Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Absurd Stories Of Cruel Josephus

After citing an account of Judas' death recorded by Papias and after citing Irenaeus' false belief about the age of Jesus, Jon Curry wrote:

What we do have bodes poorly for him [Papias]. This story of Judas is absurd....

But it establishes a pattern. He is prone to this type of thing. Irenaeus is prone to give false claims on the basis of supposed apostolic tradition. "But he was refuting the Gnostics" you say. So what? I know that. But what are you trying to show? That he'll lie when he has a motive? Doesn't that prove my point? Why should we trust him when he talks about John if we know he'll lie to further his ends? (here)

Notice that Jon's conclusion about a "pattern" in Irenaeus and something Irenaeus is "prone" to is based on one example. Notice that he claims that Irenaeus was "lying", not just mistaken. And Jon connects Papias' comments about Judas and Irenaeus' error on the age of Jesus to a supposed unreliability on their part when they discuss issues like gospel authorship. In other words, he uses an error on one subject to dismiss what a source reported about a significantly different subject in a significantly different context. See the thread linked above and my comments elsewhere in this blog's archives for a correction of Jon's analysis.

Jon has criticized the character of the early Christians, often on highly dubious grounds. He referred to Tertullian as "vicious" and "wicked" on the basis of a Wikipedia article that refers to some people's belief that Tertullian was a misogynist:

We do know that many of these fathers and "saints" are vicious, wicked people. Cyril of Alexandria and Tertullian come to mind as just two examples....

For Tertullian quotes, check Wikipedia on Tertullian where they give a good example. (here)

More recently, Jon has contrasted Luke with Josephus, referring to the latter as a generally "reliable historian". He refers to Josephus as "an eyewitness to some of his reporting", and he refers to (quoting Robert Eisenman) the "plethora of details" Josephus gives us, so many details that we should "marvel" at them. Josephus "obviously wrote it all down from memory and his own experience immediately after amassing the information he presents". He commends Josephus for "recognizing that his own biases can affect accuracy". Jon quotes Eisenman referring to the "meticulous reproduction of the minutiae of day-to-day events" in Josephus, how Josephus "tells us everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival", giving us "an encyclopaedic presentation of events and persons in Palestine".

Though Jon and his source, Eisenman, acknowledge that Josephus is sometimes unreliable, notice how restrained they are in what they cite as unreliable, far more restrained than Jon is with the Biblical sources and early post-Biblical Christian sources, like Papias and Irenaeus. Notice that Jon and his source repeatedly trust Josephus' memory. Notice that terms like "plethora", "marvel", "minutiae", and "encyclopaedic" are used. They can't just be referring to archeological confirmation of Josephus, since archeology wouldn't lead us to all of their conclusions. And archeology is interpreted by means of other sources and other data. How do they know they can trust what's inscribed on an archeological artifact, how do they know how to interpret language inscribed on artifacts, how do they know how to date the artifacts, etc.? The comments of Jon and his source imply more than reliance upon archeology, and even archeology has to interact with other data. How does Jon arrive at his conclusions about Josephus in a manner that's consistent with the radical skepticism he applies to Christian sources?

Just as Jon can cite some scholars giving a generally positive evaluation of Josephus, I can cite scholars giving a generally positive evaluation of Luke and other New Testament authors, including scholars who aren't conservative Christians. See here.

But Jon dismisses sources like Luke by pointing to alleged errors in their writings, potential reasons they might have for lying, potential ways in which they might be mistaken, etc. In some cases, as with Irenaeus, he'll keep pointing to one error over and over again.

The same sort of approach could be taken with Josephus. The historian Paul Maier writes the following. Notice how the criticism of Josephus by Jon and his source is much more restrained. Ask yourself what Jon would do with a New Testament source with these problems. Would he speak of that New Testament source in a manner comparable to how he speaks of Josephus?

"Josephus's accuracy and reliability as a historian have been challenged repeatedly. His free interpretation of his sources and his embellishments of the biblical record have already been cited. That he had a habit of overstating for dramatic purposes is also clear. The reader must discount such hyperboles as his claim, for example, that so much blood was shed in Jerusalem during its conquest that streams of gore extinguished the fires burning there. Like most ancient historians, Josephus also had trouble with numbers...That Josephus also had a lofty opinion of himself has already been noted, and his various heroic exploits were doubtless embroidered to enhance his image. At times he is inconsistent in statements made in The Jewish War when compared with those in Antiquities, even if many of these may be understood as corrections in the latter writing on the basis of better knowledge. The discrepancies between The Jewish War and his Vita, however, are more serious. They include irreconcilable versions of a brutal incident involving Josephus's activities at Taricheae (Magdala) in Galilee, when enemies tried to attack him in his lodging. The accounts of his escape not only strain credibility but show a streak in his character that is more cruel than crafty. Josephus also shows a credulity in reporting that a ball fired from a Roman ballista hit a pregnant woman in Jerusalem, tearing a fetus out of her womb and projecting it a hundred yards. Besides such horrors were the presumed portents he reported during Jerusalem's last days: a cow supposedly gave birth to a lamb in the Jerusalem temple, visions of horses and chariots gave battle in the heavens, and the like." (The New Complete Works Of Josephus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999], p. 14)

1 comment:

  1. I find these comments on Josephus very interesting, especially those which suggest Eusebius might have inserted a line or two. But thanks for the perspective.