Joseph Francis Alward
(c) Copyrig 2004
This commentary addresses some claims by
Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, that Josephus and other historians corroborate gospel stories about Jesus.
Let me begin by citing scathing criticism of Strobel’s lack of objectivity in his investigation of the historicity of Jesus. What follows are comments from Jeffrey J. Lowder1:
In light of Strobel's frequent reminders that he used to be a hard-nosed, skeptical journalist, I skimmed the table of contents and index to see which critics of Christianity he interviewed. In so doing, I discovered a glaring deficiency in Strobel's journalism: Strobel did not interview any critics of Christian apologetics, even though he attacks such individuals in his book. For example, Strobel devotes an entire chapter to his interview of Greg Boyd (an outspoken faultfinder of the Jesus Seminar), yet Strobel never interviewed a single member of the Jesus Seminar itself! Likewise, he repeatedly criticizes Michael Martin, author of Case Against Christianity, but he never bothered to get Martin's responses to those attacks. This hardly constitutes balanced reporting on Strobel's part; indeed, on this basis, one is tempted to dismiss the entire book.
In response to a request by Strobel that his “expert” witness tell him the “bottom line” in regards to the Jewish historian Josephus’, Edwin Yamauchi, PhD, says
Josephus corroborates… that Jesus was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate. 2
I'll make two points about this.
First of all, Josephus does not corroborate much of anything beyond perhaps confirming that 60 years after Jesus' alleged death he had a wide following at the time (93 AD) Josephus was writing. This is something Josephus could have known first-hand. But Josephus cannot have known first-hand whether Jesus had a wide following 60 years before, or know first-hand that he was “wise,” or was martyred.
To be a corroborating witness, Josephus would have to be able to give personal testimony that some of the gospel stories about Jesus are true, but this would have been impossible for Josephus, for he was born (37 AD) four years after Jesus allegedly was crucified, so he obviously could not have been an eyewitness to any of the events in Jesus' life. All Josephus has done, evidently, according to Yamauchi's "bottom line," is to repeat "facts" he had heard from others about a "Jesus" who had lived 60 years ago—a Jesus who they say was a wise and martyred church leader in Jerusalem, plus state that Jesus had a wide following in 93 AD.
What is Yamauchi's warrant for claiming that Josephus corroborates " that Jesus was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher"? In his article, The Life, Death and Teaching of Jesus, at http://www.irr.org/yamauchi.html, Yamauchi cites a questionable passage from Josephus:
"The famous passage in the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities VIII: 63-64) is authentic, but there are Christian interpolations in the extant Greek text."
In support of his view that Jesus was martyred, Yamauchi relies on the claim of a professor at Hebrew University who quoted a tenth century translation of the Josephus passage in which Josephus noted that that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection:
9 Cf. P. Winter, "Josephus on Jesus," Journal of Historical Studies, I (1968), 289-302. In 1971 Professor Shlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem translated a tenth-century A.D. Arabic manuscript which contains a version of Josephus's passage which he believes represents the original uninterpolated text. The Arabic text reads in part: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples…. They [his disciples] reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (1971), pp. 9-10.
What does this prove? Nothing more than that Josephus may have actually written these words, if they weren't an interpolation inserted by faith-promoting Christians sometime during the eight centuries since Josephus' death. Even if they were written by Josephus, this would corroborate nothing more than what Christians believed at the time Josephus lived and wrote (93 AD), sixty years after Jesus allegedly had been crucified. Reporting what legends people believed about Jesus, sixty years after he died, people who likely had never met Jesus, is not the same as corroborating that "Jesus was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem." It only corroborates what legends people believed at the time Josphus wrote. Thus, Yamauchi's evidence, that Strobel breathlessly reported to his faithful readers, is no evidence at all.
Now, maybe some of the people relating these bare bones "facts" about this Jesus were, indeed, actual eyewitnesses to events in Jesus' life, but where is Strobel's evidence of that? Why is Strobel so quick to assume that the storytellers from whom Josephus got these few "facts" were credible? How do he know that the storytellers weren't just repeating stories they had heard from others, who in turn heard the stories from someone else, and so on? Why does he not address this issue?
If Strobel and Yamauchi cannot demonstrate that Josephus' informants were eyewitnesses who could confirm that Jesus was “wise,” and a martyred leader of a church in Jerusalem, then the "evidence" for Jesus' existence is just hearsay. Hearsay evidence is "evidence" provided by a witness who tells the court that he heard somebody say that somebody else did something. That's hearsay evidence, and it is not accepted in courts of law. Why, then, is Strobel so quick to accept obviously hearsay evidence from Josephus to prove that Jesus was a wise martyred church leader in Jerusalem?
Second, and this is the most important point, in Yamauchi's "bottom line" about Josephus, we see the complete absence of a single, solitary reference to any of the alleged "miracles" that this "Jesus" was supposed to have performed, if you can believe any of the gospel stories. Yamauchi was supposed to be the “expert” who would help Strobel prove that Jesus existed and was the son of “God, but where are the “miracles”?
If the miracles had actually occurred, the fact that Josephus mentions not a single one of them is extraordinary. How is it possible that the leading Jewish historian of the first century, who was born soon after Jesus died, failed to put in his history of that time a record of any of the alleged miracles wrought by Jesus, if they had actually occurred?
Here is a sampling of some of the "miracles" alleged performed by Jesus, and other astonishing events surrounding the life of Jesus, which went utterly without mention by Josephus and all of the other historians of that time:
1. Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11).
All of those people at the wedding surely would have told all of their friends about the miracle of the wine, and those friends would have told their friends. Like wildfire, you would think, the story about the man who could make alcohol from water would have spread, and people would be flocking to Jesus with barrels of their water. How could Josephus and others not have heard about this, if it had actually occurred? Who else in all of human history had ever done such a thing? How could it not be newsworthy to have been reported by Josephus? Even if Josephus didn't believe what he had heard, the that fact that so many people in that region believed such a ridiculous thing would have been newsworthy.
2. Jesus with a wave of his hand brings the nobleman's son back from the brink of death
Surely, if this had actually happened, the nobleman, being obviously well-known and influential, would have had the powerful friends and far-flung interests and contacts that would have enabled him to make known far and wide the "miracle" performed by Jesus on behalf of his son, and Jesus would be the talk of all Judea and Galilee long after he had died. But, remarkably, not one word of this made it into the histories recorded by the leading historians of that time. How could this be, unless the nobleman's son was never cured at all, and that this story is just one of many that were made up by hopeful evangelists who wanted to promote their man "Jesus"—someone they never met, as the messiah?
3. The people were amazed when Jesus expelled the evil spirit from the man.
4. Peter's Mother-in-law was cured (Matt. 8: 14-15; Mark 1: 29-31; Luke 4: 38-39)
5. The leper was cured (Matt. 8, 1-4; Mark 1: 40-45; Luke 5: 12-19)
6. The paralytic was cured (Matt. 9: 1-8; Mark 2: 1-12; Luke 5:18-26).
7. Jesus cured the withered hand (Matt. 12: 9-13; Mark 3: 1-6; Luke 6: 6-11).
Why did not a single historian comment on these alleged miracles, if they had actually happened?
8. A large crowd witnessed Jesus raising the widow's dead son (Luke 7: 11-17) All of those people surely would have told everyone they knew, and then those people would do the same, and so on, until all of people throughout the land of knew that there was a man who could raise people from the dead. The relatives of all of those poor folks who were sick and dying, would be moving heaven and earth to get them to Jesus for the cure. They would have flocked to Jesus even faster than they would have to have their barrels of water changed to wine. How could Josephus and the other historians not have thought this was newsworthy, unless this story wasn't in circulation, because it was just fiction created around 70 AD by imaginative evangelists, and little noticed by most people.
9. Jesus raises Lazarus. A bad-smelling corpse of a man, four days already in his tomb, is raised up from the dead by Jesus. How remarkable is that? That makes two people Jesus allegedly raised from the dead, and Josephus didn’t write about it. Were so many people being raised from the dead in those days that it was no big deal, and that’s why Josephus ignored it? Not likely. If the dead-raising had really occurred, word of this miracle would have spread quickly to all parts of the that word, including to Rome, for raising the dead would have been a skill much-valued by the Romans, as it would be by anyone, anywhere. Even if Josephus didn’t believe the raising of the dead actually occurred, he still would have reported in his history the remarkable fact that evidently a great many people believed Jesus raised people from the dead, or at least heard about it. (John 11: 1-44)
10. Jesus fed four thousand people with virtually a handful of bread and fish, and had food left over (Matt. 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 34-44; Luke 9: 12-17; John 6;1-15), and then he repeated the miracle with five more thousand people (Matt. 15: 32-38; Mark 8: 1-9)
Why doesn't Lee Strobel address any of these questions?
There are too many other gospel "miracles" by Jesus to describe here, but it is sufficient to note that not one of them is mentioned by a historian of the first century.
There are a few remarkable non-miracle events that are alleged in the gospels to have occurred, but yet went completely unreported by the historians.
11. If all of the infant boys in under the age of two in Bethlehem and its surroundings really were killed by Herod's swordsmen, as claimed in the New Testament (Matthew 2:16), then why wouldn't this have been important enough for Josephus to include in his history? What did Josephus, or Tacitus, or Pliny report in their histories that was more important than the slaughter by a king of all of those innocent children? Was murder of town’s-full of infants so common in those days?
12. If it were really true that King Herod ordered John the Baptist's head to be severed from his body and delivered to his banquet on a platter, all because of a foolish promise to a young girl (Mark 6:1-29), wouldn't all of those noblemen in attendance and their wives have gossiped like crazy about the foolishness of the king, and the story spread to every person in the land with ears to hear? How, then, is it possible that Josephus and all of the other historians of that era didn't know about it, unless it never happened as the gospel writer claimed it had?
13. The five hundred risen saints. How absurd is it that no historian reported that zombie “saints” (the bodies of the saints) rose from their graves in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, and appeared to many (Matthew 27:45-53). This would have been perhaps the most astonishing occurrence in all of human history, if it really had occurred. Who in Jerusalem would not have heard about this, and then in all of the Roman empire? Josephus would have reported what all those people in Jerusalem had been saying about the dead bodies walking about Jerusalem, meeting with “many,” if it had really happened. The fact that this “miracle,” along with all of the other ones alleged in the gospels, were not reported by a single historian in the first century seems to be almost certain proof that these miracles never occurred, and therefore that the stories about Jesus are largely, if not entirely, fictional.
Note that Lowder, too, wonders with me about the complete absence of mention by Josephus of any of the Jesus miracles:
Strobel...interviewed Edwin Yamauchi about extra-biblical evidence that confirms the New Testament. Yamauchi first mentioned Josephus's references to Jesus, stating that both the shorter and longer references provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus (pp. 101-107)....(however) the authentic references to Jesus in Josephus don't corroborate the central theological claims of Jesus. Josephus does not provide any corroborating evidence for the virgin birth, divinity, miracles, or Resurrection of Jesus.
Yamauchi also claims that other ancient sources provide independent confirmation of the New Testament: Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, the Talmud, and the writings of the early church fathers. However, there is no good reason to believe that any of these sources provide corroborating evidence. There is no reason to believe that Tacitus or Pliny the Younger relied on independent sources...The Talmud is inconclusive because it is late and much of the Talmudic portrayal of Jesus is a polemical response to Christian claims. Finally, the writings of the church fathers do not provide any independent confirmation; they were late and based on earlier Christian sources.1
1. The Rest of the Story, Jeffrey J. Lowder, at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/strobel.html
2. The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, p. 105.
3. A mad-man by the name of Marshall Herf Applewhite convinced several hundred highly intelligent followers they could enter heaven in 1997 via a spaceship that would pass by the earth in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, if only they would all commit suicide with him. Some of them believed him; in a luxurious mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, police found 39 bodies of members of the Heaven's Gate religious organization.