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Revising Josephus

In response to:

The Uses of Fakery from the December 6, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to comment on a point raised in H.R. Trevor-Roper’s review of Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship by Anthony Grafton [NYR, December 6, 1990]. In this, he says;

Scaliger removed the Christian interpolations from the works of the Jewish historian Josephus…

There is only one passage in Josephus that is particularly suspect; this is the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum,” a brief description of Jesus in book 18 of “The Antiquities of the Jews.” I have been researching the origins of criticism of this passage. For centuries, it had been taken as a pagan witness to Biblical events, even reproduced in some editions of the Bible, until it was criticised in the sixteenth century.

However, credit for this first attack does not go to Scaliger, it falls on his contemporary, Hubert van Giffen (Giphanius), born in 1534. He was an eminent philologist and lawyer, a Protestant scholar and sometime university lecturer, who “embraced Catholicism” (as Eisler puts it) and died a wealthy and respected man. He was too cautious to publish on such a controversial matter, but was named from the seventeenth century onwards as the first to denounce the T.F. as a Christian interpolation.

The first printed attack is ascribed to Lucas Osiander, a Lutheran priest and publisher. His father had been the first to print the theories of Copernicus, and Lucas followed in publishing controversial works. However, this first statement was either minor or has been forgotten, as there appears to be no such work today.

The first important publication was in 1655 by Tanaquil Faber (Tannegui Lefebvre), a paper entitled “Flavii Josephi de Jesu Dom. testimonium suppositum esse T. Fabri diatriba.” In this, he suggests that Eusebius, a Christian historian of the fourth century, forged the T.F. to suit his purposes.

Faber published long after the deaths of Giffen and Scaliger; the debate was maintained in between 1600 and 1655 by letters. These were reprinted as an anthology by Christoph Arnold in 1661. Unfortunately, this does not include anything either to or from Scaliger.

So where does Scaliger fit in? There is nothing in his bibliography to suggest he did any major work on Josephus, or even wrote about him, unless it is hidden away in the later collections of Scaligeriana published after his death. Either he has been strangely overlooked for all these years, or other scholars had some reason for ignoring him. Faber makes no mention of him (1655), nor Bosius (1673) despite describing earlier scholars such as Giffen and Osiander. Nathaniel Forster was typical of the English academic community in defending the T.F. but he acknowledged Giffen and Osiander (1749). Eisler compiled a brief history of criticism of the T.F. in his controversial book, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (German 1929; English 1931) but does not mention Scaliger. Schreckenberg’s Bibliographie zu Flavius-Josephus lists Faber as being the first to publish an attack on the authenticity of the “Testimonium Flavianum,” but mentions Giffen in a note.

If either the reviewer or the author could explain the importance of Scaliger, I would be very grateful.

Peter B. Nowell
St. Chad’s College
Durham, England

H.R Trevor-Roper replies:

There are surely three suspect “Christian” passages in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, iii, 3; XVIII, v, 2; XX, ix, 1). Scaliger’s observations on them are general: “Quel danger y est-il eu que Josephe n’est point fait mention de Jesus Christ! Ce sont des chrestiens qui y ont adjousté cela.” Like the other scholars named by Mr. Nowell, he was too prudent to publish such views: they were printed, after his death, in Scaligeriana. Evidently I was wrong to give all the credit to him. I accept the correction. The error was mine, not Mr. Grafton’s.

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