Is Richard Carrier Wrong About What Josephus and the Pharisees Believed?

In The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Richard Carrier attempts to argue that Paul espouses a view of the resurrection of Jesus, in which he receives an entirely new resurrection body, leaving the old body behind to decompose. This serves Carrier’s apologetic agenda well as it would serve to lay the foundation for the empty tomb as a later legend. Carrier seeks to increase the plausibility of his “two body” resurrection theory by citing several passages in Josephus which are alleged to espouse just such a view. As we will see, he leaves out essential background evidence regarding Josephus’ authorial tendencies, and fails to bring forth anything from Josephus that is incompatible with the standard view in which the resurrection is a transformation of the previous body of the deceased.

1. Josephus is perfectly compatible with the widely-attested two-stage resurrection view.

Carrier’s exegesis of the relevant passages in Josephus amounts to simply quoting a few passages, giving us an expanded definition of a Greek word here and there, and confidently assuming that his “plain reading” interpretation leaps right off the page at us. On p. 112, Carrier first quotes from The Wars of the Jews 2.163:

"Though every soul is incorruptible, only that of good men crosses over into another body, while that of bad men is punished by eternal retribution.”

Carrier tells us that his “two body” theory of resurrection, in which the former body remains in the grave and an entirely new body is created for an individual, could not have been stated any clearer in this passage (The Empty Tomb, p. 112). Of course, it could be much clearer. Josephus could have said “while their old body rots in the grave, their new body will be created in heaven” or any number of things that would clearly conform to Carrier’s theory. This passage, though, is entirely compatible with the two-stage resurrection espoused by Wright and others, in which the soul returns to what is indeed a new body, transformed from that which formerly lied in the dust. Wright, in his discussion of resurrection in the apocalyptic texts of post-biblical Judaism, says that the righteous individual hopes for “a newly embodied, and probably significantly transformed, existence.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.162). Indeed, Wright says that the martyrs of 2 Maccabees, which he thinks “provides far and away the clearest picture of the promise of resurrection anywhere in the period” (Ibid., p. 150), will be “given new bodies” (Ibid., p. 152). Gundry interprets “another body” in the passage cited by Carrier as probably referring to “a renewed body rather than a brand new one.” (Jesus’ Resurrection: Factor Figment?, p. 118 fn. 16) Whether the resurrection body is considered to be “another”, “new”, or “renewed” body, this passage in Josephus simply does not explicitly address whether or not it will be a transformation of the body that has previously died, and it is quite compatible with the notion.

On p. 113, Carrier then quotes from The Wars of the Jews 3.372, 374-375:

“The bodies of all men are indeed mortal, and are created out of corruptible matter, but the soul is forever immortal, and is a part of God that inhabits our bodies.... Don’t you know that those who exist this life according the law of nature, and pay that debt received from God, when he that gave it wants it back again…then the souls that remain pure and obedient obtain from God the holiest place in heaven, and from there, after the completion of the ages, they are instead sent again into undefiled bodies.”

Carrier tells us that Josephus means to say that these undefiled bodies will be “brand new”. But his treatment of the Greek seems to only lead us to believe that the new bodies will be “pure, chaste, holy” or “unpolluted” as he says. Again, there is nothing in any of this that works against the “undefiled” bodies that the souls of the righteous will be “sent into” being a transformation of the former deceased body. Even if Josephus had said the resurrection body will be “brand new” as Carrier interprets him, barring Josephus explicitly telling us that it will not be continuous with the old body (in the sense that the old body transforms into the “brand new”), we could never rule this option out.

Carrier then goes on to quote Against Apion 2.218 to the effect that the righteous will be “created again and get a better life…” (in fn. 49 on p.203, Carrier renders genesthai te palin literally as “come into existence again”, Whiston’s translation has “come into being again”, and Wright’s translation is “given ... a renewed existence”). Josephus here is simply referring to the whole individual being brought into a new mode of existence which is not at all incompatible with the old body being transformed into a new body. Even if we thought the best translation was “created again”, since we know the souls of the righteous will not be recreated but reinserted, Josephus obviously need not be referring to an entirely new creation. In other words, for Josephus, “created again” can and does absolutely encompass some form of continuity between one entity and another. There is simply nothing here that argues against the continuity of the old body transforming into the new.

2. In the passages cited by Carrier, most scholars believe that Josephus is expressing resurrection in Greek philosophical terms – even that Josephus is being intentionally ambiguous about his meaning. So not only must we approach these passages with caution, but even if they express the views Carrier claims they do, we cannot accept them as accurately representing the views of the Pharisees or other Jews.

Josephus, throughout his writings, always has it in mind to explain and exalt the antiquity and legitimacy of Jewish practice and belief to the Romans. In the course of this, he often made certain facets of Judaism conform to Greco-Roman values and categories. All of the major figures of Judaism live philosophical lives. As the ideal philosopher-king in Plato ought to possess great beauty (Plato Rep. 7.535), it was Joseph’s handsomeness that won him favor with his father, Moses’ beauty as an infant which lures in Pharoah’s daughter, and special attention is called to the beauty of David, Saul, and Absalom as well. Josephus, being aware of the importance of the virtue of temperance to the Greeks, praises Moses for his self-control (Ant 4.318-29), omits mention of Elisha cursing the children who mock him, and tells us that Jehu, whom the Bible says drove his chariot like a madman on a certain occasion (2 Kings 9:20), is said to drive it “slowly and in good order” (Ant. 9.117). Throughout his works, Josephus invents, rewrites, and omits numerous Biblical episodes to emphasize virtues particularly appealing to Greeks such as humanity, hospitality, humility, piety, and gratefulness (for more on this see L.H. Feldman, “Josephus: Interpretive Methods and Tendencies” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, p. 590-595). D. P. Nystrom tells us that, Josephus, as “an apologist for his people and for himself”, “cited hubris to explain human behavior, noted parallels between the Pharisees and the Stoics”, and “applied the four cardinal Hellenistic virtues to biblical figures”, all in an effort to “appeal to Roman sensibilities” (“Josephus” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, p. 599). In Antiquities, Josephus “pictures Jewish leaders in terms reminiscent of Plato’s philosopher-king and all but ignores the covenant.” (Ibid., p. 600)

Wright lists Josephus’ “description of Jewish parties as philosophical schools” as one of the many lines of “evidence, in Josephus and elsewhere, that he and others did ‘translate’ Jewish ideas into Greek ones” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 176 fn. 200). According to Wright, “When ... Josephus is describing the official positions of the ‘schools’ or ‘philosophies’, he does his best to make them correspond to the three major schools of Greco-roman thought, the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Pythagorean”(Ibid., p. 177).

Other scholars agree. Particularly regarding beliefs about resurrection and the afterlife, Eric Eve warns that Josephus “must be read with caution”, because “he seems to be dressing up Jewish ideas as Greek philosophies in order to impress a Graeco-Roman audience.” [“Life after Death in the New Testament”, ]

Alan Segal writes that “All his writings were meant to explain Judaism to the educated Roman audience.... Josephus used philosophical terminology in a more popular way to make Jewish notions of the afterlife understandable to his educated pagan Roman audience” (Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, p. 375). Segal even goes so far as to say that “Because Josephus was involved in a very tricky hermeneutical process in explaining Jewish beliefs for a sophisticated, philosophical pagan audience, whose notions of the afterlife were deeply affected by Greek philosophy, exactly what the Pharisees believed is not recoverable from him”(Ibid., p. 381).

Bauckham writes that “Josephus expresses his own beliefs in thoroughly Greek ways. And he even – evidently for the benefit of his Gentile readers – reports the views of other Jews in much more Greek terms than they themselves would have used. So, for example, when he claims that the Pharisees believed in reincarnation (Jewish War 2.164), he should be seen as translating their expectation of bodily resurrection – a belief that non-Jews in the Greco-Roman world found very strange – into a form that was familiar to Gentile readers” (Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker, p. 90).

In the passages cited by Carrier, Wright states that “Josephus is referring to the doctrine of bodily resurrection, even though using language which by itself would be capable of connoting other views – understandable enough when seeking to communicate with non-Jews, whose age-old disbelief in resurrection Josephus would know well enough. It was not part of his purpose, at this point at least, to make the leading Jewish sect look ridiculous to his readers” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 177-178). And elsewhere, “He did not want them [his pagan audience] to mock either him or those Jewish ‘schools’ of thought he was anxious to commend. That is why the description of the Pharisees’ viewpoint sounds from time to time more like some version of transmigration, a variant on a known pagan possibility, rather than a shocking Jewish innovation” (Ibid., p. 181). In Ant 18.14, Josephus further accommodates pagan thought by claiming that rewards and punishments are meted out “under the earth”, though he has earlier supposed that the righteous go right to heaven to be with God (Ibid., p. 178). On pages 324-327 of his The New Testament and the People of God, Wright points out that Josephus seems to be much more ambiguous about the afterlife in his later works, and if we did not have the earlier War 3.372-375 as an interpretive key, we might not know that Josephus is talking about resurrection at all, and suppose him to be talking about transmigration of the soul, or mere immortality of the soul. This type of audience accommodation on the part of Josephus also makes good sense of the fact that he fails to use the word “resurrection” at all in any of these passages.

Now all of the above is generally common knowledge amongst scholars. Even if Carrier were ignorant of these issues, how he can leave discussion of these interpretive difficulties out and take Josephus at face-value, given that they are discussed in many of the sources Carrier himself interacts with, is puzzling to say the least. If Josephus has a motive to be ambiguous or even misleading in regards to resurrection belief, especially regarding the Pharisees, whose conceived role as ideal representatives of Judaism and mediators with Rome he would do nothing to jeopardize, then we ought not to be surprised that Carrier can read non-Jewish views into his descriptions of Pharisaic resurrection belief. This indeed is the aim of Josephus. But as we have seen, probably more in line with what Josephus and the Pharisees actually believed, the standard two-stage resurrection belief, that is already a precedent in 2nd Temple Judaism, coheres quite well with what Josephus writes anyway.

In conclusion, Carrier’s assertion to the effect that “It…cannot be doubted that a two-body doctrine was feasible and even attractive to some first-century Jews, even Pharisees” (p. 113) is without foundation. We find no evidence for the doctrine here (or anywhere else for that matter – as we will continue to demonstrate). The apologetic and accommodating language of Josephus, in appealing to his Roman audience, can ably explain the ambiguity in his language, and were it his intent to portray the body of the deceased decomposing in the grave, given his audience, it is indeed unlikely that he would not have made this explicit. This, coupled with the fact that this “two body” doctrine doesn’t surface anywhere else in the world of 2nd Temple Judaism, especially in the trajectory of the Pharisaic Rabbinic writings, though the two-stage view of scholars like Wright is well-attested and entirely compatible with the passages in Josephus, makes his interpretation unlikely.


BK said…

Excellent! I hope that you find more time to post in the future because contributions like this are, as in the credit card commercials, priceless.
Layman said…
Important contribution. And nothing from Mr. Carr yet. :)

Popular posts from this blog

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief and reason

Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

Bayes Theorem And Probability of God: No Dice!

The Meaning of the Manger

If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?

The Origin of Life and the Fallacy of Composition

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"