Jesus passage in Josephus a forgery in toto, says Greek expert

Dr. Paul J. Hopper

Dr. Paul J. Hopper, Carnegie Mellon U

I have written a review of the important paper “A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus” by linguist Dr. Paul J. Hopper concerning the so-called Testimonium Flavianum or “Jesus passage” in the works of ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Since this brief passage in Josephus is held up widely by Christian apologists as the “best evidence” of a historical Jesus of Nazareth, its scientific analysis is highly germane to Jesus mythicist studies.

After a few days uploaded on Academia.edu, my paper garnered nearly 4,000 views:

Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum Examined Linguistically: Greek Analysis Demonstrates the Passage a Forgery In Toto

Initially, I had created a “session” on Academia.edu where the paper could be discussed. Unfortunately, the session was infiltrated by a cyberstalking Christian fanatic who has been posting falsehoods and smears against me around the internet. Because his blitzkrieg of critical and obnoxious comments was going out via email to others who had signed up for the session, and Academia.edu’s blocking feature was not working, I had to delete the session. That’s a pity, because the intelligent comments also were deleted.

One of these intelligent commentaries would have been posted by John J. Felix, moderator of The Bible Geek FB group, which discusses the mythicist work of my buddy Dr. Robert M. Price in particular. John was kind enough to forward me his observations about my paper and Hopper’s work, which I reproduce here with his permission.

John J. FelixNotes summary on D.M. Murdock’s Academia.edu discussion session (2-5-15) by John Felix

My PDF copy of D.M. Murdock’s “Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum Examined Linguistically: Greek Analysis Demonstrates the Passage a Forgery In Toto” treatise is heavily marked up with electronic highlighting. The case against the authenticity of the TF, forgotten for decades, has received new impetus through recent and excitingly comprehensive scholarship. I found nothing to criticize and much to commend Murdock’s thorough-going summation of the arguments. Especially useful were the links to her own summations and discussions available on her Website. She knows when to lucidly summarize, and more importantly, when to leave out the more tedious (from a layperson’s standpoint) parts of the argument to produce an intelligible and important introduction to not only the specifics of Dr. Paul J. Hopper’s linguistic analyses, but also the general background and problems that have historically bolstered the case of wholesale forgery. This broader focus before getting into the meat of Hopper’s case specifically helps frame the issues so that each particular method of attack can be evaluated and situated into a multi-pronged case. Important as this new data is, the linguistic approach is just one of many that all form a unified and cogent statement of counter-apologetics.

My first actual note, written during the process of reading, was in response to this quote: “the text has been tampered with by later Christians wanting to erase scandalous content.” (p. 6) I wrote: “Again, this works both ways. If Christians could have removed ‘scandalous content,’ there is no guarantee that they did not therefore replace content that was removed, even if the resultant length of the text was still suspiciously short. The well is effectively poisoned.'” This is a point I am sure Murdock would agree with. Such accord between her presentation of the main points of Hopper’s argument and my thinking can be illustrated when, while reading and highlighting, I thought of Dr. Gary J. Goldberg’s “The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus,” another work which, though useful, is apologetically flawed in many ways. Sure enough, Murdock cited this very article further in the paper (p. 11).

However, Murdock wrote (p. 11): “Goldberg shows a high probability of dependence of one text upon the other….” This statement I did not agree with. Having re-read Goldberg’s article, I wrote in a note to this quotation: “That “Goldberg shows a high probability of dependence of one text on the other” was not my conclusion based on reading his PDF. Rather, the thesis he most likely supports — one of several possible — as the most probable is that both Josephus and Luke independently use a common, first century source.” This illustrates the palpable apologetical nature of Goldberg’s examination overall: he wants to salvage the TF, though in a “best of three” method of “counting heads” to arrive at a possible reconstruction (from Antiquities, Luke’s Emmaus narrative, and Agapius’s “Arabic Testimonium”). Of course, I may be wrong about Goldberg’s strengths and weaknesses, but my one criticism of Murdock’s treatment would be that I would consider including in her article a (brief) footnote on Goldberg’s thesis, in light of her agreements or disagreements on one or two points of importance to both her own and Hopper’s work.

What makes a successful essay, to my mind, is that one feels they need not consult the original work to fully understand the arguments, unless there is a need to examine the minutia for whatever project undertaken. Once I completed reading D.M. Murdock’s work, I knew Hopper’s labor was accurately and comprehensively summarized, facilitating its assimilation into my on-going interest in the TF question.

This is the sort of discussion I would have wanted to have on the session. Perhaps if Academia.edu can improve its blocking feature to exclude those who would ruin it for the rest of us, I will hold another in the future. I would like to see a Google Hangout with me, Felix, Price and Hopper, among others, if possible, as this subject of Josephus is so important to Christian origins.

In the meantime, I appreciate John Felix’s ability to comprehend what I was doing with Hopper’s important work, which was to bring it to the public. For non-linguists, Hopper’s original paper could be difficult or “tedious,” as Felix says, so I summarized its important points, and I’m delighted that John appreciated that fact and was able to follow along because of my input.

There was, of course, much more to say about TF criticism, but indeed I did provide links to where those discussions could be found. Ironically, the type of “backgrounding” John acknowledges is part of the TF analysis itself; thus, I provided what scholars have been doing or used to do (imperfect backgrounding), contrasted by Hopper’s foreground alteration of these old views.

 I concur that all of the elements of the foreground and background together are necessary to demonstrate convincingly that the Testimonium as a whole is not original to Josephus, despite the modern fondness for the “partial interpolation theory.”

Jewish historian JosephusAs concerns the Emmaus discussion, I am aware of Goldberg’s stance of wanting to salvage the TF somehow, but I was referring to what the evidence actually shows, despite his conclusions, which I too find to be erroneous, for the same reasons John elucidates so well. I apologize for the ambiguous wording in that section. These are the sorts of observations and constructive criticisms that would have been useful on the session at Academia.edu, had we been able to get to them. If the paper were to be published in a journal, I would fix that ambiguity, as well as changing some of the language regarding Hopper’s biography. I included that section for the lay reader who may be more comfortable with such credentials, as it is highly important that a linguist of Hopper’s caliber has declared the entire TF an interpolation by a Christian hand.

Felix’s summary in the final paragraph expresses precisely what was my intent, so I will consider my paper a success. Moreover, addressing me directly (also reproduced here with Felix’s permission), John states:

Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The ChristWhenever I engage in TF discussion, I have a file with your salient summaries of the various problems from all the different angles starting with older scholarship, because no one I know of has encapsulated the pertinent information in such easy to access places as [Who Was Jesus?] and several essential articles on truthbeknown.com….

My only contribution to this question (so far) is that, logically speaking, the whittling down of the TF is ultimately a zero-sum game (sort of a “Josephus at the Vanishing Point,” to steal Dr. Price’s title). There is no logical reason to say “this far, and no further,” as the proposed “minimal” TF will probably, indeed must, continue to shrink. Now, with Dr. Hopper’s work, there are very firm grounds for again reducing it to zero. Thank you for pointing out this research!

Here John is referring to my articles about Josephus, as referenced in my paper and in the “Further Reading” section below. As always, I appreciate the vote of confidence.

The bottom line is that there is more than enough evidence to consider the Testimonium Flavianum in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities to be a forgery in toto, not partially or wholly genuine. This “best evidence” for Christian claims about Jesus’s historicity therefore needs to be eliminated from the apologetics playbook.

Further Reading

Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum Examined Linguistically: Greek Analysis Demonstrates the Passage a Forgery In Toto
The Jesus Forgery in Josephus
Does Josephus prove a historical Jesus?
Josephus discussion in Who Was Jesus?
Jesus passage in Josephus a forgery, says expert (Examiner article)

3 Comments

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  1. What is the best way to refute an argument by Christian fundamentalists that the reason we don’t have the best proofs that Jesus existed is because all of the records about him is destroyed in the annihilation of Jerusalem in 70 AD?

    With that being said, Christian apologists like your cyberstalker often accuse mythicists The fallacy argument of silence. But then, I realized it is only valid if we are talking about a layperson named Jesus. But since he is surrounded by crowds and perform miracles, and teaches all over Galilee, then the “astounding silence” from contemporary records becomes valid that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist. I also learned by reading your books as well as Dr. Price’s is that you can use the same argument when they are trying to refute the pagan parallels to Christianity. This reminds me of something in Suns of God:

    Also, the “primary source” argument can be used in response by asking, where are the primary sources that prove Christianity and the existence of Jesus Christ? Where are the precious originals of the gospels, written by the very hands of the apostles and other witnesses to Jesus’s alleged advent? The earliest New Testament manuscripts in existence date only to the third or fourth century. Not only are there no primary sources proving Christian claims, but what texts do exist have been altered thousands of times.

    -Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha, and Christ Unveiled

  2. Hi Acharya, this is an excellent and informative essay, thank you. I have several comments.

    1. The shift of consensus in religious studies from the scholarly approach of the nineteenth century to the apologetic focus of the twentieth century speaks volumes about the politics of faith. In the nineteenth century, faith was under intellectual assault from enlightened reason. By the twentieth century, the defenders of reason assumed that the victory over blind faith had been won, and disengaged from the direct analysis of religion, leaving the field of religious studies to be dominated by church apologists who naturally saw a Eusebian rationalisation of faith as in their political interests. This shift of intellectual trends illustrates that many works from the nineteenth century when genuine thinkers engaged seriously on the demolition of faith really need to be re-examined, as you have pioneered. This recovery should address philosophical works such as The Essence of Christianity by Feuerbach, as well as astrotheological work such as Dupuis and Massey.

    2. The real “criterion of embarrassment” here is that Christendom could not cope with the absence of Jesus from history and had to insert him. As I have mentioned to you before, the role of Origen is decisive in the need for Eusebius to rewrite history in this Orwellian fashion. Origen’s Contra Celsus exhaustively analyses the chapter 18 of Josephus where the TF appears. Origen’s work is devoted to proving the existence of Jesus to unbelievers, but does not mention that Josephus provided independent validation of Jesus, despite talking at length about how Josephus talks about James. This gap is so absurd as to be laughable, but it does explain why a later theocrat who read both Origen and Josephus would ‘adjust’ Josephus to reduce this glaring anomaly.

    3. The overall problem here is how Christians feel justified in using the bully pulpit to defend their threadbare opinions. The methods honed in evangelism of persuading a flock through rhetoric translate all too readily into a blustering defence of the authenticity of the TF, in brazen denial of all norms of evidence and logic. The linguistic and political analysis here is really very simple and clear, but belief in the Historical Jesus has become the New Fundamentalism, impervious to scientific norms of analysis. This is an ethical problem that casts conventional Christian belief into severe disrepute.

    1. Hi, Robert! Thanks for stopping by and for your intelligent and erudite insights. You always bring something new to the table.

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