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Josephus and Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Question

Flavius Josephus published a history of the Jews in twenty books around 93 CE. In the 18th and 20th books, there are two little references to Jesus that have inspired a massive literature on their authenticity or spuriousness. The purpose of this paper is to survey all of the relevant arguments concerning the authorship of these passages.

The following outline is provided.

The Testimonium Question
Arguments that the Testimonium is Spurious
Arguments that the Testimonium is Authentic
The 20.9.1 Reference
Arguments that the 20.9.1 Reference is Spurious
Arguments that the 20.9.1 Reference is Authentic
Works Cited

The Testimonium Question

The following passage is found in the extant Greek manuscripts of Josephus (Ambrosianus in the 11th century, Vaticanus in the 14th century, and Marcianus in the 15th century). This passage is quoted by Eusebius in the fourth century: in the Evangelical Demonstration 3.5, in the Ecclesiastical History 1.11, and in the Theophany.

Antiquities 18.3.3. "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 to this day."

Here is the text in Greek.

Ginetai de kata touton ton chronon Iêsous sophos anêr, eige andra auton legein chrê: ên gar paradoxôn ergôn poiêtês, didaskalos anthrôpôn tôn hêdonêi talêthê dechomenôn, kai pollous men Ioudaious, pollous de kai tou Hellênikou epêgageto: ho christos houtos ên. kai auton endeixei tôn prôtôn andrôn par' hêmin staurôi epitetimêkotos Pilatou ouk epausanto hoi to prôton agapêsantes: ephanê gar autois tritên echôn hêmeran palin zôn tôn theiôn prophêtôn tauta te kai alla muria peri autou thaumasia eirêkotôn. eis eti te nun tôn Christianôn apo toude ônomasmenon ouk epelipe to phulon.

Opinion on the authenticity of this passage is varied. Louis H. Feldman surveyed the relevant literature from 1937 to 1980 in Josephus and Modern Scholarship. Feldman noted that 4 scholars regarded the Testimonium Flavianum as entirely genuine, 6 as mostly genuine, 20 accept it with some interpolations, 9 with several interpolations, and 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation.

It is impossible that this passage is entirely genuine. It is highly unlikely that Josephus, a believing Jew working under Romans, would have written, "He was the Messiah." This would make him suspect of treason, but nowhere else is there an indication that he was a Christian. Indeed, in Wars of the Jews, Josephus declares that Vespasian fulfilled the messianic oracles. Furthermore, Origen, writing about a century before Eusebius, says twice that Josephus "did not believe in Jesus as the Christ."

Either the passage received a few glosses, or the passage was inserted here in entirety. Those who favor partial authenticity usually bracket the phrases "if it be lawful to call him a man," "He was the Christ," and "for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousan other wonderful things concerning him."

Arguments that the Testimonium is Spurious

There are several arguments of various quality that aim to show that the Testimonium Flavianum is entirely spurious.

  1. It is sometimes argued that the phrase "to this day" at the end of the passage indicates the perspective of a writer who was writing long after the events in question and that Josephus was too close in time to make it believable that he would have used the expression. On the contrary, a span of 60 years time after the death of Jesus is sufficient to cause some surprise at the survival of the cult. According to the speech of Gamiliel in Acts 5:35-39, most movements disbanded shortly after the death of the leader.

  2. It is often argued that the description of Jesus is unusually short for Josephus. For example, Josephus devotes over twice as much space to the description of John the Baptist. Although suggestive, this argument is not conclusive. Professor Sanders considers this passage to be "the best objective evidence of the importance of Jesus during his own lifetime. The gospels create the impression that the entire populace was vitally interested in Jesus and what happened to him. Certainly he did attract attention. But if we measure the general impact of prophetic figures by the degree of disturbance they caused, we shall conclude that Jesus was less important in the eyes of most of his contemporaries than were John the Baptist and the Egyptian..." (pp. 50-51)

  3. Earl Doherty argues: "In the section on Pilate in the earlier Jewish War, written in the 70s, Josephus outlines the same two incidents with which he began chapter 3 of Book 18 in the Antiquities of the Jews, incidents which caused tumult in Judea during the governorship of Pilate. In the Antiquities, these descriptions are immediately followed by the Testimonium about Jesus. In Jewish War (2.9/169-177) no mention of Jesus is included." (p. 222) This is also suggestive but inconclusive. Robert Grant notes that "none of them [John the Baptist, James, or Jesus] is to be found in the parallel passages in his earlier War; presumably Christians had become more important in the interval." (p. 291)

  4. It is sometimes claimed that manuscripts before Eusebius do not have the passage in question. This is simply not true; there are no extant manuscripts before Eusebius. It is also sometimes pointed out that the Josippon, a medieval Hebrew version of Josephus, lacks the passage in question. However, Josippon is dependent on the text of the Antiquities preserved by Christians, so it is clear that the author of Josippon does not represent an independent manuscript tradition but rather purposely omits the passage.

  5. R. Joseph Hoffmann notes: "Further, the language used to describe John is very close to the language used to describe Jesus, leading some to theorize that the original version of the Antiquities carried no reference to Jesus at all." (p. 54)

    In Ecclesiastical History 1.11, Eusebius writes: "After relating these things concerning John, he makes mention of our Saviour in the same work, in the following words..." This suggests the possibility that the Testimonium was inserted in some manuscripts after the passage concerning John.

  6. Louis H. Feldman writes (Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, p. 57): "The fact that an ancient table of contents, already referred to in the Latin version of the fifth or sixth century, omits mention of the Testimionium (though, admittedly, it is selective, one must find it hard to believe that such a remarkable passage would be omitted by anyone, let alone by a Christian, summarizing the work) is further indication that there was no such notice..." I regard this as an important and powerful piece of evidence, although one that doesn't get much attention.

  7. It is argued that the reference to "the tribe of Christians so named from him" requires the earlier phrase "He was the Christ."

    Meier writes: "But as Andre Pelletier points out, a study of the style of Josephus and other writers of his time shows that the presence of 'Christ' is not demanded by the final statement about Christians being 'named after him.' At times both Josephus and other Greco-Roman writers (e.g., Dio Cassius) consider it pedantry to mention explicitly the person after whom some other person or place is named; it would be considered an insult to the knowledge and culture of the reader to spell out a connection that is taken for granted." (p. 61)

    This reply is seen to be insufficient. Pelletier points out the example of Antiquities 17.5.1, where Josephus explains the name of the port Sebastos by saying: "Herod, having constructed it at great expense, named it Sebastos in honor of Caesar." Josephus leaves out the technical explanation that Caesar's honorific name in Latin is Augustus, which was translated into the Greek language as Sebastos. It may be assumed that the reader would be aware of Caesar's title. However, it cannot be assumed that the reader would be aware that Jesus was known as the Christ.

    Some would avoid this problem by substituting "He was believed to be the Christ" or "He was the so-called Christ" in place of the phrase, "He was the Christ." This is possible, though not without its problems. Meier argues that the statement "seems out of place in its present position and disturbs the flow of thought. If it were present at all, one would expect it to occur immediately after either 'Jesus' or 'wise man,' where the further identification would make sense. Hence, contrary to Dubarle, I consider all attempts to save the statement by expanding it to something like 'he was thought to be the Messiah' to be ill advised. Such expansions, though witnessed in some of the Church fathers (notable Jerome), are simply later developments in the tradition." (p. 60) It is also problematic that Josephus would have introduced the term Christ here without any explanation of its meaning. This problem will be considered in more detail in relation to the 20.9.1 passage.

  8. Steve Mason states: "the passage does not fit well with its context in Antiquities 18. . . Josephus is speaking of upheavals, but there is no upheaval here. He is pointing out the folly of Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely supportive of both Jesus and his followers. Logically, what should appear in this context ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such criticism explicit. He says only that those who denounced Jesus were 'the leading men among us.' So, unlike the other episodes, this one has no moral, no lesson. Although Josephus begins the next paragraph by speaking of 'another outrage' that caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time (18.65), there is nothing in this paragraph that depicts any sort of outrage." (p. 165)

    Earl Doherty argues: "G. A. Wells and others have argued that the continuity of the flanking passages works best when no passage about Jesus intervenes. The final thought of the previous paragraph flows naturally into the words of the one following, whereas the opening of the latter paragraph does not fit as a follow-up to the closing sentence of the Testimonium. This argument is somewhat tempered by the fact that since the ancients had no concept of footnotes, digressional material had to be inserted into the main text, as there was nowhere else to put it. However, one might ask whether the Testimonium should be considered digressional material, since it continues with the theme of Pilate's activities and about various woes which befall the Jews. One might also suggest that, digression or no, once Josephus had written it, his opening words in the subsequent paragraph ought to have reflected, rather than ignored, the paragraph on Jesus." (p. 207)

    The fact that Josephus was prone to digressions does allow that Josephus could have inserted this passage here simply because it relates to Pilate. Meier suggests the following explanation: "In the present case, one wonders whether any greater link need exist for Josephus than the fact that the account of Jesus (who is crucified by Pilate) is preceded by a story about Pilate in which many Jews are killed (Ant. 18.3.2, 60-62) and is followed by a story in which the tricksters are punished by crucifixion." (p. 86)

    However, the real difficulty is not that the content of the Testimonium is only tangentially related to the surrounding content; the real difficulty is the way that Josephus begins the subsequent paragraph with a reference to "another outrage," a reference that skips over the Testimonium entirely and points to the previous section.

  9. No form of the Testimonium Flavianum is cited in the extant works of Justin Martyr, Theophilus Antiochenus, Melito of Sardis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Methodius, or Lactantius. According to Michael Hardwick in Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius, each of these authors shows familiarity with the works of Josephus.

    Jeffery Jay Lowder writes: "Assuming that contemporary reconstructions of the passage are accurate, it is difficult to imagine why the early church fathers would have cited such a passage. The original text probably did nothing more than establish the historical Jesus. Since we have no evidence that the historicity of Jesus was questioned in the first centuries, we should not be surprised that the passage was never quoted until the fourth century."

    John P. Meier argues: "One possible explanation of this silence would jibe well with my reconstruction of the Testimonium and my isolation of the Christian interpolations. If until shortly before the time of Eusebius the Testimonium lacked the three Christian interpolations I have bracketed, the Church Fathers would not have been overly eager to cite it; for it hardly supports the mainline Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God who rose from the dead. This would explain why Origen in the 3d century affirmed that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah (Commentary on Matthew 10.17; Contra Celsum 1.47). Origen's text of the Testimonium simply testified, in Christian eyes, to Josephus' unbelief -- not exactly a useful apologetical tool in addressing pagans or a useful polemical tool in christological controversies among Christians." (p. 79)

    Earl Doherty counters: "Meier's argument is that the Christian Fathers would have recognized that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, or believe that he had risen from the dead. The Testimonium witnessed to Josephus' unbelief and was therefore avoided. But should the apologists have found this disconcerting in a non-Christian? They dealt with unbelief every day, faced it head on, tried to counter and even win over the opponent. Justin's major work, Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, did just that. Origen, in his own confrontation with Celsus, did not shy away from criticizing Josephus for attributing the fall of Jerusalem to God's punishment on the Jews for the death of James, rather than for the death of Jesus (see below). In fact, Origen refers to the very point which Meier suggests Christian commentators shied away from, that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. It hardly seems that the silence on Antiquities 18.3.3 by all the apologists prior to Eusebius can be explained in this way." (pp. 209-210)

    So there was some cause for the early Church Fathers to have quoted from a reconstructed Testimonium. Consider Origen, who quoted from the Antiquities of the Jews in order to establish the historical existence of John the Baptist even though there is no evidence that the historicity of John the Baptist was questioned. If Origen found it useful to quote Josephus in order to establish the historicity of John, how much more so would Origen be eager to quote Josephus in order to establish the historicity of Jesus? Indeed, Origen cites Josephus to establish the existence of the Baptist even though Celsus represented the Jew in his discourse as accepting the historicity of John (Contra Celsus 1.47). Celsus grants that Jesus performed "miracles" for the sake of argument but attributes them to sorcery. Interestingly, Eusebius' motive for quoting Josephus in the Evangelical Demonstration is precisely to establish that Jesus performed true miracles, not merely to establish the historicity of Jesus. Thus, there was a motive for the early Church Fathers to have quoted a reconstructed Testimonium.

  10. Steve Mason indicates several ways in which the Testimonium deviates from Josephan style.

    First, Mason writes:

    It uses words in ways that are not characteristic of Josephus. For example, the word translated "worker" in the phrase "worker of incredible deeds" is poietes in Greek, from which we get "poet." Etymologically, it means "one who does" and so it can refer to any sort of "doer." But in Josephus' day it had already come to have special reference to literary poets, and that is how he consistently uses it elsewhere (nine times) - to speak of Greek poets like Homer. (p. 169)

    Second, Mason observes:

    Notice further that the phrase "they did not cease" has to be completed by the translator, for it is left incomplete in the text; the action which his followers ceased must be understood from the preceding phrase. This is as peculiar in Greek as it is in English, and such a construction is not found elsewhere in Josephus' writing. (p. 169)

    Third, Mason argues:

    Again, the phrase "the tribe of the Christians" is peculiar. Josephus uses the word "tribe" (phyle) eleven other times. Once it denotes "gender," and once a "swarm" of locusts, but usually signfies distinct people, races, or nationalities: the Jews are a "tribe" (War 3.354; 7.327) as are the Taurians (War 2.366) and Parthians (War 2.379). It is very strange that Josephus should speak of the Christians as a distinct racial group, since he has just said that Jesus was a Jew condemned by Jewish leaders. (Notice, however, that some Christian authors of a later period came to speak of Christianity as a "third race.") (pp. 169-170)

    Finally, there is a peculiarity with the reference to the "principal men among us." Josephus elsewhere refers to the "principal men," but Josephus consistently refers to the principal men "of Jerusalem" or "of the city," using these phrases instead of the first person plural. In his autobiography, Josephus refers to the "principal men of the city" (2), "the principal men of Jerusalem" (7), the "principal men of the city" (12), the "principal men belonging to the city" (12), the "principal men of the city" (12), and the "principal men of Jerusalem" (44). In each case Josephus identifies the leading men as belonging to Jerusalem.

  11. Ken Olson indicates several ways in which the Testimonium aligns with the style and argument of Eusebius of Caesarea.

    Olson writes:

    In Adversus Hieroclem Eusebius argued that if he had to accept the supernatural feats attributed to Apollonius, he must regard him as a GOHS [wizard] rather than a wise man (A.H. 5); here he has Josephus call Jesus a 'wise man' and thus, implicitly, not a GOHS.

    Olson states:

    The term PARADOXWN ERGWN POIHTHS is markedly Eusebian. POIHTHS never occurs in Josephus in the sense of "maker" rather than "poet," and the only time Josephus combines forms of PARADOXOS and POIHW it is in the sense of "acting contrary to custom" (A.J. 12.87) rather than "making miracles." Combining forms of PARADOXOS and POIHW in the sense of "miracle-making" is exceedingly common in Eusebius, but he seems to reserve the three words PARADOXOS, POIHW, and ERGON, used together, to describe Jesus (D.E. 114-115, 123, 125, H.E. 1.2.23)

    Olson argues:

    Eusebius' opponents were not denying that Jesus was crucified by the Roman and Jewish authorities; this was probably a main part of their argument that Jesus was a GOHS. Eusebius, however, cleverly inverts this argument. If Jesus had been a deceiver, and his followers had been deceivers, would not self-interest have compelled them to abandon his teachings after they had witnessed the manner of his death at the hands of the authorities? The fact that they did not abandon Jesus after witnessing the punishments he had brought upon himself can only mean that the disciples had recognized some greater than normal virtue in their teacher. This argument is developed at great length in D.E. 3.5, but I shall quote only a part of it here, "Perhaps you will say that the rest were wizards no less than their guide. Yes - but surely they had all seen the end of their teacher, and the death to which He came. Why then after seeing his miserable end did they stand their ground?" (D.E. 111).

    Olson concludes: "the Testimonium follows Eusebius' line of argument in the Demonstratio so closely that it is not only very unlikely that it could have been written by Josephus, but it is unlikely it could have been written by any other Christian, or even by Eusebius for another work. There is nothing in the language or content of the Testimonium, as it appears in the Demonstratio Evangelica, that suggests it is anything other than a completely Eusebian composition."

  12. Earl Doherty states: "the entire tenor of such an 'original' does not ring true for Josephus. In the case of every other would-be messiah or popular leader opposed to or executed by the Romans, he has nothing but evil to say. Indeed, he condemns the whole movement of popular agitators and rebels as the bane of the century. It lead to the destruction of the Temple, of the city itself, of the Jewish state. And yet the 'authentic' Testimonium would require us to believe that he made some kind of exception for Jesus." (pp. 210-211)

    Doherty argues: "To judge by the Christians' own record in the Gospels and even some of the epistles, 'the tribe of Christians' toward the end of the first century was still a strongly apocalyptic one. It expected the overthrow of the empire and established authority, along with the transformation of the world into God's kingdom. What would have led Josephus to divorce this prevailing Christian outlook - for which he would have felt nothing but revulsion - from his judgment of the movement's founder?" (p. 212)

    Crossan emphasizes that the description of Jesus by Josephus is "carefully and deliberately neutral," indicating "prudent impartiality" on his part (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pp. 162-163). However, there was no reason for Josephus to be neutral concerning Jesus. Doherty argues:

    His readers were primarily Roman, some Jewish. What reason would he have had for being, in Meier's phrase, "purposely ambiguous"? He had nothing to fear from Christians, and no reason to consider their sensibilities. Regardless of what he may have thought about the character of Pilate, if Pilate had executed Jesus, then there had to have been - in official Roman and Flavian eyes - a justification for doing so. Crucifixion was a punishment for rebels, and Jesus' crucifixion would have been seen as part of Rome's ongoing campaign to deal with the problems of a troubled time in a troubled province. (p. 213)

    Thus, the fact that the reconstructed Testimonium has nothing but nice things to say about Jesus tends to work in favor of its inauthenticity. Consider the reference to Jesus as a "wise man" (sophos aner). Josephus reserves this phrase elsewhere for such worthies as King Solomon (Ant. 8.53) and the prophet Elisha (Ant. 9.182). Mason notes, "If Josephus said it, it was a term of high praise." (p. 171) But it is inconceivable that Josephus should have such high praise for one who is only given so little space and who is attributed with such negative characteristics (to Josephus) as apocalyptic prophecy and the cleansing of the Temple.

Arguments that the Testimonium is Authentic

There are also arguments of various quality that aim to show that the Testimonium Flavianum is partially authentic.

  1. The argument is made that much of the vocabulary and style matches that of Josephus. His opening phrase, "Now about this time..." is used regularly to the point of nausea. The description of Jesus as "a wise man" is not typically Christian, but it is used by Josephus of, for example, Solomon and Daniel. Similarly, Christians did not refer to Jesus' miracles as "astonishing deeds" (paradoxa erga), but exactly the same expression is used by Josephus of the miracles of Elisha. And the description of Christians as a "tribe" (phylon) occurs nowhere in early Christian literature, while Josephus uses the word both for the Jewish "race" and for other national or communal groups.

    John P. Meier concludes the following from his analysis of the vocabulary of the Testimonium compared to Josephus and to the New Testament: "No one of these differences means all that much; but the accumulated evidence of all these differences may point to an author who is not taking his material from the NT...The upshot of all this is that, apart from Christianon, not one word of what I identify as the original text of the Testimonium fails to occur elsewhere in Josephus, usually with the same meaning and/or construction. As indicated in the first part of this note, the same cannot be said of the NT." (pp. 81-82)

    Meier writes: "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 verisimilitude -- 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." (p. 63)

    Against this contention, it is maintained that a scribe who had been copying Josephus for the previous 17 books would be able to acquire without effort some characteristics of the author's style. For example, the fact that the phrase "Now about this time..." was used very regularly means that it would come to the pen of a reader of Josephus without difficulty and without the need to postulate that the interpolater was attempting to create versimilitude.

    Moreover, it is maintained that the vocabulary of the Testimonium is just as well understood to be the vocabulary of Eusebius. The description of Jesus as a "wise man" is an intentional contrast to the description of men such as Apollonius as a GOHS. The description of Jesus' miracles as "astonishing deeds" is, as Olson points out, "markedly Eusebian." Finally, a reference to Christianity as a tribe (phylon) is found in Justin Martyr (Dialogue 119.4), and such a reference is found in Eusebius himself (Ecclesiastical History 3.33.2, 3.33.3).

    Finally, this argument is invalidated by the elements of the Testimonium that contradict the style of Josephus: the three examples noted by Mason above and the reference to "the leading men among us."

  2. James H. Charlesworth argues: "We can be confident that there was a minimal reference to Jesus...because once the clearly Christian sections are removed, the rest makes good grammatical and historical sense. The peculiarly Christian words are paranthetically connected to the narrative; hence they are grammatically free and could easily have been inserted by a Christian. These sections also are disruptive, and when they are removed the flow of thought is improved and smoother. For example, once the reference to the resurrection is deleted, the thought moves from Christian continuance active after the crucifixion to the nonextinct nature of the tribe." (pp. 93-94)

    Against this, it is maintained that the so-called "Christian sections" are integral parts of the text. The phrase "for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure" refers to the phrase "if it be lawful to call him a man" and, in the present text, explains why Jesus is considered to be more than a man. The phrase "He was the Christ" is presupposed by the phrase that the "tribe of Christians" is named from him, as it has been argued above. And the phrase concerning the resurrection provides the explanation for why those who loved Jesus did not cease to do so. Although it is possible to consider these phrases to be parenthetical, it is also possible to see them as part and parcel of the entire text.

    Moreover, if this argument is valid, then it should be valid to excise the entire Testimonium Flavianum because it is parenthetical and because the flow of thought is interrupted by the passage (see the argument above).

  3. Steve Mason states, "To have created the testimonium out of whole cloth would be an act of unparalleled scribal audacity." (p. 171) On the contrary, such audacity is paralleled by the extensive interpolations found in the Slavonic Josephus. Concerning the Slavonic Josephus, Meier writes:

    The clearly unauthentic text is a long interpolation found only in the Old Russian (popularly known as the "Slavonic") version of The Jewish War, surviving in Russian and Rumanian manuscripts. This pasage is a wildly garbled condensation of various Gospel events, seasoned with the sort of bizarre legendary expansions found in apocryphal gospels and acts of the 2d and 3d centuries. Despite the spirited and ingenious attempts of Robert Eisler to defend the authenticity of much of the Jesus material in the Slavonic Jewish War, almost all critics today discount this theory. In more recent decades, G. A. Williamson stood in a hopeless minority when he tried to maintain the authenticity of this and similar interpolations, which obviously come from a Christian hand (though not necessarily an orthodox one). (p. 57)

    Meier adds further bibliographic detail on the Slavonic Josephus on pp. 71-72 n. 5.

  4. It is sometimes argued that it is unlikely that the Testimonium was inserted whole-cloth into this part of Josephus' Antiquities. "Further," as Sanders observes, "the passage on Jesus is not adjacent to Josephus' account of John the Baptist, which is probably where a Christian scribe would have put it had he invented the entire paragraph." (p. 50) Meier explains this point in detail:

    A final curiousity encompasses not the Testimonium taken by itself but the relation of the Testimonium to the longer narrative about John the Baptist in Ant. 18.5.2, 116-119, a text accepted as authentic by almost all scholars. The two passages are in no way related to each other in Josephus. The earlier, shorter passage about Jesus is placed in a context of Pontius Pilate's governorship of Judea; the later, longer passage about John is placed in a context dealing with Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in Perea. Separated by time, space, and placement in Book 18, Jesus and the Baptist (in that order!) have absolutely nothing to do with each other in the mind and narrative of Josephus. Such a presentation totally contradicts -- indeed, it is the direct opposite of -- the NT portrait of the Baptist, who is always treated briefly as the forerunner of the main character, Jesus. Viewed as a whole, the treatment of Jesus and John in Book 18 of The Antiquities is simply inconceivable as the work of a Christian of any period. (p. 66)

    I do not challenge the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage. However, the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum remains in doubt. As Eusebius shows in his quotation in the Ecclesiastical History, it is possible that the Testimonium at one point was placed after the passage on John the Baptist. Moreover, the interpolator need not have inserted the passage after the one on John the Baptist; to place the passage among the accounts concerning Pilate is at least equally compelling, if not moreso.

  5. James Charlesworth writes: "Josephus must have made a reference to Jesus because the passage, divested of the obvious Christian words, is not Christian and is composed in such a way that it is very difficult to attribute to a Christian. What Christian would refer to Jesus' miracles in such a way that a reader could understand them as merely 'surprising works'? Would a Christian have written that 'first-rate men' or 'men of the highest standing amongst us' accused Jesus before Pilate, leaving the impression that he deserved a guilty verdict? Would a Christian scribe have ended a reference to Jesus by referring to 'the tribe of Christians' who 'are not extinct,' as if they should soon become extinct?" (p. 93)

    The argument on the non-extinction of Christianity is also made in more detail by Meier: "But the phrase does not stand in isolation; it is the subject of the statement that this tribe has not died out or disappeared down to Josephus' day. The implication seems to be one of surprise: granted Jesus' shameful end (with no new life mentioned in the core text), one is amazed to note, says Josephus, that this group of post-mortem lovers is still at it and has not disappeared even in our own day (does Josephus have in the back of his mind Nero's attempt to get it to disappear?). I detect in the sentence as a whole something dismissive if not hostile (though any hostility here is aimed at Christians, not Jesus): one would have thought that this 'tribe' of lovers of a crucified man might have disappeared. This does not sound like an interpolation by a Christian of any stripe." (p. 66)

    Concerning the argument that an interpolator would not comment that the Christians had not yet become extinct, the passage does not imply that the Christians should soon become extinct. Moreover, the statement is just the kind to be expected if the forger were Eusebius. As Olson explains, Eusebius made the argument that Christianity is validated because the followers of Jesus did not abandon him after the crucifixion. The phrase is thus seen to suit Eusebius' apologetic purposes quite nicely.

    Concerning whether the passage leaves the impression that Jesus deserved a guilty verdict, Earl Doherty reaches the opposite conclusion: "The words and their context give the impression that the crucifixion was due to 'an accusation made by men of the highest standing among us,' that this was the execution of a wise and loved man, a teacher of truth who was obviously innocent. Nothing could better reflect the Gospel image. But that would mean that Pilate had acted improperly, or that he had been misled or coerced by others. There could be no basis on which Josephus would be led to interpret the event this way, much less put it in writing for a Roman audience. There would have been no channel through which such a judgment would come to him that he would have accepted. And no way he could have avoided explaining himself if he did." (p. 213)

    Concerning the reference to "surprising works" (paradoxa erga), it is noted that Eusebius is one Christian who would refer to Jesus' miracles in this way (Ecclesiastical History 1.2.23). Also, if this phrase were used by Josephus, it would not in any way be diminutive. The same phrase is used by Josephus to describe the miracles of Elisha, for example (Ant. 9.182).

  6. Meier argues:
    Moreover, the treatment of the part played by the Jewish authorities does not jibe with the picture in the Gospels. Whether or not it be true that the Gospels show an increasing tendency to blame the Jews and exonerate the Romans, the Jewish authorities in the Four Gospels carry a great deal of responsibility -- either by way of formal trial(s) by the Sanhedrin in the synoptics or by way of the Realpolitik plotting of Caiaphas and the Jerusalem authorities in John's Gospel even before the hearings of Annas and Caiaphas. Of course, a later Christian believer, reading the Four Gospels, would tend to conflate all four accounts, which would only heighten Jewish participation -- something which the rabid anti-Jewish polemic of many patristic writers only too gladly indulged in. All the stranger, therefore, is the quick, laconic reference in the Testimonium to the 'denunciation' or 'accusation' that the Jewish leaders make before Pilate; Pilate alone, however, is said to condemn Jesus to the cross. Not a word is said about the Jewish authorities passing any sort of sentence. Unless we are to think that some patristic or medieval Christian undertook a historical-critical investigation of the Passion Narratives of the Four Gospels and decided a la Paul Winter that behind John's narrative lay the historical truth of a brief hearing by some Jewish official before Jesus was handed over to Pilate, this description of Jesus' condemnation cannot stem from the Four Gospels -- and certainly not from early Christian expansions on them, which were fiercely anti-Jewish. (pp. 65-66)

    On the contrary, the account in the Testimonium is an accurate reflection of the account found in the canonical Gospels. The Jewish leaders bring accusations against Jesus, and Pilate arranges the crucifixion. It need not be assumed that the interpolator would have gone to extravagant lengths to emphasize Jewish involvment.

  7. Also contrary to the Gospel presentation, says Meier, is the statement that Jesus "won over" or "gained a following" both (men) many Jews and (de kai) many of those of Gentile origin. Meier argues:
    In the whole of John's Gospel, no one clearly designated a Gentile ever interacts directly with Jesus; the very fact that Gentiles seek to speak to Jesus is a sign to him that the hour of his passion, which alone makes a universal mission possible, is at hand (John 12:20-26). In Matthew's Gospel, where a few exceptions to the rule are allowed (the centurion [Matt 8:5-13]; the Canaanite woman [15:21-28]), we find a pointedly programmatic charge to the Twelve: "Go not to the Gentiles, and do not enter a Samaritan city; rather, go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6). The few Gentiles who do come in contact with Jesus are not objects of Jesus' missionary outreach; they rather come to him unbidden and humble, realizing they are out of place. For Matthew, they point forward to the universal mission, which begins only after Jesus' death and resurrection (28:16-20). While Mark and Luke are not as explicit as Matthew on this point, they basically follow the same pattern: during his public ministry, Jesus does not undertake any formal mission to the Gentiles; the few who come to him do so by way of implication. (p. 64)

    Meier concludes: "Unless we want to fantasize about a Christian interpolator who is intent on inserting a summary of Jesus' ministry into Josephus and who nevertheless wishes to contradict what the Gospels say about Jesus' ministry, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the core of the Testimonium comes from a non-Christian hand, namely, Josephus'. Understandably, Josephus simply retrojected the situation of his own day, when the original 'Jews for Jesus' had gained many Gentile converts, into the time of Jesus. Naive retrojection is a common trait of Greco-Roman historians." (p. 65)

    Against this argument, Olson writes:

    It is sometimes argued that a Christian author would have known that Jesus did not attract many gentile followers during his ministry, but this is contradicted by Eusebius' testimony. Elsewhere he reports of Jesus that "by teaching and miracles He revealed the powers of His Godhead to all equally whether Greeks or Jews" (D.E. 400). The paired opposition of Jews and Greeks is especially common in the first two books of the Demonstratio, where Eusebius claims, "Christianity is neither a form of Hellenism nor a form of Judaism" (D.E. 11). It is, in fact, the re-establishment of the religion of the patriarchs, who worshipped the one God but did not have the restrictions of the Mosaic law, and thus was "that third form of religion midway between Judaism and Hellenism" (D.E.: Ferrar 8, Migne 25a). The MEN. DE construction used in the Testimonium situates the "nation" founded by Jesus nicely between the two other religions.

  8. It is sometimes argued that the statement by Origen that Josephus "did not believe in Jesus as the Christ" requires that there stood a reference to Jesus here in the Antiquities. Against this, it is maintained that the reference to "Jesus who is called the Messiah" in 20.9.1, which could be interpreted as "Jesus the so-called Christ," would be sufficient for Origen to make this observation. Doherty suggests that the declaration in Jewish War 6.5.4 that the messianic oracles pointed to Vespasian would have been sufficient for Origen to reason that Josephus didn't believe in Jesus as the Christ (p. 210). I would suggest that so simple a fact as that Josephus was known to be a Jew would have been sufficient in this regard.

  9. This broad survey would not be complete without a mention of the discovery of Schlomo Pines, which caused some stir with a different Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum in Agapius' Book of the Title, a history of the world from its beginning until 941/942 A.D. Agapius was a tenth-century Christian Arab and Melkite bishop of Hierapolis who wrote the following:

    Similarly Josephus, the Hebrew. For he says in the treatises that he has written on the governance (?) of the Jews: '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 the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after the crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

    Some scholars, notably Charlesworth, have been quick to receive this passage as being an important textual witness, as much or even moreso than the earlier Greek quoted by Eusebius. Charlesworth declares: "What is immediately obvious -- when one compares the Arabic and the Greek recensions -- is that the blatantly Christian phrases are conspicuously absent in the Arabic version." (p. 95) Of course, it must be acknowledged by everyone there is some redaction in the Arabic recension: "The possibility that anyone, including Jesus, was the Messiah, was not a proposition that could be taken lightly by any Jew, especially one with the experiences and credentials of Josephus. But it is even more apparent that no Christian could have originated such words as 'he was perhaps the Messiah...' It is best to assume that what Josephus wrote is not accurately preserved in any extant recension (Greek, Slavic, or Arabic); it has been at least slightly altered by Christian scribes." (p. 95) Further, Charlesworth says:

    It seems obvious that some Christian alterations are found in the Arabic recension, even if they are more subtle in the Arabic version than in the Greek. Agapius' quotation in Arabic was translated from Syriac, and the Syriac had been translated from a Greek version that seems to have received some deliberate alterations by Christian copyists, and the Greek itself, minus the redactions, ultimately derives from Josephus, who composed the Antiquities in 93 or 94 C.E. Translation from Greek into Syriac and then from Syriac into Arabic is demanded for the tradition in Agapius' work; that means the pejorative connotations at least would have been dropped by each translator, and surely the translators were Christians. (p. 96)

    In short, there is not much critical argumentation here, but rather some almost sensationalistic claims, with a purely negative defense emphasizing how late and adulterated the Arabic recension really is. Meier stays within the confines of mainstream scholarship in writing:

    Feldman (Josephus and Modern Scholarship, 701) believes that Agapius used both Josephus and other sources and combined them: "We may...conclude that Agapius' excerpt is hardly decisive, since it contains several elements, notably changes in order, that indicate that it is a paraphrase rather than a translation." Nodet ("Jesus et Jean-Baptist selon Josephe") thinks that Agapius represents a deformed tradition of the Eusebius text found in the Ecclesiastical History (pp. 335-36). Personally, I am doubtful that this 10th-century Arabic manuscript preserves the original form of the Testimonium, especially since it contains sentences that, as I have just argued, are probably later expansions or variants of the text. (pp. 78-79)

    One might add that this phrase of Agapius' version -- "Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die" -- seems clearly directed against Muslims who held that Jesus was not killed by crucifixion. It is not even certain that Agapius is quoting straight from a manuscript; and if he is, it is certainly very late and corrupted, and thus practically worthless.

  10. Finally, the authenticity of the shorter passage in Ant. 20.9.1 would lend support to the authenticity of a reconstructed Testimonium. The identification of James by referring to "Jesus who is called Christ" presupposes an earler reference to Jesus.

    This is disputed. There is at least one other occasion in which Josephus identies an individual by identifying his brother and in which this brother is not mentioned earlier in the text.

    Wars of the Jews 2.247. "After this Caesar sent Felix, the brother of Pallas, to be procurator of Galilee, and Samaria, and Perea, and removed Agrippa from Chalcis unto a greater kingdom; for he gave him the tetrarchy which had belonged to Philip, which contained Batanae, Trachonitis, and Gaulonitis: he added to it the kingdom of Lysanias, and that province [Abilene] which Varus had governed. But Claudius himself, when he had administered the government thirteen years, eight months, and twenty days, died, and left Nero to be his successor in the empire, whom he had adopted by his Wife Agrippina's delusions, in order to be his successor, although he had a son of his own, whose name was Britannicus, by Messalina his former wife, and a daughter whose name was Octavia, whom he had married to Nero; he had also another daughter by Petina, whose name was Antonia."

    This, then, would furnish an example in which Josephus identifies an individual by another who is not mentioned earlier in the Wars of the Jews. Josephus likely assumed a knowledge of the identity of Pallas.

    On the other hand, as shown below in the final argument that the 20.9.1 reference is spurious, it can still be argued cogently that a reference to "Jesus who is called Christ" in the twentieth book makes an earlier account of Jesus more likely.

The 20.9.1 Reference

The following passage contains the shorter reference to Jesus.

Antiquities 20.9.1. "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 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, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim 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."

Although Rajak is an exception, most have granted that this passage is substantially authentic for two reasons.

  1. Josephus' emphasis is not on Jesus or James, but on why Ananus was deposed as high priest. As John P. Meier says, "we have here only a passing, almost blasé, reference to someone called James, whom Joseph obviously considers a minor character. He is mentioned only because his illegal execution causes Ananus to be deposed." (p. 57)

  2. Josephus' account of James being stoned is different from the account given by Hegesippus in the second century. Meier writes: "According to Hegesippus, the scribes and Pharisees cast James down from the battlement of the Jerusalem temple. They begin to stone him but are constrained by a priest; finally a laundryman clubs James to death (2.32.12-18). James's martyrdom, says Hegesippus, was followed immediately by Vespasian's siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 70)." (p. 58)

However, there has been considerable dispute as to whether the phrase "the brother of Jesus who was called Christ" were part of the original passage. Wells notes: "Schurer, Zahn, von Dobschutz and Juster are among the scholars who have regarded the words 'the brother of Jesus, him called Christ' as interpolated." (p. 11) To this list, we could add Karl Kautsky, S.G.F. Brandon, Charles Guignebert, and Twelftree.

Before presenting the arguments for and against the authenticity of this phrase, it is necessary to offer an excursus on the references to this passage in the patristic authors.

Here are the references from Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome.

Origen, Commentary on Matthew 10.17. "And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that 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."

Origen, Against Celsus 1.47. "Now this writer [Josephus], 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. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure."

Origen, Against Celsus 2.13. "But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but in reality, as the truth makes dear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God."

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.22. "James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him. Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, '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.' And the same writer records his death also in the twentieth book of his Antiquities in the following words: 'But the emperor, when he learned of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be procurator of Judea. But the younger Ananus, who, as we have already said, had obtained the high priesthood, was of an exceedingly bold and reckless disposition. He belonged, moreover, to the sect of the Sadducees, who are the most cruel of all the Jews in the execution of judgment, as we have already shown. Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead, and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrim, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned. But those in the city who seemed most moderate and skilled in the law were very angry at this, and sent secretly to the king, requesting him to order Ananus to cease such proceedings. For he had not done right even this first time. And certain of them also went to meet Albinus, who was journeying from Alexandria, and reminded him that it was not lawful for Ananus to summon the Sanhedrim without his knowledge. And Albinus, being persuaded by their representations, wrote in anger to Ananus, threatening him with punishment. And the king, Agrippa, in consequence, deprived him, of the high priesthood, which he had held threemonths, and appointed Jesus, the son of Damnaeus.'"

Jerome, Illustrious Men. "Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great sanctity and reputation among the people that the downfall of Jerusalem was believed to be on account of his death."

Scholars such as Steve Mason think that the reference derives from Origen misreading Josephus. It is possible to see how this has happened, especially under the influence of Christian traditions according to which the death of James was the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem that may have been the filter through which Origen read the twentieth book of the Antiquities. This suggestion is just that much stronger if it is accepted, as I have argued elsewhere, that the text attributed to Hegesippus, with the account of the fall of Jerusalem following the death of James, may have previously circulated under the name of Josephus.

Eisenman has suggested that this reference derives from a copy of Josephus from a passage distinct from our Ant. 20.9.1 reference, which nowhere says that the death of James led to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is difficult to accept, primarily because it is difficult to understand its removal from the manuscripts. That some attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus is not a very compelling explanation. Scribes left references to the fall of Jerusalem being due to James the Just in Christian literature and would be even less shocked to find such opinions in a non-Christian author. It's timid stuff when compared to some pagan texts, such as those of Lucian, that have been preserved.

Zvi Baras writes: "Such an assumption [that there was a lost reference] overlooks the question of why the Testimonium passage should have remained in Josephus' text, while the story of James' martryrdom - neither disdainful nor defamatory toward Christ - should have been excised from Josephus' writings." (Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 343) Moreover, Zvi Baras quotes Against Celsus 1.47 and Ecclesiastical History 2.23.20 and comments: "The precise parallelism between the two texts has already been remarked by Chadwick, who proved that Eusebius quoted Origen's passage verbatim, but changed it to direct speech." (op. cit., p. 345) So it seems likely that there was no other passage concerning James to be found in Josephus. Of course, this theory then casts aspersions on the ability of Eusebius to quote Josephus accurately.

I will now analyze the arguments concerning the authenticity of the phrase "the brother of Jesus who is called the Christ."

Arguments that the 20.9.1 Reference is Spurious

  1. It is sometimes argued that only the words "tou legomenou Christou" are spurious and that the reference to Jesus actually meant to refer to Jesus, the son of Damneus, who appears later in the text. This is not an improvement on the alternative hypothesis of interpolation that the entire reference to Jesus as the brother of James was inserted here. The reference to Jesus, son of Damneus, comes significantly later in the text and would not have helped the reader (or hearer) understand who James was when he was introduced. Also, the identification of Jesus happens in the supposedly second mention, which is not natural. (A hypothetical original identification of Jesus as the son of Damneus earlier in the same breath with James or of James as the son of Damneus is fatuous.)

  2. Wells states, "The words have the character of a brief marginal gloss, later incorporated innocently into the text. Josephus probably wrote of the death of a Jewish Jerusalem leader called James, and a Christian reader thought the reference must be to James the brother of the Lord who, according to Christian tradition, led the Jerusalem Chruch about the time in question. This reader accordingly noted in the margin: 'James = the brother of Jesus, him called Christ' (cf. the wording of Mt. 1:16: 'Jesus, him called Christ') and a later copyist took this note as belonging to the text and incorporated it. Other interpolations are known to have originated in precisely such a way." (p. 11) Doherty elaborates: "If he [Josephus] knew nothing else about James or chose to say nothing more, he would simply have used some equivalent to 'a certain James' or 'someone named James.' And what in fact do we find in the Greek? The words referring directly to James are: Iakobos onoma autoi. Translations render this 'James by name' or 'whose name was James' or 'a man named James.' Such a phrase could have stood perfectly well on its own (with a slight change in grammatical form), and had the reference to a brother Jesus added to it by a Christian interpolator." (pp. 216-217) While these observations do not prove that the reference was interpolated, they do indicate the possibility of the interpolation hypothesis. References from Josephus similar to the phrase "one whose name was James," where there is also no noun phrase that it modifies, include Ant. 10.6.1, Ant. 11.5.4, Ant. 14.9.4, and Life 56.

  3. Doherty argues: "Why would Josephus think to make the Jesus idea paramount, placing it before the James one? James is the character that brought about Ananus' downfall, while mention of Jesus is supposed to be an identifying afterthought. It would have been much more natural for Josephus to say something like: '(Ananus) brought before them a man named James, who was the brother of Jesus, the one called (the) Christ . . .' On the other hand, if the phrase is the product of a Christian scribe, it may be understandable that he, consciously or unconsciously, would have given the reference to Jesus pride of place." (p. 217)

    This argument is weak. The fact that "the brother of Jesus who is called the Christ" is placed first, in the accusative, does not mean that the reference to Jesus is given some kind of "pride of place." It is simply one grammatically correct way of identifying James.

  4. Doherty mentions the anomalous character of the reference to "Jesus who is called Christ" in Josephus:

    In the Antiquities 20 reference we actually have a double identification: one for James, that he was Jesus' brother, the second for Jesus, that he was the one called the Christ. But would Josephus have been likely to offer this identification for Jesus? First of all, it implies that the historian had explained just what "the Christ" was at some previous point. (His readership was a Greco-Roman one, who would not be expected to have much familiarity with the idea.) The fact is, he has not, and certainly not in the Antiquities 18 passage, where the declaration "He was the Messiah" is rejected as a later and obvious Christian insertion.

    Moreover, the entire Jewish tradition of messianic expectation is a subject Josephus seems to avoid, for he nowhere else describes it, not even in connection with the rebellious groups and agitators in the period prior to the Jewish War. (His one clear reference to the messianic "oracles" of the Jews, the object of whom he claims was Vespasian [Jewish War 6.5.4], is in a different book, and is dealt with in very cursory fasion.) This silence and apparent reluctance would seem to preclude the likelihood that Josephus would introduce the subject at all, especially as a simple aside, in connection with Jesus. (p. 218)

    Doherty suggests that a more likely reference would identify Jesus by his crucifixion under Pilate. Another possibility is that Josephus would not refer to Jesus at all but rather make use of a more traditional patrilineal reference.

    Concerning the reference to Jesus as the one called Christ, Steve Mason explains that Josephus would not have assumed his readership to understand the term:

    First, the word "Christ" (Greek christos) would have special meaning only for a Jewish audience. In Greek it means simply "wetted" or "anointed." Within the Jewish world, this was an extremely significant term because anointing was the means by which the kings and high priests of Israel had been installed. The pouring of oil over their heads represented their assumption of God-given authority (Exod 29:9; 1 Sam 10:1). The same Hebrew word for "anointed" was mashiach, which we know usually as the noun Messiah, "the anointed [one]." Although used in the OT of reigning kings and high priests, many Jews of Jesus' day looked forward to an end-time prophet, priest, king, or someone else who would be duly anointed.

    But for someone who did not know the Jewish tradition, the adjective "wetted" would sound most peculiar. Why would Josephus say that this man Jesus was "the Wetted"? We can see the puzzlement of Greek-speaking readers over this term in their descriptions of Christianity: Jesus' name is sometimes altered to "Chrestus" (Suetonius, Claudius 25.4), a common slave name that would amke better sense, and the Christians are sometimes called "Chrestians."

    Since Josephus is usually sensitive to his audience and pauses to explain unfamiliar terms or aspects of Jewish life, it is very strange that he would make the bald assertion, without explanation, that Jesus was "Christ."

    The fact that the term "Christ" appears only in Ant. 18.3.3 and here in 20.9.1 seems to do little to suggest the authenticity of the phrase. It has been often observed that Josephus avoided the subject of messianic expectation. Crossan states:

    The more important point, however, is that neither there nor anywhere else does Josephus talk about messianic claimants. He makes no attempt to explain the Jewish traditions of popular kingship that might make a brigand chief or a rural outlaw think not just of rural rebellion but of regal rule. The reason is, of course, quite clear and was seen already. For Josephus, Jewish apocalyptic and messianic promises were fulfilled in Vespasian. It is hardly likely, that Josephus would explain too clearly or underline too sharply the existence of alternative messianic fulfillments before Vespasian, especially from the Jewish lower classes. (The Historical Jesus, p. 199)

    Even in the passage where Josephus seems to describe Vespasian as the fulfillment of the messianic oracles, Josephus does not make use of the term "Christ."

  5. Steven Carr supplies a reason for doubting the authenticity of the reference to Jesus:

    How does Josephus refer back to people he has previously mentioned in those days when books had no indexes? Here he is going back two books, so readers will need more than a casual reference.

    Judas of Galilee was first mentioned in 'Wars of the Jews' Book 2 Section 118 'Under his administration, it was that a certain Galilean , whose name was Judas , prevailed with his countrymen to revolt ; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans , and would, after God , submit to mortal men as their lords.'

    Josephus refers to him again in Book 2 Section 433 as follows '"In the meantime one Manahem, the son of Judas , that was called the Galilean (who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Quirinius , that after God they were subject to the Romans )" - considerable detail is included.

    In Wars, Book 7 Section 533 we read about Judas again - "... Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it. He was a descendant from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews , as we have formerly related , not to submit to the taxation when Quirinius was sent into Judea to make one; ...' . So a change of book causes Josephus to say 'as formerly related'.

    Judas was also in Antiquities 18 'Yet was there one Judas , a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt , who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty'.

    Josephus referred back to Judas in Antiquities 20 'the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book .'

    So Josephus usually put in detail and when he referred back from Ant. 20 to Ant. 18, he reminded the reader that it was in a different book. None of these factors apply to Josephus's reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. A Christian interpolator would naturally need not need to supply such detailed back-references. His readers would know exactly who Jesus called the Christ was.

    This kind of consideration weighs especially against those who have removed the reference to "Christ" from the passage on Jesus. Those who see the 20.9.1 reference as being explained earlier in 18.3.3 should, at a minimum, consider the likelihood that the original Testimonium would likely have to contain the term "Christ" (the "credabatur esse Christus" type of reference), which would make some sense out of the reference in the later book as well as the reference to Christians being named after him. It presumes that the reference in 20.9.1 was intended to be a cross-reference to an earlier place. Even with this improvement to the reconstruction of a Testimonium, this argument has some value, given the parallels drawn to the way Josephus refers back to another book in other cases. This argument does not apply to those who see the 20.9.1 reference as the sole authentic mention of Jesus, but the next one does.

  6. Finally, it has been argued the identification of James by way of mentioning Jesus presupposes that Josephus had previously mentioned Jesus, while there are several arguments that Josephus did not write any part of the famous Testimonium. This argument is important if not singularly decisive. It must be said, however, that Josephus may not have intended this identification to serve as a reference to an earlier passage. The general plausibility of such an identification without any earlier reference is established from the similar example in Wars of the Jews 2.247 (see above). However, it is questionable to attempt to compare Christ to Pallas in the historical context of a first century Roman audience. Pallas, with his secular fame in Roman society, needed no explanation. Josephus, in his desire to provide the historical backdrop of Judea prior to the revolt, would have provided an explanation in the appropriate place for anybody mentioned in his narrative "who is called Christ" who is significant enough to serve as a well-understood identifier. If this Jesus who is called Christ is assumed to be a name well-known to his audience, it would be remiss for Josephus in his role as a historian to decide to pass over his life in silence, given that Jesus was not, like Pallas, a politician in Rome who would be unconnected to his narrative but instead a Jewish leader in Judea under Tiberius when Pilate was prefect who would find a place in the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus. (Even if it were a deliberate purpose of Josephus to omit mention of Christians or Jesus that explains the absence of an earlier passage, then that same purpose makes such a reference in the 20th book of the Jewish Antiquities counter-productive to his aims.) Whether we want to say that Jesus were not well-known or that he were, in either case, it is more likely that Josephus would have given an earlier account of Jesus, given the later reference, than that he would not.

Arguments that the 20.9.1 Reference is Authentic

  1. The reference appears in all extant manuscripts. However, as Doherty points out, "we have nothing earlier than the 10th century, and by then one of the universal tendencies in manuscript transmission, that all copies of a well-known passage gravitate toward the best-known wording, as well as toward the inclusion of the passage itself, would have ensured that this reference to Jesus in its present form would long since have been found in all copies." (p. 216) More importantly, however, the reference appears in the works of Origen in the early third century. This is strong textual evidence for the reference. However, room must be made for the possibility of conjectural amendation when the other passage referring to Jesus also appears in all extant manuscripts of Josephus but is known to have been the result of tampering.

  2. At least five different people in Josephus' works alone are known to have the name of James. But Josephus is generally careful to supply details to locate his characters in history. As this is a common name, if Josephus referred only to "James and certain others," it might be confusing as to what James is meant. Against this argument, Doherty writes: "This inclusion of an identifying piece of information, say those arguing for authenticity, is something that Josephus does for most of his characters. True enough, but this does not necessarily make the present phrase the original one. Josephus may have said something else which Christians subsequently changed. Or he may have written nothing. If he knew nothing else about James or chose to say nothing more, he would simply have used some equivalent to 'a certain James' or 'someone named James.'" (p. 216)

  3. It is sometimes suggested that, if a Christian was tampering with this passage, he would probably also want to deny the charges against James as well as get it "straight" with Hegesippus' version of his death. However, Doherty rightly counters that there were limitations to the amount of tampering that could take place in "a tightly-packed account of James' death and its repercussions on Ananus" (p. 218). Moreover, if the reference were originally a marginal aside as suggested by Wells, then there would be no thought of purposely altering the passage; a later scribe would have included the marginal gloss under the assumption that it belonged in the text.

  4. It is suggested that, if a Christian was tampering with this passage, he would have taken the opportunity to definitely assert the messiahship of Jesus (rather than just referring to Jesus "who is called the Christ," Gk. tou legomenou Christou). Morton Smith writes: "Since Josephus' works have been preserved by Christian copyists and no Christian would have forged a reference to Jesus in this style, the text has generally been accepted as genuine." (p. 44)

    There are problems with Smith's argument. First, Smith depends upon a translation of the reference as "Jesus the so-called Christ," when this translation is not a necessary one. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz state, "The formulation o legomenoV cristoV (who is called Christ) implies neither assent nor doubt (cf. Matt 1.16)." (p. 65) Doherty points this out:

    The frequent translation of "tou legomenou Christou" as "the so-called Christ," with its skeptical and derogatory overtone, is in no way necessary, and is in fact belied by the usage of the same phrase in Matthew [1:16, 27:17] and John [4:25] where it obviously cannot have such a connotation. The word legomenos is found in many other places in the New Testament without an implied derogation. Those using the term in their translations of Josephus betray a preconceived bias in favor of his authorship. (p. 217)

    If we assume that there was originally a note in the margin identifying this James as "the brother of Jesus who is called Christ" and that this note was later incorporated into the text, then there would be no intentional interpolation, and the idea that the interpolator would have wanted to more definitely assert messiahship collapses.

    On the other hand, if we assume that the passage was intentionally modified, it could have been modified by a slightly sophisticated interpolater. It has often been suggested that Jerome, whose quotation has "Credabatur esse Christus" in a place in the Testimonium, altered the original "He was the Christ" -- he knew that Josephus wouldn't think so. This interpolator would have inserted the reference to "Jesus who is called the Messiah" on the same basis; the interpolator realized that Josephus would not actually consider call Jesus the Christ. The plausibility of this suggestion is also seen from the reference in Matthew 27:17, in which the author of Matthew puts words on the lips of Pilate that refer to Jesus as "Jesus who is called Messiah."

    While the argument concerning the non-commital nature of the reference isn't quite conclusive, it is certainly quite suggestive. The significance of the references to "called Christ" in the New Testament is exaggerated. Van Voorst observes:

    For the few occurences of the phrase "called Christ" in the New Testament, see Matt 1:16 (Matthew's genealogy, where it breaks the long pattern of only personal names); Matt 27:17, 22 (by Pontius Pilate); John 4:25 (by the Samaritan woman). Twelftree, "Jesus in Jewish Traditions," 300, argues from these instances that "called Christ" is "a construction Christians used when speaking of Jesus" and therefore an indication that this passage is not genuine. He also cites John 9:11, but there the phrase is "called Jesus" and so does not apply to this issue. But if these passages are indicative of wider usage outside the New Testament, "called Christ" tends to come form non-Christians and is not at all typical of Christian usage. Christians would not be inclined to use a neutral or descriptive term like "called Christ"; for them, Jesus is (the) Christ.

    I also note that no extracanonical works in the second century use the phrase "Jesus who is called Christ," even though this would be the period when an interpolation would have to have been made. On the other hand, as with the next argument, a different identity for the postulated author of such a marginal gloss may explain all the data.

  5. John P. Meier argues:

    ...the way the text identifies James is not likely to have come from a Christian hand or even a Christian source. Neither the NT nor early Christian writers spoke of James of Jerusalem in a matter-of-fact way as "the brother of Jesus" (ho adelphos Iesou), but rather -- with the reverence we would expect -- "the brother of the Lord" (ho adelphos tou kyriou) or "the brother of the Savior" (ho adelphos tou soteros). Paul, who was not overly fond of James, calls him "the brother of the Lord" in Gal 1:19 and no doubt is thinking especially of him when he speaks of "the brothers of the Lord" in 1Cor 9:5. Hegesippus, the 2d-century Church historian who was a Jewish convert and probably hailed from Palestine, likewise speaks of "James, the brother of the Lord" (in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 2.23.4); indeed, Hegesippus also speaks of certain other well-known Palestinian Christians as "a cousin of the Lord" (4.22.4), the "brothers of the Savior" (3.25.5), and "his [the Lord's] brother according to the flesh" (3.20.1). The point of all this is that Josephus' designation of James as "the brother of Jesus" squares neither with NT nor with early patristic usage, and so does not likely come from the hand of a Christian interpolator. (p. 58)

    It's a fair note. A search of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, the extracanonical writings, and the New Testament will produce no instance in which James is identified as "the brother of Jesus." It may not be the most probable phrase to find from an ancient Christian author. It suffers, however, from attempting to make an argument about the style of someone who is otherwise unknown, who left no other writing, simply from the scribe being a Christian. It also contains the assumption that the addition came from a Christian scribe, which might actually be controverted if the considerations about the style of reference and its potential skepticism are taken just as seriously as the considerations against a solitary, unexplained reference here from the historian Josephus. The outcome of accepting both prongs of the argument is that a marginal gloss identifying this man named James (with the one renowned among the Jews, according to Hegesippus, for his justice) may have been from a second century non-Christian Jewish scribe.


Proverbs 18:17 may well have been commenting on arguments concerning the Testimonium: "The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him." The present author was once firmly convinced that both references in the Antiquities were authentic. After reading the study of Ken Olson that shows the vocabulary of the Testimonium to be not Josephan but rather Eusebian, I am inclined to regard both references as spurious.

Even if one is convinced that the passages are interpolated, there may be a satisfactory explanation for the silence of Josephus on Jesus and Christianity. W. D. Davies explains:

But it is still more likely that the silence of Josephus is due to the character of his work: his career suggests what his aim was in his writings. He desired to remain in the good graces of the Roman Emperor: to do so he avoided in his history all that might offend Roman susceptibilities. To mention Christianity, a Messianic movement that proclaimed another King than Caesar (Acts 17:7), would be to expose Judaism, which in Rome might not be distinguished from Christianity, to "guilt by association." Perhaps Josephus would not cavil at discussing a dead Messianic movement, which no longer offered any threat to Rome, but Christianity was alive and militant. The part of prudence was to ignore it. (p. 66)

Maurice Goguel offers a similar explanation for what would be silence of Josephus:

Since Josephus has been silent not only concerning Jesus, but also concerning Christianity, how is his silence to be explained? Uniquely by the character and the object of his work. The writer desired to flatter the Romans and gain their good graces. To do this he expunged from the picture he drew everything likely to offend or to excite their apprehension. Thus it is that he has scarcely at all spoken of the Messianic cult which nevertheless constituted the center of Jewish thought in the first century. That he did so was because this cult was a menace to Rome, for the Kingdom of the Messiah could only be built upon the ruins of the Empire. (p. 36)

Thus, even though Josephus may not have referred to Jesus, that does not necessarily imply that there was no historical Jesus. While a reference to Jesus would help substantiate the historicity of Jesus, it, by the same token, wouldn't necessarily settle the question outright, especially when the supposed reference is the subject of such severe textual difficulties. While the appeal to the text of Josephus is often made in the attempt to secure the place of Jesus as a figure in history, the text of Josephus itself is far too insecure to carry the burden assigned to it.

Works Cited

  1. Carr, Steven. "First Response by Steven Carr." (URL:<>, 2000).
  2. Charlesworth, James H. Jesus within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
  3. Crossan, John D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991).
  4. Crossan, John D. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).
  5. Davies, W. D. Invitation to the New Testament, a Guide to its Main Witnesses (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966).
  6. Doherty, Earl J. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999).
  7. Feldman, Louis H. Josephus and Modern Scholarship (Berlin; New York: W. de Gruyter, 1984).
  8. Feldman, Louis H. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987).
  9. Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (New York: Harmony Books, 1999).
  10. Goguel, Maurice. Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926).
  11. Grant, Robert. A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
  12. Hardwick, Michael E. Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
  13. Hoffman, Joseph R. Jesus Outside the Gospels (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1984).
  14. Lowder, Jeffery Jay. "Josh McDowell's 'Evidence' for Jesus: Is It Reliable?" (URL:<>, 2000).
  15. Mason, Steve. Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992).
  16. Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, v. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991).
  17. Olson, Ken. "Eusebian Fabrication of the Testimonium" (URL:<>, 2001).
  18. Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Press, 1993).
  19. Smith, Morton. Jesus the Magician (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978).
  20. Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).
  21. Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000).
  22. Wells, G. A. Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton Publishing Co., 1986).

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Kirby, Peter. "Josephus and Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Question." Early Christian Writings. <>.