ch 17 . . . Was Jesus a Carpenter?
Brodie subtitles this section with:
Sceptics See Only the Carpenter/WoodcutterThe passage under discussion is Mark 6:1-6
|He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.
On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 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 offence at him.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Brodie argues that the common scholarly interpretations of this passage fail to take into account its literary background. Scholars have seen this passage as historical (not addressed by Brodie, but common among the scholarly works, is the view that this scene is “embarrassing” for early Christians because it shows Jesus being rejected by his family, so therefore must be historical) and Brodie singles out the disparaging dismissal of Jesus as a mere tekton (‘carpenter’ or ‘woodcutter’) as seeming to provide solid historical information.
(Of course, other scholars who are more interested in the literary analysis of the Gospels recognize that there is nothing embarrassing at all in this account of how Jesus’ family failed to recognize him. It puts Jesus in the wake of all the other great prophets whose greatness was accentuated by their enduring the rejections of their families — Abel, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, David . . . . Or maybe Jesus was trying to model himself on these prophets so behaved badly to make his family hate him? (I’m kidding.))
Way back in 1998 I posted a query to a scholarly open discussion group soliciting feedback on my sense that Mark’s tekton reference had a double meaning, a mundane and a higher theological one. So it is encouraging to read Brodie’s view that that’s exactly the game Mark was playing with this word.
Brodie begins with the context. It is the reported miracles of Jesus that are the critical concern of the people. (Brodie identifies these miracles in particular as related to themes of “creation, life and death (Mk 4.35-5.43).”) Moreover, he identifies this section of Mark as having a
significant literary dependence on the (Septuagintal) book of Wisdom. Beginning in Wisdom 10, several chapters of the book of Wisdom speak of both God’s role as creator and life-giver and of the failure of many people to recognize God as the true technites, the supreme craftsman (Wis. 13:1; cf. Wis. 13.22, Wisdom is technites panton, ‘the worker of all things’).In other words,
Instead the people’s vision is limited to the kind of vision found in the woodcutter (the tekton, Wis. 13.11); that is all they can see. (p. 159, my formatting)
The mindless people in Wis. 13:1-9 do not recognize the technites, the supreme craftsman, and turn their minds instead to lifeless things such as the tekton produces (Wis. 13:10-14:4). And the audience at Nazareth do not recognize the presence of the Creator in Jesus the miracle-worker but can focus only on the world of woodcutting, and so they call him a tekton.Brodie draws the conclusion that should be obvious. Wisdom 13, especially its account of the failure of the people to discern the works of the Creator, seeing only the works of a tekton,
provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tekton; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data. (p. 159, my bolding)So we have here a second instance where historical Jesus scholars typically go beyond the evidence and fail to recognize a case of literary borrowing and adaptation. Jesus was portrayed by writers as like Elijah and as a woodcutter and their sources are clearly evident in the textual material they had at hand.
These are only two examples. But they represent a phenomenon that riddles the Gospels and Acts. The view that the data is grounded in unsubstantiated oral tradition is occluded by the awareness that one text has simply adapted another.
ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus
We saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”
Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.
Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:
- Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
- Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?
The Question of Authenticity
Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.
In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.
And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that
- summarizes the work and character of Jesus
- tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
- says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians
- Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
- that Jesus was the Christ
- that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:
- It is entirely original to Josephus
- It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
- It is a mixture of original and insertion.
- It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
- It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus
That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.
Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.
Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest.
I have refrained from commenting on each of the points since to do so would inevitably lead this post too far from Brodie’s presentation. There is an archive for Vridar posts on the Testimonium Flavianum, and another post looks at the history of scholarly interpretation of the Jesus passages in Josephus.
The Question of Independence
Meier lists five possible sources used by Josephus for his account of Jesus:
- Christians he encountered in Palestine or Rome
- The Gospels / NT writings
- Imperial archives in Rome
- Educated Judeans within Josephus’s Romanized circle
- Information obtained in Palestine before the War
The challenge for the investigator is to establish with as much certainty as which one(s) of these five provided information to Josephus. In practice, this means trying to match Josephus’ information with one or more of the five. The more the information matches a source, the more likely it is that it is the source Josephus used. (p. 162)Since there is no perfect match between what Josephus wrote and any of the five possible sources (an ideal match would have been a word for word correspondence at some point), so certainty is out of the question. This leaves the historical inquirer having to be content with finding something that is highly probable.
Meier argues that since all options are “equally unverifiable” they all remain “equally possible”. In reaching his final conclusion he focuses on two features: language and content.
Here is Meier’s reasoning:
- Christians as the source? — No, because the defining belief of Christians is the resurrection of Jesus and Josephus does not mention the resurrection as such.
- The NT writings as the source? — No, because the NT language is different from that of Josephus.
. . . Roman archives, educated Judeans from the Romanized world, and pre-war Palestine. These three sources sound rich — they sound varied and potentially deep — so the idea that they supply independent evidence seems plausible. (p. 164)Brodie stops to ask the questions that should be obvious. He grants the possibility of the principle that the three remaining sources may be independent from those of the Christians. But then he pauses.
Independent witnesses generally add something new to what is already known.
Of course. Surely there is some new snippet from such potentially rich independent sources.
When Josephus elsewhere writes about Pilate he adds much to what we read in the Gospels about him. His perspective is completely different from that of the evangelists so we would expect different types of information to come through. We know much about Pilate from his witness that is truly independent of the Gospels.
So what do the independent sources of Josephus add to our knowledge of Jesus? What new information do they contain that bears out their independence?
Brodie answers his own question in a one-word paragraph:
Nothing. (p. 164)
Everything that Josephus tells us about Jesus is found already in the Gospels and Acts. The only difference, according to Brodie, is “Josephus’s own distinctive vocabulary and style.”
Theoretically (Brodie concedes) it is possible that independent sources had nothing new to add. But even if so,
it makes their claims sufficiently fragile that it is appropriate to come back to the factor that Marginal Jew skims over — the possible dependence of Josephus on one or more of the evangelists. (p. 164)
By now we know that Thomas Brodie is very conscious of the ancient practice of re-writing other texts, of adapting them and creating new works from the old masters. He follows that frame of reference through in his argument about the Josephan style and vocabulary of the core (“original”) Jesus passage in Book 18 of Antiquities.
Brodie makes the telling point that Josephus used many other sources yet always expressed their contents in his “own style and his own language”.
With such a simple and “obvious” point Brodie demolishes Meier’s (and most historical Jesus scholars’) reasons for concluding that the Josephan passage on Jesus is necessarily independent of Christian sources.
Besides, in the wider ancient practice of rewriting sources, verbatim quotation was an exception. And so, the variation in language proves precisely nothing. (p. 164)
So simple, yet so profound and of such far-reaching consequences. No wonder the Bart Ehrmans and the James McGraths prefer to withdraw to their own paywalls and to presenting blatant misreadings of Brodie’s points in place of serious engagement.
So did Josephus know any Christians personally?Brodie quotes Meier’s view that Josephus did not. Josephus belonged to an elite social class that would have had no connections with the followers of “a marginal Jew”.Nonetheless, Brodie does offer three reasons to think that Josephus did have “a certain closeness” to some of the evangelists or their works.
Three reasons to suspect Josephus knew (or knew of) Christian writings/authors
1. General literary context
Josephus and the evangelists, as writers of significant works that were read by others, belonged to an elite.
They were not enclosed in small worlds. Josephus drew widely upon all kinds of writings. Antiquities absorbed everything from Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus to tragedy, philosophy and romantic motifs from Xenophon and Hellenistic novels. And, like most other writers of his day, he presented these materials through the medium of his own distinctive language and style. (p. 165)
Further, both Josephus and the evangelists were engaged “essentially in the same field of writing — in diverse modifications and updatings of the Jewish scriptures.” Both Antiquities and Luke-Acts build on the Jewish scriptures. Both Josephus and Luke covered an expanse of history that went back to the beginnings of things. And there are clear affinities (Mason, 2003) between Josephus and Acts, especially in the speeches.
It makes sense that the Antiquities that built so carefully on the older scriptures should also acknowledge New Testament narrative.
(I don’t think so. Surely the ideology of the New Testament narrative stood in conflict with the values most cherished by Josephus.)
2. Specific content
Josephus regularly summarizes or paraphrases sections of the Hebrew Bible, Brodie points out, so this fact should remove any quibble about the Testimonium core being a summary outline of the contents of the Gospel account. Further, the Gospel of Mark — or some knowledge of it — could have informed Josephus that Jesus was both the brother of James and recognized as the Christ.
3. Location and time
Josephus lived in Rome between around 70 and 100 CE. Brodie is inclined to the view that Mark also lived in Rome and wrote his Gospel there around 70 CE. Josephus lived in close proximity to Christians who very likely possessed their own texts. The Gospel of Mark was circulated — it was not hidden in the closet of a secret group: Luke and Matthew had access to it and used it. Brodie concludes that it was quite likely that Josephus had access to at least information about these Christians and their writings. He would also have had an interest in writings — such as Mark and Luke-Acts, based on the Scriptures.
(As above, I suspect Brodie is overlooking the ideological divide between Josephus and Christianity in drawing his conclusion.)
Brodie acknowledges the vagueness of this hypothesis, but is right to point out that the Meier’s alternatives — Jesus-related imperial archives that may never have existed; unspecified educated Judeans; a pre-war career in Palestine — are no more precise.
What is certain is that it is extremely risky to conclude that Josephus did not have access, direct or indirect, either to serious discussion with some Christians or to some of the work of the evangelists, so it is not possible, in any reliable way, to invoke Josephus as an independent witness to Jesus.
Unreliable witness cannot be used to condemn someone to death. And neither can it be used to assert that someone lived. (p. 167, my formatting)
ch 17 . . . Jesus in Greco-Roman Sources & General Conclusionshttp://vridar.org/2013/11/20/making-of-a-mythicist-ch-17-jesus-in-greco-roman-sources-general-conclusions/
Brodie’s discussion of the four Greco-Roman source references to Jesus is brief.
Tacitus (writing c. 115 CE) writes:
Nero . . . punished with . . . cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the common people [the vulgus] styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate (Loeb translation). (p. 167, from Annals, 15.44)Brodie essentially repeats John Meier’s own discussion found on page 91 of volume 1 of A Marginal Jew, commenting that there is nothing here that would not have been commonplace knowledge at the beginning of the second century. (Brodie relies upon the reader’s knowledge of Meier’s work to recognize this as Meier’s own position.)
Brodie adds that Tacitus regularly used older writings and always adapted their contents to his own style. As pointed out by Charlesworth and Townsend in the article on Tacitus in the 1970 Oxford Classical Dictionary Tacitus “rarely quotes verbatim”. By the time Tacitus wrote, Brodie remarks, some Gospels were decades old and “basic contact with Christians would have yielded such information.” His information could even have been inferred from the work of Josephus.
As for Suetonius (shortly before 120), Pliny the Younger (c. 112) and Lucian of Samosata (c. 115-200), Brodie quotes Meier approvingly:
[They] are often quoted in this regard, but in effect they are simply reporting something about what early Christians say or do; they cannot be said to supply us with independent witness to Jesus himself (Marginal Jew: 1, 91). (p. 167)
|I am even more sceptical about the contribution of Tacitus. Recently I posted The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom (poorly and ambiguously title, I admit) drawing upon the work of Candida Moss in The Myth of Persecution.
Moss shows us that it was only from the fourth century that the stories of martyrdoms and persecutions that so often dwelt luridly on the gory details of bodily torments became popular. The passage in Tacitus with its blood-curdling details of tortures fits the mold of these later stories. (Moss herself, however, does not make this connection with Tacitus.)
This brings us to the late fourth century monk Sulpicius Severus (discussed by Early Doherty in Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 618-621) who supplies us with the first possible indication of any awareness of the passage on Christian persecutions in the work of Tacitus. This topic requires a post of its own. Suffice it to say here that I believe there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that this detailed passage on the cruelties inflicted on the Christians was “borrowed” from the account written by Sulpicius Severus.
Conclusion regarding the five non-Christian authorsBrodie thus concludes that none of the five non-Christian authors provides independent witness to the historical existence of Jesus.
None met Jesus; none claimed to have met anyone who had known him; none claimed to have met someone who knew a friend who knew someone who had known him. None supplies us with any information that is not already found in the Gospels or Acts. (Josephus even lived within walking distance of Christians in Rome.)
General conclusion regarding A Marginal JewBrodie’s conclusion about Meier’s famous work is applicable to most notable works attempting to explore the historical Jesus. It/they provide us with invaluable background information for New Testament times and much in the way of treasured insights into the New Testament itself. In such works we learn much about the history, sociology, economy, and archaeology of the Holy Land. But the strength of Meier’s and comparable works is also their potential problem:
[I]t can leave the impression that knowledge of background provides knowledge of Jesus. (p. 168, citing Neill and Wright, 1988: 207-208)Brodie actually identifies the “root problem” of Meier’s A Marginal Jew in its very first page. There Meier writes:
To explain to my academic colleagues what I propose to do in this book, I often use the fantasy of the “unpapal conclave.” Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic [What happened to the atheist?] — all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements — were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place.Brodie responds:
The Harvard Divinity School library is a very fine place, but if you are locked into it, you never reach some of the surrounding libraries that would provide a wider truer picture, particularly concerning first-century literature, of which the New Testament is a part, as is Josephus. (p. 168)
General Conclusion: the Nature of the Gospels, Acts and Epistles
|A basic rule of method is that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation that also covers the largest amount of data is to be preferred. — Meier, Marginal Jew, 1, 67|
In simplest terms Brodie’s point is that “the main New Testament documents look historical but are not.”
These appear to be spontaneous letters written by one main figure as responses to specific historical situations. Detailed literary analysis, however, shows them to be constructed with “a degree of complexity and precision” with respect to both their sources and final shape that sets them apart as “formal epistles”, not spontaneous letters.Gospels and Acts
These imitate history. They do reflect their historical background. But literary analysis shows us what sources they used and how they used them, and shows us the nature of their art, so that we can see they are not history.From here Thomas Brodie ventures into the theme of the final section of his book. He offers his opinion of the reason the authors made their work so “history-like”.
The history-like way of presenting the New Testament documents is not simply to reach people. It is an expression of the conviction that God is in human life, in the fiercely specific reality of history, even in events as horrendous as the crucifixion. . . . (p. 169)That the New Testament literature is “history-like” but not historical is, Brodie concludes, “the simplest explanation that accounts for all the data”, and in saying this he returns to the quotation of John Meier that I have placed at the beginning of this section.
I will leave Brodie’s work for a short while now and focus on a few other things. I do need to return to finish part five of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus in order to do Brodie justice to where he is coming from as a “mythicist”. The next section, Act 5, will be the hardest part for me to address adequately since the mind-set (especially towards scientific naturalism) and faith Brodie expresses are so contrary to my own.