Monday, 3 December 2012

Understanding Historical Accounts ...

Flavius Josephus' "Histories" are often quoted to 'prove' that the events described in the Gospels are either fiction or not historically accurate. Often cited as 'proof' of this are the rather obvious and clumsy additions made by late copyists to some versions of the 'Histories' covering the period roughly 6 BC to 30 AD. These are often claimed to be 'proof' that the references to which they are appended are also false, but that is not true, since other copies show the text, less the additions' is accurate.

Who was Flavius Josephus, and why did he write the 'Histories' in the first place? The who is a slightly tangled story, since he was a Jew, and more importantly, was a leader of the insurrection against Roman rule in 70AD. For reasons of his own, he changed sides, probably because, being both a highly intelligent man and a soldier, he realised that the fight was a futile one which could have only one outcome. History proved him right. We live with the result even now.

His 'Histories make interesting reading to any student of that period. They were written for his Roman patron and they are essentially a history of the Jewish people. Some theologians have criticised him for 'departing from the facts as set out in Genesis in his history, falling into the trap of criticising a Jew for knowing more about his own people's writings than they do. In his 'Histories' he explains the Jewish understanding of some of the early stories, which even today, some more conservative and fundamentalist theologians try to interpret and understand in western terms. You simply cannot do that. Even parts of the New Testament cannot be fully understood from a western perspective alone, one has to understand how a Jew would look at the same event.

So what exactly does Flavius Josephus say about Christ? He certainly doesn't describe him or name him, but he does mention the trial and the crucifixion and goes on the mention "James, the brother of the so-called Messiah" as the leader of the movement Jesus began (Antiquities 20). Even this reference is seized on by some to 'prove' that Jesus wasn't what Christians believe him to be, but that is to ignore the Jewish beliefs of the period and Josephus' own belief and understanding as a Jew.

Rereading parts of the Histories (thanks to a PDF file the Josephus who posts here sent me) I was reminded once again of how dangerous it is to try to read historic documents of this type without understanding at least something of the culture and background of the author. That is why, I believe, so much of the revisionist history produced since the 1930s is so far adrift from the truth. Perhaps, one day, someone, somewhere, will admit this and institute a thorough debunking of all the 20th Century revisionism.


  1. The Monk is so right to consider the "Frame of Reference" in interpreting any historical work. (especially mine!) The philosophical concept of "Hermeneutics", the art and science of text interpretation is vital to this type of interpretative work. Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξήγησις from ἐξηγεῖσθαι 'to lead out') is another common style of interpretive concept, but is less detailed than hemeneutics in general.

    The most recent situation, still on everyone's mind, is the furore caused by the allegations against J Savile. Other, still living, celebrities are being drawn in and some are being judged by 2012 values for acts that took place during the intense social revolution of the 1967-1972 period, they will feel rather hard done by. I am not in any way trying to justify acts that would be condemned in most, or at least both, timeframes, but suggesting that the latin motto "O Tempora, O Mores" is worth bearing in mind.

    To illustrate, can I enquire if the courts have any intention of arresting the vast majority of my school-teachers who used physical violence upon me, no doubt in contravention of my human rights? If not, why not? I distinctly heard a very senior police spokesman state that "there is no closure for historical cases that involve the abuse of children."

    If I may give the Monk some sage advice relating to hermeneutical analysis, do try to differentiate between those additions, alterations and perceptual twists that have accumulated over time and those current anti-religious diatribes that make your blood boil a little too easily. Again, view the subject as you recommended yourself..."how would a Jew view this?" After upwards of 3,000 years of persecution, they tend not to start with "how dare you demean my Judaism."

    On a lighter note, a woman asked why she should trust a so-called God that she had never met, she received the answer "well, he hasn't got anyone pregnant in over 2,000 years."

  2. Josephus, I think we are on a loser with those canings. The teachers then were acting lawfully, I'm not so sure about the 'Celebrities' though.

  3. We would need access to the "punishment book"; those recorded therein may be deemed to be or to have been "not unlawful", those administered in summary manner in the classroom, gym, prefects room, groundsman's hut and so on not so.