Did Josephus mention Jesus Christ?

A rough work in progress by
PTET

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Introduction | Origen, Josephus and Jesus | The Testimonium Flavianum |
Josephus 20:9 | Did anyone doubt Jesus? | Conclusion | References



Introduction

Two passages in the extant works of the Jewish first century historian Josephus Flavius mention Jesus Christ, and are probably the best available evidence for his existense. These are in passages 18.3.3 and 20.9 of his Antiquities Of The Jews. This page examines whether and to what extent we can trust these passages to be genuine.

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Origen, Josephus and Jesus

The works of
Origen (c. 182-251 CE) which have down to us mention Josephus referencing Jesus Christ twice. It is worth quoting both passages in full:
"Flavius Josephus, who wrote the "Antiquities of the Jews" in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is, that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James." (On The Gospel Of Matthew, 1:15) [om]

"For in the 18th book of his Antiquities 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 seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),-the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine" (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:47) [oa]
One point of interest is that Josephus is cited fourteen times by early Christian writers in the Ante-Nicence Fathers - and these are the only mentions of this supposed reference to Christ before Eusebius in the fourth century. [tj]

The next obvious query is Origen's correctness of the reference to "the 18th book of his Antiquities" in "Against Celsus". The attached footnote to the Ante-Nicene Fathers is this (SPIonic font required):
"[arxaiologiaj. S.] Cf. Joseph., Antiq., book xviii. c. v. sec. 2." [oa]
Louis Feldman, the pre-eminent Josephus scholar, has confirmed that the original text of Origen Against Celsus does not reference "the 18th book of his Antiquities". We can therefore not be certain that Origen was aware of Josephus 18.3.3 when he wrote.

Feldman concluded in 1963 that:
"The most probably view seems to be that our text represents substantially what Josephus wrote, but that some alterations have been made by a Christian interpolator." [th]
Then in 1971:
"In a startling find, Shlomo Pines publishes citations of the TF appearing in Arabic and Syriac works of the 9th-10th century. These quotations substantially resemble our current Testimonium, but do not have two of the most suspicious phrases: "he was the Messiah" and "if indeed he can be called a man". Pines suggests these editions may have used an authentic, uninterpolated version of Josephus' work." [th]
However, there are no earlier texts which can prove whether any part of the Testimonium Flavianum was actually written by Josephus; and there is reason to be unsure of the veracity of Origen himself as a chronicler of history.

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The Testimonium Flavianum

Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3 - first quoted specifically by
Eusebius in the fourth century - has come down to us as follows:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." [ja]
The text in red underline is a fairly obvious later interpolation (even, it would seem, by the apologetic Tektonics[t1]). The passage was not mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) or - as we will see below - by Origen (150-215 CE). The passage was first mentioned by Eusebius, in 324 CE, and the forgery is believed to date from around that time. [sb]

F.F. Bruce suggested that the original text may have read:
"Now there arose at this time a source of further trouble in one Jesus, a wise man who performed surprising works, a teacher of men who gladly welcome strange things. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Gentiles. He was the so-called Christ. When Pilate, acting on information supplied by the chief men around us, condemned him to the cross, those who had attached themselves to him at first did not cease to cause trouble, and the tribe of Christians, which has taken this name from him is not extinct even today." [ff]
However, there is no evidence from any extant versions of Josephus to support this speculation.

A further point of interest is the reference by Josephus a few passages later in Antiquities 18.4.6 to an identifiable date:
"About this time it was that Philip, Herod's brother, departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius..." [ja]
Since Tiberius reigned from c. 14-37 CE, and Herod Antipas's brother died in 34 CE, this seems to date the "Testimonium Flavianum" account to c. 34 CE, the given date of Christ's death. However, Josephus also dates the death of John The Baptist to 36 CE - so someone's choronology must be wrong somewhere! [pj]

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Josephus 20.9

Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews 20:9 relates events dated to 68 CE. [
sj]. It has come down to us as saying (with my emphasis):
"...Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James..." [j2]
A common but uncertain objection to the veracity of this passage is the claim that it would be unusual for a first century Jewish writer to refer to anyone as "Christ" ("Messiah") - especially without some sort of prior explanation or introduction to the character.

A further objection comes from the translation of the words "who was called Christ". Some commentators insist the original Greek says "him called Christ" - exactly the same formation used to describe Jesus throughout the New Testament and in other Christian writings [we]. (Apologetic writers, however, deny that this usage would be unusual for Josephus [tk].)

On the whole, the available evidence seems inconclusive. [ij] But since Origen did not actually quote from Josephus, is it possible that he made some sort of mistake? In summary, I would submit that we cannot be reasonably certain that this passage is genuine.

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Did anyone doubt Jesus?

Jeffery Jay Lowder in an article for the Secular Web, argues that the Testimonium Flavium was unlikely to be a complete forgery:
"Since there is no evidence that anyone in the first few centuries actually doubted the existence of Jesus, there is no reason we should expect to find quotations of the Testimonium Flavianum in early literature." [jl]
However, this conclusion cannot be certain. Some scholars claim out that the Early Church fathers themselves were either silent on the historical existence of Jesus, or having to argue for it. And even if, as is most likely, Jesus was a real person, we know very little about him for certain. As the second century pagan Celsus wrote:
"It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction: I have even heard that some of your interpreters, as if they had just come out of a tavern, are onto the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism." [tc]
Indeed, the first several centuries of Christianity were riven with heresies on the supposed different "natures" of Christ and God. [ch]

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Conclusion

In short, while there is reason to doubt the validity of any references to Jesus Christ in the works of Josephus, the general consensus is that they are genuine at least in part.

(This document is a work in progress. Please
contact me with any further information.)

PTET

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References
  1. The Bible Through The Ages, Richard D Balge, Pastors Institute Lectures in 1974 and revised in 1990. [ba]

  2. Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum, (F.F. Bruce's comments on the modern consensus over the Testimonium). [ff]

  3. Antiquities 18.3.3, Josephus Flavius. [ja]

  4. The Trial on Trial, A Defense of the Authenticity of the Trial Narratives, J. P. Holding, Tektonics. [t1]

  5. Against Celsus, Origen, Book I, Chapter 47. [oa]

  6. Introductory Note to the Works of Origen, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. [oi]

  7. The Mystery of the Testimonium Flavianum, A History from 93 CE to the Present, G. J. Goldberg, Flavius Josephus Home Page. [th]

  8. Josephus in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: all the citations, Roger Pearse, Tertullian.org. [tj]

  9. Celsus, Origen and Hoffmann, Roger Pearse, Tertullian.org. [tc]

  10. How Not to Argue Against the Historicity and Resurrection of Jesus, A Critique of Dennis McKinsey’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (2001), Jeffery Jay Lowder, The Secular Web. [jl]

  11. Forgery in Christianity, Chapter IV, Joseph Wheless, 1930. [jw]

  12. Christian Heresies, The Bible: The Book That Bridges The Millenia, gbgm-umc.org. [ch]

  13. On The Gospel Of Matthew, Origen, Book X:15. (om)

  14. Against Celsus, Oregin, Book 1:47. (oc)

  15. Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, Book XX:9. (j2)

  16. St. James, Encyclopedia.com. (sj)

  17. The Historical Evidence for Jesus, Wells, 1982, p211 (quoted at Non-Biblical evidence for Jesus). (we)

  18. Josephus: A Double Dose of the Messiah - The "so-called" problem, J. P. Holding, Tektonics. (tk)

  19. Historicity Of Jesus FAQ, Scott Oser, Infidels.org. (ij)

  20. Did John the Baptist die after Jesus?, PTET, 2002. (pj)

Further Reading
Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story, Richard Carrier, The Secular Web, 2000
"We are told by Josephus that one out of the three [crucifixion victims that he saw] rescued lived. "

Flavius Josephus resources at Peter Kirby's excellent website EarlyChristianWritings


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