Sunday, March 15, 2009

Josephus Judged By A Different Standard

I've been discussing inconsistencies in how skeptics treat ancient non-Christian sources and how they treat ancient Christian sources. An example is Jon Curry's treatment of Josephus, contrasted with his treatment of Christian sources of antiquity. Yesterday, he posted a few more responses to me on the subject. One is in the thread here and the other two are in a new thread here. I'm going to review some of his inconsistencies in light of his latest responses.

Textual Transmission

Jon writes:

I don't know what Bart Ehrman has to do with it. Everybody knows that the earliest NT manuscripts are dated far closer to the originals than the earliest manuscripts of Josephus....

Late manuscripts are not ideal, but in and of themselves they don't necessarily indicate a problem. It's a problem if it is clear that there is a widespread effort to modify the texts, forge documents in the name of said authors, etc.

I explained the relevance of Bart Ehrman in a previous response to Jon. Ehrman is an opponent of Christianity, and Jon often cites him, including on textual issues.

And Ehrman doesn't just refer to the earliness of manuscripts. He refers to the quality of the textual evidence as a whole. He ranks the New Testament higher than Josephus. Yet, Jon accepts the text of Josephus, basing his arguments for the reliability of Josephus on the textual details, while casting doubt on the New Testament text.

In a discussion with James White on the July 13, 2006 edition of the "Dividing Line" webcast, Jon brought up the lateness of the gospel manuscripts in support of the concept that the text of the gospels might have been changed. He didn't add the qualifiers that he does above. He later described that discussion with James White:

"James White and I were discussing Mt 17 and whether it is possible that the text could be corrupted without manuscript evidence. I said (working from memory) that the first copies we have of it are something like 3rd century." (source)

In another context, he wrote:

"I am not of the opinion that changes can't occur without hard manuscript evidence in 400 years." (source)

And elsewhere:

"The problem is we don't know what form these gospels would have taken [when Justin Martyr referred to them]. There is no guarantee that the gospels they were seeing are the same gospels we see." (source)

Why propose textual corruption in Matthew 17 without any textual evidence? Why make references, like those above, to the timing of the manuscripts if the manuscripts can be as late as those of Josephus, yet still be reliable? Why does Jon place so much emphasis on lateness and textual doubts when discussing the New Testament textual record, but not when discussing Josephus?

Robert Price, whose work Jon often cites, claims that the New Testament manuscripts are too late to refute his theories concerning the alteration of the New Testament documents. When Jon repeatedly makes comments such as the ones cited above, and he repeatedly cites the work of men like Robert Price, who are so dismissive of the reliability of the New Testament text, why would we conclude that he trusts the New Testament text? And if he doesn't trust the New Testament text, then why does he trust the Josephan text?


Jon writes:

I've already explained that we don't trust Josephus because we know that his name is Josephus rather than Steve. There are details in his writings which make good sense as reliable information. Encyclopadaeic details, eyewitness information, details that we would expect Josephus could reliably know based upon the position he attained (we know the autobiography of Josephus. We have nothing like that from the gospel authors).

Earlier, Jon referred to Josephus as an eyewitness. But, again, how does he know that the author was an eyewitness without knowing who the author was? How can you know "the position he attained" if you don't know who the author was? How does Jon know that the information in Josephus is "eyewitness information"? When discussing the New Testament, Jon tells us that forgers can lie, that they can write as if they're eyewitnesses, that they can write with verisimilitude, etc. Jon told us:

"You mention statements of verisimilitude...The forger is not an idiot. He knows to add references to (past) important people to make off the cuff remarks which gives the appearance that this really has the form of a genine letter from Paul. This proves nothing." (source)

Jon thinks that it "proves nothing" if an alleged letter of Paul gives autobiographical information about Paul, is realistic, makes historically accurate statements, etc. A forger "is not an idiot", and he would write with verisimilitude. Yet, he claims that "we know the autobiography of Josephus" on the basis of what the Josephan documents tell us. He isn't applying his standards consistently.

Remember, Jon has frequently referred to ancient sources as if he accepts the authorship attributions of the documents, often referring to how Irenaeus wrote a particular document, how Tertullian was a Christian who wrote a particular document and lived at a particular time, etc. Though he's now trying to avoid giving a defense of the Josephan authorship of the documents traditionally attributed to Josephus, how plausible would it be for Jon to keep trying to avoid such a defense for the ancient sources he addresses? Internal evidence can only take you so far.

Internal Consistency

Jon writes:

First of all, I have no problem with Josephus using assistants....

Paul Maier similarly recognizes deficiencies in Josephus.

Once again, so what? I have no problem with your quote from Maier. If you want to be consistent then, would you similarly tell us about the deficiencies and inaccuracies contained in the NT?

The overall lesson here is a good one. Be skeptical when reading an ancient author when he is discussing subjects where you might expect him to have a bias.

As I explained earlier, Jon's previous comments on Josephus were much more restrained than what I cited from scholars like J.J. Scott and Paul Maier. Jon tells us that he agrees with what I cited from those scholars, but one of the points I was making was that Jon initially didn't give us such an assessment of Josephus. He was much more restrained in his treatment of Josephus than he is in his treatment of Christian sources.

The sources I cited refer to inconsistencies in Josephus. Paul Maier tells us:

"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 New Complete Works Of Josephus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999], p. 14)

J.J. Scott notes that "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) Steve Mason refers to "countless changes and contradictions" (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 42).

When Jon was discussing the letters attributed to Paul, he didn't just conclude that inconsistencies in the Pauline documents reflect "deficiencies in Paul" or "bias" on Paul's part. Rather, he concluded that inconsistencies suggest forgery:

"As I'm sure you are aware, pretty much all critical scholars admit that Paul could not have written 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. The vocabulary issues and things like the implied church structure (again like Ignatius representing a later, catholicizing of Paul) rule out Paul....Ephesians is also doubted by most critical scholars for reasons I've already explained. In addition to Goodspeed's table, you also have these long sentences, again completely outside the style of Paul, where these Pauline phrases from the other texts are linked together with clauses, again suggesting that this book is nothing more than an attempt to patch together Pauline phrases gleaned from other texts....With Galatians and I Corinthians you have independent factions with rival conceptions of how Paul operates. In Galatians he's an independent maverick that got the gospel from none other than the risen Christ himself. As opposed to I Cor which says that he got the very heart of the gospel directly from the Jerusalem apostles. There are indications that these texts are patchwork quilts. For instance, what of sectarian strife? At the beginning of I Cor Paul knows all of the issues, what's going on who's involved. Later (11:18) he talks about how he hears there are divisions and he's tempted to believe it, as if he knows nothing of it. In one section women can prophesy in public (11), a few chapters later (14) suddenly they can't." (source)

To be consistent, Jon ought to conclude that the writings attributed to Josephus are "patchwork quilts", forgeries composed by multiple unknown authors. Instead, he keeps referring to the author as "Josephus", keeps claiming that we know his biography, keeps referring to him as if he's one person who had help from other people in composing his writings, accuses him of "deficiencies" and "bias" rather than concluding that the documents are forgeries, etc.

Jon suggests that I'm not being consistent, since I don't acknowledge inconsistencies in the New Testament, just as there are inconsistencies in Josephus. He also writes:

So how does this work, Jason? If I were to concede that Josephus used an assistant I must therefore permit you to invoke an amanuensis whenever you feel the need to get yourself out of a tight spot?...

After all, Josephus used an assistant, so now I'm free to invoke it whenever I find myself in a tight spot. Explain to me the logical principles you use to come up with these rules.

There are several problems with that line of argumentation:

1. I have reasons to believe in the Divine inspiration of the New Testament authors, which I don't have for Josephus. To repeat an example I cited in a discussion with Jon a few years ago, I have reason to give a scientist the benefit of the doubt if he refers to the sun rising. He probably knows that the sun doesn't actually rise. If a four-year-old refers to the sun rising, I don't give him the same benefit of the doubt.

2. I've argued for the Divine inspiration of the New Testament at length, including in discussions with Jon. Interested readers can consult this blog's archives.

3. I don't believe that there are inconsistencies in the New Testament, whereas Jon does believe that there are inconsistencies in Josephus. I don't see the two sources as being comparable in that regard. Jon does, yet he treats Josephus in a significantly different manner, as I've demonstrated.

4. Josephus isn't the only ancient source who used assistants in the process of composing documents. It was a common practice. I haven't argued that Josephus alone justifies an assumption of the use of assistants "whenever I find myself in a tight spot". And I haven't cited the use of assistants "whenever I find myself in a tight spot".

5. As the sources I've already cited explain, the text of Josephus doesn't tell us every time one writer is replacing another or the specific role each contributor had. When Jon assumes that assistants under the primary author's direction are responsible for the inconsistencies, should we conclude that Jon is making that assumption "whenever he finds himself in a tight spot"?

6. The potential for abuse runs both ways. Just as somebody can appeal to the use of assistants too often, so also somebody can neglect the role of assistants too often.

7. Notice that while Jon dismisses the external evidence for every New Testament document as if it has little significance, he's resistant to a much lesser diminishment of internal evidence. The acknowledgement of the potential involvement of assistants in the composing of a document still leaves the door open to other means of judging a document by its internal contents (anachronisms, conceptual contradictions, etc.). But Jon wants the door open wider. He wants it to be easier to dismiss every document he dislikes. The fact that writing assistants were commonly used in antiquity doesn't become any less of a fact just because it favors Christianity.

External Consistency

Jon writes:

What documents can I present that permit cross checking [of Josephus]? Go back to my argument about an appropriate use of a scholar and an inappropriate use. A claim from a scholar that this is done [that Josephus is cross checked] is proof of the point. If you dispute the point, then it wouldn't make sense for me to just cite the scholar. I would need to look into the evidence. Do you dispute the point?

I'm addressing whether Jon is being consistent with his own professed standards in the process of arriving at his conclusion. Whether I agree with Jon's conclusion is irrelevant. The issue under consideration is how Jon gets to that conclusion and whether that means of getting there is consistent with the standards he's applied to Christianity. I value external evidence more than Jon does. I don't consider ancient people as undiscerning as Jon does. Etc. We have some different standards. The question is, if Jon judges Josephus to be reliable by comparing him to a Roman historian, for example, then why does Jon trust that Roman historian? How does he maintain trust in that Roman historian while applying the same sort of radical skepticism that he applies to Christian sources?

Steve Mason explains that Josephus is our only source for most of what he writes (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 16). Keep in mind what I said in a previous post about the nature of what Jon and his source, Robert Eisenman, have said about Josephus. Jon trusts Josephus as a "reliable historian" in general, which implies that he trusts at least some of the accounts Josephus gives for which we have no other source. Yet, if a letter of Paul or the book of Acts is realistic or historically accurate, Jon suggests that a forger wrote the document with verisimilitude and that we shouldn't assume that the author is trustworthy where we can't check him against other sources. Jon needs to explain what sources he's comparing Josephus to and why he thinks that Josephus' verisimilitude on those matters warrants our trust in him on other matters.


Jon writes:

Are people forging documents in the name of Josephus? No.

Contrary to what Jon claims, some people have been interested in attaching Josephus' name to documents he didn't write. The Slavonic Josephus is an example. 4 Maccabees was falsely attributed to Josephus at times (Eusebius, Church History, 3:10). So was the Discourse To The Greeks Concerning Hades.

And why does Jon suggest that for forgeries to be relevant, they must be "in the name of Josephus"? Here's an example of what Jon said about forgeries previously:

"Clearly early Christians were not so ethical as to not put false documentation forward. You can start by looking at all the false gospels. Acts of Pilate. Gospel of Mary. Gospel of Thomas. Infancy Gospel of Thomas." (source)

Are any of the New Testament documents attributed to Pilate? To Mary? To Thomas? No. And when Jon tries to cast doubt on the authorship attribution of a document like the gospel of Matthew by mentioning the existence of forgeries, he doesn't limit himself to forgeries done in the name of Matthew. Rather, he refers to the large number of forgeries in general, including ones that don't bear Matthew's name. Jon isn't limiting himself to forgeries done in the name of a purported New Testament author. He's referring to forgeries in general. Why, then, when discussing Josephus, would he limit the forgeries to those done in the name of Josephus? The writings of Josephus come from a Jewish and Roman context, and they were largely transmitted in a Christian context. There were many Jewish and Roman forgeries in antiquity, and there were many Christian forgeries. The writings of Josephus come from an environment in which there were many forgeries, but Jon is trying to avoid drawing the same implications from that fact that he draws from the parallel situation with New Testament documents.

Moral Standards

Jon writes:

Certain scholars regard Josephus as "an incurable liar" and otherwise question his integrity....

I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Remember, Jon said earlier that he trusts Josephus as a "reliable historian". He and his source, Robert Eisenman, trust Josephus to honestly tell us "everything he can remember within the parameters of his own necessary well-being and personal survival". They "marvel" at the "encyclopedic" information Josephus gives them. Etc. While Jon is still so willing to trust Josephus, he speculates that Christians may have been dishonest even when we don't have evidence to that effect, and he'll dismiss somebody like Tertullian as "vicious" and "wicked" based on much less evidence than we have against Josephus:

"Suppose a church father was dishonest and pushed for acceptance of a book he knew wasn't authentic. How would we ever know? Would we expect a secret book containing admissions of wicked deeds? 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." (source)

The "how would we ever know" reasoning can be applied to both Christian and non-Christian sources, including Josephus.

While we're on the subject of moral standards, I want to address a charge that Jon keeps bringing up against Eusebius:

It's possible that Eusebius himself composed the TF [a passage in Josephus about Jesus]. It doesn't exist in writings prior to him. But we would expect that Eusebius would love to see Josephus assert that Jesus is the Messiah. We would expect that Eusebius is embarrassed at the total lack of mention of Jesus from historians that existed at the time of Jesus. So we might suspect that he could concoct such things.

Jon ought to interact with the contrary evidence that Chris Price has presented. And if Josephus, who was born after Jesus' death and didn't write as a historian until a few decades later, is to be considered a "historian who existed at the time of Jesus", then why not conclude the same about Tacitus, who mentions Jesus and wrote shortly after Josephus? How does Jon know which sources extant at that time did and didn't mention Jesus? Given that the ancient Christians and their opponents agreed about the historicity of Jesus and other facts about Him, I would say that what's "embarrassing" is the lack of ancient sources who agreed with Jon's position that Jesus didn't exist.


Jon writes:

If Josephus is mistaken about the Canon, how does this imply forgery?

Many scholars think that the Old Testament canon wasn't as settled as Josephus portrays it at the time when Josephus is supposed to have written. The canon didn't become so settled until later. Thus, it could be argued that Josephus couldn't have written in such a manner.

Jon takes a similar approach, though with less evidence, toward the book of Romans:

"Romans implies knowledge of the destruction of the temple. Chapter 11 talks about how the Jew's table has become a death trap, and that the Jews en masse had rejected Christianity. Can this really be clear to anybody writing no later than 63 under Nero?" (source)

In that thread linked above, I explain why Jon's view of Romans 11 is unlikely. But if we're to apply Jon's reasoning to Romans, why not apply it to Josephus as well? Such a facile dismissal of Romans can be matched by a facile dismissal of Josephus.

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