Thursday, March 05, 2009

Why Trust Josephus?

In an article on New Testament authorship that I wrote last week, I noted:

"Often, critics are inconsistent in their skepticism. The same critic who claims that the textual evidence for the New Testament documents is insufficient, or rejects an authorship attribution as reasonable as Mark's authorship of the second gospel, for example, will accept the text and authorship attributions of many extra-Biblical documents that have comparable or worse evidence, like the Annals of Tacitus. Many critical arguments against Christianity, such as the use of Josephus and Tacitus to argue against the census account of Luke 2, depend on an acceptance of extra-Biblical sources that's far less critical of those sources than the Biblical sources."

Jon Curry has written the following, in response to my comments above and some of my other comments:

Notice what's missing here. An actual description of the critical arguments and a refutation of them....

Let's suppose that the authorship attribution to Josephus is wrong. Do we base our confidence in Josephus on the fact that we know his name? No. Even if the author was really a guy named Steve, this author has demonstrated reliability over and over again. He shows the markers of being a reliable historian and he has been proved to be accurate often (not always). That's why he's preferred to Luke....

But why don't we take a look at the evidence, rather than taking the assertions of various people....

But does this reasoning apply to Jason, or only to Roman Catholics? Scholars don't nit pick Tacitus and Josephus like they do the NT. If they did, and they were consistent, they'd reject the authorship attributions. OK. So what does this mean? Is the solution to therefore uncritically accept everything then? If the evidence does not justify the authenticity of accepting Tacitus, the solution is not to therefore assume all the claimed authorship attributions uncritically. The solution is to reject the authorship attribution to Tacitus. The arguments against the NT authorship attributions stand on their own. They are not dependent on other beliefs regarding Tacitus.

Elsewhere in the article, Jon ignores the content of a quote I provided from the New Testament scholar Craig Keener, and he dismisses Keener with these comments:

Jason offered a quote from the conservative evangelical Christian Craig Keener...

We expect such assertions from Craig Keener. Who cares?

Should we approach Jon and his sources in the same manner? Should we ignore the content of Jon's citations of, say, Richard Carrier by commenting that "Jon offered a quote from the liberal atheist Richard Carrier. We expect such assertions from Richard Carrier. Who cares?" In a discussion I had with Jon a few years ago, he cited an article by Richard Carrier about the relationship between Luke and Josephus. Should I have dismissed Carrier and his data and sources in the same manner in which Jon dismisses Keener and the data and sources Keener cites?

Jon writes, "Do we base our confidence in Josephus on the fact that we know his name? No." Actually, the identity of an author does influence our evaluation of the credibility of his claims. Josephus claims to have been an eyewitness to some of what he reports, for example. The authorship of documents like those of Josephus and Tacitus is relevant to our confidence in those documents.

And how does Jon reach the conclusion that "this author has demonstrated reliability over and over again"? Does he compare the writings attributed to Josephus to other sources? But that would only push the question back one step. Why trust those other sources?

Where is Jon getting his information on the reliability of Josephus? Is he trusting a source like Richard Carrier (a source he cited on matters related to Josephus in a discussion with me a few years ago)? But Jon tells us "why don't we take a look at the evidence, rather than taking the assertions of various people". He doesn't want me citing men like Craig Keener and Kent Clarke in the manner in which I've cited them. Surely, then, we shouldn't accept such citations of somebody like Richard Carrier either. Jon should tell us where he got his information about Josephus. Instead of Googling the subject now, or looking something up on Wikipedia, for example, he ought to tell us what sources he was relying on for his conclusions about Josephus at the time when he wrote the comments quoted above. Was Jon "looking at the evidence, rather than taking the assertions of various people"?

I agree with Jon that we should be consistent in judging the New Testament and Tacitus, for example. I don't think the evidence for Tacitus is insufficient. I'm therefore being consistent by accepting both the Tacitus authorship attribution and the attributions of New Testament documents for which I think I have sufficient evidence as well.

But is Jon being consistent? He's often referred to ancient sources by name in his posts (Josephus, Irenaeus, etc.). Is he going to claim that he didn't intend to affirm the authorship attributions of those documents? How does Jon justify his trust in documents like those attributed to Josephus, whatever he thinks of their authorship attributions, in a manner consistent with what he's argued about Christian documents?

For instance, see the examples of Jon's questioning of the New Testament textual record here. Jon has suggested that a manuscript from the second or third century, for example, isn't enough, even if it's corroborated by other manuscripts. There may have been an alteration of the text prior to those oldest manuscripts. And the ancient Christians may have knowingly or unknowingly agreed with one another, even across large spectrums of geography, theology, etc., in accepting the same or similar textual corruptions. Yet, as Bart Ehrman noted in his recent debate with James White, we have better textual evidence for the New Testament documents than we have for the other documents of antiquity. If the New Testament text is to be doubted as much as Jon suggests, then why trust the text of Josephus and other sources Josephus would be compared to in order to conclude that he's reliable?

What about authorship attribution? If Josephus is to be trusted partly because of passages where he agrees with, say, a Roman historian who's considered reliable, and that Roman historian is considered reliable because of his identity (his access to government records, etc.), then why should we believe that the document was actually written by that person? Jon doesn't accept the authorship attributions of any of the New Testament documents. As the thread here illustrates, his justifications offered for doubting the New Testament authorship attributions are a slender reed.

Surely there are many passages in Josephus, Tacitus, etc. that could similarly be questioned. We could object that we wouldn't write the way Josephus is supposed to have written a particular passage if we were in his position. Tacitus' positive comments about the Roman empire make us suspect that a document attributed to him may have been forged by the Roman government or somebody else interested in presenting a particular view of Roman history. The Roman government is known to have sometimes destroyed documents. Maybe they did the same with documents that would have changed our view of Roman history, including on issues like who wrote the works attributed to Tacitus and other Roman figures. Jon often mentions the existence of Christian forgeries in antiquity, and he uses such forgeries to cast doubt on the credibility of the ancient Christians in general, even if there's no evidence to specifically tie an individual Christian of antiquity with the practice of forgery. But many forgeries existed among the ancient Jews and Romans as well. Should we keep pointing to those forgeries and drawing implications from them about ancient Jews and ancient Romans in general, as Jon has done with Christianity? Etc. If Jon thinks that such reasoning is enough to put every New Testament document (and every patristic document he wants to dismiss) in doubt, then he should be consistent in applying that reasoning. It doesn't seem that he is, though.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think you're doing a great job too, Jason.