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Why I believe the Testimonium Flavianum is not a forgery or interpolation

The Testimonium Flavianum is a famous- or infamous- passage from Josephus that on its face appears to corroborate the existence of Jesus in a non-Christian ancient source.   The TF was accepted as genuine for centuries until the Rationalists got a hold of it.  The assertion that it is a complete forgery is common and if hyper-skeptics could get away with it, that’s where they’d leave it.  Unfortunately, this is difficult, and the consensus is that it is an interpolation, and as such provides, minimally, evidence of Jesus’ existence.

If that is the consensus it may be a surprise to hear someone (me) suggesting that it is neither forgery nor interpolation, but rather genuine and authentic.  As I am a real free thinker, those who know me I don’t think are surprised at all.  🙂

You may wish to consult the Wikipedia page on the subject which I think does a good job of covering all the relevant arguments, with the exception of there being no attempt to connect the dots for an argument in favor of its authenticity.  This post should not be considered an attempt to speak exhaustively on the subject or an attempt to give a ‘scholarly’ look at it.

My guiding principle here is ‘what does the evidence say?’  When we turn to the textual evidence, we find that our oldest Greek copies date from c. 1,000.  Our oldest quotation of it comes from Eusebius, who quotes it more or less the same as we find it 700 years later.    A separate, c. 1100 AD Syriac translation of the quotation turns out to be identical to Jerome’s Latin translation of the Greek TF.  As Jerome did his translations  c. 380 AD we gain, possibly, another independent attestation to the quote as reflected in our oldest Greek copies.

So precisely where is the textual evidence to suggest a forgery or interpolation?  Is there a fifth century of Antiquities floating around that does not have the TF?  Has a Syriac version appeared that doesn’t reflect the TF?  No.  The truth is that all of the arguments against the authenticity of the TF up until the discovery of an Arabic version have been based on specious ruminations about the integrity of Eusebius or time-traveling telepathic explorations of Josephus’s brain so as to know what Josephus would or would not have really said.

The very best argument requires reading Origen’s mind:  he apparently had read Antiquities but did not reference the TF, or if he did, appears to reject the implication that the quotation has that Jesus was the Christ.  There is no way to know what Origen was thinking except when he says what he was thinking.  If we are free to imagine reasons why he really ought to have cited the reference we are free to imagine reasons why he chose not to.

When you get into mind reading, anyone can say anything.  When one is constrained to evidence, it appears that the evidence supports the prima facie acceptance of the quotation.

So what about the Arabic version which seems to dampen the overtly pro-Christian allusions in the text?  Here at least we have something textual in hand, so that’s an improvement.  The Arabic version also takes the full forgery hypothesis out at the knees.  If the Muslims had a form of the TF in their editions, it is hard to imagine that there wasn’t originally SOME reference to Jesus.

But this really brings me to the heart of the matter.  Yes, its true that even an interpolation is enough to corroborate Jesus’ mere existence, even if it can’t be trusted to give us details.  So why bother protesting?

Well, it just amazes me that skeptical and liberal scholars are happy psycho-analyzing Christian writers of the past, imputing to them all sorts of horrid desires:  suppression of other ideas, deliberately tampering with texts, fabricating evidence whole cloth, etc, but the Muslims!  The Muslims would never have the same kind of fanatical motivations to tamper a text so as to better support their case!

I have often found it fascinating that skeptics cannot allow Christians even the tiniest shred of a factual basis for their views.  It isn’t enough that they reject the Gospel or find it ridiculous, or unfair, or whatever, they’ve got to go after everything within reach:  the selection of the NT books as canonical, the content of those books, the authorship and dating of those books, etc, etc, all the way back even to whether or not Jesus existed.  I mean, it almost comes across as though there is something in Christianity that is so threatening to them that they can’t even grant that its founder even existed.  They are perfectly happy to grant that Paul existed, because with Paul they can weave the dream that it was Paul who invented Christianity.  You see how it works.  I don’t have to spell it out for you.

Much, though of course not all, of the argumentation against the legitimacy of the TF seems to be born of this kind of hyper-scrutinizing that can’t allow any fragment of fact to remain standing if it supports Christianity.  This kind of scrutiny is rarely, if ever, applied to other historical areas.

I have no real objections to considering the possibility that the TF is an interpolation or even a forgery.  I just want better evidence than mind reading that operates on the unspoken assumption that Christians of the past were busy altering the record, beginning of course with the Gospels themselves.  A seance seems a strange way to do scholarship, but that’s exactly the sort of thing I think you’d need in order to have any actual evidence for many of the arguments against the TF (to name one example).

While I complain about this kind of hyper-scrutiny, I should be clear about why.  Very simply, its just not reasonable to apply to ancient Christian texts a standard that is higher than we apply to other ancient texts.  I for one am skeptical of the conclusions of those who are perfectly content to do so.  On the other hand, given the amount and kind of scrutiny applied to even the tiniest jot and tittle that appears to support Christianity when things emerge that even the atheists, skeptics, and liberal scholars can’t dispense with, that’s saying something.  The Testimonium Flavianum is such an example.

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1 comment

    • Chuck on May 29, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Tony, have you read “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus In Earliest Christianity” by Larry Hurtado? If not, I highly recommend it. At 746 pages it is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort.

    Hurtado makes a nearly ironclad case that devotion to Jesus as Yahweh (LORD, or Kurios in the LXX and the Greek NT) can be traced back to the very earliest years of Christianity using evidence, logic, and reason. He demolishes arguments such as “Paul invented Christianity” or that early Christianity “borrowed” from pagan religions. Along the way he makes a strong case for a very early dating of the Synoptics as well.

    Here is a link to the book:

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/0802831672?tag=scribblings0d-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0802831672&adid=0DNVKDS758PCCN8PQY4P&

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