Josephus & Jesus

8 Sep

[#1 in a Series on Non-Biblical References to Jesus]

During the Q&A session of my most recent public debate, someone asked if there were any non-New Testament biblical references to Jesus. Certainly – Josephus is one such example.

Flavius Josephus (37–97 AD) was a Jewish historian. Without his writings, there is much in the ancient world we would know nothing (or very little) about: Caligula’s death, Claudius’ ascension, the Herods, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Much of our information about Roman military operations from this era comes from his pen.

Was he generally accurate? One well-known historian said, “Josephus did not quite equal the national historian of Rome [Livy] in literary merit, though he perhaps matched him in accuracy of statement”. [Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963), 24.]

Josephus was a specialist of sorts on Palestine and Jewish history. He took note of a great number of happenings in the region. In every manuscript of Josephus extant, he mentions Jesus of Nazareth.

The official Latin name for Josephus’ Jesus passage is the Testimonium Flavianum, sometimes this is referred to as the TF for short. Is the passage authentic? The consensus is a qualified “yes”. It is authentic but some definite corrections need to be made to get at the original wording. It is obvious that scribes monkeyed around with the text, and little by little, it was modified. Today, very few experts believe it to be 100% authentic. The main problem: Josephus said things concerning Jesus in the TF that he, as a non-Christian Jew, would never have said.

For example “if it be lawful to call him a man”, “he was the Christ” and “he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”. If Josephus said any of these things, he would have been a Christ-follower himself! Yet, he most certainly was not.

The early church writer Origen (ca. 185–254 AD) said that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (Contra Celsum 1:47). Justin Martyr made a similar comment about Josephus. Origen’s mention leads us to ask, “how did Origen know Josephus did not  believe Jesus was the Messiah”? The only reasonable answer is Origen knew of some earlier form of the TF, which contained a brief report on the life of Jesus without an ascent that Jesus was the Messiah. It is not difficult to show that our current Arabic version of Josephus easily fits this description.

With the discovery of a new Arabic version of Josephus, our understanding of the TF changed. The Arabic version of Josephus is from 10th century Melkite historian Agapius and is called Kitab Al-Unwan Al-Mukallal Bi-Fadail Al-Hikma Al-Mutawwaj Bi-Anwa Al-Falsafa Al-Manduh Bi-Haqaq Al-Marifa. Before this, all we had were a few Greek manuscripts, most notably P, which dates from the 9th century and A, dating from the 10th century. [For a solid treatment on the Arabic version of Josephus, see James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1988), 95-96]. The newly discovered Arabic version was shorter than our other manuscripts containing the TF and did not contain the obvious interpolations. It was released to the general public by Professor Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1971 and reads thus:


At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. (Antiquities 18:3)

Josephus scholar Steve Mason demonstrated that once we eliminate the obvious interpolations, the grammar becomes much more Josephus-like, whereas before some of the grammar was uncharacteristic of Josephus. [Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 171.]

For example, “wise man” appears in Ant. 8.53 and 10.237. The exact phrase “incredible deeds” occurs in Ant. 9.182 and 12.63. “Leading men” shows up in Ant. 17.81; 18.7, 99, 121, and 376. Mason points out that the phrase “about this time” appears whenever Josephus “is weaving together distinct episodes into a coherent narrative” such as in Antiquities 17.19; 18:39, 65, 80; 19:278. Mason then shows exactly how Josephus did this in regards to the TF.

Ant. 18.35 has Pilate arriving in Judea. Mason points out that his arrival is followed by six separate undesirable events, four of which take place in Palestine directly under Pilate, and many of them which are his fault. Two unfortunate and tangentially related incidents (the fourth and the fifth) take place at a contemporary time but are in Rome. For the sixth incident, Josephus returns to Palestine under Pilate and ends the passage with Pilate’s removal from his position in Ant. 18.88-89. The third incident in this series is the “Jesus affair”.

All of these taken together, even though they are out of chronological order, “serve Josephus’ larger literary aims” and “paint a picture of escalating tension for Jews around the world”. [Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 164.] These considerations taken together led Thackery to declare, “The evidence of language, which, on the one hand, bears marks of the author’s style, and on the other is not such as a Christian would have used, appears to me decisive”. [Josephus: The Man and the Historian (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007), 137. Especially review the detailed analysis of Josephus’ vocabulary and literary style on 140-148.]

As we take a closer look at the Arabic version of the TF passage again, there is nothing in this version, which seems to represent a better and older manuscript strand than our previous copies, that an honest Jewish man living in the first century would reject. But, what about the reference to Jesus as the possible Messiah?

“To a man of the temperament of Josephus”, writes F.J. Foakes-Jackson,  “anyone who claimed to be a Messiah, let alone the Messiah, was eminently undesirable. The word Christ must have been to Josephus a term of contempt, and even of reproach”. [ Josephus and the Jews: The Religion and History of the Jews as Explained by Flavius Josephus (New York: Smith, 1930), 90.]

Moreover, Josephus mentions Jesus in passing in another section of his Antiquites (20:9), in reference to James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. Some translators render this phrase as “the so-called Christ”. Either way, it is not a hearty endorsement of Jesus as the Christ. It simply states that some called Jesus the Christ, which of course was true. Josephus scholar Louis Feldman, tells us “few have doubted the genuineness of this passage on James”. [Josephus X (LCL 456; London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1965), 108.] Indeed, the one does not make sense without the other.

Very few people (internet Christ-Mythers aside) today believe the TF is a complete interpolation. The authenticity of key portions o
the TF is clear to all but the most radical Christ-Mythicists, who go out of their way to try to argue it out of existence. G.A. Wells thinks “the whole paragraph has been interpolated”. [The Jesus Myth (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1999), 202.] It is significant that nearly all commentators who agree with this view are incidentally adherents to the Christ-Myth thesis. Why? Any individual denying the existence of a historical Jesus must deny the authenticity of this passage or their case is grounded before ever taking flight. So they do.

I have noticed that many people who describe themselves as ‘skeptics first’ (in general terms, I don’t mean they literally use that phrase) and ‘atheists second’ tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theories, a category in which the Christ-Myth hypothesis most certainly belongs. Alternatively, it seems those who describe themselves as ‘atheists first’ are only overly skeptical of anything they think may help the case for Christianity and yet overly credulous and shockingly unskeptical towards any theory detrimental towards Christianity.

Case in point is Jim Lippard, founder and former president of the Phoenix Skeptics Society and a prominent Arizona skeptic/atheist. In an online review of the film Zeitgeist, a big advocate of the Christ-Myth hypothesis, Jim described Zeitgeist as “pernicious nonsense” and “almost entirely garbage, dependent on crackpot sources”. On the TF, and hence, on the existence of a historical Jesus, Jim wrote this: “I think the Arabic text of Josephus’ reference to Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews provides strong evidence that Josephus did refer to a historical Jesus and that his text was altered by later Christian interpolation rather than an insertion completely made up out of whole cloth.”

I could not have said it better.


Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing further education at Talbot.

3 Responses to “Josephus & Jesus”

  1. James, brother of Jesus November 3, 2013 at 5:49 am #

    This is really interesting. I was not aware of the Arabic manuscript. i have been struggling with a lot of these issues on my own blog that looks at the NT as if it were a text from any other ancient author. I’m neither pro- nor anti-Christian; just trying to apply some basic techniques of historical analysis. I quite agree that this reconstruction seems , even if it sort of puts a hole in a pet thesis.

    • Vocab Malone of Backpack Radio November 4, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

      I am given to understand that scholars suspicious of the TF as we had it then actually reconstructed a proposed emendation to the text based on informed speculation. Ironically enough, the Arabic TF (discovered later) nearly matches their reworked passage.

  2. James, brother of Jesus November 6, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    My sense is that Josephus did say something about Jesus, but that it’s difficult (at least, for me) to say exactly what. Even a cursory reading of the Greek, to me, indicates it’s been heavily doctored. Ironically, the part I thought that was most apt to be accurate was the description of Jesus as a wonder-worker. This is not exactly a term of praise; my thought was that if Christians invented the whole thing later, they would have come up with something a lot more convincing than ‘wonder-worker’. But it’s not there in the Arabic. Oh well.

    I discuss this (and a lot of other things) on my blog. Forgive the shameless plug, the point of the web is to create communities.

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