Monday, March 09, 2009

Josephus And Double Standards

I think that Josephus is generally reliable, though I would add more qualifiers than Jon Curry does in his recent comments on the subject. My intention in this post isn't to dismiss Josephus, but rather to illustrate some of the inconsistencies in Jon's argumentation. He writes the following about why he thinks so highly of Josephus:

So what is the basis for the belief in the reliability of Josephus. Here is what I base my belief on.

1-Josephus gives us a detailed autobiography which informs us of the position he has attained as well as other details about his life. These details can be cross checked with his claims. We can note his biases. We can note those facts when he reports where he ought to have first hand knowledge and see how it looks (he is an eyewitness to some of his reporting). We can decide if the biases we would expect are consistent with the apparent biases in what he writes. The position he attained informs us that he would be well suited to provide the accounts about Palestine that he offers.

2-Robert Eisenmann is an expert in texts relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls community and the writings of Josephus. He writes in "James the Brother of Jesus" that Josephus "presents such a plethora of details that one can only marvel at his mind's retentiveness. He obviously wrote it all down from memory and his own experience immediately after amassing the information he presents, much no doubt from his interrogations of Jewish prisoners."

To clarify on this point, I'm not qualified to say whether Josephus relates details as Eisenmann claims, but I trust it is true and I would expect it is a non-controversial claim. I don't expect that Jason disagrees with it, so I regard it as a legitmate use of a scholar. If I knew that Jason did not agree with this claim and perhaps he does not agree that Josephus goes into this type of detail, then it would be silly for me to offer this quote. What I would need to do is present the hard evidence.

3-Jospehus discusses in detail the background political situation when he describes events, which permits more cross checking and a better understanding of events, which allows his claims to be more thoroughly evaluated.

4-Josephus in his introduction to Jewish War admits that his passions can cause him to deviate from unbiased historical reporting, and he asks his readers to indulge him in these areas where he feels a personal stake. This shows that he recognizes that his own biases can affect accuracy. Of course this is all lacking in the gospels.

I'll summarize with a quote from Eisenmann

Josephus is, therefore, inaccurate when it comes to matters having a direct bearing on his own survival; in particular, his questionable relations with revolutionaries, apocalyptic groups, and sedition, as well as his attempts to ingratiate himself with his new masters. These can be corrected by compensating for them, as they can to a certain extent in the New Testament. But his meticulous reproduction of the minutiae of day-to-day events is unparalleled. He tells us everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival. For this reason, we have an encyclopaedic presentation of events and persons in Palestine in this period without equal in almost any time or place up to the era of modern record-keeping and reportage. James the Brother of Jesus, 29-30.

Remember, Jon rejects the traditional authorship attribution of every New Testament document. He thinks that the early Christians were so undiscerning as to be wrong even about the existence of Jesus. He holds a low view of the textual reliability of the New Testament. Etc.

Is his assessment of Josephus above consistent with the standards he applies to Christian sources? Jon will dismiss a document like 1 Corinthians or Philemon as a forgery on grounds as frivolous as the use of the phrase "I, Paul". He argues that the New Testament text is significantly unreliable, that the gospel manuscripts we have from the second and third centuries, for example, aren't early or complete enough. He dismisses realistic and historically accurate portions of the New Testament on the grounds that forgers could write with verisimilitude. Does Jon approach Josephus in a comparable manner?

No. Compare the New Testament textual evidence to the textual evidence for Josephus outlined here. We read:

"Josephus received aid from Greek assistants (synergoi). Two of these -- the principal assistants -- are most visible in the later books, where the author seems to have handed over composition to them. Books 15-16 are the work of an assistant who also worked on the Jewish War, a cultured writer with a love of the Greek poets and Sophocles in particular. Books 17-19 show the marked mannerisms of a hack, a slavish imitator of Thucydides. In these books the two assistants have practically taken over the entire task. In the earlier books they have lent occasional assistance."

What would Jon make of such internal inconsistencies in the New Testament? Jon has repeatedly ignored the potential use of assistants by the New Testament authors, even though the practice was widespread in antiquity, and has argued against the New Testament documents on the basis of differences in writing style. Steve Mason, a scholar who specializes in the study of Josephus, also notes other types of apparent internal inconsistency (in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], pp. 119-121).

And while Jon criticizes Christians like me, as well as mainstream scholarship, for not interacting more with the arguments of those who deny Jesus' existence or reject every Pauline letter as a forgery, for example, he doesn't acknowledge or interact with the more skeptical views of Josephus. Steve Mason, cited above, notes "those who see Josephus as an incurable liar" (p. 120) and refers to controversies over Josephus' "literary and intellectual integrity" (p. 125). Mason takes a relatively positive view of Josephus overall, as I do, even though he notes some of the more negative opinions of others. Where would Jon stand on the issue if Josephus had been a New Testament author?

J.J. Scott writes:

"[Josephus] molds the facts of Jewish history to suit his own ends. He is notorious for his exaggeration of numbers. Parallel sections of different works have unreconcilable variants." (in Joel Green, et al., edd., Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 393)

Scott goes on to note that we have reason to trust Josephus on some matters, despite his faults. Again, though, what would Jon make of such inaccuracies and "unreconcilable variants" if Josephus had been a New Testament author?

Remember, Jon and his primary source, Robert Price, dismiss New Testament documents as of dubious authorship on highly frivolous grounds. Think, for example, of Price's ridiculous argument for an inconsistency between 1 Corinthians and Galatians in his 2007 discussion with Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. If such an alleged inconsistency is supposed to suggest that Paul didn't write both documents as we have them today, then what are we to make of the inconsistencies in Josephus' writings?

To cite another example, what about Josephus' controversial comments on the settled nature of the Jewish canon of scripture? Many scholars believe that the canon wasn't nearly as settled as Josephus suggests. If the New Testament contained such comments on the canon, wouldn't Jon probably cite those comments as an anachronism that implies forgery? There are ways to reconcile Josephus' comments with Josephan authorship, but would Jon be so favorable toward a New Testament document that contained such controversial comments?

Jon tells us that "Jospehus discusses in detail the background political situation when he describes events, which permits more cross checking". Again, what source is he being "cross checked" with? Why does Jon consider those other sources reliable? Do they have textual records, authorship attributions, etc. that are better than those for the New Testament?

Jon writes:

Josephus in his introduction to Jewish War admits that his passions can cause him to deviate from unbiased historical reporting, and he asks his readers to indulge him in these areas where he feels a personal stake. This shows that he recognizes that his own biases can affect accuracy. Of course this is all lacking in the gospels.

As if Jon would think such a point has so much significance if the gospels did contain such comments. As if authors who don't make such comments don't realize that they have biases that can affect accuracy.

Eusebius of Caesarea begins his Church History (1:1) with references to his need for the kindness of his readers, his own inadequacy, the difficulty of his task, and the potential for error on his part. Yet, Jon takes a highly negative view of Eusebius, repeating the common skeptical "Eusebius The Liar" argument. See here.

Notice that Jon appeals to Josephus' alleged status as an eyewitness. He repeatedly refers to "Josephus", as if he accepts the authorship attributions. Where are his arguments for Josephan authorship?

I could discuss other problems with Jon's argument, but the ones outlined above are more than sufficient. Not only is he not applying the same standards to Josephus and the New Testament, but the gap between his two sets of standards is large.

No comments:

Post a Comment