Did Josephus mention Jesus Christ?

A crude work that will never be finished, except maybe in 2010, by

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


Two passages in the extant works of the Jewish first century historian Josephus Flavius mention Jesus Christ, and are probably the best available evidence for his existense. [sic] No, Tacitus is probably that, if we spell it "existence". But do go onů These are in passages 18.3.3 and 20.9 of his Antiquities Of The Jews. This page examines whether and to what extent we can trust these passages to be genuine.


Origen, Josephus and Jesus

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

"For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),-the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine" (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:47) [oa]
One point of interest is that Josephus is cited fourteen times by early Christian writers in the Ante-Nicence Fathers - and these are the only mentions of this supposed reference to Christ before Eusebius in the fourth century. Interesting? It isn't "interesting" in the least. What other ECF had reason or need to mention it? None. This is nothing but a "duh, golly gee" argument with no substantiation, like asking why they didn't mention boiled peas just because WE like boiled peas. Much of what follows is non-controversial and deserves no comment. We of course did our piece here and will respond in that light.[tj]

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

Feldman concluded in 1963 that:
"The most probably view seems to be that our text represents substantially what Josephus wrote, but that some alterations have been made by a Christian interpolator." [th]
Then in 1971:
"In a startling find, Shlomo Pines publishes citations of the TF appearing in Arabic and Syriac works of the 9th-10th century. These quotations substantially resemble our current Testimonium, but do not have two of the most suspicious phrases: "he was the Messiah" and "if indeed he can be called a man". Pines suggests these editions may have used an authentic, uninterpolated version of Josephus' work." [th]
However, there are no earlier texts which can prove whether any part of the Testimonium Flavianum was actually written by Josephus; and there is reason to be sure of the veracity of Origen himself as a chronicler of history. We don't need Origen to begin with. The pest's complaints about Origen are beyond our scope, but on the other, the news flash is that we have "no earlier texts" of a vast number of classical works (Tacitus, Josephus, Livy, etc) and no secular scholar is running around doubting that we can "prove" what was in those texts before. Nothing here but unjustified, unwarranted paranoia seeking an excuse to dismiss Josephus that will appeal to those with similar paranoia.


The Testimonium Flavianum

Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3 - first quoted specifically by
Eusebius in the fourth century - has come down to us as follows:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." [ja]
The text in red underline is a fairly obvious later interpolation (even, it would seem, by the apologetic Tektonics[t1]). And by the best Josephan scholarship. Let's not forget that. Our PEST wants to make it sound like I'm alone on this and expers like Feldman have zero to say about it. The passage was not mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) or - as we will see below - by Origen (150-215 CE). The passage was first mentioned by Eusebius, in 324 CE, and the forgery is believed to date from around that time. We're once again compelled to ask, why should Clement or Origen bother to mention it in the first place? No reason is given. It's just a "boiled peas" complaint.[sb]

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

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


Josephus 20.9

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

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

On the whole, the available evidence seems inconclusive. On the whole, PEST avoids actually analyzing and critically comparing evidence, merely assuming that the existence of two points of view renders the matter "inconclusive". But no one we know goes to PEST for real scholarship in action.[ij] But since Origen did not actually quote from Josephus, is it possible that he made some sort of mistake? Not necessary. Quotes or allusions were seldom exact in antiquity; and they were best from works people studied and memorized, like the OT or NT. It's not likely Josephus was part of Origen's repeated reading program. PEST adds these ideas:In summary, I would submit that we cannot be reasonably certain that this passage is genuine. In summary, PEST has done a sorrowful, inadequate, and uncritical job even for a rough draft in progress.


Did anyone doubt Jesus?

Jeffery Jay Lowder in an article for the Secular Web, argued that the Testimonium Flavium was unlikely to be a complete forgery:
"Since there is no evidence that anyone in the first few centuries actually doubted the existence of Jesus, there is no reason we should expect to find quotations of the Testimonium Flavianum in early literature." [jl]
This is a questionable conclusion. The Early Church fathers themselves were either silent on the historical existence of Jesus, or having to argue for it. Which makes sense if there was nothing to dispute. As for the only specific: The second century pagan Celsus wrote:
"It is clear to me that the writings of the christians are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction: I have even heard that some of your interpreters, as if they had just come out of a tavern, are onto the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism." That's nice. What did that have to do with a historical Jesus? Nothing. Celsus elsewhere writes as though Jesus were a real person (just not that big a deal), and his complaints is not supported by textual criticism, and is thus just malarkey according to available evidence, to say nothing of lacking in any specifics for the purpose of evaluation. It is also hearsay ("I have heard"), which makes we wonder why any Skeptic worth his Paine thinks it has value.[tc]
Moreover, the first several centuries of Christianity were riven with heresies on the supposed different "natures" of Christ and God. Which proves, what about a historical Jesus? Not a thing. What's the point here?[ch]



In short, in the absence of any other external evidence for Jesus Christ as a historical character, there is plenty of reason to doubt the validity of any references to Jesus Christ in the works of Josephus. Wow. Try Lucian, Tacitus, and Pliny for best value otherwise. So much for that.