Now that Fox News has shot itself in the foot again and inadvertently made a Muslim scholar’s book about Jesus a bestseller and the talk of every town (which one can only assume from their interview of Reza Aslan is exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for), common concepts and terminology in the Jesus historicity debate are going mainstream and becoming familiar to ordinary people everywhere (even more so than after the best-selling release of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?, which I demonstrated to be terrible; although that, too, has primed the pump of popular discourse in this matter).
The experts have weighed in and found Aslan’s book Zealot to be, well, basically bad. From a historical perspective. As a writer everyone agrees he’s top notch. And even as history he’s not wholly wrong. But there’s a lot wrong. From mistakenly not knowing the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake and not, ahem, an actual saltwater sea, to misinforming the public on the status of certain debates in the field, to engaging in scholarship of convenience (ignoring evidence against his case or conveniently declaring it forged or fabricated…without any reason other than that it contradicts his hypothesis–although to be fair, even the experts who criticize him do this…a lot), to oversimplifying facts, and other common foibles, he makes his case look stronger than it really is. (See the reviews of Dale Martin [service intermittent], Stephen Prothero, Joseph Loconte, and Anthony Le Donne.)
This is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black (see chapter 1 of my book Proving History), but even then the kettle is still black.
But I’m here to talk about one particular issue his book has popularized: the Testimonium Flavianum.
Aslan uses that technical term when he discusses the passage it refers to in the ancient Jewish historian Josephus (of the latter first century), in a note (Zealot, p. 220), and the internet has done the rest. (There has long been a Wikipedia entry on the Testimonium Flavianum, which will explain to you where the phrase comes from and what it refers to, and even provides a translation.)
Aslan concurs with many scholars that this passage is a complete forgery (“interpolated” into the text by later Christian scribes), although he inadvertently implies there are no scholars who disagree, a gaffe some reviewers have taken him to task for. I actually agree with Aslan, and in fact I can see no logically valid or sound reason to disagree with him, but it is true that he badly worded his statement of scholarly consensus on this matter, and didn’t give clear reasons for his own conclusion.
Aslan assumes the other reference to Jesus Christ elsewhere in Josephus (which refers to a certain “James, brother of the so-called Christ” being executed) is authentic, and he even uses this to conclude no logical argument can be made that Jesus didn’t have brothers (Zealot, pp. 35-36) and that his Zealot thesis is correct (pp. 198-201). The fact that it is not authentic and is certainly an accidental interpolation that occurred in the late third century (two centuries after Josephus wrote) one can perhaps excuse Aslan for not knowing, because in our field we have shitty databases and it’s almost impossible to keep up with current scholarship on a subject in result. But now you know. And down go his two arguments from it.
In a previous blog post (Jesus in Josephus) I discussed my peer reviewed article demonstrating that this other reference to Jesus was accidentally inserted by a Christian–and that article also has a brief section and note on why the longer paragraph (the actual Testimonium Flavianum, or TF, which Aslan rightly rejects) is certainly wholly a fabrication (in this case not accidental), and in that blog post I also cited and discussed another peer reviewed article (by G.J. Goldberg) corroborating that latter conclusion (finding that the TF is rife with vocabulary and parallels from the Gospel of Luke…and it has long been noted that the evidence indicates Luke used Josephus as a source, and not the other way around, e.g. Luke and Josephus).
Now Ken Olson has weighed in. Olson has long advocated the hypothesis that the TF was forged and inserted by the Christian historian Eusebius (the first author ever to notice and quote the TF, in the early fourth century). He had his critics, but only just this year took them on in a devastating analysis that all but clinches his case and knocks down every argument his critics had. (Required reading on this point is now Ken Olson, “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” in Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations [Harvard University Press, 2013], pp. 97-114.)
In defense of Aslan’s conclusion (not necessarily his wording), Olson has blogged about how the most common arguments against Christian authorship of the TF are ironically among the best arguments for its forgery by Eusebius (a Christian): see The Testimonium Flavianum, Eusebius, and Consensus. In that analysis (well worth reading) he cites his past and present work, and that of his critics, and mentions why they are wrong. Combined with his chapter in Eusebius of Caesarea, I think the case is now pretty strong that Eusebius did indeed fabricate the TF.
Or…that Pamphilus of Caesarea did.
This is a possibility Olson does not consider, but that I think deserves equal attention. My impression from the work of Eusebius is that he is kind of a doof and didn’t actually know where passages like this came from. I suspect he is not the forger. But Olson’s evidence entails that if Eusebius is not the forger, then his teacher and predecessor almost certainly is, and that’s Pamphilus of Caesarea. We have almost none of what was written by that man, thus we can’t check directly, but all the evidence Olson finds of Eusebian authorship of the TF could be remnants of vocabulary, idioms, and ideas Eusebius inherited from his teacher. And the timeline fits (I argue the accidental interpolation in the other passage occurred under Pamphilus’s watch as well, since it’s clear Eusebius didn’t know that had occurred, as I show in my article, yet it must have occurred after Origen, as I also show in my article, and Pamphilus was Origen’s successor; I also demonstrate there that all present copies of Josephus derive from the copy Eusebius held in his library, which was Pamphilus’s library, inherited from Origen).
Either way, Olson’s case is extremely robust, ensuring a very high probability that the TF is a forgery of Eusebius or Pamphilus, and occurred sometime in the latter third or early fourth century. And at any rate is certainly wholly a Christian forgery. All objections to that conclusion are met collectively by Olson’s latest chapter and my latest article (and I’ll be adding more to the case in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus). Attempts to rescue the TF should be declared dead.