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OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 1

I was going to post some references Richard Carrier uses in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) to provide a model of the mythical Jesus belief. Instead I’m just going to jump ahead and start looking at some of the later chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 are rather lengthy chapters that supply background knowledge. That is, things you need to know about early Christianity and the surrounding culture at the time. Chapter 6 is devoted to determining a prior probability for historicity as briefly mentioned in the second post of this series. Chapter 7 is a cataloging of what different types of evidence are relevant to examine. Chapter 8 begins the examination of the evidence by looking at evidence outside the New Testament canon (i.e. extrabiblical evidence), the first part of which I’ll be looking at here.

This first section of Chapter 8 is titled ‘Jesus When?’ and discusses a few traditions about Jesus with oddly variant details. He mentions in passing the conflicting dates of Jesus’ birth in the canonical gospels. Also, mentioned is 2nd century church father Irenaeus’ belief that Jesus had been crucified under Claudius instead of Tiberius.

The primary focus however is on a tradition that Jesus had lived during the time of Alexander Jannaeus who was the king of Judea from 103 BC to 76 BC. It is this discrepancy Carrier uses as a piece of evidence, which he counts against the historicity of Jesus (he thinks it is 2/1 against but allows that someone might adopt a smaller ratio like 5/4). His reasoning is that it must be easier, and therefore happen more often, to place a non-historical person in completely different time periods.

Carrier presents his case like this: he says Epiphanius, a 4th century bishop and heresiologist, documents a Jewish-Christian sect called the Nazorians and tells us they preached that Jesus had lived and died under Jannaeus (OHJ p. 281-82). Carrier goes on to say that the Babylonian Talmud of the Jews confirms this belief and appears to know no other view.

As far as I can tell Carrier has things wrong here. Epiphanius is not reporting the beliefs of any Jewish-Christian sect. He doesn’t directly say he is reporting what someone else has said, like I found he often does in other chapters when reporting a heresy he knows of. He doesn’t voice any disapproval which he usually does, often with very colorful, insulting language. Nor does he offer a corrective. Instead, to me, it reads as if he has simply gone off on a series of digressions, as he frequently does, and landed on the Jesus under Jannaeus thing as an apologetic response to a question that ‘someone might say’.

I’ll just quote the beginning of the relevant chapter (29) from the book in question, Panarion, copied from this site only for convenience (and not as endorsement of its subject matter which is Gerald Massey). I can’t speak to any issues regarding translation but there seem to be some differences between Carrier’s translation and the Frank Williams translation published by Brill. In the below quotation only the paragraph noted as such is in OHJ.

Epiphanius - Panarion - Chapter 29

Part 29. Epiphanius Against the Nazoraeans

Introduces the sect he’ll be discussing (eventually!)

1:1 Next after these come the Nazoraeans, at the same time as they or even before them—either together with them or after them, in any case their contemporaries. I cannot say more precisely who succeeded whom. For, as I said, these were contemporary with each other, and had ideas similar to each other’s.

1:2 For these people did not give themselves the name of Christ or Jesus’ own name, but that of ‘Nazoraeans.’

Explains that, per Acts 24:5, all Christians were initially called Nazoraeans. Also, mistakenly, thinks the Jessaeans Philo wrote about were another name for Christians

1:3 But at that time all Christians alike were called Nazoraeans. They also came to be called ‘Jessaeans’ for a short while, before the disciples began to be called Christians at Antioch.

Digresses to explain where the name Jessaeans comes from

1:4 But they were called Jessaeans because of Jesse, I suppose, since David was descended from Jesse and Mary was a lineal descendant of David. This was in fulfilment of sacred scripture, since in the Old Testament the Lord tells David, ‘Of the fruit of thy belly shall I set upon thy throne.’

Digresses to explain the ‘fruit of thy belly’ reference

2:1 I am afraid of drawing the treatment of every expression out too long [too late!] and so, though the truth moves me to touch on the considerations for contemplation in every expression, I give this note in brief, not to go to great length in giving the explanation.

2:2 Since the Lord said to David, ‘Of the fruit of thy belly shall I set upon the throne,’ and, ‘The Lord sware unto David and will not repent,’ it is plain that God’s promise is irrevocable.

2:3 In the first place, what does God have to swear by but ‘By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord?’—for ‘God hath no oath by a greater.’ The divine does not swear, however, but the statement has the function of providing confirmation. For the Lord swore to David with an oath that he would set the fruit of his belly upon his throne.

2:4 And the apostles bear witness that Christ had to be born of David’s seed, as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ indeed was. I shall pass over the vast number of testimonies, in order, as I said, not to drag the discussion out to great length.

Who might say? Well, who knows? But, this is as good as place as any I guess for a random apologetic for a guy like Epiphanius.

2:5 But probably someone might say, ‘Since Christ was physically born of David’s seed, that is, of the Holy Virgin Mary, why is he not sitting on David’s throne? For the Gospel says, ‘They came that they might anoint him king, and when Jesus perceived this he departed … and hid himself in Ephraim, a city of the wilderness.’ ‘

2:6 But now that I have gotten to this passage and am asked about this text [Umm, you asked yourself, but OK!] and the reason why the prophecy about sitting on David’s throne has not been fulfilled physically in the Saviour’s case—for some have thought that it has not—I shall still say that it is a fact [How very rational of you.]. No word of God’s holy scripture comes to nothing.

Here begins the part quoted in Carrier’s book and I’ll just use his translation (OHJ p. 282)

The priesthood in the holy church is [actually] David’s throne and kingly seat, for the Lord joined together and gave to his holy church both the kingly and high-priestly dignity, transferring to it the never-failing throne of David. For David’s throne endured in line of succession until the time of Christ himself, rulers from Judah not failing until he came ‘to whom the things kept in reserve belong, and he was the expectation of the nations’. With the advent of the Christ the rulers in line of succession from Judah, reigning until the time of Christ himself, ceased. For the line fell away and stopped from the time when he was born in Bethlehem of Judea under Alexander, who was of priestly and royal race. From Alexander onward this office ceased – from the days of Alexander and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, to the days of Herod the king and Augustus the Roman emperor. and now back to the previous translation to let Epiphanius finish his argument(Though this Alexander was crowned also, as one of the anointed priests and rulers.

3:5 For when the two tribes, the kingly and priestly, were united—I mean the tribe of Judah with Aaron and the whole tribe of Levi—kings also became priests, for nothing hinted at in holy scripture can be wrong.)

3:6 But then finally a gentile, King Herod, was crowned, and not David’s descendants any more.

3:7 But with the transfer of the royal throne the rank of king passed, in Christ, from the physical house of David and Israel to the church.

From there he goes on for another page, where at one point he references Pilate, before he finally gets back to the Jessaeans and another half page after that before finally getting back to the Nazorians, but only to discuss their name again. Eventually he gets around to telling us where they are located, that they followed the Hebrew Gospel, and otherwise only differed from Christians in that they are in reality Jews (i.e. they still follow the OT law).

I see nothing here to suggest the Nazorians were the ones preaching a Jesus under Jannaeus. It is bizarre, to be sure, for such an orthodox heresy hunter to be saying this but I don’t see any other way to understand what is written.

More Epiphanius
In addition to what I think is a plain reading of the text there is the fact that Epiphanius apparently repeats his claim later. See Panarion Ch. 51 22.20. I’ll include the text here also but instead copy/pasted from GRS Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 BC?.

Epiphanius - Panarion - Chapter 51

“From the time that Augustus became Emperor, for four years, more or less, from [the beginning of] his reign, there had been friendship between the Romans and Jews, and contributions of troops had been sent, and a governor appointed, and some portion of tribute paid to the Romans, until Judaea was made [entirely] subject and became tributary to them, its rulers having ceased from Judah, and Herod being appointed [as ruler] from the Gentiles, being a proselyte, however, and Christ being born in Bethlehem of Judaea, and coming for the preaching [of the Gospel], the anointed rulers from Judah and Aaron having ceased, after continuing until the anointed ruler Alexander and Salina who was also Alexandra; in which days the prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled: ‘A ruler shall not cease from Judah and a leader from his thighs, until lie come for whom it is laid up, and he is the expectation of the nations’ –that is, the Lord who was born.”

So here we see the reference to Jannaeus again but this time in the midst some very clear statements (both before and after this passage) that place Jesus in the normal time-line. I would say it calls into question whether he is intending to place Jesus in the time of Jannaeus in the first place. At any rate, his repeating his confusing statements about Jannaeus here would seem to confirm he was not attributing them to the Nazorians earlier.

So just what the heck is going on here? Since there are very few commentaries on these passages that I could find I was reading GRS Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 BC. He speculates that perhaps Epiphanius is trying to extinguish the Jewish polemic against Jesus by clumsily incorporating its data in his orthodox histories. He appears to have done it at least one other time in the Panarion, in a defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Epiphanius - Panarion - Chapter 78 (7)

Joseph was the brother of Clopas, but the son of Jacob surnamed Panther; both of these brothers were the sons of the man surnamed Panther.

Panther(Pandera) of course was part of the Jewish polemic against Jesus. They said his mother hooked up with a Roman soldier with that name. So here is Epiphanius trying to “explain away” the Jewish polemic by incorporating it into his orthodox narrative. (Or reusing Origen’s attempt to do so?) Perhaps he is doing the same with Jannaeus. That’s Mead’s hypothesis. Either way it appears the references to Jesus under Jannaeus are either an invention of Epiphanius or a response to the Jewish polemic against Jesus and not the beliefs of the Nazorians.

It is possible Carrier has surveyed all of this and has an argument as to why we should view it his way. That argument, however, is not advanced in the book and without it I have to conclude that Epiphanius cannot be called on as independent support of a “Twin Tradition” (especially not of one believed by a group of Christians).