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Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, by Alice Whealey. Studies in Biblical Literature 36. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 231 pages. $65.95.
The passage in Josephus' extensive bequest to posterity most discussed today is one not everybody is sure he wrote. The Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus' comment on Jesus Christ, was apparently not of great interest in the first two centuries. This may be because it wasn't available. But interest in this questionable passage since the Protestant Reformation has more than made up for the early lack of it. Alice Whealey's last comment in this book is, ". . . after four hundred years the question of the Testimonium Flavianum's authenticity has still not been settled" (p. 195).
It appears that Whealey shares the view of Louis Feldman, whose influence is strong in her study, that some form of the received text is authentic, though not that Josephus wrote, "He was the Christ." (I will refer to the passage in question as TF.)
Josephus wrote under the patronage of the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors, and apparently all that he wrote was stored in the imperial library in Rome. Christians handed on Josephus' works through the centuries after this library perished, probably at the time the barbarians sacked the city in the early fifth century CE.
A question Whealey doesn't address that is pertinent to the matter of the early Christian use of Josephus is how Christians would have had access to the imperial library before Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity. [End Page 181] The received text is first quoted outside of Antiquities 18 in the writings of Eusebius, who wrote after Christianity was a legal religion. Constantine was Eusebius' patron, so he would have granted him access to the imperial library. But was this library moved to Constantinople when Constantine established his headquarters at the eastern capital? How did Origen (185–254 CE) know of Josephus' works, living in Alexandria in a time when Christianity was an illegal religion? This question surely bears on the matter of why Christians before Eusebius didn't make more use of Josephus.
Josephus on Jesus is divided into five chapters. In the first two chapters the author asks what sort of writers cited TF and why? She is very interested in detecting the motives of those who used TF. The last three chapters explore in detail later moments in the controversy, beginning with the sixteenth century and ending with the modern author Shlomo Pines' discussion of the medieval Arabic translation of Agapius of Hierapolis, which he takes to be an authentic citation of TF.
I pass over the author's discussion of the early history of the argument that has been adequately presented elsewhere, as in Steve Mason's Josephus and the New Testament (which Whealey does not mention), etc. It is the discussion of the periods after the Reformation that are the contribution of particular interest here. Whereas the major participants in the controversy are often mentioned in summary form elsewhere, Whealey provides details from lesser-known writers, some of whom may constitute the chief interest in this book for many. Where else can one find such intriguing detail brought together in a small, albeit not inexpensive book ($66)?
For example, the author traces the discussion prompted by the late sixteenth-century legal scholar, Hubert Giphanius, who argued that TF is spurious (pp. 77ff). What Giphanius actually wrote does not survive. Did he actually write what is attributed to him? A report of what he wrote is found in an extract of a letter by Sebastian Lepusculus, a contemporary Greek and Hebrew professor at Basel. One senses the delight in Whealey, the sleuth, as she pursues the question of what Giphanius wrote from the conflicting reports of what he said in the paper trail that followed. Here is a story within a story, as discussion of a disputed passage in Josephus is traced through a disputed passage in Giphanius!
Whealey probes Christopher Arnold's collection of thirty letters (1661) mostly having to do with TF (pp. 123ff). Whereas in scholarly discussions of Josephus' famed remark, Arnold's name often appears, Whealey digs into the contents of several of the letters in Arnold's collection.
For example she tells of Tanaquilius Faber, a former Catholic who was a Reformed professor of philology at the Académie of Saumur, a French Calvinist [End Page 182] think-tank. How did Faber's name get drawn into the controversy? Because letters he wrote to friends came to the attention of the royal historiographer of King Louis XIII, Henricus Valesius. Faber believed no Jewish writer would offer such laudatory remarks about Jesus. Furthermore, TF doesn't fit into the context of this section of Antiquities 18 (pp. 129 ff). The process by which Faber's opinions came to light may be more interesting than his opinions.
Whealey presents the counter-arguments of Petrus Dielus Huetius, a seventeenth-century Catholic bishop who was something of a Renaissance man and apologist for Christianity, and of Carolus Daubuz, a Huguenot pastor who prepared a concordance of words Josephus used in the disputed passage and words found in undisputed parts of his works. Such is the kind of detail that Whealey offers.
The author is interested to see the motivation of those who drew on Josephus' statement about Jesus. Confessional interests collided with philological concerns. For example, early Christians who believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary found it difficult to accept Josephus' description of James as the brother of Jesus. What Josephus indisputably wrote about James is pertinent to the disputed passage about Jesus. Discovering the motive of those who write of the motives of others is a subjective aspect of writing history.
In her discussion of the early modern scholarship on TF, Whealey shows that skepticism was sometimes due to the spirit of criticism of ancient sources that led to the discovery of fraudulent documents such as the Donation of Constantine. Some of the skepticism also derived from questions about the existence of Jesus since the Enlightenment.
But skepticism also was due to confusion between Josippon and Josephus' Antiquities. Josippon was a tenth-century Hebrew translation of a synthesis of the first sixteen books of Josephus' Antiquities, excerpts from Pseudo-Hegesippus' De excidio Hierosolymitano, and parts of the Apocrypha (p. 58). Whealey's dissecting of the role of Josippon in the discussion of TF seems at times to lose sight of the fact that the TF is found in Antiquities Book 18, whereas Josippon draws only upon the first sixteen books of the Antiquities.
The author observes that the nineteenth-century Jewish Austrian historian, Robert Eisler, showed that a hostile remark about Jesus appears in one version of Josippon, and argued that remarks about Jesus were erased from other versions. But it is not clear to this reviewer how Josippon contributes to the discussion of TF. In this section of her book she might have benefited from Louis Feldman's remarks on Josippon in "Flavius Josephus Revisted," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (1984).
Whealey's contribution to the discussion of TF is valuable and very interesting. It would be interesting to patient readers who are not scholars. The author [End Page 183] includes in a small book not only a lot of information, but very thoughtful discussion about it. There are a few places where the editors didn't proofread carefully, and it is odd that she should not mention some contemporary scholars. Clearly the author's interest was in the warp and woof of the discussion through the ages rather than trying to be encyclopedic in mentioning every contemporary scholar. But her attention to details of the discussion that few of us know about offers a significant contribution to the intriguing questions hovering around Josephus' testimonium to Jesus Christ.
Department of Foreign Languages