of Mundus and

    Paulinamay indicate a second element. This element may


    wellhave beena denial byJosephus of the Christian account ofthevirginbirthandthedivinesonshipofJesus. Todisprove theseclaimsoftheChristians, Josephus tellswhathethinks happened in the caseof Mary, and clinches his argument by rtlating what he considers to bea parallel story of a pious Roman matron, whowasdeceivedbya gallant into believing that shewassharing hercouchwithagod.

    Itis barely possible that this account of Mundus and

    Paulina,asfound in Josephus, maybederivedfrom anactual occurrence, as Weinreich thinks.18 On the surface it bears all the marks ofachoicebit ofgossip,going backultimately to the verybrief account of Tacitus/9 whosimply saysactum etdesacrisAegyptiis. But inanycase,apparently its present literary formhasbeeninfluencedbytheclassicstoryofthetrick of Nectanebus. According to this story, as later embodied inthe Alexander RomanceofPseudo-Callisthenes,20 Nectanebus II,king of Egypt, instead of retiring to Ethiopia, as was commonlybelieved, whendefeatedbyOchus,fledtoPella,in Macedonia. There he deceived the queen Olympias, wife of Philip, into believingthat hewasthegod (Zeus) Ammon,and through herhethus becamethefather ofAlexanderthe Great. Although thetwostoriesdifferinsome features,theessential motivation isthe same. In eachagallant issmitten with the

    charms ofawomanand succeedsin deceivingher bytricking

    her into believing that heisagod.

    ThestoryofthetrickofNectanebuswas afamousonein antiquity,andwasfamiliar throughoutthe Greco-Romanworld inthetimeofJosephus. Itseemstohaveariseninthelifetime ofAlexander the Great,orshortly after hisdeath, and it soon obtained widecurrency. Itwasapparently ofEgyptian origin, and arose as a counter-blast to the claims of Alexander the Great tobeofdivine birth, withZeus(Ammon) ashisfather.

    The Christians were claiming a similar divine birth for

    Jesus, and Josephus wouldveryprobably befamiliar with this

    18DerTrug des Nektanebos,Leipsic 1911, p. 27.

    19Ann. 2, 85.

    20This motive later became a great favorite,particularly during the Middle Ages. Itisfound throughoutEurope,inArabia,and as far as India. Perhapsits best-known example is found in the well-known storyof Frate Alberto and Lisetta,in Boccaccio's Deca;meron.

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    claim. Then, since Josephus was in all probability familiar with the story of Nectanebus and at the sametime opposedto the claims of Christianity, nothing would be more natural than that heshould recount asimilar story,asthat ofMundus and Paulina,asarefutationofthe Christianclaimofthevirgin birth. Another point ofconnection betweenthe story of Alex ander and the Christian accounts was the fact that supremepower aswellas divinity wasclaimed for both Alexander andChrist by their partisans. Even grantingthat Josephus was not influenced bythe Nectanebus story, the scandal ofMundusand Paulinawould make welcomematerial in the hands ofananti-Christianpropagandist.

    This then would account for the insertion of the story of

    Mundus and Paulina into the narrative of .Josephus at this point,astorywhich,aswe haveseen,breaksthechronological connection and has nothing to do with Jewish history, least of all with the history of Pilate's procuratorshipin Judaea, which forms the material of most of the remainder of the chapter. This would account for the fact that Josephus tells this scandalous story with somuch gusto, in true Boccaccian manner,withsuchawealthofvividandcircumstantialdetail.

    Thisepisode,withitsaccountof analmostincrediblygullible woman, may wellhave suggested to Josephus the story imme diately following it,about another pious,credulous womanwho wasduped byanother impostor and his confederates,this timeJews. This latterstory is part and parcel of Jewish history, though out of its chronological connection in Josephus, anddealing with affairs at Rome instead ofin Palestine,asdoestherestofthechapter. Then,acaption ofthis wholesectionmightwellbe,.according to Josephus,"The Three Gullible Women,"towit,Mary,Paulina,and Fulvia.

    Weknowthat in later times the stock rejoinderofthe Jews to the Christianclaim of the virgin birth wasthat Jesus was born an illegitimatechild. The earliest appearance which we can date of this slander is in the a>.:r]fJ .. >..Oyo<>of Celsus, about 180, although there is a possible reference, possibly as early as130,bySimon benAzzai.21

    21Talmud,Jevamoth,4, 13;cf. Hilgenfeld,Zeitschr.f.wiJBsensoh. Theol.43 (1900),p.271.


    Later Jewish legends embellished the slander with names and circumstantialdetails. The name of Mary's seducer was one Joseph Panthera (Pandira),a Roman soldier, of Greek ongm. Because of her lapse from virtue, Mary wascast out asan adulteress, and gave birth to Jesus, whoas a boywent toEgypt toearn hisliving. There hebecameacquainted with the magical arts of the Egyptians,returnedto Palestine,and imposed upon his ignorant,credulous countrymen byclaiming divinepowers.22 Itisrather remarkable that sogreatascientist asErnst Haeckel wasimposed upon bythis story and accepted itatitsfacevalue."23

    In the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus,which is of uncer tain date,butwhichapparentlyusedtheso-calledActs of Pilate, adocument asearly asJustinMartyr,24someofthe leaders oftheJews are represented asaccusingJesus beforePilate ofhaving beenbornoffornication{£K 7ropVEla<> yt:yivVfJucu). Unfortu nately wecannot becertain astothe dateoftheorigin ofthisstatement.

    But, in any case,the slander must bemuch earlier than its

    literaryrecords, and somesuch story wasinevitable in Jewish circlesassoonastheChristianclaimofthevirgin birth became wellknown,especially in connection with the messianic claims ofJesus.

    Intheopeningchapters oftheGospelofMatthew there seems to beasensitiveness to this slander and a rebuttal,where the author not only states what he believesto bethe truth about Mary but argues against the Jews that in their own sacred history womenofirregularlife had played an honored part in the royal house of David. This would account for the inclu sion, quite contrary to Oriental custom, of women's names inthe genealogy, the names of Tamar,of Rahab, of Ruth, andof Bathsheba.25 Matthew 2, 13-15, in the reference to thesojourn of Jesus in Egypt, may also reflect a contemporary Jewish slander of the nature indicated above.

    To sum up, then. We would say that Josephus was ac

    quainted with the claims of Christianity,but hostile tothem;

    21 Origen, c.Gels.I,28; 32; 38.

    23Die Weltriitsel,chap. xvii, "Wissenschaft u. Christentum," pp.


    :uApol.I,35; 48.

    uIndicatedby circumlocution,emphasizingthe slander.


    that he did not accept Jesus as the Christ;and that there originallystood in the Ant·iquities18, 63-64, an unfavorable account ofJesus, whichwasousted betweenthe time ofOrigen, about 280,and that ofEusebius,about 324,for afavorable one. We can no longer reconstruct satisfactorily the lost passage, butwe believeitto behighly probable that it originally con tained at least two elements. The first of these would creditJesus with causing tumults,trouble, and confusion amongtheJews. The second would be,either directly or indirectly,anuncomplimentary reference to the story of the virgin birth, ascontrovertingChristianclaims. Similarly,in the account ofJohnthe Baptist,the controversial tone adopted, particularly with reference to the purpose of baptism, wasprobably aimedatthe Christianaccount asfoundinthe Gospels.