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_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 3

Question 1: What are Hinman’s Central Claims about Polycarp?
As with his discussion about the external evidence of Papias,  Hinman begins his discussion of Polycarp with some strong claims:
III. Polycarp:
Knew the Apostle John and studied with him. He speaks of where the apostle sat when they studied together.
The first sentence is lacking a subject.  But the heading just above the sentence implies that the subject of the sentence is Polycarp.  The first sentence uses the pronoun “him”, and this pronoun clearly refers back to the phrase “the Apostle John”.  So the first sentence makes two strong claims:
A.  Polycarp knew the Apostle John.
B.  Polycarp studied with the Apostle John.
The subject of the second sentence of Hinman’s article is “He”,  and once again the heading over the first paragraph (as well as the content of the sentence) implies that the subject of this second sentence is Polycarp.  The phrase “the apostle” in the second sentence is a clear reference back to the fuller phrase “the Apostle John” in the first sentence.  The pronoun “they” in the second sentence presumably refers to the only two people that have been mentioned so far: Polycarp and the Apostle John.  Thus, the second sentence makes a third strong claim:
C. Polycarp speaks of where the Apostle John sat when Polycarp and the Apostle John studied together.
Most of my post here will be concerned with claims (A) and (B).
Claim (C) can be immediately dismissed, because Hinman provides ZERO evidence in support of this strong claim, which seems odd given that he makes the claim in the second sentence of the opening paragraph of his article about Polycarp.
Perhaps Hinman believes that he has provided evidence in support of (C), because in the quotation he provides in that first paragraph, we find the following words:
…I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse…his [i.e. Polycarp’s] general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he [i.e. Polycarp] delivered to the people…  (emphasis added)
The quotation that Hinman provides in his first paragraph is from Eusebius, who is himself quoting from a letter written by Irenaeus to Florinus.  Given this context, it is clear that the pronoun “I” refers to the person who wrote this letter, namely to Irenaeus.  So, this quotation shows us that Irenaeus “speaks of where” Polycarp “sat when they [Irenaeus and Polycarp] studied together.”
It looks suspiciously like Hinman has misread the quotation that contains the key evidence for his claims.  Hinman appears to be confused about the reference of the pronoun “I” and seems to be mixing up the student/teacher relationship between Irenaeus and Polycarp with an alleged student/teacher relationship between Polycarp and John the Apostle.
Interestingly, this sort of misunderstanding and the confusion of people, names, and relationships that Hinman’s confusion illustrates  might well explain the very evidence that he provides in this key quotation.  Many scholars believe that Irenaeus could have misunderstood or misremembered his childhood experiences of Polycarp and became confused and mixed up people, names, and/or relationships, and thus failed to accurately characterize Polycarp (in the above quotation).  Hinman’s confusion illustrates why we should be cautious about accepting Irenaeus’ characterization of Polycarp.
You can find plenty of articles on Polycarp on the internet that agree with Hinman’s other strong claims about Polycarp, claim (A) and claim (B).  For example, one article that came up near the top of a Google search on “Polycarp” is an article on the “Christian History Institute” website:
https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp/
The article “#103: Polycarp’s Martyrdom” asserts the following as if it were an historical fact:
Polycarp was an old man, at least 86…, and probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle, having been a disciple of St. John.
However, it is NOT a fact that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle (i.e. it is not a fact that Polycarp had “known an apostle” named John, that he had face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle).  The problem with this article, and many other similar articles, is that (despite the official-sounding name of the website “Christian History Institute”) this is simply religious propaganda masquerading as objective history.
Scholars who study the issue have significant doubts about whether Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle.  Just as in the second and third centuries,  Christians are still hard at work lying to, and deceiving, uncritical thinkers and true believers about the history of Christianity.  Facts don’t matter; truth doesn’t matter; scholarship and objectivity don’t matter: just say whatever it is that will strengthen the faith of Christian believers, and that will suffice to justify any lies or deceptions or misinformation that one wishes to promote.
Some websites avoid engaging in outright deception by using hedging phrases.  A good example of this is on the Christianity Today History website, which is one of the top sites that came up in my Google search on “Polycarp”:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/polycarp.html
This article supports the claim that Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna, and that Polycarp “was personally discipled by the apostle John”, but it does so with the use of the hedge “Tradition has it that…”:
He [Polycarp] lived during the most formative era of the church, at the end of the age of the original apostles, when the church was making the critical transition to the second generation of believers. Tradition has it that he was personally discipled by the apostle John and that he was appointed as bishop of Smyrna (in modern Izmir in Turkey) by some of the original apostles. (emphasis added)
The use of this hedging phrase gives the author an escape hatch: “I was just describing the content of a tradition, not asserting that the tradition was true.”  But, an obviously important question is begged:  IS THIS TRADITION TRUE OR FALSE?  The author of the article never indicates whether these claims are true or false.  The author never indicates whether these claims are probable or improbable.  The author never discusses any evidence for or against these claims.
So, it appears that the writer of this “historical” article on Polycarp at the Christianity Today History website does not give a damn about whether these claims are true or false.  What kind of historian does not give a damn about the truth of such obviously significant claims?  I  know who does not give a damn about the truth of obviously significant historical claims: a worthless pseudo-historian who cares more about promoting Christian propaganda and pleasing the sheeple in the pews than about what actually happened in the past, that’s who!
It is possible that the author of that article on Polycarp did care about truth and objectivity to a degree, and did express some doubts about these claims in an earlier version of this article (e.g. “but this tradition is probably false, because….” ) but then the editors at Christianity Today objected and demanded that expressions of such doubts be removed from the article before it was published.  But if that were the case, the author is still to blame for caving in to pressure to conform his/her scholarly opinions to the goals of some Christian propagandists.  It would be better for the article on Polycarp not to be published, than to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity and objectivity to make the article more pleasing to Christian propagandists in order that the article would be published.
Joe Hinman, of course, is not to blame for the stupidity, ignorance, bias, and dishonesty of numerous Christian psuedo-historians or of modern Christian propagandists, any more than I am to blame for the stupidity, ignorance, bias, and dishonesty of Atheist pseudo-historians or modern Atheist propagandists.  Hinman and I are only to blame for our own stupidity, ignorance, bias and dishonesty, not for that of others who happen to share a similar point of view about God or Jesus.  I’m simply pointing out that there is a whole lot of bullshit about Polycarp on the internet, and that some of this bullshit is presented as if it was scholarly historical writing, when it is simply religious propaganda: BUYER BEWARE.
 
Question 2: What is the Logic of Hinman’s Argument from Polycarp?
As with Hinman’s argument from Papias, my initial guess at the logic of his argument focuses on the idea of a chain of face-to-face relationships:
(1) Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle.
(2) John the Apostle had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus of Nazareth.
THUS:
(3) Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus of Nazareth.
(4) If Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with someone who had personal, face-to-face conversations with Jesus of Nazareth, then Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
THEREFORE:
(5) Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Premise (1) is highly questionable, as I will argue for most of the rest of this post.
But, as with my attempt to summarize Hinman’s argument about Papias, there is a premise in the above argument that clearly begs the question:  premise (2).   In order to determine that (2) is true, one must first determine that Jesus of Nazareth really existed, i.e.  that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  Thus, to assert that premise (2) is true involves ASSUMIING that the conclusion (5) is true, which begs the question at issue.
Because premise (2) so clearly begs the question, and because Hinman did not clearly and explicitly lay out this argument, I hesitate to attribute this obviously bad argument to Hinman.  Perhaps he had some other line of reasoning in mind,  some other bit of logic that connects the basic factual premise (1) to the conclusion (5) about Jesus.   The problem, therefore, with Hinman’s argument from Polycarp, is that his argument is incomplete.  There is a logical gap between his factual premise (1) and the implied conclusion (5).
I can provide a generic “warrant” premise to fill this logical gap, but Hinman needs to provide some line of reason or argument in support of the generic “warrant” premise:
(1) Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle.
(W) IF Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, THEN it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
THEREFORE:
(5A) It is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
I will focus my remaining objections on the factual premise (1),  but I also have serious doubts about the warrant premise (W).  Hinman has not provided any reason or argument to believe that (W) is true or correct, and the most obvious way to support (W) begs the question.  It is not clear to me that there is any good reason to accept (W).  Apart from a convincing reason to accept (W),  Hinman’s argument fails even if the basic factual premise (1) was proven to be true.
 
Question 3: Was Polycarp a Student of John the Apostle?
Hinman quotes from Eusebius, who quotes from the contents of a letter from Irenaeus to Florinas:
For, while I [Irenaeus] was yet a boy, I saw thee [Florinus] in Lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing thyself in the royal court, and endeavouring to gain his approbation. For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through, God’s mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God’s grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind. (AnteNicene Fathers, Volume 1, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeusemphasis added)
Note that Irenaeus does not here speak of “John the Apostle”.  However, he does imply that Polycarp knew a person named “John” who had “seen the Lord”.  But many Christians claimed to have “seen the Lord” long after Jesus had been crucified.  So, this “John” could have been just a Christian believer who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (perhaps in a vision, like Paul “the Apostle”).
The additional comments about Polycarp learning about the miracles and sayings of Jesus from “those who had seen the Lord” does, however, indicate that Irenaeus is talking about literally seeing a flesh-and-blood Jesus prior to the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus.  In that case, “John” could be the “John the Apostle”, but it is also possible that this “John” was some other follower of Jesus, outside of the inner circle of “the twelve” disciples of Jesus (perhaps the “beloved disciple” mentioned in the Fourth gospel).
Since “John the Apostle” was a central figure in the early church,  let’s grant the assumption that IF the above words are an accurate representation of the words of Irenaeus, then it is probable that Irenaeus intended to assert that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle, and that this was intended to mean or imply that Polycarp had personal, face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle.
Granting this assumption, however, does not mean that it is probable that Polycarp did in fact have face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, because Irenaeus might well have been mistaken (or possibly dishonest) about this matter.
Instead of turning to Christianity Today’s propaganda on Polycarp, let’s turn to a more scholarly and objective source: The Anchor Bible Dictionary (hereafter: ABD)one of the best Bible reference works in the English language.
In his argument based on Papias, Hinman quoted from an ABD article by William Schoedel, a scholar who specializes in the study of early Christianity.  In the article quoted by Hinman, Schoedel asserted that Eusebius was probably correct about the meaning of the preface of the book by Papias, namely that Papias was NOT an “eyewitness of the holy apostles”, and thus that Papias did not have face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle.
Hinman does not quote from Schoedel’s article relating to Polycarp, but if he had, he would have seen that Schoedel also supports my skeptical view about the claim that Polycarp had face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle:
In spite of all this [evidence like the letter from Irenaeus to Florinus], a link between Polycarp and John [the Apostle] is not assured.  Irenaeus was young when he heard Polycarp and may well have taken references to John the elder (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-7) as references to John the apostle.  Polycarp himself certainly makes no appeal to having known any of the disciples of the Lord, and he does not claim to have been appointed by one of them over the Church in Smyrna.  He does not even lay claim to the title of bishop….Yet even Ignatius makes no use of the idea of apostolic succession in this connection.  When he writes against Docetism on Polycarp’s behalf (Ign. Smyrn. 1-9), he never appeals to the special authority of John [the Apostle].  A link between Polycarp and John, then, seems about as unlikely as a link between Papias and John.  In any event, Irenaeus evidently remembered very little of what Polycarp may have said concerning his mentor John.  For it is significant that he presents the story of the encounter between the apostle and Cerinthus–a high point of his account of the bishop of Smyrna [i.e. Polycarp]–as derived from others. (ABD, “Polycarp (Epistle Of)” by William Schoedel, emphasis added)
Schoedel is a serious scholar who cares about the truth and who does not sugar-coat his findings to please Christian propagandists or the sheeple in the pews.  Schoedel is very much aware of the passages attributed to Irenaeus about Polycarp’s alleged relationship with the apostles, and with the apostle John in particular, but his considered and well-informed judgement is that it is UNLIKELY that Polycarp had personal, face-to-face contact with John the Apostle.
If you read the letters of Ignatius, you will see that he was obsessed with the importance of the role and authority of bishops in Christian churches.  Ignatius repeats over and over how Christians must respect and obey and follow the bishop of their local church. But when Ignatius writes to the church in Smyrna, he says nothing about their bishop (allegedly Polycarp) having been appointed by Apostles, or having personally known and conversed with various Apostles, or having been a student of John the Apostle.  Any one of those points would have helped Ignatius to convince the Christians at Smyrna to respect, obey, and follow Polycarp, but there is no mention of any direct relationship between Polycarp and any of the Apostles.  Similarly, Ignatius makes no mention of any such relationship with any of the Apostles in his letter addressed to Polycarp (which was also intended to be read by Christians who belonged to the Church in Smyrna).
There is only one document that exists that is believed to have been written by Polycarp: The Letter of Polycarp to Philippians.  In that letter, Polycarp makes no mention of having had been appointed bishop of Smyrna by some of the Apostles, there is no mention of his having personally known and conversed with various apostles, and he does not mention having been a disciple of John the Apostle.  Any one of these points would have helped Polycarp to persuade the believers in Philippi to take his moral guidance and his theological teachings seriously.
Although mentioning that Polycarp had been appointed by Apostles, had personally known and conversed with some of the Apostles, or had been a student who had face-to-face conversations with John the Apostle, would have clearly provided support and authority to Polycarp and his words, neither Ignatius nor Polycarp mention any such relationship between Polycarp and the Apostles.
This casts doubt on Irenaeus’ claims that Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle, and that Polycarp had face-to-face conversations with various other Apostles, and “how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance.”  In the one letter we have from Polycarp, where speaking about such relationships and conversations with John the Apostle and other Apostles would have clearly helped him to persuade his audience to take his guidance and teachings seriously, Polycarp says nothing about any such relationships and conversations.
 
Question 4: Was John the Apostle a Teacher of Polycarp?
This is basically the same question as the previous question: “Was Polycarp a student of John the Apostle?”  The difference is that Question 4 is focused primarily on John the Apostle rather than on Polycarp.   William Schoedel is an expert on Early Christianity, especially on Papias, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  But other scholars have expertise on John the Apostle, so we can flip the question around and see what scholars who focus on John the Apostle have to say about the alleged relationship between Polycarp and John the Apostle.
The Encyclopædia Britannica has an article called “Saint John the Apostle“.  The article was written by Henry Chadwick, who was “Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity, University of Cambridge; Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1987–93. Author of The Early Church and others.”  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this scholar:
Henry Chadwick, … (23 June 1920 – 17 June 2008) was a British academic and Church of England priest. A former Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – and as such, head of Christ Church, Oxford – he also served as Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, becoming the first person in four centuries to have headed a college at both universities.
A leading historian of the early church, Chadwick was appointed Regius Professor at both the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. (emphasis added)
Here is an important conclusion that Henry Chadwick asserts in his article about John the Apostle:
John’s subsequent history is obscure and passes into the uncertain mists of legend. (emphasis added)
According to Chadwick, at a certain point in time, historical data on the life and activities of John the Apostle become “obscure” and any further events in the life of John the Apostle beyond that point in time pass “into the uncertain mists of legend.”  In other words, up to a certain point in time, there is sufficient historical data to use as the basis for probable claims about the activities of John the Apostle, and after that point in time, there is NOT sufficient historical data to use as the basis for probable claims about the activities of John the Apostle.
But what IS that point in time, when, according to Chadwick, the life and activities of John the Apostle pass “into the uncertain mists of legend”?  The word “subsequent” in the above sentence, refers to an event described in the previous paragraph of the article:
John’s authoritative position in the church after the Resurrection is shown by his visit with Peter to Samaria to lay hands on the new converts there.  It is to Peter, James (not the brother of John but “the brother of Jesus”), and John [the Apostle] that Paul successfully submitted his Gospel for recognition. What position John held in the controversy concerning the admission of the Gentiles to the church is not known; the evidence is insufficient for a theory that the Johannine school was anti-Pauline—i.e., opposed to granting Gentiles membership in the church. (emphasis added)
This event when a decision was made by the leadership of the Church in Jerusalem to grant Gentiles membership in the church is known as the “Apostolic Council” or the “Jerusalem Council” (see Acts 15:4-29).  This event is usually dated to 49 CE.  Thus, Chadwick’s Historical Principle (hereafter: CHP) about the history of John the Apostle can be re-stated as follows:
(CHP) Claims about any activities of the Apostle John that allegedly occurred after 49 CE cannot be determined to be probable based on the availavble historical evidence.
But, according to Hinman,  Polycarp was born about 69 CE.  So, if Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle, that means that the alleged face-to-face conversations between Polycarp and John the Apostle would have occurred in the 80s or 90s, when Polycarp was a teenager or a young man and John the Apostle was a very old man.  This alleged activity of John the Apostle is well beyond the year 49 CE, and thus this alleged activity of John the Apostle has, according to Chadwick, passed “into the uncertain mists of legend”.  In other words, the claim that John the Apostle engaged in teaching Polycarp is a claim that cannot be determined to be probable based on the available historical evidence.
Chadwick is not the only scholar who accepts (CHP).  John Meier is a leading Jesus scholar, and he has carefully investigated the history of Jesus’ disciples.  In Volume III of Meier’s multi-volume work about the historical Jesus (A Marginal Jew), Meier discusses the various people and groups with which the historical Jesus allegedly interacted.  One chapter is on “The Disciples”; another chapter is on “The Existence and Nature of the Twelve”, and another chapter is on “The Individual Members of the Twelve” (John the Apostle was one of the members of the Twelve).
Here is the skeptical conclusion that Meier reaches about our knowledge of the Apostle John:
In fact, all we can say of John the son of Zebedee after Easter is that he remained in Jerusalem in the company of the Twelve in the early days of the church (Acts 1:13),  was active with Peter in Jerusalem as well as in Samaria (Acts 3:1,3-4,11; 4:13,19; 8:14,17) and that, along with James (the brother of Jesus) and Peter he was considered a leader (“pillar”) of the Jerusalem community as late as the “Jerusalem Council” held ca. A.D. 49 (Gal. 2:9).  After that, we must admit total ignorance of John’s life and fate.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. III, p.219-220, emphasis added)
Henry Chadwick and John Meier both agree with (CHP).  Both are highly-respected N.T. scholars and historians, and both have carefully studied the historical data concerning the life and activities of John the Apostle.
Because Hinman’s claim (A), and his claim (B),  and premise (1) of his argument imply claims about alleged activities of John the Apostle which occured (if they did occur) long after 49 CE,  Chadwick and Meier would clearly reject these claims by Hinman as not capable of being shown to be probable based on the available historical evidence that we have about John the Apostle.
There is another problem that puts the final nail in the coffin of claims (A), (B), and premise (1).  In all likelihood, John the Apostle would have died before Polycarp became old enough to become a disciple of John the Apostle.
Hinman suggests that Polycarp was born about 69 CE.  We don’t know when John the Apostle was born, but John was probably in his twenties when he was a disciple of Jesus,  so if John was in his mid-twenties when Jesus was crucified (around 30 CE), then when Polycarp turned 16, the year would be 85 CE, and John the Apostle would have been about 80 years old.  A scenario in which Polycarp became a student of John the Aposlte in the 80s is not impossible, but it is very unlikely, given that people usually did not live very long back in the first century.
The skeptical historian Richard Carrier writes about this issue in his book On the Historicity of Jesus (hereafter: HOJ):
Even in the best of times, no more than one in three people made it to 55 or above.  Yet if anyone started in the apostolate at, for example, age 15 in the year 30, they would be 55 in the year 70.  And it is far more likely the first apostles were in their 20s or 30s, not teenagers, which would make them around 65 or 75 in the year 70.  Teenagers would have incredible difficulty earning the respect or deference of those in their 20s or 30s, much less of elder folk, and therefore would be ineffective as evangelists.  So it is very unlikely the first apostles were of teen age.  Indeed, such a thing would be so remarkable it could not have failed to have been remarked upon in the sources we have.  Yet only one in five teenagers would reach age 65, and barely one in twenty would make it to age 75–and that’s without wars, famines, and persecutions reducing their survival rate.  Factor those in, and we can expect none of the original ‘twelve’…will have made it much beyond the year 75 (to which age the chances of a 25-year old surviving are one in eight in normal conditions).  Combine these prior expectations with the lack of any reliable evidence of anyone so surviving, and the silence of the evidence against it…, and we must conclude that in all probability all the original leaders were by then dead.  (HOJ, p.151-152)
NOTE: Carrier’s statistical remarks above are based on “the data provided in T.G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society…Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992…You can see some calculations for survival odds at http://www.richardcarrierinfo/lifetbl.html…” (footnote #207).
If “only one in five teenagers would reach age 65”, then even if John the Apostle was only 15 years old when Jesus was crucified (about 30 CE), then John would have beeen about 65 years old in the year 80 CE and Polycarp would be only about 11 years old that year.  Although this is a possible scenario (Polycarp becoming a disciple of John the Apostle in the 80s) the probability of this scenario is significantly less than .2  (less than one chance in five), because (a) John the Apostle was probably in his twenties or thirties when Jesus was crucified (not a teenager), and (b) this survival rate does not factor in wars, famines, and persecutions, which did happen in the first century.  At best the probability of John the Apostle teaching Polycarp in the 80s or 90s is .1  or one chance in ten, based on survival rates.
Given that we have insufficient reliable historical evidence to support a claim that John the Apostle lived beyond the year 50 CE, let alone that he survived beyond the year 80 CE, and given that the rate of survival makes it IMPROBABLE that someone who was a teenager or in his twenties in the year 30 CE would have survived beyond the year 80 CE, we must conclude that in all probability John the Apostle died before he had an opportunity to become a teacher of Polycarp.
 
Q5: How Reliable is Irenaeus Concerning John the Apostle?
In the above discussion, we saw that three scholars with expertise on this issue (William Schoedel, Henry Chadwick, and John Meier) clearly do NOT view Irenaeus’s assertion that John the Apostle was the teacher of Polycarp as constituting significant evidence for that claim.  Thus, these well-informed scholars do NOT view Irenaeus as a reliable source of information about John the Apostle.
According to Irenaeus, the following are true claims about John the Apostle:

  1. John the Apostle was the “beloved disciple”. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1, Section 1)
  2. John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John(Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1, Section 1)
  3. John the Apostle wrote the 1st Epistle of John. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 16, Section 5)
  4. John the Apostle wrote the 2nd Epistle of John. (Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 16, Section 3)
  5. John the Apostle wrote Revelation. (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 11)

Each one of these claims is probably false, so it is very probable that at least three of these claims are false.  Thus, it is very probable that Irenaeus asserted at least three false claims about John the Apostle.  But if Irenaeus asserted at least three false claims about John the Apostle, then Irenaeus is an unreliable source of information about John the Apostle.
In the ABD article on John the Apostle, Raymond Collins makes the following relevant comment:
The [ecclesiastical] tradition maintained that John was once banished to the island of Patmos, an island not far off the coast of Asia Minor relatively near Ephesus, but that he later returned to Ephesus where he lived until the time of Trajan.  Since the [ecclesiastical] tradition ascribed all five books in the NT’s Johannine corpus (John, 1-2-3 John, Revelation) to John, the Patmos exile allowed for John’s presumed composition of Revelation (Rev. 1.9).  Historical criticism has, however, convincingly shown that all five works could not have been written by the same author and that it is highly unlikely that John, the son of Zebedee, was the author of any one of them.  (ABD, “JOHN (DISCIPLE)”, see section E. Ecclesiastical Tradition, emphasis added)
Just as scholars have generally set aside “Ecclesiastical Tradition” about the authorship of the Johannine corpus (which includes Irenaeus’s assertions about the authorship of those writings), so we should set aside the assertion of Irenaeus that John the Apostle was the teacher of Polycarp.
Given all of the above reasons in this post to doubt the truth of premise (1) of Hinman’s argument, and given that Irenaeus is an unreliable source of information about John the Apostle, we ought to reject premise (1) on the grounds that it is probably false.

bookmark_borderDebate: The External Evidence for Jesus – Part 1

Joe Hinman’s first argument for the existence of Jesus is based on references to Jesus in the Talmud:

We know Jesus was in the Talmud and that is a fact admitted by Rabbis.  Some references use his name (Yeshua) some use code words such as “such a one” or “Panthera”.  The reason codes are used, is that the commentators censored the works and removed overt reverences [sic] to Jesus (although they missed some) to prevent Christians from inflicting persecution.  We have many of the out takes in various libraries such as Cambridge.

According to Hinman, it is not merely the fact that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud that confirms the existence of Jesus but also the way that those passages speak about Jesus:

The point is he is always taken as a historical figure. 

Since there are allegedly multiple (more than one) references in the Talmud  that “use his name”  and there are allegedly multiple references in the Talmud that “use code words” to refer to Jesus, and since there are allegedly “many” references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored, and also some (a few?) additional references that were NOT censored, Hinman is implying that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud, at that ALL of these several references speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood “historical figure”.
Here is how I would summarize Joe Hinman’s first argument:

1. There are MANY references to Jesus in the Talmud that were censored but that were preserved in some texts.

2. There are A FEW references to Jesus in the Talmud that were not censored.

3. ALL of the references to Jesus in the Talmud speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.

4. IF (1), (2), and (3) are true, THEN the external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.

THEREFORE:

5. The external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.

In order to show that premise (1) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least five or six quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored.  In order to show that premise (2) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least three or four quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that were not censored.
If there were only about a dozen references to Jesus in the Talmud, then in order to show that premise (3) is true, I would expect Hinman to show that in each one of those references, Jesus was spoken of in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.  If, however, there were dozens of references to Jesus in the Talmud, I would not expect Hinman to walk through each and every such reference, but I would expect that he would discuss a significant sample of those references (perhaps a dozen passages) that included a number of passages from various areas of the Talmud, and that included both censored passages and non-censored passages.
Looking over the evidence that Hinman presents about the alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud,  it seems to me that his evidence is too skimpy to adequately support his factual premises (1), (2), and (3).  I also think that premise (4) is false or dubious, at least as it stands.  The principle stated in premise (4) will, I believe, need to be modified to be made plausible, and if it is modified to make it plausible, there may be some additional claims or premises required to make this argument work.  I suspect that repairing premise (4) will reveal a gap in Hinman’s first argument, and that he will have more work to do to fill in that gap.  We shall see.
Before we start to examine specific passages from the Talmud, let’s review some background information about the Talmud from the N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman:

The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings.  Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers.  The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.

The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law, based on oral traditions that had long been in circulation, and written in the early third century, some two hundred years after Jesus would have died.  Most of the Talmud, however, consists of a series of commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishnah, called Gemara.  there are two different sets of these commenaries, one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine, the other produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 66-67)

So there are two main categories of writtings in the Jewish Talmud:

  • the Mishnah (written in the early third century)
  • the Gemara (commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishna)

The Gemara contains two different sets of commentaries:

  • one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine
  • another produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon

In order to provide sufficient evidence to support the factual premises of his argument, Hinman needs to provide about a dozen quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, at least five or six passages that can be shown to have been censored, and at least three or four passages that were not censored, and a total of about twelve passages (if there are that many) that are ALL shown to speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Ideally, all of the quoted passages would be from the Mishna, which is the oldest part of the Talmud that was written down early in the early third century.  But if there are not that many references to Jesus from the Mishna, then as many as possible should be from the Mishna, and the remainder of the quoted passages would be from the commentaries on the Mishna that make up the Gemara.
So how many passages does Joe Hinman quote from the Talmud? How many of those passages are from the Mishna? There are zero quotes from the  Talmud on Hinman’s initial (overview) web page.  If you click the link for his details about references to Jesus in the Talmud, you will go to a lengthy blog post that contains numerous quotations, but only a few quotations in that post are from the Talmud.  More specifically, only FOUR passages are quoted from the Talmud by Hinman.  Hinman fails to provide the dozen or more quotations that are needed to do an adequate job of supporting the factual premises of his argument.
Furthermore, TWO of the quotations from the Talmud consist of a single brief sentence that is (apparently) found in two different sections of the Bablylonian Talmud.  Hinman provides a block quote from Encyclopaedia Hebraica that contains the one-sentence quotation from the Talmud. Here is the relevant portion of that block quote:

From the stories about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, it is evident that he was regarded as a rabbinical student who strayed into evil ways: “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself like Jesus the Nazarene” (Ber. 17b; Sanh. 103a; cf. Dik. Sof. ad loc.).

I’m generously counting this as TWO quotations, since it appears to be a sentence found in TWO different parts of the Babylonian Talmud.
Since the Bablyonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, these two passages were produced hundreds of years after the death of Jesus.  So, there is an OBVIOUS issue of historical relevance here, and an OBVIOUS issue of independence.  First, how do we know that these passages reflect the views of rabbis from the first or second century (as opposed to the third, fourth, or fifth century), in order for the passage to be of historical relevance?
Second, even if it could be shown somehow that these two passages accurately reflect the views of rabbis back in the 2nd century or even near the end of the first century, since the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE, how can we know that this view of those rabbis was not indirectly based on Christian beliefs and traditions that were in turn based on the Gospel of Mark (or one of the other 1st century writings contained in the NT)?
There is no argument provided by Hinman on these obvious issues, so these two passages cannot be taken seriously as historically relevant and independent information that supports the claim that there was a flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.
Thus, if we set aside this initial dubious set of two meager one-sentence passages from the Babylonian Talmud, we are left with ONLY TWO substantial quotations from the Talmud in Hinman’s lengthy blog post.  This is an insubstantial effort in relation to the dozen or more quotations that are needed to provide adequate evidence in support of Hinman’s factual premises.  Hinman has clearly failed to adequately support the three factual premises of his argument.
Before I proceed to examine the two substantial quotations from the Talmud that Hinman provides, let’s consider the views of some well-informed N.T. scholars about references to Jesus in the Talmud.
First, here is what Bart Ehrman has to say about the external evidence from the Talmud:

In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud.  This is not because it is relevant but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant.  (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)

For a long time scholars treated the Talmud as if it presented historically accurate information about Jewish life, law and custom from a much earlier period, all the way back to the first century.  Few critical scholars take that view today. In both its iterations, it is a product of its own time, even though it is based on earlier oral reports.

Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. … (Did Jesus Exist?, p.67)

These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are of very little use for us in our quest.  By the time they were set down, Christianity was a major force in the Roman Empire, and every single Christian telling stories about Jesus naturally assumed that he had really existed as a historical person.  If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources.  (Did Jesus Exist?, p.68)

Ehrman firmly believes that Jesus did exist as a flesh-and-blood historical person, and he argues strenously for this conclusion in his book Did Jesus Exist?.   So, Ehrman is not rejecting the Talmudic evidence on the basis of prejudice against the conclusion that Jesus existed.  He is rejecting this evidence because he believes it is too late and of dubious independence.
Another N.T. scholar who has studied this issue closely is Robert Van Voorst, who wrote a widely-used book on the external historical evidence about Jesus.  Van Voorst also has significant doubts concerning the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud:

All this raises the issue of how the rabbis gained this information about Jesus.  Did they have independent chains of tradition on Jesus, passed from rabbinic master to rabbinic disciples, reaching back into the first century?  The evidence points to a negative answer.  While we cannot be sure, given the paucity and difficulty of the evidence, the third-century rabbis seem to have had no traditions about Jesus that originated in the first century.  Besides the rabbis typical disinterest in history and confused knowledge of the first century, what the rabbis say about Jesus appears to be the product of at least the second century.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.120)

All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. …

The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century.  They proceed instead from creative imagination, which ran free in rabbinic storytelling.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121)

Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.  A chain of tradition from the first century would have set this error straight.  The better explanation of all the rabbinic information on Jesus is that it originated in the second and third centuries.  (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121-122)

Like Ehrman, Van Voorst firmly believes that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, and he argues against the mythicist position (see Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.6-16), so Van Voorst does not reject the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud out of prejudice against the historicity of Jesus.  He has serious doubts about the Talmudic evidence because in his scholarly judgement this evidence is too late and of dubious independence to be of historical significance.
Finally,  John Meier, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century, has carefully reviewed the various alleged Talmudic references to Jesus and found them to be of dubious historical significance:

In my opinion, apart from the texts of Josephus we have already seen, this vast literature [i.e. ancient Jewish literature from around the time when Jesus allegedly existed] contains no independent reference to or information about Jesus of Nazareth.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.93)

…scholars of rabbinic literature do not agree among themselves on whether even a single text from the Mishna, Tosefta, or Talmud really refers to Jesus of Nazareth.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)

In my opinion, Maier’s arguments are especially convincing for the Mishna and other early rabbinic material: no text cited from that period really refers to Jesus. … Jesus of Nazareth is simply absent from the Mishna and other early rabbinic traditions.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)

The Talmud does not record even one talmudic teacher who lived at the time of Jesus or in the first half century of the Christian era as mentioning Jesus by name.  As for the rabbis of the 2nd century A.D., they were reacting to the Christ proclaimed by Christianity, not the historical Jesus.   (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95-96)

I tend to the view of Morris Goldstein, who finds no certain reference to Jesus in this passage [a passage from the Mishna cited by Joseph Klausner], and indeed in the Mishna and the tannaitic midrashim in general. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

…in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth.  Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written.  Hence, apart from Josephus, Jewish literature of the early Christian period offers no independent source for inquiry into the historical Jesus.   (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.98)

So, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century is on my side concerning this issue about alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud.  Joe Hinman has a serious uphill battle to fight here.
========================
This post is now complete (as of Sunday, June 25, 2016, at 6:22 pm, pacific time).
========================
Instead of providing a dozen substantial quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus,  Hinman only provides four quotations from the Talmud.  How many of the four quotations are from the Mishna, the oldest part of the Talmud?  ZERO.  All four of the quotations provided by Hinman are from the Bablylonian Talmud, which was produced in the 5th century.
In his case for the existence of Jesus, N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman limited his review of non-Christian references to Jesus to sources that were written close to the time of Jesus:

I will restrict myself to sources that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died since writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent and reliable witnesses to his life but were undboutedly based simply on what the authors had heard about Jesus, probably from his followers.   (Did Jesus Exist? p.50, emphasis added)

All of the quotations that Hinman provided were written down not 100 years after the time of Jesus, not 200 years after the time of Jesus, not 300 years after the time of Jesus, but about 400 years after when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died.  This is called “scaping the bottom of the barrell”.  It is reasonable to approach such “evidence” with a high degree of skepticism, as the leading Jesus scholar John Meier urges:

Our earliest collection of rabbinic material, the Mishna, comes from the end of the 2d or the beginning of the 3d century A.D.; all other collections are still later.  It would never occur to most Christian commentators to claim that early 3d-century Fathers of the Church had direct historically reliable knowledge of Jesus that was independent of the NT.  Likewise, one must be wary a priori of claims that a 2d- or early 3d-century Jewish document contains such independent traditions.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.94-95)

If we ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Mishna because it was written down 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, then we clearly ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Bablyonian Talmud, which was produced about 400 years after the time of Jesus.
Two of the four quotations provided by Hinman are just a single sentence (the same sentence in two different passages) from the Bablylonian Talmud, and Hinman provides no reasons to believe that those two passages derive from an independent oral tradition that stretches back into the 1st Century.  So, I will ignore those two brief quotes.
Hinman does provide two more substantial quotes, both also from the Babylonian Talmud, and he gives some reasons for viewing these quotes as deriving from ancient oral rabbinic tradition.  Before we take a look at those specific passages, there are some further general considerations that support a skeptical view of references to Jesus in the Talmud.  Here are several such considerations from Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament; hereafter: JONT):

  • “history is not a main concern anywhere in the rabbinic literature.”  (JONT, p.104)
  • “the Talmud rarely mentions historical events from the Second Temple period, at the end of which Jesus appeared. ”  (JONT, p.104)
  • “those few events mentioned are more often than not garbled and unreliable.”  (JONT, p.105)
  • “we have no rabbinic writings from the first or even the second century C.E.”  (JONT, p.105)
  • In the rabbinic writings there is only “scant mention of Jesus by name.”  (JONT, p.106)
  • Censorship of Jewish writings beginning in the Middle Ages led to “text-critical problems” concerning apparent references to Jesus or Christianity (JONT, p. 106)
  • There has been “continued scholarly disagreement…on the proper use of rabbinic materials to understand the New Testament.”  (JONT, p.106)
  • “Scholarly conclusions have varied widely on whether Tannaitic layers of rabbinic literature have any genuine reference to Jesus.  (JONT, p.108)
  • “modern scholars are correct to discount most ‘code’ references to Jesus, especially ‘a certain one’, Balaam, Ben Stada.”  (JONT, p.114)
  • “creative imagination…ran free in rabbinic storytelling.”  (JONT, p.121)
  • “Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.”  (JONT, p.121-122)

I will repeat the basic conclusions arrived at by Van Voorst:

All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. (JONT, p.121)

The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century.  (JONT, p.121)

There are more general reasons for skepticism, but I will just throw in one more key point: “Jesus” was a common name for Jewish males in the Second Temple period, so a reference to “Jesus” might well be reference to a person other than the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
First let’s consider the passage that is allegedly about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus:

It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus.  A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming], “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray.  Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.”  But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.  (b. Sanhedrin 43a)  (JONT, p.114)

The canonical gospels indicate that the Jewish trial of Jesus was rushed and unfair, and that the Jewish council sought false witnesses to make sure there was evidence to justify his condemnation.  This passage asserts the very opposite: that there was a lengthy effort to find witnesses who would support and defend Jesus.  As Van Voorst suggests, this “is a strong indication that we have here an apologetic response to Christian statements about an unjust trial.”  (JONT, p.118)
This passage does not fit with “the facts” Christians believe about the trial and death of Jesus.  There was no lengthy Jewish inquiry into Jesus innocence or guilt.  Jesus was not charged with practicing magic.  Jesus was not stoned to death.   “Hanging” is thought to be a reference to crucifixion, but the passage does not say Jesus was crucified.  In fact, the passage indicates that Jesus was executed by his fellow Jews, but Christians believe that the Romans executed Jesus.
What matches up with the “Jesus” of the Gospels is (1) the name “Jesus”, (2) the execution of this person, (3) the timing of execution close to Passover.  The charges are plausible ones that Jews would apply to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but they don’t match up to the Gospel accounts.
Many Jewish men were named “Jesus” at that time.  Many Jewish men were executed in the century before, during, and after the time when the Jesus of the Gospels is thought to have lived.  According to Van Voorst the conclusion that this passage refers to the Jesus of the Gospels is “almost universally agreed.”  (JONT, p. 118).  It might be correct to conclude that it is PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but given the several disagreements between this account and the Gospels, and given the fact that the name “Jesus” was a common name, and given the fact that executions were common, even execution by crucifixion,  I don’t see how one could conclude that it is HIGHLY PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels.   There is at least a significant chance that this passage refers to a “Jesus” other than the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
The primary problem with this passage, however, is that (assuming it is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels) it clearly appears to be an apologetic response to Christian accusations that Jesus was given a rushed and unfair trial by Jewish leaders.  If that is so, then it is very likely that this accusation was based upon one or more of the accounts of the trials of Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.  In that case, this passage from the Babylonian Talmud would be indirectly based on one or more of the canonical Gospels.  So, given that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels, it is very probable that this passage was indirectly based upon the canonical Gospels.
Bart Ehrman,  Robert Van Voorst, and John Meier do not believe this passage represents an early and independent tradition about Jesus.  We can add to these N.T. scholars, the agreement of the great N.T. scholar Raymond Brown:

According to Brown, it is clear enough that the passage does not give reliable early information about Jesus, but it does indicate that some Jews in the early third century saw their ancestors as responsible for the death of Jesus.  (JONT, p.106)

Like Ehrman, Van Voorst, Meier, and Brown, I think it is improbable that the Babylonian Talmud passage about the trial and “hanging” of Jesus is both early and independent.
Hinman has provided some reasons in support of this passage from the Babylonian Talmud, and I will now review those reasons.

…it is likely that these formulae are accurate [in indicating an early rabbinic tradition] because this helps to explain why the rabbis regarded this Jesus tradition as if it had comparable authority to Mishna.

I don’t see the force of this consideration.  Hinman needs to say a bit more to explain this point.

…an indirect attestation [by Justin Martyr about a Jewish claim that Jesus practiced magic and led Jews astray from their religion] brings the most likely date [of the origin of this tradition] before 150…

The fact that there was an early (i.e. before 150 CE) Jewish claim about Jesus practicing magic and leading Jews astray does not show that a Jewish tradition involving such a claim was also early.  In fact, this does not even make it PROBABLE that such a tradition was also early (i.e. before 150 CE). It merely shows it to be POSSIBLE that the tradition involving this claim was early.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we KNEW this tradition to have originated before 150 CE.  That still does not put the tradition in the clear.   The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE, which is 80 years before 150 CE.   Even if this tradition originated in 100 CE, that would have been three decades after the Gospel of Mark was written.

Kirby: “Since the New Testament gives no account at all of a charge of sorcery at the trial of Jesus…it is difficult to see this account as deriving from the Gospel story.”

Obviously, the charges were not derived DIRECTLY from “the Gospel story”, but it seems fairly clear that the charges were based INDIRECTLY on “the Gospel story.”   The Gospels include many stories about Jesus performing miracles.  An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as practicing magic or sorcery.
The Gospels also include many stories about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher who attracted devoted Jewish followers and sometimes even large crowds of interested Jewish listeners.  An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as a deceptive heretic who promoted religious beliefs and practices that were contrary to the Jewish religion.
Although it is clear that the charge of sorcery and the charge of leading the people of Israel astray did not come directly from the Gospels,  it appears very likely that these charges were an apologetic response of Jewish rabbis to Christian preaching about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher, and about Jesus’ crucifixion, and about a Jewish trial of Jesus, and such preaching was in turn probably based upon one or more of the canonical Gospels.

Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …First, a rabbinic author or their Pharisee predecessors would want the order of the charges to mirror Torah and rabbinic halakha.”

This seems like a fairly weak point.  I see this as relevant, but not as a strong or compelling consideration.

Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …Second, rabbinic traditions and the Pharisaic schools tried to dissuade people from working on Passover Eve, so they would not have invented a tradition which said that they decided to try Jesus on this date.”

The basic point here is reasonable.  I agree that the rabbis and Pharisees probably “would not have invented a tradition” placing the execution of Jesus (by Jews) on Passover Eve.  However, if this tradition was, as it appears to many NT scholars to  have been, an apologetic response to Christian preaching about the trials and crucifixion of Jesus, then it is PARTIALLY an invention of rabbis or Pharisees that is constrained by the content of the preaching of Christians about this subject.
So, the Jewish trial and Jesus’ crucifixion occurring near Passover, even on Passover Eve, may have been part of Christian preaching (derived from one or more of the canonical Gospels), while the charges involved in the Jewish trial are an apologetic response to Christian preaching about Jesus performing miracles and about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher with devoted Jewish followers and crowds of interested Jewish listeners.

Because the Jewish leaders of the first century were in a position to know the circumstances of such an execution, which would have been remembered for taking place on an unusual date, it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.

The Jewish leaders were “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus ONLY IF there was in fact a Jewish trial of Jesus.  But many leading NT scholars believe there was no Jewish trial of Jesus, so there is a significant probability that the Jewish leaders of the first century were NOT “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus.
The week of Passover brought large crowds of Jews to Jerusalem every year, and this made the Roman prefect nervous about Jewish troublemakers and about the potential for a Jewish rebellion.  I doubt that crucifixions were uncommon during the week of Passover.
Perhaps “it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.”  that does NOT mean that this is PROBABLE.  What is plausible is not necessarily what is probable.  Based on the considerations for and against this hypothesis, I believe it is much more PROBABLE that this tradition was partially invented by rabbis in response to Christian preaching about Jesus, which was in turn based upon the information about Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.
========================
Another substantial quote from the Babylonian Talmud that was provided by Hinman is from the tractate Aboda Zara (16b – 17a).  In that passage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is portrayed as telling the story of hearing a saying of “Jesus the Nazarene” from a disciple of Jesus:

I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me:  It is written in your Torah…. Said he to me: Thus was I taught by Jesus the Nazarene, For the hire of a harlot hath he gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return.  They came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth.  … (quoted by Hinman on his web page about Jesus in the Talmud)

Assuming that this is a correct quotation of a good translation of the Talmud, then it does seem likely that this passage is talking about the “Jesus” of the Gospels.  The passage talks about “Jesus the Nazarene” who is a teaches wise sayings to his disciples.  Nazareth was a small town, so there were probably not many people named “Jesus” from that town in the first century, and add to that the characteristic of being a person who teaches wise sayings to his disciples, and that makes it probable, even very probable, that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
But the Babylonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, so we still have issues about the reliability and independence of this tradition.
John Meier says about this passage:

I am skeptical about a tradition in which Eliezer ben Hyrcanus hears about Jesus’ teaching that the wages of a prostitute should be used to buy the high priest a latrine…  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Joseph Klausner argued for the reliability of this passage, but Meier is not impressed by his argument:

To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today.    (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Meier also notes that another leading N.T. scholar, Joachim Jeremias,  is also skeptical about this reference to Jesus:

Joachim Jeremias weights the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly, in my view.  The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous.  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)

Rabbi Eliezer was the brother-in-law the Patriarch Gamaliel II, and became a member of the Sanhedrin while Gamaliel II was the leader of the Sanhedrin.   The above story supposedly relates to when Rabbi Eliezer was kicked out of the Sanhedrin for being a heretic.  Gamaliel II became the leader of the Sanhedrin about ten years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so he became leader of the Sanhedrin about 80 CE.  Rabbi Eliezer joined the Sanhedrin sometime after 80 CE, and was removed from the Sanhedrin sometime after that.   So, the above remarks, if made by Rabbi Eliezer after he was removed from the Sanhedrin, were probably made around 85 CE, at the earliest.  If these remarks were made no earlier than 85 CE, then Rabbi Eliezer might have met the “disciple” of Jesus about 80 CE.   If so, then this “disciple” of Jesus is unlikely to have actually learned anything directly from Jesus.
So, what we can reasonably conclude from this passage, even assuming it to accurately report the words of Rabbi Eliezer near the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), is that a learned Jewish Rabbi believed near the end of the first century that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.   But by 85 CE, the Gospel of Mark had been available for more than a decade, so Christians would already believe and preach that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to his Jewish disciples and followers.   Thus, Eliezer’s belief that Jesus was a  flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to Jewish disciples and followers may have been based on more than just this one incident where he met a man who called himself a “disciple” who had learned a saying from Jesus.
So, some leading NT scholars who have reviewed the relevant evidence, have concluded that this passage is NOT early and reliable.  Furthermore, even if the passage accurately describes the words of Rabbi Eliezer on the occasion of his being condemned as a heretic, it would still be doubtful that he spoke to a person who was directly taught by the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
=========================
Hinman quotes Origin’s quoting from the book True Doctrine, an attack on Christianity by Celsus.  Here is the key part of the quote:

Let us imagine what a Jew…might say to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumourss [sic] about the true and insavoury [sic] circumstances of your origins?…Is it not the case that when her [your mother’s] deceit was uncovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a roman soldier called Panthera she was driven away by her husband…

Hinman comments that some of “the material of the Talmud” about Jesus “was around in at least the second century”, and that since Jewish sources would not have been readily available to Celsus, “it seems reasonable to assume that this information had been floating around for some time…”.   Hinman concludes that this material “at least went back to the early second, late first century.”
Celsus composed the book True Doctrine about 175 CE.  According to Celsus, he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity from a contemporary Jewish person.  If Celsus was being TRUTHFUL, then all this passage shows is that there was a Jewish polemic response to the story of the virgin birth in the canonical Gospels (Matthew and Luke) that was in use about a century AFTER the composition of the canonical Gospels.  On this scenario, there is no implication that the sources of the Talmud about Jesus go back to the “early second, late first century”, unless we count the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as being among those sources!
On the other hand, if Celsus was being UNTRUTHFUL about how he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity, then he might well have invented this objection on his own, based on his knowledge of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
He had read widely in Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and had a passing knowledge of other Christian books… (JONT, p.67)
Celsius might have just used an imaginary Jewish contemporary as cover for his own derogatory comments about Jesus.
According to Hinman,
Celsus was obviously reading the Talmudic sources…
It is not obvious to me that Celsus obtained this particular view of Jesus from “the Talmudic sources”, even if the Talmud contains a similar view about Jesus being the illegitimate son of a roman soldier called Panthera.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Celsus obtained this Jewish view from “the Talmudic sources”.  True Doctrine was written about 175 CE.  So, if Celsus found this view in “the Talmudic sources” in 170 CE, that would be adequate to explain his writing about them in 175 CE.   If “the Talmudic sources” had this view of Jesus’ birth in 170 CE,  that is completely to be expected even if Jesus never existed, for the canonical Gospels were composed about a century BEFORE  170 CE, allowing several decades for Christians to preach about the virgin birth and for Jewish rabbis to develop this Jewish polemic in response to that preaching.
Even if “the Talmudic sources” about Jesus being an illegitimate child had been in existence for 50 years before Celsus learned about this Jewish viewpoint,  that would still place the origin of the tradition in 120 CE,  which is three to four decades AFTER the composition of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  In that scenario, it would be very probable that this Jewish tradition about Jesus has no historical basis, but is merely an apologetic response of Jewish leaders to Christian preaching and storytelling, which was in turn based upon “information” from the canonical Gospels.

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.