Monday, December 24, 2012

Jesus in History

When I was earning my history degree, we were always told to find more sources. Primary sources were the best, but secondary sources were good as well. We just needed to have lots of sources to back up the points we were trying to make.

Each Christmas (I'm not going to say "holiday season," this post is about Jesus) most people will look to the same sources to read about Jesus. Matthew and Luke both hold accounts of the birth of Jesus. I like reading Matthew and Luke, but I felt like looking for an outside reference to Jesus this year.

(The following information is paraphrased from Wikipedia:
Josephus was a Jewish historian from the first century AD. He was born to very affluent parents and led the forces of Galilee against the Romans until he was defeated by Vespasian. When he claimed that certain Messianic prophecies also referenced Vespasian becoming Emperor, Vespasian decided to keep him along as a hostage and interpreter. Josephus basically switched sides and became very prominent with the Romans, specifically with Vespasian's son, Titus, after Vespasian assumed control of the Roman empire.

Josephus makes two statements about Jesus in Antiquities. One of them seems heavily modified by Christians but it also has been proven to be partially authentic.

Antiquities 18:3:3
"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, has condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

Antiquities 20:9:1
"so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."

Both passages are an interesting read. The first passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Let me start by saying that Christian scribes obviously changed a lot of the first passage. Part of it is authentic and seems characteristic of other writings of Josephus and part of it was modified because Christians were probably appalled when copying the manuscript and seeing Josephus express doubt as to who Jesus was. I'm sure lots of people would like to say how wonderful it is that Josephus was a proud Christian but the evidence seems fairly overwhelming that he tried to stay away from making a definitive statement one way or the other and that it was later changed. I would go into the reasons why parts seem uncharacteristic of his writings and what parts are actually authentic, but I found someone who has already exhaustively covered the topic here: and I would recommend you go read that. I did and I learned a lot.

Probably the most controversial sentence in the first passage (and likely the most blatant modification) is the statement, "He was [the] Christ." Jerome, writing from an earlier manuscript of Josephus quotes it as saying something like "He was said to be the Christ" or "He was believed to be the Christ." It also doesn't make a lot of sense that he would boldly proclaim him the Christ in one passage and then name him "Jesus, who was called Christ" in the second passage.

Josephus was close enough to the events of Christianity to be considered a primary source and is especially interesting since many of our other sources were followers of Jesus (and they would, therefore, be heavily biased in favor of his doctrine). Just to make things easier, here is the first passage modified with everything of questionable origin removed:

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

I even like his account when we remove everything of uncertain authorship. From a primary source who was likely not a firm believer (if he believed at all), we see that Jesus was thought to be a wise man, a performer of wonderful works, and a teacher of truth. He drew a following to him that had not abated by the first century and it has still not vanished even to the present.

I've placed my own beliefs aside as much as I can for the purposes of this post but I would like to add one personal note from the Bible. My favorite evidence that Jesus was a "wise man" comes to us from Mark 12:13-17:

"Then they sent some Pharisees and some Herodians to him, intending to trap him in what he said. They came and told him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere. You don’t favor any individual, because you pay no attention to external appearance. Rather, you teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or shouldn’t we?”
Seeing through their hypocrisy, Jesus replied to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
So they brought one. Then he asked them, “Whose face and name are on this?”
They told him, “Caesar’s.”
So Jesus told them, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him." (International Standard Version, 2012)

Even when posed with a question that would condemn him either way if answered, Jesus found an answer that no man could condemn him for. The above encounter will always be a reason that Jesus will be a role model to so many. When faced with hypocrites ready to catch him in his words, Jesus had a ready answer.

I hope everyone has a happy whatever you celebrate. I'm glad for the chance to see my family. I've worked a lot of hours recently and I feel good when I get to take a break and give and receive gifts to people that I care about. I like seeing my brother and his family, sisters, parents, friends, and extended family members. I also really want the computer parts that I'm pretty sure I'll be opening tomorrow and new blu-ray movies are always awesome. Hopefully the happiness of the season carries everyone through to the new year... and then you can go back to being stressed and annoyed. Happy holidays to all my blog readers. :)

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