In a recent thread, a poster by the screen name of Jimmy repeated an argument I’ve often seen used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. He objected to a citation of Josephus on the subject of the Old Testament canon on the basis that Josephus was a “Christ-rejecting Jew”.
I think most people understand why such an objection is problematic. But since it seems that many Catholics and Orthodox don’t understand, I want to address the issue further.
A lot of people have rejected Christ. The Roman historian Tacitus rejected Christ, yet we trust much of what he reported about wars, taxes, Nero’s persecution of Christians, etc. I trust a weatherman who tells me that the temperature fell below freezing this morning, even if he’s an agnostic. I trust a taxi driver to get me to my destination, even if he’s a Muslim. Etc.
If Josephus writes about Jesus’ relative James, and he uses a particular Greek term to describe James’ relationship with Jesus, why can’t we cite Josephus’ choice of terminology as evidence relevant to the issue of the perpetual virginity of Mary? If Josephus uses Greek terms for “cousin”, “relative”, etc. in other passages, yet uses a term with a primary meaning of sibling when discussing James’ relationship with Jesus, then that choice of language has implications for the perpetual virginity of Mary. The fact that Josephus rejected Christ doesn’t eliminate the significance of his choice of terminology.
Any error committed by any source, including a rejection of Christ, undermines the general credibility of that source. But a source’s general credibility can be undermined without being eliminated. And the less of a connection there is between a source’s error and the subject under consideration, the less significance that error has. The church fathers were wrong on many issues. They sometimes made false historical claims, sometimes contradicted each other on doctrinal issues, etc. It doesn’t therefore follow that we can’t trust anything they said.
If we’re to dismiss Josephus on the issue of James’ relationship with Jesus, we need more than Josephus’ rejection of Christ to justify that dismissal. A rejection of Christ doesn’t imply a likelihood of wanting to misrepresent the relationship between Jesus and James. Similarly, a rejection of Christ doesn’t imply a rejection of the canonicity of Tobit. People like Jimmy need to make more of an effort to show a connection between the non-Christian status of a source like Josephus and that source’s alleged unreliability on an issue.
I’ve sometimes seen people, particularly Roman Catholics, suggest that the ancient Jews rejected the Apocrypha in response to Christianity. But while some of the early Christians accepted one or more Apocryphal books as scripture, the early Christians made far more use of other books the ancient Jews accepted, such as Isaiah and Daniel. If the ancient Jews were determining their canon on the basis of a desire to undermine Christianity, they could have done much better than removing books like Tobit and 1 Maccabees. And neither the earliest Christians nor the earliest Jews seem to have thought that there was some widespread acceptance of Apocryphal books that ceased in response to Christianity. Such a canonical change doesn’t seem to have been part of the earliest discussions between Judaism and Christianity. A Paul or a Justin Martyr will bring many charges against the Jews of their day, but such a canonical change isn’t one of them. That sort of canonical change doesn’t make sense, and the earliest sources don’t seem to be aware of any such change.
My point here, though, is that the testimony of a source like Josephus can’t be dismissed just because he was a “Christ-rejecting Jew”. We need more than that.