Critique of the Argument of Meier in A Marginal Jew in Light of the New Evidence

G. J. Goldberg 

Meier's grounds for excluding the resurrection passage
The argument from Christian content
The argument from style
The argument from Agapius
The argument from christological content


Prior to the discovery of the Luke relationship a certain consensus had developed among scholars who believed in the essential authenticity of Josephus' account of Jesus.

The most recent influential review of this consensus was that of the Catholic priest and prominent Biblical scholar John P. Meier in his book, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1991). Meier devoted Chapter 3, "Sources: Josephus," to the only non-Christian writer of the first century who makes reference to Jesus. This reference he considers "of monumental importance." (p. 68)

(Meier's  Chapter 3 also appeared in another form in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52 (1990) p. 76-103.)

 Because his review was so thorough, it is valuable, even necessary, to compare its argument with that based on the Emmaus evidence. I will show that the two arguments are compatible and mutually reinforcing, with the added benefit that many of the peculiarities that puzzled Meier are easily explained as a consequence of the Luke connection.
The view Meier supports and argues for is that the Testimonium Flavianum was written originally by Josephus in a shorter form, and that later Christian hands added to it, but did not delete anything. In covering the reasons why this is the most plausible and conservative suggestion he examines the most significant writers on the passage, and closely studies its phrasing.

 Meier's position is similar or identical to several proposals in the past: those of several other scholars, including Martin, Winter, and James H. Charlesworth, whose earlier Jesus Within Judaism (Doubleday, 1988) covered the same arguments, and also more thoroughly discussed the role of the Arabic text of Agapius.

This suggestion is that there are exactly three Christian additions. These three are those in boldface in the following citation of the Testimonium, this time in Meier's translation:


About this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.
The suggestion of Meier and others is that we read the passage without the bold-faced words; the result is something that is unobjectionable as a possible authentic writing of Josephus. This example supports the plausibility of the theory that some portion of the passage can reasonably be said to be written by Josephus - a point that has been insufficiently appreciated by some researchers of the past, and which readers new to the passage might not have guessed at first glance.

But the evidence for selecting these three phrases to delete is not, in Meier's terminology, probative: it is a plausible idea, but not a necessarily true one. In particular, while it is believable enough that the first two short phrases were interpolated in an almost casual manner, as Meier suggested, the whole sentence beginning "For he appeared to themů" is of a different order. This is a complex sentence that is plausibly in Josephus' style, and is integral to the explanation of why "those who first loved him" did not cease and thus why the Christians "have not died out to this day."

Turning now to the evidence of the Emmaus passage, it was evident that the first two boldfaced phrases above are not supported by a parallel with Emmaus, confirming Meier's proposal. But the third phrase is supported by the Emmaus passage. Thus, by the hypothesis of a common source (and the implausibility of accidental correspondence by an imitator), the third boldfaced phrase is not an interpolation as a whole, although it could have been slightly altered in some way.

 Given this conflict between the Emmaus passage and Meier, we must ask, just what arguments had been formerly advanced for excluding this third phrase? The Emmaus evidence must sufficiently respond to these arguments, or we must rethink that evidence.


Meier's grounds for excluding the resurrection passage

How did Meier choose which phrases to exclude? Aside from influences of prior scholars, Meier suggests that "At first glance, three of the passages within the Testimonium strike one as obviously Christian." (p. 60)

 The appeal to reason, the "first glance," the "obvious," is Meier's central point. It is a good point to stress against those who recklessly wish to claim the entire passage is a forgery. But in itself, it is of course no proof. So, after examining these three phrases in more detail, Meier continues:

"In short, the first impression of what is Christian interpolation may well be the correct impression. A second glance confirms this first impression. Precisely these three Christian passages are the clauses that interrupt the flow of what is otherwise a concise text carefully written in a fairly neutral - or even purposely ambiguous - tone." (p. 61)
There are two claims made here. One is that the three passages interrupt the "flow" -- which is difficult to justify; Josephus' prose often does not "flow." The second claim is that, without the phrase, the text is neutral, non-Christian. This is certainly true. But there are other ways to make a text neutral, such as giving information as a quotation rather than discursively. So again, Meier's is a reconstruction that rests only on its plausibility, not on its necessity. It is only one of many other plausible suggestions.

 As Meier continues his argument, we find that this third phrase actually gives him quite a bit of trouble. Indeed, it leads him several times in outright self-contradiction: the very evidence he claims at one point in his text to support the phrase's interpolated status is found, at another point of the text, to support its authenticity. Meier's text works against himself, leading, in his own words, to paradox (p. 67).

The argument from Christian content

The content of the third passage is "obviously Christian," as Meier says. After all, it describes the appearance of Jesus alive again to the disciples. But Christian content does not mean that the writer was a Christian. The writer may only be reporting what Christians believe.

The key is whether the passage is an "affirmation" rather than a report. If an affirmation, then Meier is correct in saying that it is "clearly a Christian profession of faith, including a creedal 'according to the scriptures (cf. 1 Cor 15:5)."

The new evidence shows that Meier's interpretation of the passage as a creedal statement is correct. What is not correct is thinking there are only two alternatives: either attribute the creed to Josephus or to a later Christian. There is a third way: the creed was in Josephus' source.

The evidence of the Emmaus narrative is that the creedal statement was actually in Josephus' source document, and that source was indeed a profession of faith in the form of the Lukan kerygma.

In that case, either Josephus assumed his passage was obviously the beliefs of the people he was describing rather than himself, or else the passage has been altered. It may have been prefaced by a simple phrase such as "They reportedů" One can ask, which is more plausible as a Christian alteration: (a) the deletion the two or three words at the beginning of the sentence, or (b) the addition of all twenty words as a whole, complete with imitation of Josephus' style (see below) and multiple accidental resemblances to the Emmaus passage?

Meier considers briefly and then discards the idea that Josephus meant the resurrection statement as a report. He states:


" Dubarle seeks to save the post-mortem appearance for Josephus by rewriting the text to make this statement the object of the disciple' preaching. In my view, Dubarle's reconstruction rests on a shaky foundation: he follows the 'majority vote' among the various indirect witnesses to the Testimonium in the Church fathers." (p.61)
The reference is to A.-M. Dubarle, "Le temoignage de Josephe sur Jesus d'apres la tradition indirecte", RB 80 (1973) 481-513. Meier does not address the plausibility of the suggestion, but rather the method of proof used by Dubarle. Since Meier produces no superior proof to support his own view, he should have rather allowed that either Dubarle's general view was as likely as his own.

 Indeed, Dubarle was neither the only nor the first prominent scholar to make the suggestion that the disciple's resurrection experience was reported, not affirmed, in the Testimonium. Meier finds this curious, but without explaining why:

 "Curiously, a similar view [to Dubarle's] is found in the theories of Eisler and Thackeray, who read ephane gar qutois, etc., as indirect discourse in the original text (Thackeray, "Josephus and Christianity", 147)." (note 30 p. 77)
In short, one must conclude that Meier has simply sidestepped this alternative idea, one which "at first glance" seems much simpler than his own. Thus the Emmaus evidence is not weakened by the "Christian content" argument: because the evidence is that such content was already present in Josephus' source.


The argument from style

Studying vocabulary of Josephus using the Rengstorf concordance of all words in Josephus, Meier demonstrates that without the three phrases, the remainder conforms to Josephus's usage. This again serves the central purpose of justifying an authentic core to the Testimonium. But it is not sufficient to show that Meier's reconstruction is the correct one; for the vocabulary studies, he admits, also validate the third phrase as possibly authentic.

The argument from style is presented in the lengthy footnotes 41 and 42, pp. 80-83. (Meier places the more scholarly reader in the footnotes to preserve the main text for the general reader.) Much of this involves the substantial stylistic evidence for core authenticity, which the Emmaus evidence also confirms.

"It must also be admitted that Josephus likewise uses all the words found in the three interpolations. In a few cases, the usage is more Josephan than that of the New Testament." (p. 83).
Meier's examples of the latter usage appear in his third interpolation. So in fact the argument from style actually tends to support the composition of the third "interpolation" by Josephus, according to Meier himself. He does acquiesce in this:
 "Hence, in the case of the three interpolations, the major argument against their authenticity is from content." (p. 83)
And, as shown above, the argument from content agrees with the Emmaus evidence that the third "interpolation" was in fact authentic, although slightly altered.


The argument from Agapius

 Meier makes little use of the tenth-century Arabic text cited in the work of Agapius. The Emmaus evidence, rather, indicates the Agapius text as a whole is likely to have been derived from the original Testimonium, one without Christian interpolations.
The Agapius text, in fact, supports the idea that the resurrection statement was in the original accompanied by a statement showing it is merely a report, not a belief of Josephus'. The text states at this point:

 They reported that he had appeared to them three days after the crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. (Translation of Shlomo Pines).
Note the sentence begins they reported, as required by the Emmaus argument.

Yet Meier does not use Agapius. If he did, then he would have had difficulty supporting the third passage as an interpolation. On what grounds, then, does Meier not take this into account?

The first reason (n. 37, p. 78) is that the text is not Greek but a double translation, hence suspect. That would explain some of the deletions and changes in word order, Yet it would not explain the presence of the resurrection passage. Translation from Greek to Arabic couldn't produce this passage, no matter how garbled the translation!

Then what reason does Meier give for not regarding Agapius as a possibly authentic witness?

"Personally, I am doubtful that this 10th-century Arabic manuscript preserves the original form of the Testimonium, especially since it contains sentences that, as I have just argued, are probably later expansions or variants of the text." (n. 37, pp. 78-79)
This reasoning forms a perfect circle. Meier will not use Agapius as evidence the third interpolation is actually authentic, because Agapius isn't authentic -- why? -- because it contains the third interpolation!

One must unfortunately conclude that Meier, by his own statement, has ignored the text principally because it contradicts his own proposal.

In short, there is no solid reason to doubt the evidence of Agapius on this particular point of the resurrection passage; hence, its support of the Emmaus evidence stands.


The argument from christological content

An argument for the core authenticity of the Testimonium as a whole is given by its theological thrust. Meier notes that if the interpolations he identifies are removed, then "the 'christology' of the core statement is extremely low" (p. 63). Again, while this supports general authenticity (for reasons further explained in the book), Meier agrees that it does not identify any particular interpolations:

 "Indeed, even if we were to include the three passages I designate as Christian, the christology would still be jejune for any Christian of the patristic or medieval periodů" (p. 64)
 To go even further, the exclusion of the third passage actually causes trouble for Meier later on. He states he would expect that any passage by Josephus describing the Christians should include a reference to the resurrection, because that was their core belief!

 Because Meier deletes this reference, he is left with something "strange." a "paradox," and must conclude that Josephus did not use a Christian source.

 The converse argument is that the passage did appear in the original, and therefore Josephus did use a Christian source.

Here is the problem Meier comes to by his own deletion of the resurrection account from the Testimonium:

"If my reconstruction is correct, while the Testimonium gives a fairly objective, brief account of Jesus' career, nothing is said about the Christians' belief that Jesus rose from the dead - and that, after all, was the central affirmation of faith that held the various Christian groups together during the first century. That Josephus drew directly on oral statements of Christians and yet failed to mention the one belief that differentiated them markedly from the wide range of Jewish beliefs at the time seems difficult to accept. My sense is that, paradoxically, Josephus seems to have known more about Jesus than he did about the Christians who came after him. Hence I remain doubtful about any direct oral Christian source for the Testimonium." (p. 67)
The converse to the last sentence must be that if Josephus did include a statement that Jesus appeared alive again, then Meier would readily argue that Josephus used a direct Christian source. That is just what the evidence from Emmaus shows.


    Meier's principal goal in his Chapter 3 of A Marginal Jew was to support the plausibility of an authentic core to the Testimonium and the implausibility of the concept of total forgery. The reconstruction of this original core was of secondary importance to his project. Thus the argument for the particular reconstruction is not very solid.

    It has been shown above that the reasons for deleting the resurrection passage in the Testimonium are weaker than those for including it. They are as follows,

    1. The argument from Christian content cannot distinguish the type of alteration that occurred to the passage. It is much simpler for a later scribe to delete the words "they reported" than to insert an entire sentence in Josephus' style. The Christian content can as well be explained as deriving from Josephus' source as from a later forger.

    2. Meier's analysis of Josephus versus New Testament style in fact supports the Josephan composition of the passage, as he himself notes.

    3. The evidence from the Arabic text of Agapius supports the presence of the resurrection passage. The only reasoning produced for ignoring this evidence is circular.

    4. The low christological content of the Testimonium as a whole is not altered by retaining the resurrection passage.  The beliefs of his contemporary Christians argue for the necessity for the inclusion of such a passage by Josephus; excluding it results in paradox.

    Thus Meier's reconstruction and arguments would be improved by accepting the resurrection passage as genuine, albeit with a few additional words. This is what the Emmaus evidence supports.

The conclusion is that Meier's argument in his Chapter 3 does not contradict the new evidence; in fact, the two support each other. In the light of the Emmaus evidence Meier's analysis, aside from his opinion about the resurrection passage, has turned out to be entirely correct.