bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 4

QUESTION 1: What is Hinman’s Central Claim about Josephus?
There are two famous passages in a book by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that appear to refer to Jesus.  Joe Hinman wants to focus on the “brother passage”, the passage in Antiquities that mentions a person named “James” and refers to him as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”. (Antiquities 20,200).
After a brief introductory paragraph, Hinman quotes the “brother passage”
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.  (emphasis is from Hinman’s web article)
After quoting the “brother passage” Hinman quotes a comment from the Josephus scholar Louis Feldman about the passage:
That indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage–the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged–about James, who is termed…the brother of “the aforementioned Christ”… (from the Introduction in Feldman, Louis H. & Hata, Gohey “Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity”, page 56)
From this quoting of Feldman,  I infer that the key claim in Hinman’s argument from Josephus is this:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been altered by a copyist or editor).
This is Hinman’s central claim about Josephus.  He chose to focus on this passage about Jesus rather than the  more interesting Testimonium Flavianum (hereafter: TF) passage , because the “brother passage does not have the kind of doubt, or attack, or charges of forgery” that is associated with the TF passage.  There is less controversy about the authenticity of the “brother passage”, so Hinman bases his argument from Josephus on the authenticity of this passage.
QUESTION 2: What is the Logic of Hinman’s Argument from Josephus?
As with Hinman’s argument from Polycarp, my initial objection is that his argument is incomplete.  Hinman fails to explain how it is that his key premise (1)  supports a conclusion about the existence of Jesus.  However, it seems to me that the missing premises and reasoning are more obvious and less obviously mistaken than in the case of his argument from Polycarp.  I think the following unstated intermediate conclusion is very likely to be a part of Hinman’s argument/reasoning:
(2) There existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
From this intermediate conclusion, a further conclusion logically follows:
(3) Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Although it would beg the question to simply assert the truth of premise (2),  Hinman is not guitly of that fallacy here, because premise (1) appears to provide evidence in support of premise (2), and asserting the truth of (1) does NOT beg the question at issue.
However, it is important to note that although (2) entails (3),  (1) does NOT entail (2), which is why this argument does not beg the question at issue.  Premise (1) only provides evidence for premise (2); it does not provide a deductive proof of (2).  So, it would be clearer and more accurate to modify and re-state premise (2) and the conclusion (3) in terms of probability:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor).
THUS:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
THEREFORE:
(3A) It is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Even with the addition of the intermediate conclusion (2A), this argument is still incomplete.  But the missing premise is a “warrant” premise (call it the “Josephus Warrant” or JW) that asserts that the truth of (1) proves or supports the truth of (2A):
(JW) IF the passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor), THEN it is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. 
It is the combination of premise (1) and (JW) that provides support for (2A).  Hinman did not argue for premise (JW), but if I am correct that his reasoning involves the intermediate conclusion (2A), then he needs for (JW) to be true or correct in order for his argument to be successful.
Perhaps Hinman believes that (JW) is obviously true and thus it is not in need of  supporting evidence or reasoning. Since (JW) is not obviously false and not obviously problematic,  I’m comfortable with attributing this argument to Hinman even though he did not clearly and explicitly state this argument in his post on Josephus.  I believe that this is a reasonable “educated guess” at the argument Hinman had in mind concerning the external evidence of Josephus.
It is also the case that Hinman provides very little evidence in support of his primary factual premise (1).  The link to more in-depth discussion of the Josephus evidence points to an article that makes no attempt to support premise (1):
It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators-mostly Jesus Mythologists-who doubt the authenticity of the second reference [to Jesus]. (from the first sentence of the section called “The Testimonium Flavianum” in the web article “Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?” by Christopher Price)
QUESTION 3:  Is the “brother passage” in Antiquities Authentic?
A. Christian Copyists Altered their Own Sacred Scriptures
We know that Christian copyists made many alterations to the Greek text of the New Testament documents, both intentionally and unintentionally, even though those documents were considered to be sacred scripture by many Christians.  Bart Ehrman provides several examples of alterations by Christian copyists to NT texts in his book Misquoting Jesus, and he makes the following relevant comment in the concluding chapter:
…whatever else we may say about the Christian scribes–whether of the early centuries or of the Middle Ages–we have to admit that in addition to copying scripture, they were changing scripture.  Sometimes they didn’t mean to–they were simply tired, or inattentive, or, on occasion, inept. At other times, though, they did mean to make changes, as when they wanted the text to emphasize precisely what they themselves believed, for example about the nature of Christ, or about the role of women in the church, or about the wicked character of their Jewish opponents.
This conviction that scribes had changed scripture became an increasing certitude for me as I studied the text more and more. (Misquoting Jesus, p.210)
For examples supporting this view, see Chapter 2 (“The Copyists of Early Christian Writings”) and Chapter 6 (“Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text”) of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
Surely, if Christian editors and copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, they would be likely to alter the texts of a Jewish historian as well.
B. Christians Clearly Altered (or Created) the Only Other Passage about Jesus in Antiquities 
Robert Van Voorst describes the views of modern scholars about the TF passage:
While a few scholars still reject it fully and even fewer accept it fully, most now prefer two middle positions.  The first middle position reconstructs an authentic Josephan passage neutral towards Jesus, and the second reconstructs an authentic passage negative toward Jesus.  (JONT, p.93)
The viewpoints in order of descending acceptance by modern scholars:

  1. Middle Positions (most scholars believe that Christians made a few alterations to the TF passage).
  2. Full Rejection (a few scholars believe that Christians created the whole passage, or that it is simply not possible to determine what parts of the passage were originally written by Josephus).
  3. Full Acceptance (a very few scholars believe the entire passage is authentic, that all of the passage was written by Josephus).

All but a very few scholars have concluded that the TF passage was either partially or completely the creation of Christians.  There are only two passages that refer to Jesus in Antiquities, the other passage being the “brother passage”.  So, it is reasonable to conclude that Christians altered (or created) the TF passage, the only other passage about Jesus besides the “brother passage”.  This background information suggests that it is likely that Christian copyists also altered the “brother passage”.
C.  The Oldest Greek Manuscripts of Antiquities are from Long After Christians Altered the Text
According to John Meier, “we have only three Greek manuscripts of Book 18 [which contains the Testimonium Flavianum passage] of The Antiquities, the earliest of which dates from the 11th century.”  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.62).  But Eusebius quoted from the altered version of the TF early in the fourth century, so the Christian alterations were made in the second or third centuries:
The first witness to this passage as it stands now is from Eusebius in about 323 (Ecclesiastical History 1.11). (JONT, p.92)
This means that textual criticism is of no help in determining the authenticity of the TF:
Because the few manuscipts of Josephus come from the eleventh century,  long after Christian interpolations  would have been made, textual criticism cannot help to solve this issue. ..We are left to examine the context, style, and content of this passage to judge its authenticity. (JONT, p.88-89).
Examiniation of context, style, and content of the “brother passage”, however, cannot provide sufficient reason to be fully confident that no alterations were made to this passage by Christian copyists.  So, if small changes by copyists could make a big difference to the significance of this passage as evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, then premise (1) of Hinman’s argument would be cast into serious doubt.
D.  Small Changes to the “brother passage” by Christian Copyists Would Make a Big Difference
If the entire “brother passage” was invented by a Christian copyist, then obviously the passage would be a complete fake and provide no evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth whatsoever.
However, if the passage was NOT completely fake, but has been modified slightly by the addition of a phrase or two, then the evidence provided by the passage could be seriously diminished or even eliminated.

  • If the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was added by a Christian copyist, then the passage provides no significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, even if the rest of the passage was authentic.
  • If the original passage mentioned “the brother of the so-called Christ” and a Christian copyist added the name “Jesus” to that phrase, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” was a very common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus” but said nothing about Jesus being “the so-called Christ”,  then this passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” and “Jesus” were both common Jewish names at that time.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” but a Christian copyist added the phrase “whose name was James” to this passage, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “Jesus” was a common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.

The “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth only if the phrase “the brother of Jesus” AND the phrase  “the so-called Christ” AND the phrase “whose name was James” are all authentic, only if ALL THREE of these phrases were in the original text of Antiquities written by Josephus.
E. The Difficulty of Determining the Authenticity & Significance of the “brother passage” given the Above Facts
Given that Christian copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, and given that Christian copyists have clearly altered (or possibly created) the TF passage in Antiquities, it is probable that Christian copyists also altered (or possibly created) the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus: the “brother passage”.
Furthermore, the most crucial evidence for determining whether any alterations were made to the “brother passage” is unavailable: the only Greek manuscript copies that we have were made many centuries after the TF passage was altered by Christian copyists (and presumably many centuries after the “brother passage” was altered, if it had been altered).  Finally, since the evidence provided by the “brother passage” would be seriously diminished if just one of the three key phrases had been added by a Christian copyist, this passage can be viewed as providing significant evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth ONLY IF we can be very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian coyist.
Given that the general background evidence indicates that it is probable that a Christian copyist altered the “brother passage”, and given that the crucially important evidence needed to determine whether this passage is completely authentic is unavailable (no early Greek manuscript copies of The Antiquities are available), and given that the addition of a single word (“Jesus”) or one phrase (“the brother of Jesus” or “the so-called Christ” or “whose name is James”) by a Christian copyist would seriously diminish the strength of the evidence that this passage provides for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth,  I see no rational way to be very confident that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.  Considerations about context, style, and content of the “brother passage” will simply not be able to provide a rational basis for being very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian copyist.
F. IF the TF Passage Is Completely Inauthentic, THEN the “brother passage” is Probably NOT Completely Authentic
The majority view among modern scholars who study Josephus is that the TF passage is partially authentic, but not completely authentic.  The majority view is that Christian copyists made a few significant additions or changes to that passage.  Given this view, I have argued that it is probable that the “brother passage” was also altered by Christian copyists.  So, that is one way in which a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage impacts our judgement about the authenticity of the “brother passage”.
But there are other possibilities concerning the TF passage.  Some scholars argue that the TF passage is completely inauthentic, that all or nearly all of the passage was created by Christian editors or copyists.  If these scholars are correct, then that would make it very probable that the “brother passage” was not completely authentic.  As Hinman points out,  the authenticity of the “brother passage” is evidence for the authenticity of the TF passage:
Josephus refers to James by referencing Jesus as though he’s mentioned Jesus or the reader should know who he is.  Jewish scholar Paul Winters states: “if…Josephus referred to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ,’ without much ado, we have to assume that in an earlier passage he had already told his readers about Jesus himself.”
In other words, if Josephus refers to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” without providing an explanation of who this “Jesus” person was, then this implies (or makes it very probable) that Josephus had referred to “Jesus” in the earlier TF passage.  But in that case, if the TF passage was completely inauthentic, as some scholar argue, then this would be significant evidence that the “brother passage” was NOT completely authentic.  This would be evidence that the reference to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was added AFTER the creation and insertion of the TF passage, so that the writer composing the “brother passage” could refer back to the TF passage.  But if the writer composing the “brother passage” is referring back to a completely inauthentic TF passage, that means that the writer of the “brother passage” was not Josephus, but was instead, a  copyist (whether Christian or non-Christian) who was preserving a text that had previously been altered by a Christian copyist to include the TF passage.  The complete inauthenticity of the TF passage would thus imply (or make very probable) that the “brother passage” is not completely authentic.
G. If the Reference to “Christ” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
A similar issue arises even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic.  One of the two “Middle Positions” taken by modern scholars who study Josephus is that the original TF passage was neutral and Christian copyists simply inserted a few phrases. The leading Jesus scholar John Meier argues for a neutral re-construction of the TF passage, in which the sentence “He was the Christ.” is removed (along with some other phrases and sentences) on the assumption that this sentence was added by a Christian copyist.
But if this neutral reconstruction of the TF passage is correct, then the part of the “brother passage” that refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ” is suspect, because the previous mention of Jesus in the TF did not use the term “Christ” to describe or identify the “Jesus” in that passage.  Since “Jesus” was a common Jewish name in that time, the absence of the term “Christ” in the TF passage would make it unclear that the “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was the same person as the “Jesus” in the TF passage.  Thus, it seems unlikely that Josephus would write about “Jesus the so-called Christ” and expect his non-Christian Gentile readers to know that he was referring back to the same “Jesus” that he had mentioned in the TF passage.
There is a good chance that the neutral view of the TF passage is correct.  But if that view is correct, then the TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” nor as “the so-called Christ”.   But in that case, it seems likely that the phrase “Jesus the so-called Christ” in the “brother passage” was not written by Josephus, but was added later by a Christian copyist AFTER the TF passage was altered to refer to Jesus as “the Christ” (or after it was altered to refer to Jesus as “the so-called Christ”).
Once again, a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage has implications for judging the authenticity of the “brother passage”.  Even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic, there is a good chance that the original TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and this would in turn cast significant doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic.
H. If the Reference to “Jesus” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
Given that the vast majority of modern scholars who study Josephus have concluded either that the TF passage is partially inauthentic or that it is completely inauthentic,  that  either some parts of the TF passage were created by a Christian copyist or that the entire  passage was created by a Christian copyist, there is a good chance that the name “Jesus” was inserted into the TF passage by a Christian copyist.  But if that was the case, then that would cast doubt on they hypothesis that the “brother passage” reference to “Jesus” was authentic.
In the “brother passage” Josephus refers to James as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, but provides no other expalnation to his non-Christian gentile readers about this “Jesus” person.  This makes no sense unless Josephus had previousl mentioned “Jesus” and previously provided more information about this “Jesus”.   If the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then it is highly unlikely that Josephus would assume that his non-Christian gentile readers would understand the “Jesus” mentioned in the “brother passage” to be the same person that he had previously mentioned in the TF passage.  Therefore, if the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then this would cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic, and it would specifically cast doubt on the view that the original “brother passage” contained an explicit reference to “Jesus”.
QUESTION 4:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” INDEPENDENT of the NT writings?
A.  Authenticity is NOT Enough
There is a serious problem with the logic of Hinman’s argument, or at least with the argument that I attributed to Hinman (in response to Question 2 above).  Although establishing the authenticity of the “brother passage” is necessary in order to support his conclusion, it is NOT sufficient.  There are other important questions that must be considered.
One important question is about the source of the information that Jospehus presents in the “brother passage”.  If this information came either directly or indirectly from the Gospels or from other New Testament writings (e.g. the letters of Paul), then the “brother passage” does not provide evidence for the existence of Jesus that is INDEPENDENT from the New Testament.  If the “brother passage” does not provide evidence that is independent from the NT, then it does not count as external evidence for the existence of Jesus, but is merely an echo of the evidence from the NT.
B. Antiquities was Written AFTER the Gospels and the Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Josephus wrote The Antiquities in either 93 or 94 CE.  Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians about  50 to 55 CE.  The gospel of Mark was probably written about 70 CE, and the gospel of Matthew was probably written about 85 CE.  Thus Josephus wrote the “brother passage” about 40 years after Paul wrote to the Galations, about 25 years after the gospel of Mark was written, and about a decade after the gospel of Matthew was written.  Each of these NT documents states or implies that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James, and that some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah or “the Christ”:
55 CE:
but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:19, New Revised Standard Version)
70 CE:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  (Mark 6:3, New Revised Standard Version)

85 CE:

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  (Matthew 13:55, New Revised Standard Version)

Josephus could have learned the idea that there was a man named Jesus who was the brother of a man named James, and who was believed by some Jews to be the Messiah or “the Christ” from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew.  He could have learned this “information” years before composing the “brother passage”.   If Josephus learned this “information” from reading one of these Christian writings, then the information would have come directly from the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Any Christian who read (or heard someone else read) the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew would have reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the brother of a man named James and that some Jews believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or “the Christ”, based on these authoratative writings that many Christians viewed as inspired scripture. Josephus could have learned these ideas from one or more Christian believers who had read one or more of these two gospels or Paul’s letter to the Galations.  If Josephus learned this “information” from such Christian believers, then these ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Furthermore, a non-Christian friend or acquaintance of Josephus could have learned these ideas from either reading one of the canonical gospels or from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or from conversations with Christian believers who had read Mark or Matthew or the letter to the Galatians.  If this non-Christian person then passed this “information” on to Josephus, then the ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
C.  The Information in the “brother passage” could have Come from More than One Source
Just as it is important to recognize that the TF passage could be partially authentic and partially inauthentic, so it is also important to recognize that the “brother passage” could be partially independent of the NT and partially dependent on the NT.  The death of James the brother of Jesus is not described in the NT, so clearly the basic story in the “brother passage” did not come from the NT.  However, it is possible that the idea that James was “the brother of Jesus” and that Jesus was “called the Christ” could have come from the NT, could be dependent on someone having read one or more writings from the NT.
Josephus could have had a story about a man “whose name was James” from a non-Christian source who obtained this information independent of the NT.  But if Josephus wanted more information about this person named “James”, he could have obtained this additional information from a Christian source (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians), or from a non-Christian acquaintance who obtained information from reading Mark, Matthew, or Galatians or from conversations with a Christian (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians).  In this case, even if the entire phrase “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” was written by Josephus, this part of the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence of the existence of Jesus, even though the passage as a whole does provide some historical information that is independent of the NT.
D.  There is a Significant Chance that the “brother passage” is Partially DEPENDENT on the New Testament 
Because there is a significant chance that both references to “Jesus” in Antiquities are either directly or indirectly dependent on the writings of the NT, the NT scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that these references to Jesus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus:
My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter  for the question I am pursuing here.  Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this.  And here is why.  Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium.  That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him.  And where would Josephus have derived this information?  He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.  There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of some kind (there weren’t any).  But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier.  So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist, p.65)
Ehrman believes that the references to “Jesus” by Josephus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus even though it is Ehrman’s purpose in the book quoted above to refute Jesus Mythicists and to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  Ehrman does not reject these passages from Josephus in order to support the belief that Jesus is a myth; he rejects them because there is a good chance that the information about Jesus in those passages is DEPENDENT on one or more of the writings of the NT.
Robert Van Voorst is an NT scholar who has also carefully studied the external evidence for Jesus, including the two passages by Josephus that refer to Jesus.  Van Voorst is much more positive about this evidence that Ehrman is,  but Van Voorst is honest enough to admit that his positive evaluation of the external evidence from Josephus rests on a somewhat shaky assumption, the assumption that the information Josephus had about Jesus was obtained INDEPENDENTLY of the writings of the NT:
These items rule out Josephus’s obtaining this wording [in the TF passage], and probably the information behind it, from the New Testament or other early Christian writings known to us.  (JONT, p.102-103, emphasis added)
The evidence only “probably” rules out the hypothesis that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus in these passages from the New Testament or other early Christian writings.  Van Voorst does not assert that the evidence “certainly” rules this out, nor that it “almost certainly” rules this out, nor that it “very probably” rules this out.   Thus, Van Voorst tacitly admits that there is a significant chance that Josephus obtained his information about Jesus from the New Testament.
Further comments by Van Voorst reinforce his admission of the shakiness of the assumption that the TF passage and the “brother passage” contain independent historical information about Jesus:
Did this information [about Jesus] come indirectly from Christians or others to Josephus? We can be less sure about this [i.e. we can be less sure about ruling this out than ruling out that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus by reading some of the NT writings himself]althought the totality of the evidence points away from it.  (JONT, p.103, emphasis added)
A more plausible hypothesis is that Josephus gained his knowledge of Christianity when he lived in Palestine.  He supplemented it in Rome, as the words “to this day” may imply, where there was a significant Christian presence.  Whether Josephus aquired his data by direct encounter with Christians, indirect information from others about their movement, or some combination of both, we cannot tell.  John Meier is correct to conclude that none of these potential sources is verifiable, yet the evidence points to the last option as the more commendable.  (JONT, p.102, emphasis added).
If “we cannot tell” whether Josephus aquired his data by “direct encounter with Christians” or not, then this implies that there is a significant chance that Josephus aquired some of his data by “direct encounter with Christians”, some of whom were very likely to have read or heard either the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Galatians.
If “the more commendable” view is that Josephus obtained his data from “some combination of both,” meaning that Josephus obtained part of his data “by direct encounter with Christians” as well as obtaining some of his data “from others [non-Christians] about their movement”, then it is PROBABLE that Josephus obtained at least some of his “information” about Jesus by “direct encounter with Christians”, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is a significant chance that ALL of the information about Jesus in the TF passage and the “brother passage” was obtained by “direct encounter with Christians” in which case these passages do NOT provide any INDEPENDENT historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
QUESTION 5:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” probably true?
If I understand Hinman’s argument correctly, he is trying to provide evidence for an intermediate conclusion about a man named “James”:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man, does not prove that there was such a man.  One can also challenge the assumption that the fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man is sufficient evidence to show that it is PROBABLE that such a man existed.  Thus, the considerations of authenticity and independence are not sufficient by themselves to show that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus.
The following diagram presents a somewhat overly simple analysis of how to approach the evaluation of the “brother passage”, but it illustrates that authenticity and independence are important considerations but are not sufficient for a careful and complete evaluation (click on the image below to get a clearer view of the chart):
Evaluation of BP
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
(This chart is a bit overly simple, because it probably makes sense to ask whether the passage is partially authentic, especially in relation to the three key phrases, and whether the passage is partially independent, and to do so would require a more complex analysis and diagram. )
Even if we assume that 80% of the historical claims that Josephus makes in Antiquities are true claims, this does NOT allow us to confidently conclude of any particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities that the claim is PROBABLY true.  The problem is that the general reliability of Josephus as an historian and a maker of historical claims can be over-ridden by specific information relevant to a particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities.   So, at best, we can only conclude that a given claim by Josephus in Antiquities is probably true OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL.  But then we need to think about in the case of the three key phrases/claims, whether other things are in fact equal.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the information that a man named “James” was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was included in the original passage written by Josephus, that this information was obtained completely independently of the NT, and yet that the information is simply mistaken.  Perhaps James was called “the Lord’s brother” by fellow Christian believers (as in Galations 1:19) and this expression was not intended literally, and it simply meant that James was a devout follower of a divine being named “Jesus”.  A non-Christian who heard others refer to James this way might well have mistakenly taken this expression to mean that James was the literal brother of a flesh-and-blood person named “Jesus”, and then passed this on to Josephus as a fact about James. In that case, the “brother passage” would be completely authentic, and it would be completely independent of the NT, and yet it would assert a false claim about this person named “James”, since it wrongly implies that James was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, when he was not.
Clearly, the combination of authenticity and independence is not sufficient by itself to establish that it is PROBABLE that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Further argumentation is needed to show that Josephus was a reliable historian and that there are no good reasons to doubt the reliability or truth of the three specific phrases/claims that we are concerned with in the “brother passage”:  that the man in question was the literal brother of Jesus,  that his brother Jesus was the so-called Christ, and that the man in question was named James.
CONCLUSION
Given that Christian copyists clearly altered their own sacred scriptures in the same time frame that they were copying the works of Josephus, and given that Christian copyists clearly altered the TF passage, the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus, it is reasonable to infer that Christian copyists probably also altered the “brother passage”, other things being equal.   Given that the oldest Greek manuscripts that we have of Antiquities were made many centuries after Christian copyists altered the TF passage, and presumably many centuries after Christian copyists altered the “brother passage”, if they did alter that passage too, we don’t have any good way to verify that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that if one or two key words or phrases in that passage were added by Christian copyists, that would seriously diminish or even eliminate the force of this evidence for the existence of Jesus, I don’t see any way that one can have sufficient reason to be confident that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that there is a good chance that some of the information in the “brother passage” came either directly or indirectly from the NT,  I don’t see how one can be confident that the “brother passage” is completely independent of the writings of the NT.   Finally, even assuming that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and completely independent of the NT, it is not entirely clear  that we ought to conclude that premise (2A) is true.  Further argument is required before that conclusion is rationally justified.

bookmark_borderHalf of a Debate about the Existence of Jesus

Joe Hinman has requested that I debate him about the existence of Jesus, and I have agreed to do so.
We will not, however, attempt to answer the BIG question: Did Jesus exist?  But we will be arguing about a significant issue closely related to that question:
Does the external evidence warrant the belief that Jesus existed?
The phrase “external evidence” means evidence other than evidence from the Bible.  So, we are excluding the internal evidence from the four canonical Gospels, from Acts, from the letters of Paul, and from the other writings in the New Testament.  Thus, this is only “half” of a debate, since we are only going to be discussing “half” of the evidence.
Joe Hinman will argue for the claim that the external evidence warrants the belief that Jesus existed.
I will raise objections and point out weaknesses in Hinman’s evidence and arguments for that claim, in an effort to show that the external evidence presented by Hinman does NOT warrant the belief that Jesus existed.  I will NOT be arguing that “Jesus is just a myth”.   So, if Hinman “loses” the debate, that does not mean that I will have shown that Jesus is a myth.  In fact, if Hinman “loses” the debate, that does not mean that there is no good evidence for the existence of Jesus,  because even if there is no solid external evidence for Jesus, there could still be solid internal evidence (i.e from the Bible) for Jesus.
Similarly, if I “lose” the debate, that does not mean that Hinman will have proved that Jesus existed.  Hinman has quite reasonably set out to achieve the more modest goal of showing that the external evidence is sufficient to warrant the belief that Jesus existed.
I take it that by “warrant” Hinman means something less than possessing the sort of justification that is required for KNOWLEDGE (something less than what Plantinga means by “warrant”).   I take it that Hinman is simply trying to show that the external evidence is sufficient to make belief in the existence of Jesus reasonable.  In terms of probability, I think that means showing that the existence of Jesus is somewhat probable, at least more probable than not.  Knowledge of the existence of Jesus would require more than this; it would require showing that it is (at least) highly probable that Jesus existed.  Hinman is not trying to show that we can KNOW that Jesus existed based on just external evidence; he will try to show that the external evidence is sufficient to make it somewhat probable, at least more probable than not, that Jesus existed.
If Hinman is successful, and “wins” this debate, that would not be a great blow to me, because I’m currently inclined to believe that is it more probable than not that Jesus existed.  Hinman is making a fairly weak claim here, making a claim that is much more reasonable than the extremely strong claims made by Paul Maier (see my post criticizing Maier’s apologetic essay on the existence of Jesus).
However, I am unimpressed by the external evidence for Jesus, so I think I have a decent chance of “winning” this debate, or at least of making it difficult for Hinman to make his case.  In the debate with Hinman, I plan to take the role of a defense attorney who argues that the prosecution has failed to meet its burden of proof.  My focus will be on pointing out problems and weaknesses in Joe Hinman’s case.
But I will now make a very brief positive argument for my position, in order to indicate that there is some reasonable hope that I could “win” this debate, in spite of the fact that Joe Hinman only needs to establish a fairly weak claim in order for me to “lose”.
One of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st Century is on my side, at least to a large degree.  The conservative Jesus scholar N.T. Wright makes the following comments about John Meier’s multi-volume work A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus:
Massive study with roots in modern…methods of criticism, and results that are substantially conservative.  Will be widely used and discussed for years to come.  (The Original Jesus, p.155)
The leading N.T. scholar Pheme Perkins praised the first volume of Meier’s books on the historical Jesus:
This book is a wonderful example of judicious historical scholarship.  It should be required reading for all historians, pastors and theology students.  (from the back cover of A Marginal Jew, Volume 1)
Paul Achtemeier, a widely respected N.T. scholar and the general editor of the Harper Bible Dictionary, also gave a very positive evaluation of Meier’s work on the historical Jesus:
By his painstaking research, his balanced presentation, and his sane conclusions, Meier has set a new standard against which all future studies of this kind will have to be measured. (from the back cover of A Marginal Jew, Volume 1)
John Meier devotes four chapters of Volume 1 of A Marginal Jew (chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5) to a careful, scholarly review of the various historical sources that are thought to be relevant to the investigation of the historical Jesus (pages 41-166).  Here is one of his most important general conclusions based on this careful review of potential historical sources about Jesus:
For all practical purposes, then, our early, independent sources for the historical Jesus boil down to the Four Gospels, a few scattered data elsewhere in the NT, and Josephus. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, p. 140)
Out of all of the various external sources that Meier carefully reviewed, he believes that there is only ONE EXTERNAL SOURCE that is early and independent: the Jewish historian Josephus.
If Meier is correct that all of the other external sources are late or dependent (either directly or indirectly) upon Christian writings, or problematic in some other way, then the only potentially significant external evidence for Jesus are the two famous passages in the writings of Josephus that mention Jesus.  If this evidence from Josephus turns out to be weak or dubious, then it appears to Meier and to me that the external evidence for Jesus is NOT sufficient to make the existence of Jesus more probable than not.
Although Meier is impressed by the external evidence from Josephus, other NT scholars are not so impressed.  A respected NT scholar named Robert Van Voorst wrote a widely-used book about the external evidence for Jesus.  In that book, he arrives at a conclusion that is similar to that of John Meier, but less confident about the Josephus evidence:
In sum, Josephus has given us in two passages something unique among all ancient non-Christian witnesses to Jesus: a carefully neutral, highly accurate, and perhaps independent witness to Jesus… (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.103-104)
Note that Robert Van Voorst does NOT claim that the Josephus references to Jesus are certainly an independent witness to Jesus, nor does he conclude that these references are almost certainly an independent witness to Jesus,  nor does he assert that they are very probably an independent witness to Jesus,  nor does he say that they are probably an independent witness to Jesus.
Robert Van Voorst is no mythicist.  He clearly supports the view that Jesus existed.  But after a careful review of non-Christian external evidence for Jesus, he concludes that the two passages from Josephus are the very best evidence for Jesus in that category, and yet he can only bring himself to claim that these passages are “perhaps independent witness to Jesus”.   I am not impressed by this rather weak conclusion.
Bart Ehrman is a bona fide NT scholar who has written extensively about the historical Jesus, early Christianity, and the Gospels.  Ehrman wrote a book devoted to the question “Did Jesus Exist?” and one of his conclusions was that the famous references to Jesus by Josephus are of little or no historical significance:
…even though the mythicists and their opponents like to fight long and hard over the Testimonium of Josephus, in fact it is only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed.  (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)
Ehrman views the Josephus references to Jesus as being “only marginally relevant” because he doubts that these passages in Josephus are independent from Christian stories and writings about Jesus:
Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this.  And here is why.  Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium.  That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him.  And where would Josephus have derived this information?  He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.  There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records (there weren’t any).  But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier.  (Did Jesus Exist? p.65)
Ehrman has left the Christian faith and no longer believes that Jesus was God incarnate, but he is not a mythicist.  Ehrman strongly supports and defends the view that Jesus really existed.  So, Ehrman’s low opinion of the Josephus evidence is not motivated by a desire to cast doubt on the existence of Jesus.  A more positive view of the Josephus passages would have helped Ehrman make his case for the existence of Jesus.
So at least two respected N.T. scholars doubt that the references to Jesus by Josephus represent independent information about Jesus.
According to one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st Century, the only external evidence for Jesus that is potentially significant is the evidence from the Jewish historian Josephus.  But according to at least two respected NT scholars, who have studied this issue, the two references to Jesus by Josephus are of very doubtful independence from Christian stories and writings, including (indirectly) the canonical Gospels.  Doubts about the independence of the Josephus passages render this evidence weak and insignificant, not to mention issues with the text of the Josephus passages.
If we combine the doubts about the text of the Josephus passages (it is very clear that at least one of the passages was tampered with by Christian copyists) with the (more significant) doubts about the independence of these passages, the result is that the Josephus references to Jesus provide evidence that is too weak to justify the claim that “Jesus exists” is more probable than not.
Assuming that the Jospehus references to Jesus are the very best external evidence for Jesus, and that other external sources for the existence of Jesus are either too late or are dependent on Christian stories or writings, or are problematic for other reasons, we can reasonably conclude that the external evidence for Jesus is NOT sufficient to warrant belief in the existence of Jesus, that it is NOT sufficient to make the claim that “Jesus exists” more probable than not.