Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Don't Forget About Josephus

There are some contexts in which Christians should be giving Josephus more attention than they typically do. Because Josephus was a non-Christian, he had no dog in some of the fights among the Christians of his day or later generations. And since he was writing so early (the late first century), his comments are more valuable accordingly.

As Steve Mason (a non-Christian scholar who specializes in the study of Josephus) noted, "He [Josephus] also confirms, in case there was any doubt, that James was distinguished by being Jesus' actual brother - a significant point in view of later Christian thinking about Mary's status as 'perpetual virgin' and speculation as to whether Jesus' 'brothers and sisters' were really only spiritual relatives or more distant physical relations." (Josephus And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], 248) For more about how Josephus supports Mary's giving birth to other children after Jesus, and does so in multiple ways, see Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001).

On page 214 of his book cited above, Mason quotes Josephus' comments on how the baptism of John the Baptist was non-justificatory and non-regenerative: "They must not employ it [baptism] to gain pardon for whatever sins they had committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already cleansed by right behaviour." (Antiquities Of The Jews, 18:5:2) Given the close relationship between John and Jesus and John's baptism and Christian baptism (as illustrated by John 3:26-30 and Peter's comments in 1 Peter 3:21 that are similar to those of Josephus, for example), it makes more sense to think that there would be more rather than less continuity between the two baptisms. The New Testament evidence suggests that John's baptism was non-justificatory and non-regenerative, and Josephus gives us further reason to reach that conclusion.


  1. This is kinda related, do you have a recommendation on books that discuss in general how history is done? On here we've always seen some interesting examples of special rules made up that seem to only be used for the Bible (if multiple sources don't describe the same event identically, they made it up/contradiction!), but I've watched a review of Dillahunty/Jonathan Mclatchie's debate (We need to have the actual spear used to pierce Jesus! DNA evidence!), so I'm even more interested on getting a good grasp on how history in general is done. I read some comments on a Jesus myther video where someone casually dismissed Josephus, so I think this is a relevant comment :)

    1. There's disagreement about historiography among scholars and others involved in discussing these issues. The same is true in science, where there's disagreement about the scientific method and how to apply it, and in other fields.

      For example, Steve Mason, who's discussed in the original post in this thread, refers to disagreements among Josephan scholars about how to determine what's historical and what isn't in the writings of Josephus (e.g., Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], 103-37). I've sometimes cited Anthony Le Donne's The Historiographical Jesus (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009). He refers to "anywhere from seven to twenty-five different authenticity criteria" applied in historical Jesus research (87). In his The Resurrection Of Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2010), Mike Licona discusses historiography at length, especially as it relates to Jesus' resurrection. You could read the relevant portions of his book for an overview of some of the issues involved and citations of a lot of sources. He occasionally comments on how popular particular views are in modern scholarship.

      These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the difficulty of providing what you're asking for. I don't know a lot about Mason's historiography, though I've read some of his books and articles. I'd expect to agree more with Licona's historiography than Mason's, but I don't agree with Licona on every issue. I don't know enough about some of the criteria Le Donne refers to to render much of a judgment of them. I don't know enough about the disputes within the field to cite a source that discusses every issue involved and does it in a way I agree with. But you could get a lot of useful information by going to a source like Licona's book cited above or William Lane Craig's discussions of C. Behan McCullagh's material (though McCullagh disagrees with Craig on some of the issues involved).

      I appeal to historical standards I find convincing (and I typically expect at least some of my audience to find them convincing), such as earliness and multiple attestation. But there are some of these issues I have little or no familiarity with or am agnostic about. All of us make historical judgments many times in our everyday lives. You can find some common ground among at least the large majority of people you interact with concerning how to go about making those judgments. But there will also be disagreements. That's true among scholars who discuss or even specialize in historiography as well, not just among laymen.

    2. Hi Jason, thanks, they're on my to-buy list now. I wasn't meaning something equivalent to the rules in, say, baseball where everyone who plays the game agrees beforehand to a fixed set up rules and abides by them. I wasn't thinking everyone goes in lockstep when it comes to the study of history in general. I've just seen many instances of late where, to quote the title of a rather good book, when reason goes on holiday. People suddenly can't figure out that one word can have the same meaning as another word based on context if it involves the Bible (linguists and internet atheists claiming that Isaiah definitely didn't mean a virgin because there was another word he could have used that more explicitly meant virgin), or figuring out which meaning of a word with more than one meaning is meant (ex: someone claiming no one knows if James was Jesus' brother because it was also used to refer to fellow believers).