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  • More Christ Confusion April 20, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback



    Beach wrote a few days ago of the most moving source for the historical Christ, a source that perhaps dates back to a decade after Jesus’ death. Today, instead, he thought he would look at the most amusing source for Christ’s death, a fragment from Josephus, the turncoat who supported the Jewish resistance and then became a Hellene intellectual.

    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 [i.e. the Messiah]. 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. Antiquities of the Jews 18, 3.

    At first glance this source looks like the very best wholewheat bread. Here we have Josephus writing in c. 94 AD, just within living memory of Jesus’s death, recalling a spiritual leader from two generations before. And what is better Josephus is clearly not a Christian, so surely this source can be trusted?

    However, that is precisely where the problems began. No non-Christian Jew would have described Christ as ‘the messiah’, nor, surely, would Josephus have described Christ rising on the third day, which after all, would have confirmed Jesus as the messiah. A casual reader in the twenty-first century reading this passage is the equivalent of a thirty-first century historian finding a passage in the Communist Manifesto extolling the virtues of the market.

    These words then cannot be by Josephus. And yet they are to be found in every part of the manuscript tradition of that writer. The only sensible explanation is that sometime, long before the earliest surviving manuscript of Josephus, a Christian copier, saw a mention of Christ in Josephus’s work and added some words of his or her own. It is an object lesson in how even the best established passages cannot be trusted blindly: and a warning, perhaps, over the passage in Paul’s epistles described last week. In other words, is that verse as old as Paul’s letter or was it a later interpolation?

    While on the subject of amusing sources for Christ here is one that is an object lesson how partial history can be. This appears in an early second-century Jewish text. It would be fascinating to know the origin of some of these traditions.

    It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that ‘[Jesus] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him.’ But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover. Ulla said: Would one think that we should look for exonerating evidence for him? He was an enticer and God said (Deuteronomy 13:9) ‘Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him.’ Jesus was different because he was close to the government.

    Because he was close to the government‘?!? A Hellenistic version of this – at least in tone – is perhaps what we would have originally found in Josephus.

    Any other men and women caught between history and legend in inadequate sources: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com