Josephus On Jesus

The extant manuscripts of the writings of the first-century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus include references to Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93–94 AD, includes two references to the biblical Jesus Christ in Books 18 and 20 and a reference to John the Baptist in Book 18. Scholarly opinion varies on the total or partial authenticity of the reference in Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities, a passage that states that Jesus the Messiah was a wise teacher who was crucified by Pilate, usually called the Testimonium Flavianum. The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian interpolation and/or alteration. Although the exact nature and extent of the Christian redaction remains unclear, broad consensus exists as to what the original text of the Testimonium by Josephus would have looked like.

Modern scholarship has largely acknowledged the authenticity of the reference in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” and considers it as having the highest level of authenticity among the references of Josephus to Christianity. Almost all modern scholars consider the reference in Book 18, Chapter 5, 2 of the Antiquities to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist also to be authentic and not a Christian interpolation. The references found in Antiquities have no parallel texts in the other work by Josephus such as The Jewish War, written 20 years earlier, but some scholars have provided explanations for their absence. A number of variations exist between the statements by Josephus regarding the deaths of James and John the Baptist and the New Testament accounts. Scholars generally view these variations as indications that the Josephus passages are not interpolations, for a Christian interpolator would have made them correspond to the New Testament accounts, not differ from them.

The three passages

James the brother of Jesus

Josephus’ reference to James the brother of Jesus

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

   — Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9, 1

In the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, Chapter 9, 1) Josephus refers to the stoning of “James the brother of Jesus” (James the Just) by order of Ananus ben Ananus, a Herodian-era High Priest. The James referred to in this passage is most likely the James to whom the Epistle of James has been attributed. The translations of Josephus’ writing into other languages have at times included passages that are not found in the Greek texts, raising the possibility of interpolation, but this passage on James is found in all manuscripts, including the Greek texts.

The context of the passage is the period following the death of Porcius Festus, and the journey to Alexandria by Lucceius Albinus, the new RomanProcurator of Judea, who held that position from 62 AD to 64 AD. Because Albinus’ journey to Alexandria had to have concluded no later than the summer of 62 AD, the date of James’ death can be assigned with some certainty to around that year. The 2nd century chronicler Hegesippus also left an account of the death of James, and while the details he provides diverge from those of Josephus, the two accounts share similar elements.

Modern scholarship has almost universally acknowledged the authenticity of the reference to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (τὸν ἀδελφὸν Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ, Ἰάκωβος ὄνομα αὐτῷ) and has rejected its being the result of later Christian interpolation. Moreover, in comparison with Hegesippus’ account of James’ death, most scholars consider Josephus’ to be the more historically reliable. However, a few scholars question the authenticity of the reference, based on various arguments, but primarily based on the observation that various details in The Jewish War differ from it.

John the Baptist

Josephus’ reference to John the Baptist
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.
John the Baptist in prison, by Hafner, 1750.

John the Baptist in prison, by Hafner, 1750.

In the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, Chapter 5, 2) Josephus refers to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist by order of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea. The context of this reference is the 36 AD defeat of Herod Antipas in his conflict with Aretas IV of Nabatea, which the Jews of the time attributed to misfortune brought about by Herod’s unjust execution of John.

Almost all modern scholars consider this passage to be authentic in its entirety, although a small number of authors have questioned it. Because the death of John also appears prominently in the Christian gospels, this passage is considered an important connection between the events Josephus recorded, the chronology of the gospels and the dates for the ministry of Jesus. A few scholars have questioned the passage, contending that the absence of Christian tampering or interpolation does not itself prove authenticity. While this passage is the only reference to John the Baptist outside the New Testament, it is widely seen by most scholars as confirming the historicity of the baptisms that John performed. According to Marsh, any contrast between Josephus and the Gospel’s accounts of John would be because the former lacked interest in the messianic element of John’s mission.

While both the gospels and Josephus refer to Herod Antipas killing John the Baptist, they differ on the details and the motive. The gospels present this as a consequence of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias in defiance of Jewish law (as in Matthew 14:4, Mark 6:18); Josephus refers to it as a pre-emptive measure by Herod to quell a possible uprising. Danielou contends that Josephus missed the religious meaning while recording only the political aspect of the conflict between Herod and John, which led to the latter’s death.

While Josephus identifies the location of the imprisonment of John as Machaerus, southeast of the mouth of the Jordan river, the gospels mention no location for the place where John was imprisoned. According to other historical accounts Machaerus was rebuilt by Herod the Great around 30 BC and then passed to Herod Antipas. The 36 AD date of the conflict with Aretas IV (mentioned by Josephus) is consistent with the approximate date of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias estimated by other historical methods.

Testimonium Flavianum

Testimonium Flavianum
Γίνεται δὲ κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Ἰησοῦς σοφὸς ἀνήρ, εἴγε ἄνδρα αὐτὸν λέγειν χρή: ἦν γὰρ παραδόξων ἔργων ποιητής, διδάσκαλος ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡδονῇ τἀληθῆ δεχομένων, καὶ πολλοὺς μὲν Ἰουδαίους, πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ ἐπηγάγετο: ὁ χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν. καὶ αὐτὸν ἐνδείξει τῶν πρώτων ἀνδρῶν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν σταυρῷ ἐπιτετιμηκότος Πιλάτου οὐκ ἐπαύσαντο οἱ τὸ πρῶτον ἀγαπήσαντες: ἐφάνη γὰρ αὐτοῖς τρίτην ἔχων ἡμέραν πάλιν ζῶν τῶν θείων προφητῶν ταῦτά τε καὶ ἄλλα μυρία περὶ αὐτοῦ θαυμάσια εἰρηκότων. εἰς ἔτι τε νῦν τῶν Χριστιανῶν ἀπὸ τοῦδε ὠνομασμένον οὐκ ἐπέλιπε τὸ φῦλον.
[About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.]

—Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3

The Testimonium Flavianum (meaning the testimony of Flavius Josephus) is a passage found in Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 (or see Greek text) of the Antiquities which describes the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Roman authorities. The Testimonium is probably the most discussed passage in Josephus.

The earliest secure reference to this passage is found in the writings of the fourth-century Christian apologist and historian Eusebius, who used Josephus’ works extensively as a source for his own Historia Ecclesiastica. Writing no later than 324, Eusebius quotes the passage in essentially the same form as that preserved in extant manuscripts. It has therefore been suggested that part or all of the passage may have been Eusebius’ own invention, in order to provide an outside Jewish authority for the life of Christ. Some argue that the wording in the Testimonium differs from Josephus’ usual writing style and that as a Jew, he would not have used a word like krystos (χριστὸς), at Josephus’ time being the Greek term for “Messiah”.

Of the three passages found in Josephus’ Antiquities, this passage, if authentic, would offer the most direct support for the crucifixion of Jesus. The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus with a reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate which was then subject to interpolation. James Dunn states that there is “broad consensus” among scholars regarding the nature of an authentic reference to Jesus in the Testimonium and what the passage would look like without the interpolations. Among other things, the authenticity of this passage would help make sense of the later reference in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 where Josephus refers to the stoning of “James the brother of Jesus”. Feldman renders “τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ” not as “who was called Christ” but as “the aforementioned Christ” and sees this as confirmation that he had mentioned Jesus the Christ earlier, namely in the Testimonium.

Ancient and medieval sources

Extant manuscripts

A 1640 edition of the Works of Josephus

A 1640 edition of the Works of Josephus

Josephus wrote all of his surviving works after his establishment in Rome (c. AD 71) under the patronage of the Flavian Emperor Vespasian. As is common with ancient texts, however, there are no extant (surviving) manuscripts of Josephus’ works that can be dated before the 11th century, and the oldest of these are all Greek minuscules, copied by Christian monks. Jews are not known to have preserved the writings of Josephus perhaps because he was considered a traitor, and/or because his works circulated in Greek, the use of which declined among Jews shortly after Josephus’ era. However an adapted Hebrew version was made in the Middle Ages and continues to be used to this day.

There are about 120 extant Greek manuscripts of Josephus, of which 33 predate the 14th century, with two thirds from the Comnenoi period. The earliest surviving Greek manuscript that contains the Testimonium is the 11th century Ambrosianus 370 (F 128), preserved in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which includes almost all of the second half of the Antiquities.  There are about 170 extant Latin translations of Josephus, some of which go back to the sixth century, and according to Louis Feldman have proven very useful in reconstructing the Josephus texts through comparisons with the Greek manuscripts, reconfirming proper names and filling in gaps.

There is considerable evidence, however, that attests to the existence of the references to Jesus in Josephus well before then, including a number of ad hoc copies of Josephus’ work preserved in quotation from the works of Christian writers. The earliest known such reference to Josephus’ work is found in the writings of the third century patristic author Origen, who refers to Josephus’ record of “the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)” in Book I, Chapter XLVII of Against Celsus, including Origen’s observations that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as “the Christ” when mentioning him in the “Antiquities of the Jews”. Reference to the Testimonium Flavianum is found in Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the first decades of the fourth century. Both Origen and Eusebius had access to the Greek versions of Josephus’ texts. The works of Josephus were translated into Latin during the fourth century (possibly by Rufinus), and, in the same century, the Jewish War was “partially rewritten as an anti-Jewish treatise, known today as Pseudo-Hegesippus, but [which] was considered for over a millennium and a half by many Christians as the ipsissima verba of Josephus to his own people.”

One of the reasons the works of Josephus were copied and maintained by Christians was that his writings provided a good deal of information about a number of figures mentioned in the New Testament, and the background to events such as the death of James during a gap in Roman governing authority. Because manuscript transmission was done by hand-copying, typically by monastic scribes, almost all ancient texts have been subject to both accidental and deliberate alterations, emendations (called interpolation) or elisions. Both the lack of any original corroborating manuscript source outside the Christian tradition as well as the practice of Christian interpolation has led to the scholarly debate regarding the authenticity of Josephus’ references to Jesus in his work. Although there is no doubt that most (but not all) of the later copies of the Antiquities contained references to Jesus and John the Baptist, it cannot be definitively shown that these were original to Josephus writings. Much of the scholarly work concerning the references to Jesus in Josephus has concentrated on close textual analysis of the Josephan corpus to determine the degree to which the language, as preserved in both early Christian quotations and the later transmissions, should be considered authentic. However, based on the general expectation of what Josephus would have written on Jesus and the actual statements made by Origen and Jerome, the version used by Michael the Syrian and Agapius (see below, Arabic and Syriac Josephus), the neutral reconstruction of the text has a reasonable probability of being what Josephus actually wrote as they would have had access to earlier copies of the Testimonium.

Slavonic Josephus

The three references found in Book 18 and Book 20 of the Antiquities do not appear in any other versions of Josephus’ The Jewish War except for a Slavonic version of the Testimonium Flavianum (at times called Testimonium Slavonium) which surfaced in the west at the beginning of the 20th century, after its discovery in Russia at the end of the 19th century.

Although originally hailed as authentic (notably by Robert Eisler), it is now almost universally acknowledged by scholars to have been the product of an 11th-century creation as part of a larger ideological struggle against the Khazars. As a result, it has little place in the ongoing debate over the authenticity and nature of the references to Jesus in the Antiquities. Craig A. Evans states that although some scholars had in the past supported the Slavonic Josephus, “to my knowledge no one today believes that they contain anything of value for Jesus research”.

Arabic and Syriac Josephus

In 1971, a 10th-century Arabic version of the Testimonium due to Agapius of Hierapolis was brought to light by Shlomo Pines who also discovered a 12th-century Syriac version of Josephus by Michael the Syrian. These additional manuscript sources of the Testimonium have furnished additional ways to evaluate Josephus’ mention of Jesus in the Antiquities, principally through a close textual comparison between the Arabic, Syriac and Greek versions to the Testimonium.

There are subtle yet key differences between the Greek manuscripts and these texts. For instance, the Arabic version does not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. The key phrase “at the suggestion of the principal men among us” reads instead “Pilate condemned him to be crucified”. Instead of “he was Christ”, the Syriac version has the phrase “he was believed to be Christ”. Drawing on these textual variations, scholars have suggested that these versions of the Testimonium more closely reflect what a non-Christian Jew might have written.

Early references

In the 3rd century, Origen of Alexandria was the first ancient writer to have a comprehensive reference to Josephus, although some other authors had made smaller, general references to Josephus before then, e.g. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the second century, followed by Clement. According to Wataru Mizugaki, Origen explicitly mentions the name of Josephus 11 times, never mentioning the Testimonium, both in Greek and Latin. However, despite the fact that most of Origen’s works only survive in Latin translations, 10 out of the 11 references are in the original Greek. According to Lester L. Grabbe, Origen noted in two works (“Commentary on Matthew” 10.17 and “Contra Celsum” 1.47) that Josephus had mentioned Jesus without recognizing him as the messiah. These were complaints on Origen’s part and this provided an early independent support of the partial Testimonium in the neutral form.

The context for Origen’s references is his defense of Christianity. In Contra Celsum (Book I, Chapter XLVII) as Origen defends the Christian practice of baptism, he recounts Josephus’ reference to the baptisms performed by John the Baptist for the sake of purification. Here Origen also says, “For in the 18th book of his Antiquities[1] of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ”. In Book II, Chapter XIII, Origen mentions Josephus’ reference to the death of James the brother of Jesus and again in his Commentary on Matthew (Book X, Chapter 17) Origen refers to Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews by name and that Josephus had stated that the death of James had brought a wrath upon those who had killed him  and that Jesus was not seen by Josephus as being the Christ.

The 4th century writings of Eusebius of Caesarea refer to Josephus’ account of James, John and Jesus. In his Church History (Book I, Chapter XI) Eusebius discusses the Josephus reference to how Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist, and mentions the marriage to Herodias in items 1 to 6. In the same Book I chapter, in items 7 and 8 Eusebius also discusses the Josephus reference to the crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, a reference that is present in all surviving Eusebius manuscripts.

In Book II, Chapter 23.20 of his Church History, Eusebius describes the death of James according to Josephus. In that chapter, Eusebius first describes the background including Festus, and mentions Clement and Hegesippus. In item 20 of that chapter Eusebius then mentions Josephus’ reference to the death of James and the sufferings that befell those who killed him. However, Eusebius does not acknowledge Origen as one of his sources for the reference to James in Josephus.

Variations from Christian sources

There are some variations between the statements by Josephus regarding James the brother of Jesus and John the Baptist and the New Testament and other Christian accounts. Scholars generally view these variations as indications that the Josephus passages are not interpolations, for a Christian interpolator would have made them correspond to the Christian traditions.

Josephus’ account places the date of the death of James as AD 62. This date is supported by Jerome’s ‘seventh year of the Emperor Nero’, although Jerome may simply be drawing this from Josephus. However, James’ successor as leader of the Jerusalem church, Simeon, is not, in tradition, appointed till after the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, and Eusebius’ notice of Simeon implies a date for the death of James immediately before the siege, i.e. about AD 69. The method of death of James is not mentioned in the New Testament. However, the account of Josephus differs from that of later works by Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea that it simply has James stoned while the others have other variations such as having James thrown from the top of the Temple, stoned, and finally beaten to death by a fuller as well as his death occurring during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 69.

John Painter states that the relationship of the death of James to the siege is an important theologoumenon in the early church. On the basis of the Gospel accounts it was concluded that the fate of the city was determined by the death there of Jesus. To account for the 35 year difference, Painter states that the city was preserved temporarily by the presence within it of a ‘just man’ (see also Sodom); who was identified with James, as confirmed by Origen. Hence Painter states that the killing of James restarted the clock that led to the destruction of the city and that the traditional dating of 69 AD simply arose from an over-literal application of the theologoumenon, and is not to be regarded as founded on a historical source. The difference between Josephus and the Christian accounts of the death of James is seen as an indication that the Josephus passage is not a Christian interpolation by scholars such as Eddy, Boyd, and Kostenberger. Geza Vermes states that compared to the Christian accounts: “the sober picture of Josephus appears all the more believable”. G. A. Wells, on the other hand, has stated that in view of Origen’s statements these variations from the Christian accounts may be signs of interpolation in the James passage.

The marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias is mentioned both in Josephus and in the gospels, and scholars consider Josephus as a key connection in establishing the approximate chronology of specific episodes related to John the Baptist. However, although both the gospels and Josephus refer to Herod Antipas killing John the Baptist, they differ on the details and motives, e.g. whether this act was a consequence of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias (as indicated in Matthew 14:4, Mark 6:18), or a pre-emptive measure by Herod which possibly took place before the marriage to quell a possible uprising based on the remarks of John, as Josephus suggests in Antiquities 18.5.2.

Louis Feldman has stated that there is “no necessary contradiction between Josephus and the gospels as to the reason why John was put to death” in that the Christians chose to emphasize the moral charges while Josephus emphasized the political fears that John stirred in Herod.

Josephus stated (Antiquities 18.5.2) that the AD 36 defeat of Herod Antipas in the conflicts with Aretas IV of Nabatea was widely considered by the Jews of the time as misfortune brought about by Herod’s unjust execution of John the Baptist. The approximate dates presented by Josephus are in concordance with other historical records, and most scholars view the variation between the motive presented by Josephus and the New Testament accounts is seen as an indication that the Josephus passage is not a Christian interpolation.

Arguments challenging the authenticity of the three passages

The James passage

A comparative argument made against the authenticity of the James passage by scholars such as Tessa Rajak is that the passage has a negative tone regarding the High Priest Ananus, presenting him as impulsive while in the Jewish Wars Josephus presents a positive view of Ananus and portrays him as prudent.

A textual argument against the authenticity of the James passage is that the use of the term “Christos” there seems unusual for Josephus. An argument based on the flow of the text in the document is that given that the mention of Jesus appears in the Antiquities before that of the John the Baptist a Christian interpolator may have inserted it to place Jesus in the text before John. A further argument against the authenticity of the James passage is that it would have read well even without a reference to Jesus. New Testament scholar Robert M. Price speculates that Josephus may have considered James a fraternal brother rather than a sibling.

Some of the arguments for and against the authenticity of the James passage revolve around the similarities and differences between the accounts of Josephus, Origen, Eusebius and the Christian accounts. Although Josephus’ account of the method of death of James differs from that of the Christian tradition, this is seen as an indication that the Josephus account is not a Christian interpolation.

John Painter states that Origen expresses surprise that given that a Josephus who disbelieves in Jesus as Christ (Commentary on Matthew Book X, Chapter 17) should write respectfully of James, his brother. However, according to Painter unlike the Testimonium this issue has not generated a great deal of controversy, although viewed as a potential reason for doubting authenticity.

An issue that is subject to more debate is that in Commentary on Matthew (Book X, Chapter 17), Origen cites Josephus as stating the death of James had brought a wrath upon those who had killed him, and that his death was the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. At the end of Book II, Chapter XIII Origen disagrees with Josephus’ placement of blame for the destruction of Jerusalem on the death of James, and states that it was due to the death of Jesus, not James.

In Book II, Chapter 23.20 of his Church History, Eusebius mentions Josephus’ reference to the death of James and the sufferings that befell those who killed him. In this reference Eusebius writes: “These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.” However, this statement does not appear in the extant manuscripts of Josephus. Moreover, in Book III, ch. 11 of his Church History Eusebius states that the conquest of Jerusalem immediately followed the martyrdom of James setting the martyrdom at c70 CE rather than the c62 CE given by Josephus. Painter states that whether the Book II, Chapter 23.20 statement by Eusebius is an interpolation remains an open question.

Eusebius does not acknowledge Origen as one of his sources for the reference to James in Josephus. However, John Painter states that placing the blame for the siege of Jerusalem on the death of James is perhaps an early Christian invention that predates both Origen and Eusebius and that it likely existed in the traditions to which they were both exposed. Painter states that it is likely that Eusebius may have obtained his explanation of the siege of Jerusalem from Origen.

G. A. Wells has stated that the fact that Origen seems to have read something different about the death of James in Josephus than what there is now, suggests some tampering with the James passage seen by Origen. Wells suggests that the interpolation seen by Origen may not have survived in the extant Josephus manuscripts, but that it opens the possibility that there may have been other interpolations in Josephus’ writings. Wells further states that differences between the Josephus account and those of Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria may point to interpolations in the James passage.

Richard Carrier argues that the words “the one called Christ” likely resulted from the accidental insertion of a marginal note added by some unknown reader. Carrier proposes that the original text referred to a brother named James of the high priest Jesus ben Damneus mentioned in the same narrative. James (the brother of Jesus) is executed by Ananus. The Jews get angry at this. Complaints and demands are made. The King removes Ananus from being High Priest. Jesus ben Damneus is then made high priest.

John the Baptist

Scholars such as Claudia Setzer have noted the differences between the rationale for the death of John the Baptist presented by Josephus, and the theological variations (e.g. whether immersion in water can result in the forgiveness of sins, etc.) and the New Testament accounts. However, these differences are usually seen as indications of the lack of tampering, given that an interpolator would have made the accounts similar.

Claire Rothschild has stated that the absence of Christian interpolations in the Josephus passage on John the Baptist can not by itself be used as an argument for its authenticity, but is merely an indication of the lack of tampering.

Testimonium Flavianum

The Testimonium has been the subject of a great deal of research and debate among scholars, being one of the most discussed passages among all antiquities. Louis Feldman has stated that in the period from 1937 to 1980 at least 87 articles had appeared on the topic, the overwhelming majority of which questioned the total or partial authenticity of the Testimonium. While early scholars considered the Testimonium to be a total forgery, the majority of modern scholars consider it partially authentic, despite some clear Christian interpolations in the text.

The arguments surrounding the authenticity of the Testimonium fall into two categories: internal arguments that rely on textual analysis and compare the passage with the rest of Josephus’ work; and external arguments, that consider the wider cultural and historical context. Some of the external arguments are “arguments from silence” that question the authenticity of the entire passage not for what it says, but due to lack of references to it among other ancient sources.

The external analyses of the Testimonium have even used computer-based methods, e.g. the matching of the text of the Testimonium with the Gospel of Luke performed by Gary Goldberg in 1995. Goldberg found some partial matches between the Testimonium and Luke 24:19–21, 26–27 stating “the Emmaus narrative more closely resembles the Testimonium in its phrase-by-phrase outline of content and order than any other known text of comparable age.” Goldberg’s analyses suggested three possibilities, one that the matches were random, or that the Testimonium was a Christian interpolation based on Luke, and finally that both the Testimonium and Luke were based on the same sources.

Internal arguments

One of the key internal arguments against the total authenticity of the Testimonium is that the clear inclusion of Christian phraseology strongly indicates the presence of some interpolations. For instance, the phrases “if it be lawful to call him a man” suggests that Jesus was more than human and is likely a Christian interpolation. Some scholars have attempted to reconstruct the original Testimonium, but others contend that attempts to discriminate the passage into Josephan and non-Josephan elements are inherently circular.

Andreas Köstenberger states that the fact that the 10th-century Arabic version of the Testimonium (discovered in the 1970s) lacks distinct Christian terminology while sharing the essential elements of the passage indicates that the Greek Testimonium has been subject to interpolation.

Another example of the textual arguments against the Testimonium is that it uses the Greek term poietes to mean “doer” (as part of the phrase “doer of wonderful works”) but elsewhere in his works, Josephus only uses the term poietes to mean “poet,” whereas this use of “poietes” seems consistent with the Greek of Eusebius.

The concordance of the language used in the Testimonium, its flow within the text and its length have formed components of the internal arguments against its authenticity, e.g. that the brief and compact character of the Testimoniumstands in marked contrast to Josephus’ more extensive accounts presented elsewhere in his works. For example, Josephus’ description of the death of John the Baptist includes consideration of his virtues, the theology associated with his baptismal practices, his oratorical skills, his influence, the circumstances of his death, and the belief that the destruction of Herod’s army was a divine punishment for Herod’s slaughter of John. G. A. Wells has argued against the authenticity of the Testimonium, stating that the passage is noticeably shorter and more cursory than such notices generally used by Josephus in the Antiquities, and that had it been authentic, it would have included more details and a longer introduction.

A further internal argument against the Testimonium’s authenticity is the context of the passage in the Antiquities of the Jews. Some scholars argue that the passage is an intrusion into the progression of Josephus’ text at the point in which it appears in the Antiquities and breaks the thread of the narrative.

External arguments

Origen’s statement in his Commentary on Matthew (Book X, Chapter 17) that Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Christ”, is usually seen as a confirmation of the generally accepted fact that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. This forms a key external argument against the total authenticity of the Testimonium in that Josephus, as a Jew, would not have claimed Jesus as the Messiah, and the reference to “he was Christ” in the Testimoniummust be a Christian interpolation. Based on this observation alone, Paul L. Maier calls the case for the total authenticity of the Testimonium “hopeless”. Almost all modern scholars reject the total authenticity of the Testimonium, while the majority of scholars still hold that it includes an authentic kernel.

A different set of external arguments against the authenticity of the Testimonium (either partial or total) are “arguments from silence”, e.g. that although twelve Christian authors refer to Josephus before Eusebius in 324 AD, none mentions the Testimonium. Given earlier debates by Christian authors about the existence of Jesus, e.g. in Justin Martyr’s 2nd century Dialogue with Trypho, it would have been expected that the passage from Josephus would have been used as a component of the arguments.

Even after Eusebius’ 324 AD reference, it is not until Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus (c. 392 AD) that the passage from Josephus is referenced again, even though the Testimonium’s reference to Jesus would seem appropriate in the works of many intervening patristic authors. Scholars also point to the silence of Photios as late as the 9th century, and the fact that he does not mention the Testimonium at all in his broad review of Josephus.

A separate argument from silence against the total or partial authenticity of the Testimonium is that a 5th or 6th century table of contents of Josephus (although selective) makes no mention of it.

A final argument from silence relates to Josephus’ own writings and questions the authenticity of Testimonium based on the fact that it has no parallel in the Jewish War, which includes a discussion of Pontius Pilate at about the same level of detail.

In The Witness To The Historicity of Jesus, Arthur Drews stated that “in the sixteenth century Vossius had a manuscript of the text of Josephus in which there was not a word about Jesus.”

Timing of the interpolations

Kenneth Olson has argued that the entire Testimonium must have been forged by Eusebius himself, basing his argument on textual similarities between the Testimonium and Eusebius’ writings in the Demonstrations of the Gospels.

Zvi Baras, on the other hand, believes that the Testimonium was subject to interpolation before Eusebius. Baras believes that Origen had seen the original Testimonium but that the Testimonium seen by Origen had no negative reference to Jesus, else Origen would have reacted against it. Baras states that the interpolation in the Testimonium took place between Origen and Eusebius.

Paul Maier states that a comparison of Eusebius’ reference with the 10th-century Arabic version of the Testimonium due to Agapius of Hierapolis indicates that the Christian interpolation present in the Testimonium must have come early, before Eusebius. Robert E. Van Voorst also states that the interpolation likely took place some time between Origen and Eusebius.

Arguments in favor of the authenticity of the three passages

The James Passage

Louis Feldman states that the authenticity of the Josephus passage on James has been “almost universally acknowledged.” Feldman states that this passage, above others, indicates that Josephus did say something about Jesus. Feldman states that it would make no sense for Origen to show amazement that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as Christ (Book X, Chapter 17), if Josephus had not referred to Jesus at all. Paul L. Maier states that most scholars agree with Feldman’s assessment that “few have doubted the genuineness of this passage” Zvi Baras also states that most modern scholars consider the James passage to be authentic.

According to Robert E. Van Voorst the overwhelming majority of scholars consider both the reference to “the brother of Jesus called Christ” and the entire passage that includes it as authentic. Van Voorst states that the James passage fits well in the context in the Antiquities and an indication for its authenticity is the lack of the laudatory language that a Christian interpolator would have used to refer to Jesus as “the Lord”, or a similar term. Van Voorst also states that the use of a neutral term “called Christ” which neither denies nor affirms Jesus as the Messiah points to authenticity, and indicates that Josephus used it to distinguish Jesus from the many other people called Jesus at the time, in the same way that James is distinguished, given that it was also a common name.

Richard Bauckham states that although a few scholars have questioned the James passage, “the vast majority have considered it to be authentic”, and that among the several accounts of the death of James the account in Josephus is generally considered to be historically the most reliable. Bauckham states that the method of killing James by stoning, and the description provided by Josephus via the assembly of the Sanhedrin of judges are consistent with the policies of the Temple authorities towards the early Christian Church at the time.

Andreas Köstenberger considers the James passage to be authentic and states that the James passage attests to the existence of Jesus as a historical person, and that his followers considered him the Messiah.(Köstenberger pages 104–105) Köstenberger states that the statement by Josephus that some people recognized Jesus as the Messiah is consistent with the grammar of Josephus elsewhere but does not imply that Josephus himself considered Jesus the Messiah.(Köstenberger pages 104–105) Köstenberger concurs with John Meier that it is highly unlikely for the passage to be a Christian interpolation given that in New Testament texts James is referred to as the “brother of the Lord” rather than the “brother of Jesus”, and that a Christian interpolator would have provided a more detailed account at that point.(Köstenberger pages 104–105)

Claudia Setzer states that few have questioned the authenticity of the James passage, partly based on the observation that a Christian interpolator would have provided more praise for James. Setzer states that the passage indicates that Josephus, a Jewish historian writing towards the end of the first century, could use a neutral tone towards Christians, with some tones of sympathy, implying that they may be worthy of Roman protection.

John Painter states that nothing in the James passage looks suspiciously like a Christian interpolation and that the account can be accepted as historical.(Painter pages 139–142). Painter discusses the role of Ananus and the background to the passage, and states that after being deposed as High Priest for killing James and being replaced by Jesus the son of Damnaeus, Ananus had maintained his influence within Jerusalem through bribery.(Painter page 136) Painter points out that as described in the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, Chapter 9, 2) Ananus was bribing both Albinus and Jesus the son of Damnaeus so that his men could take the tithes of other priests outside Jerusalem, to the point that some of whom then starved to death (Painter pages 139–142). Philip Carrington states that there is no reason to question the authenticity of the Josephus passage on James, and elaborates the background by stating that Ananus continued to remain a power within the Jewish circles at the time even after being deposed, and that it is likely that the charges brought against James by Ananus were not only because of his Christian association but because he objected to the oppressive policies against the poor; hence explaining the later indignation of the more moderate Jewish leaders.

John the Baptist

Craig Evans states that almost all modern scholars consider the Josephus passage on John to be authentic in its entirety, and that what Josephus states about John fits well both with the general depiction of John in the New Testament and within the historical context of the activities of other men, their preachings and their promises during that period.

Louis Feldman, who believes the Josephus passage on John is authentic, states that Christian interpolators would have been very unlikely to have devoted almost twice as much space to John (163 words) as to Jesus (89 words).Feldman also states that a Christian interpolator would have likely altered Josephus’ passage about John the Baptist to make the circumstances of the death of John become similar to the New Testament, and to indicate that John was a forerunner of Jesus.

James Dunn states that the accounts of Josephus and the New Testament regarding John the Baptist are closer than they may appear at a first reading. Dunn states that Josephus positions John as a righteous preacher (dikaiosyne) who encourages his followers to practice “righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God” and that Mark 6:20 similarly calls John “a righteous (dikaios) and holy man”. Dunn states that Antipas likely saw John as a figure whose ascetic lifestyle and calls for moral reform could provoke a popular uprising on moral grounds, as both Josephus and the New Testament suggest.

Justin Meggitt states that there are fundamental similarities between the Josephus’ portrayal of John the Baptist and the New Testament narrative in that in both accounts John is positioned as a preacher of morality, not as someone who had challenged the political authority of Herod Antipas. W. E. Nunnally states that the John passage is considered authentic and that Josephus’ emphasis on the egalitarian nature of John’s teachings fit well into the biblical and historical traditions.

Testimonium Flavianum

The three perspectives

Paul L. Maier, and separately Zvi Baras state that scholars generally fall into three camps over the authenticity of the Testimonium:

  1. It is entirely authentic
  2. It is entirely a Christian forgery
  3. It contains Christian interpolations in what was Josephus’ authentic material about Jesus.

Paul Maier states that the first case is generally seen as hopeless given that as a Jew, Josephus would not have claimed Jesus as the Messiah, and that the second option is hardly tenable given the presence of the reference in all Greek manuscripts; thus a large majority of modern scholars accept the third alternative, i.e., partial authenticity. Baras adds that the third position is more plausible because it accepts parts of the passage as genuine, but discounts other parts as interpolations. Craig Evans (and separately Robert Van Voorst) state that most modern scholars accept the position that the Testimonium is partially authentic, had a kernel with an authentic reference to Jesus, and that the analysis of its content and style support this conclusion.

While before the advent of literary criticism most scholars considered the Testimonium entirely authentic, thereafter the number of supporters of full authenticity declined. However, most scholars now accept partial authenticity and many attempt to reconstruct their own version of the authentic kernel, and scholars such as Geza Vermes have argued that the overall characterizations of Jesus in the Testimonium are in accord with the style and approach of Josephus.

Origen and Eusebius

Lester L. Grabbe, on the Testimonium, notes that in two works (Commentary on Matthew 10.17 and Contra Celsum 1.47) Origen had actually complained that Josephus had mentioned Jesus while at the same time not recognizing Jesus as the messiah and this provided an early independent support of the partial Testimonium in the neutral form. Summarizing speculative arguments from two other writers, Louis Feldman claimed that “The most likely assumption is, then, that the ‘Testimonium’ as read by Origen contained historical data in a neutral form.”.

Zvi Baras, in a book edited by Feldman, also assumes that Origen had seen a version of the Testimonium that included no interpolations. Baras asserts that a Testimonium seen by Origen must have had a neutral tone, and included no derogatory references towards Christians, and hence required no reaction from Origen. Baras claims that the neutral tone of the Testimonium was then modified between the time of Origen and Eusebius, though Baras gives no arguments why this should be more likely than the hypothesis that the Testimonium originated in the Eusebius passage where it first appears.

Arguments in favor of partial authenticity

Some arguments in favor of partial authenticity rely on the language used in the Testimonium, e.g., that the passage calls Jesus “a wise man” which is not laudatory enough for an interpolator, neither is the reference to “amazing deeds”. According to Van Voorst, the statement “those that loved him at the first did not forsake him” has the characteristics of Josephus’ writing and points to the continuation of Christianity. Van Voorst states that this sentence argues for the continuation of Christianity based on the love for its leader; not the alleged appearances after his death. Van Voorst states that it is hard to imagine that the phrase “receive the truth with pleasure” used in the Testimonium is the work of a Christian interpolator, for Christian writers generally avoid the use of the word “pleasure” (ἡδονή in Greek) in a positive sense due to its association with hedonism.

Andreas Köstenberger states that there is strong evidence that parts of the Testimonium are authentic, and that the comparison of the Greek versions with the Arabic version (discovered by Shlomo Pines in the 1970s) provides an indication of the original Josephan text. Köstenberger states that many modern scholars believe that the Arabic version reflects the state of Josephus’ original text before it was subject to Christian interpolation. Köstenberger adds that the passage includes vocabulary that is typically Josephan and the style is consistent with that of Josephus. Köstenberger (and separately Van Voorst) state that the Josephus’ reference to the large number of followers of Jesus during his public ministry is unlikely to have been due to a Christian scribe familiar with the New Testament accounts, and is hence unlikely to be an interpolation.

Regarding the arguments from silence about the scarcity of references to Josephus prior to Origen and Eusebius, Louis Feldman states that Josephus was ignored by early Christian writers before Origen because they were not sufficiently learned, and not sophisticated enough in historical matters.

Chilton and Evans state that the general acceptance of the authenticity of the James passage lends support to the partial authenticity of the Testimonium in that the brief reference to “Jesus, who was called Christ” in Antiquities XX, 9, 1 “clearly implies a prior reference” and that “in all probability the Testimonium is that prior reference”. Louis Feldman understands the phrase about Jesus in the death of James passage as “the aforementioned Christ”, thus relating that passage to the Testimonium, which he views as the first reference to Jesus in the works on Josephus. Paul L. Maier concurs with the analysis of Feldman and states that Josephus’ first reference was the Testimonium. Geza Vermes also considers the “who was called Christ” reference in the James passage as the second reference to Jesus in the Antiquities and states that the first reference is likely to be the Testimonium.

Claudia Setzer, who believes in the authenticity of a kernel in the Testimonium, states that while “tribe is an odd way to describe Christians” it does not necessarily have negative connotations. Setzer argues for the existence of an authentic kernel because “the style and vocabulary are Josephan” and specific parts (e.g. the use of “wise man”) are not what one would expect from a Christian forger. Setzer argues that the Testimonium indicates that Josephus had heard of Jesus and the basic elements surrounding his death, and that he saw Jesus as primarily a miracle worker. Van Voorst also states that calling Christians a “tribe” would have been very out of character for a Christian scribe, while Josephus has used it to refer both to Jewish and Christian groups.

Alice Whealey, who supports the partial authenticity of the Testimonium, has rejected the arguments by Kenneth Olson regarding the total fabrication of the Testimonium by Eusebius, stating that Olson’s analysis includes inaccurate readings of both the works of Josephus and Eusebius, as well as logical flaws in his argument.

Craig Evans states that an argument in favor of the partial authenticity of the Testimonium is that the passage does not exaggerate the role played by the Jewish leaders in the death of Jesus. According to Evans, if the passage had been an interpolation after the emergence of conflicts between Jews and Christians, it would have had a more accusative tone, but in its current form reads as one would expect it to read for a passage composed by Josephus towards the end of the first century.

Geza Vermes believes in the partial authenticity of the Testimonium and the existence of a reference to Jesus within it. Vermes states that if the Testimonium had been the work of a Christian forger, it would have placed blame on the Jewish leaders, but as is it is “perfectly in line” with the attitude of Josephus towards Pilate. Vermes also states that the detached depiction of the followers of Jesus is not the work of a Christian interpolator. Vermes calls the Jesus notice in the Testimonium a “veritable tour de force” in which Josephus plays the role of a neutral witness.

Steve Mason has argued for partial authenticity for the “Testimonium” because no other parts of any of the works of Josephus have been contested to have had scribal tempering, Christian copyists were usually conservative when transmitting texts in general, and seeing that the works of Philo were unaltered by Christian scribes through the centuries strongly support that it is very unlikely that the passage was invented out of thin air by a Christian scribe. Philo often wrote in a way that was favorable to Christian ideas and yet no Christian scribes took advantage of that to insert Jesus or Christian beliefs into Philo’s text.

Reconstruction of an authentic kernel
A copy of Josephus' Antiquities c. 1200

A copy of Josephus’ Antiquities c. 1200

Robert Van Voorst states that most modern scholars believe that the Testimonium is partially authentic, and has a reference to Jesus. However, he states that scholars are divided on the tone of the original reference and while some scholars believe that it had a negative tone which was softened by Christian interpolators, others believe that it had a neutral tone, in keeping with the style and approach of Josephus regarding the issue. According to Van Voorst, scholars who support the negative reconstruction contend that the reference read something like “source of further trouble in Jesus a wise man” and that it stated “he was the so-called Christ”. Van Voorst states that most scholars support a neutral reconstruction which states “Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man” and includes no reference to “he was the Christ”. Van Voorst states that if the original references to Jesus had had a negative tone, the Christian scribes would have likely deleted it entirely. Van Voorst also states that the neutral reconstruction fits better with the Arabic Testimonium discovered by Pines in the 1970s. Van Voorst states that the neutral reconstruction is supported by the majority of scholars because it involves far less conjectural wording and fits better with the style of Josephus.

Craig Blomberg states that if the three elements “lawful to call him a man”, “he was the Christ” and the reference to the resurrection are removed from the Testimonium the rest of the passage flows smoothly within the context, fits the style of Josephus and is likely to be authentic. Blomberg adds that after the removal of these three elements (which are likely interpolations) from the Greek versions the remaining passage fits well with the Arabic version and supports the authenticity of the reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate. Joel B. Green also states that the removal of some elements from the Testimonium produces a passage that is likely to be an authentic reference to the death of Jesus.

James Dunn states that the works of Josephus include two separate references to Jesus and although there are some interpolations in the Testimonium, there is “broad consensus” among scholars regarding the nature of an authentic reference to Jesus in the Testimonium and what the passage would look like without the interpolations. Based on this reconstruction, it is likely the original passage read:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

In this passage, which is based on Meier’s reconstruction, Jesus is called a “wise man”, but “lawful to call him a man” and “he was the Christ” are removed, as is the reference to the resurrection.

Geza Vermes has performed a detailed analysis of the Testimonium and modified it to remove what he considers the interpolations. In Vermes’ reconstruction “there was Jesus a wise man” is retained, but the reference to “he was the Christ” is changed to “he was called the Christ” and the resurrection reference is omitted. Vermes states that the Testimonium provides Josephus’ authentic portrayal of Jesus, depicting him as a wise teacher and miracle worker with an enthusiastic group of followers who remained faithful to him after his crucifixion by Pilate, up to the time of Josephus.

The three passages in relation to The Jewish Wars

Louis Feldman states that it is significant that the passages on James, John and the Testimonium are found in the Antiquities and not in the Jewish Wars, but provides three explanations for their absence from the Jewish Wars. One explanation is that the Antiquities covers the time period involved at a greater length than the Jewish Wars. The second explanation is that during the gap between the writing of the Jewish Wars (c. 70 AD) and Antiquities (after 90 AD) Christians had become more important in Rome and were hence given attention in the Antiquities. Another explanation is that the passages were added to the Antiquities to highlight the power of the Pharisees, but he considers the last explanation less likely than the others.

One of the arguments against the authenticity of the James passage has been that in the Jewish Wars Josephus portrays the High Priest Ananus in a positive manner, while in the Antiquities he writes of Ananus in a negative tone.Louis Feldman rejects these arguments against the authenticity of the James passage and states that in several other unrelated cases the Jewish War also differs from the Antiquities, and that an interpolator would have made the two accounts correspond more closely to each other, not make them differ.

The twenty-year gap between the writing of the Jewish Wars and the Antiquities has also been used to explain some of the differences in tone between them. Clemens Thoma provides an explanation for this based on the observation that Josephus may have learned of the details of the actions of Annanus in the twenty-year gap between the writing of the Jewish Wars and the Antiquities, and thus avoided a positive tone when writing of Ananus in the Antiquities.

John Painter states that the difference in the context for the Jewish Wars and the Antiquities may also account for some of the differences in tone between them, e.g. when writing of Ananus in a positive tone in the Jewish Wars the context was Ananus’ prudence in avoiding a war and hence Josephus considered that a positive aspect. However, when writing in the Antiquities about the actions of Ananus which resulted in his demotion from the High Priesthood, the context required the manifestation of a negative aspect of Ananus’ character.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia