“[T]here were no effective measures in Pliny’s province to deal with the outbreak of fires, and so villages were burning,” according to Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? (Chapter 2). His source for this ancient catastrophe? Ehrman says that Pliny the Younger discussed the fire problem in “Letter 10” of his correspondence. Ehrman mentions that source by name, “Letter 10,” twice in his telling the story of how Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan for permission to establish a fire brigade. In that same letter, Ehrman tells his readers, Pliny also mentioned Christians.
In reality, there is no “Letter 10” in Pliny’s correspondence that deals with fires or that mentions Christians. Nor were villages burning. However, something was spreading through the countryside according to Pliny, something contagious.
Paul sends a letter
The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul would plausibly have referred to some distinguished fellow apostles as the brothers of the Lord, whether or not there were any kin or former disciples of Jesus for Paul to describe that way. Paul habitually used fraternal language. He often called attention to distinctions among the early apostles. He may have meant that these brothers were former intimates of a historical Jesus, but he may instead have meant they were “like Jesus” in other ways.
Perhaps they were models of good behavior for their followers, or willing victims of persecution, or senior apostles who’d been personally chosen by the risen Jesus. The diverse potential meanings for a phrase typical of Paul’s prose style set a low ceiling on our justifiable confidence that Paul reported meeting an intimate of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) and that he knew of others (1 Corinthians 9:5).
The brothers of the Lord sounds harmonious with “Jesus’ brothers,” but it’s not discordant with other meanings, either. “Bayesian thinking” reminds us to consider how the phrase would sound under other assumptions than what first pops into our heads.
This installment looks at the context of the specific occasions when Paul used the phrase. Both times, he was making an argument, trying to persuade his readers. In Galatians, Paul defends the independence of his preaching from that of the Jerusalem church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul seeks a church-paid stipend comparable with other apostles’ spousal allowance.
Context helps refine our estimate of Paul’s intentions for the brothers of the Lord. In the stipend argument, for Paul to invite comparison with Jesus’ intimates would clash with his rhetorical goals. In contrast, if he meant and was understood to mean non-intimates of Jesus, then positioning himself among prestigious churchmen could harmonize sweetly with those goals.
The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul’s accepted use of the phrase the brother(s) of the Lord ought not to dispel all uncertainty about the historical existence of Jesus. However, so long as it is possible that the phrase was genuinely Paul’s and that it referred to a relationship among two or more living people, then what scholarship receives as Paul’s writing, if it bears at all, counts in support of a historical Jesus and against hypotheses where he is entirely fictional or mythological.
How strong should that bearing reasonably be? This second post about these brothers is informed by “Bayesian reasoning,” but here fielded without numbers, in a style which incorporates the ideas of George Polya about qualitative plausible thinking and assessment of evidence.
Jerusalem with Jesus ben Ananus, upper right
In Book 20 of his Antiquities, Josephus briefly mentions a man named James who was unlawfully condemned to death in 62 CE, about eight years before the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Josephus says that this James’ brother was named Jesus. In all extant source manuscripts of the Antiquities, that Jesus is said to be “called Christ.” If Josephus wrote that description, then he’d have left us compelling evidence that a historical Jesus of Galilee really existed.
Modern scholars generally accept that Josephus did describe James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ,” largely because Origen wrote that that’s what he’d read in Antiquities. Origen also remembers reading a lot more about this James there, about his character and about God’s pay-back to Jerusalem for the injustice of his death. In fact, however, Josephus tells us almost nothing else about James, not even whether his death sentence was actually carried out, much less claiming divine retribution for it.
Given that Origen misrecalls so much so vividly, what weight should be placed on his recollection of the few words which allegedly identified James’ brother? Two other Jesuses appear in the story that includes the trial incident, a story which makes perfect sense if James’ brother were either of those Jesuses (link).
This post recalls still another Jesus who appeared in Josephus’ first book, The Jewish War. This Jesus is familiar to many because of remarkable parallels between his story and the Gospels’ passion. Let us consider the merits of his candidacy to be the brother of Antiquities’ James. Whether or not he was James’ brother, the tragedy of Jesus ben Ananus still contributes to our understanding of how Origen’s memory so badly scrambled and improved what Josephus wrote about James and his trial.
In the previous installment (link), Origen recalled having read in Josephus’ Antiquities that James, the brother of “Jesus called Christ,” was sentenced to death by stoning. However, Origen says that Josephus wrote much more about this James than what’s in our received Antiquities.
Origen’s testimony has been offered in support that the extant Antiquities is faithful to the original; that Josephus reported the actual existence of a close associate of the Christian Jesus in Josephus’ own time and surroundings. That is, Josephus implicitly vouched for a historically real Jesus, possibly based on a reasonable inference about the associate that Josephus could have made from his own lived experience.
The finding of this post is that Josephus did write some things substantially similar with what Origen recalled, in close proximity to Josephus’ mention of James. However, Josephus was discussing other people and events. Origen conflated Josephus’ actual writings with stories about the Christian martyr James the Just. Thus Origen’s faulty memory made a new non-Christian witness to Christian tradition, much as Jerome’s memory brewed up a new Christian miracle by misremembering an incident from Josephus’ War and mixing it with the Gospel passion (link).
Preaching of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli ca 1500 (detail, click to enlarge)
An earlier post discussed ancient critics of Christianity who vigorously expressed their doubts about the factual reliability of the Gospels, the character of the Apostles, and the discernment of their Christian audience. We couldn’t find an example, however, of an argument based on the possibility that Jesus never existed.
Some modern apologists would explain that this is because there never was any example. “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used,” James Carleton Paget, a Cambridge academic flatly assured his readers (link).
It turns out, however, that an ancient patristic author wrote that there was a Christian group who taught that the proto-orthodox Jesus was an enchantment devised by a First Century magician. According to this magican’s followers, he was the real historical figure whose words and deeds inspired Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus was a thing of smoke and mirrors, or maybe not even that.