Josephus and Jesus II: Jerome, Josephus and Tacitus recall a miracle

woodcut of St Jerome

St Jerome, shown checking some sources more carefully than others

The ancient Christian historian and saint Jerome (347-420) was an early translator of the received version of Josephus’ Testimony of Jesus and a commentator on Josephus’ treatment of James the Just. Jerome wrote the following from Bethlehem to a Roman widow in 386 (Letters 46.4).

…it (Jerusalem) has been stained by the blood of the Lord. Now, therefore, its guardian angels have forsaken it and the grace of Christ has been withdrawn. Josephus, himself a Jewish writer, asserts that at the Lord’s crucifixion there broke from the temple voices of heavenly powers, saying: “Let us depart hence.”

Jerome is right that Josephus had written about that incident, but Josephus reported that it happened sometime in the 60’s of the First Century, a few years before the sack of Jerusalem, about a generation after the crucifixion is said to have happened. For Josephus, the voices in the Jewish Temple were an omen of the catastrophe that befell Jerusalem soon afterwards.

Whether or not he ever realized his mistake, Jerome frankly Christianized a Jewish miracle. He managed this feat not because of what any text said, but in spite of what two well-known texts said, one of which he cited. Jerome simply misremembered something he’d read in a way that suited his purpose. Jerome thus created a new text, along with a new Jewish witness to a crucial Christian teaching, that Jesus’ death was accompanied by signs of his divinity.

The original version

Josephus’ miracle of the voices is found in the Jewish War at 6.5.3-4. The book dates from about 75 CE, a decade or so after the events about to be narrated here, and almost twenty years before he completed his Antiquities.

Josephus was not a casual student of Judaism. He descended from priests on his father’s side and the once-royal Hasmoneans on his mother’s. Josephus took omens seriously as divine works, and he tells this ominous tale at leisurely length. First, he sets his stage with astronomical portents:

Thus there was a star, resembling a sword, which stood over the city: and a comet, that continued a whole year…

Halley’s Comet was visible in the mid-60’s, and that may well be what Josephus refers to. Then, on a particular night during a festival, still before the war,

…so great a light shone round the altar, and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time. Which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilful: but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it…

Later, after a sacrificial cow gave birth to a lamb (!) inside the temple,

…Moreover the eastern gate of the inner temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor; which was there made of one intire stone: was seen to be opened of its own accord, about the sixth hour of the night…

Then comes the part which Jerome misremembers. Note that Josephus mentions quaking. That is one of the Christian signs at Jesus’ death, and its mention here may have contributed to Jerome’s confused recollection.

Besides these, a few days after that feast, … a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable; were it not related by those that saw it; and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals. For, before sun setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost; as the priests were going by night into the inner temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said, that in the first place they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise: and after that they heard a sound, as of a multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”

Josephus follows this with the lengthy tale of another Jesus who foretold the doom of the city, and whom the Jewish authorities handed over to the Romans. They scourged him wretchedly, but the Romans didn’t kill this Jesus. They let him go free, thinking he was deranged. Jesus continued his grim prophetic career, until he died during the siege by which his prophecy was fulfilled.

Josephus sums up his discussion of omens in section 6.5.4. There he tells us his distinctive opinion about who the Messiah is, and states that Jews have made mistakes in designating Messiahs, because of prophetc ambiguity,

…But now what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle, that was also found in their sacred writings; how “About that time one, from their country, should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular: and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian: who was appointed emperor in Judea. However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate: although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure; and some of them they utterly despised: until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city, and their own destruction.

An intermediate version

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in about 105 CE of the same incidents (Histories 5.13), apparently based on Josephus’ version in whole or part. Tacitus held many state offices, including a prestigious priesthood of the state religion. It is unsurprising, then, that Tacitus imparts considerable religious spin to his terse narration.

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth…

Like Jerome, Tacitus creates a new, single dramatic incident by combining what were two distinct events separated in time. Tacitus cobbles together the doors opening, which Josephus says happened on one occasion, with the disembodied voices discussing a departure, which Josephus says was another occasion.

The psychological mechanism is a kind of enhanced synchronicity. Tacitus’ mind (or maybe his other source if it wasn’t simply a condensation of Josephus) provides not only a meaningful connection between the events, “a preparation for immediate departure,” but also tightens their loose coincidence in time. If Josephus wasn’t Tacitus’ only source, then Tacitus doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of views about how closely the crucial incidents coincided.

Finally, the pagan priest Tacitus paganized a Jewish miracle as surely as the Christian priest Jerome Christianized it. Tacitus goes further, creating Jewish ear witnesses to a polytheistic epiphany. This religious alteration serves a political purpose. A spectacular miracle occurs in Jerusalem just about the time that the Jewish messianic prophecy was fulfilled by a Roman emperor. With such a sign, Tacitus can simply pronounce Vespasian to have been the Jewish Messiah, as if this were just another fact, with no need to mention that Josephus or any Jew agreed.

Summing up

One lesson to draw from the different treatment of the Temple-voices incident by three priestly historians is that ideologically advantageous truth-trimming is not something peculiarly Christian. Trimming and spinning are human. The underlying mechanism may sometimes be more Jungian than Machiavellian. That said, Jerome stated as a matter of fact that Josephus wrote something that Josephus did not write. Later in this series of postings, we’ll see that this is not the only time Jerome did that, and that Jerome was not the only Christian writer to do it.

A subtler lesson is that variations among the reports of a passage do not necessarily imply that different reporters saw different versions of the underlying source text. Josephus, Jerome and Tacitus were elite scholars. They were perfectly capable of actively engaging with their sources, then later reporting what they heard or read with their own improvements or good-faith corrections.

When they err, as Jerome did here in a major way and Tacitus did in crucial details, we observe their having added something of themselves to what they received. There is no reason to suppose that they wouldn’t do pretty much the same thing when they didn’t err so far as we can tell. That will be something to keep in mind later on in this series, when we look at more of their work.

Art credit: University of Pennsylvania Library

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