Born in 37 AD to a priestly family, and raised in Jerusalem, Josephus first visited Rome in his early 20’s as a political intermediary for the Jews; and when the Jewish revolt began he initially fought against the Romans. But, when captured by Vespasian, Josephus declared that Vespasian was destined to fulfil an ancient Jewish prophecy by becoming Emperor of Rome. When this actually happened, Vespasian gave Josephus his freedom and later adopted him, adding to him the family name of Flavius.
Rejected as a traitor by his own people, he sought unsuccesfully to persuade the defenders of Jerusalem to surrender; and personally witnessed its fall. These experiences, together with his access to both Jewish and Roman sources were the basis for his two great works. ‘The Jewish War’, published about 78 AD, was a history of the revolt, and the ‘Jewish Antiquities’, a 20 volume history of the Jewish people, was published about 93 AD. Two other works by him also survive: ‘Against Apion’, a defence of Judaism against a Roman critic, and ‘The Life’, his autobiography, published in the early second century. It is not known exactly when he died.
Josephus’ work contains a number of references that provide corroboration for the historicity of the gospel records.
John the Baptist
In Antiquities, 18.5.2, Josephus discusses the ministry of 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, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. 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. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”
The fact that Josephus does not associate John with Jesus is not as surprising as it might seem; Acts 13:25 makes it clear that John only started speaking of Jesus towards the end of his ministry. Likewise, although his understanding of Herod’s motive for killing him differs from the gospel accounts; the primary facts agree.
Virtually all scholars accept the authenticity of this passage.
James the Just
More significant still, is the following reference to the death of James, the brother of Jesus, from Antiquities 20.9.1:
“And now Caesar, upon hearing of 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. … 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 sanhedrim 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 … 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.”
Apart from confirming that the leader of the Jerusalem church, ‘James the Just’, as he came to be known, was held in high regard amongst the Jews (c.f. Acts 21:18-24), we have here an unequivocal reference to him as, ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ’.
Some critics have suggested that ‘who was called Christ’ is a Christian interpolation: but,
- There is nothing in the vocabulary, content, etc., to suggest that the text has been in any way tampered with.
- If this was not James the brother of Christ, it is strange that Josephus gives no other indication as to what Ananus had against James: whereas enmity toward the brother of one whom he regarded as a false Messiah is easily understood.
- The passage is cited by Origen as early as c.200 AD. At this time Christians were still a persecuted minority, and therefore did not have control over the content of Roman or Jewish sources.
- Josephus mentions over a dozen other people called Jesus. There is another at the end of this very paragraph and, as can be seen, Josephus normally provides additional explanations to avoid confusion in such cases.
- The expression, ‘who was called Christ’, is consistent with a person, such as Josephus, who wished to record the title without endorsing it. But if a Christian interpolator had felt it necessary to add a reference to Jesus, it is highly improbable that he would have used such a non-commital phrase.
- What motive would there have been for such an addition? Modern sceptics suggest it was to create an illusion of historicity: but all the available evidence indicates that this was accepted as fact by Jews and Romans alike. If the historicity of Jesus had been an issue, why is it that none of these early Christian citations use Josephus for this purpose?
Some have even claimed the entire reference is forged: but this is wishful thinking – there is no evidence to support such an assertion. The overwhelming opinion amongst historians of all persuasions is that the passage is entirely genuine.
The Testimonium Flavianum
The text of the Testimonium Flavianum, as it appears in Book 18, chapter 3, section 3 of all extant versions of Josephus’ Antiquities, may be translated as follows (possible variants shown in brackets):
“At this time there was Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed (surprising / wonderful) works, and a teacher of people who received the (truth / unusual) with pleasure. He stirred up both many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Christ. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, since he was accused by the leading men among us, those who had loved him from the first did not desist, for he appeared to them on the third day, having life again, as the prophets of God had foretold these and countless other marvelous things about him. And until now the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not extinct.”
This is just too good to be true! Who but a Christian would have written the portions marked in italics? In fact, this quotation is first cited by Eusebius in the early 4th century; whereas Origen, 100 years before, says of Josephus that, ‘while he did not receive Jesus for Christ, he did nevertheless bear witness that James was so righteous a man.’ (Commentary on Matthew, 10.17.)
Clearly, therefore, Josephus’ original text has been altered. The question is, how much?
This has been a subject of much scholarly debate. Some claim the entire passage is a fake; but there are sound historical reasons for rejecting this view.
- Some critics claim the passage is ‘out of context’. The chapter begins with acounts of two confrontations between the Jews and Pilate, one over images of Caesar and the other over misuse of sacred money for a water project. Then we have Jesus, condemned by Pilate. This is followed by a lengthy description of a scandal at the temple of Isis in Rome, for which it was destroyed and its priests executed, and finally by an account of another scandal that caused the banishment of Jews from Rome. If any of these were ‘out of context’, it would be the Isis incident, which has no direct bearing on Jewish affairs; but no-one doubts Josephus wrote this, because such loosely connected items are typical of his style.
- However, the context of the passage provides a much more powerful argument against it being a Christian insertion, for it precedes the account of John the Baptist, which appears two chapters later, in 18.5.2. Josephus does not follow a strict chronology, and sees John only as a preacher of righteousness; so is quite content to mention Jesus’ death, while discussing Pilate, and then John’s death, in a later discussion on Herod. But from the Christian standpoint, this is completely the wrong way around, as John was the forerunner of Jesus; a Christian simply would not have chosen this point to insert such a comment.
- Josephus’ reference in the passage on James, to ‘Jesus, who was called Christ,’ itself implies that he has previously mentioned this particular Jesus. The Testimonium Flavianum does precede this reference and is the obvious explanation for Josephus’ allusion.
- Consider also Origen’s comment that Josephus ‘did not receive Jesus for Christ’. How did he know? If Josephus’ only reference were, ‘Jesus, who was called Christ,’ this would seem too bland a reference to explain the certainty of Origen’s statement.
- Since Josephus plainly acknowledges the existence of Jesus by describing James the Just as his brother, why would he not have made at least some mention of him?
On the other hand, if we simply delete the obviously suspect portions, we get this:
“At this time there was Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who performed (surprising / wonderful) works, and a teacher of people who received the (truth / unusual) with pleasure. He stirred up both many Jews and many Greeks. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, since he was accused by the leading men among us, those who had loved him from the first did not desist. And until now the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not extinct.”
The Greek word ‘paradoxos’ can be translated as either ‘surprising’, or ‘wonderful’. Christian translators would naturally assume the latter, whereas Josephus may well have meant the former. The word translated, ‘truth’, is ‘talethe'; but it is often suggested that this should have read, ‘taethe’ (unusual). The phrase, ‘did not desist’, is variously rendered as ‘did not cease to love him‘, ‘… to cause trouble‘, etc., depending on the translator’s viewpoint; but, since the italicised words do not actually appear in the text, I have confined myself to a more literal rendering.
So, if we now review the arguments for and against the authenticity of the remaining text, we find:
- What remains is more consistent with the work of a non-Christian Jew than it is with that of a Christian.
- It explains why Origen would have been quite sure Josephus did not accept Jesus. No Christian would be satisfied with such an ambiguous and non-commital statement, that offers no criticism of the Jewish leading men’s actions (unlike the stoning of James) and appears mildly surprised that Christians aren’t yet extinct.
- Textual analysis shows that, quite unlike the deleted portions, the vocabulary and style are entirely consistent with that of Josephus elsewhere in his writings. This would be a considerable feat even for a modern scholar. As John P. Meier, one of the foremost authorities on this subject comments:
“The comparison of vocabulary between Josephus and the NT does not provide a neat solution to the problem of authenticity but it does force us to ask which of two possible scenarios is more probable. Did a Christian of some unknown century so immerse himself in the vocabulary and style of Josephus that, without the aid of any modern dictionaries and concordances, he was able to (1) strip himself of the NT vocabulary with which he would naturally speak of Jesus and (2) reproduce perfectly the Greek of Josephus for most of the Testimonium – no doubt to create painstakingly an air of versimilitude – while at the same time destroying the air with a few patently Christian affirmations? Or is it more likely that the core statement, (1) which we first isolated simply by extracting what would strike anyone at first glance as Christian affirmations, and (2) which we then found to be written in typically Josephan vocabulary that diverged from the usage of the NT, was in fact written by Josephus himself? Of the two scenarios, I find the second much more probable.” (Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus’)
The basic issue of the authenticity of the Testimonium is frequently clouded by misquotations and confusion with other Josephan passages (such as the story of the crucifixion of Menachem), as well as by speculations about other possible lost references. Josephus may have said a little more about Jesus, as is implied by the “Kitab al-‘Unwan” document: on the other hand, he may have been less complimentary. Recent computer analysis has revealed some intriguing similarities between the Testimonium and parts of Luke 24, suggesting both authors may have had access to an earlier source containing an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But again, though this may influence our opinion as to the precise wording of Josephus’ original text, it doesn’t alter the fact that it is there.
Our view will in the end always be subject to our opinion of what Josephus could reasonably have been expected to say: but the probability is that the recension cited above represents its basic framework. For us, unlike Origen, the chief issue is the historicity of Jesus Christ; and a reference along these general lines (complete with amendments by indignant Christian commentators!) is precisely the type of external corroboration that a historian would expect to find.