Josephus on Jesus

From Academic Kids

In A.D. 93, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus published his work Antiquities of the Jews. The extant copies of this work, which all derive from Christian sources, even the recently-recovered Arabic version, contain two passages about Jesus. The one directly concerning Jesus has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum. If genuine, it is the earliest record of Jesus in Jewish sources, and as such is sometimes cited as independent evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. The other passage concerns James the brother of Jesus. Its authenticity is also disputed.


Greek version, from ninth century

The passage is repeated in three places in Antiquities of the Jews. One, at Book 18, Chapter 3, Item 3, in the translation of William Whiston, reads:

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 at this day.

Our surviving sources for this passage are Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the 9th century. However there are citations in other writers of antiquity.

The first to cite this passage of Antiquities was Eusebius, writing in about A.D. 324, who quotes the passage in essentially the same form. Most scholars consider this strong evidence that this passage existed in manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews at that time, though skeptics have suggested that Eusebius himself might be the author of the passage [1] (

Concerns about interpolations

However, it is significant that Origen, writing in about A.D. 240, fails to mention it, even though he does mention the less significant reference to Jesus, as brother of James, which occurs later in Antiquities of the Jews (book 20, ch. 9). Starting in the 17th century, this has given rise to the suggestion presented by Protestant philologists that the Testimonium Flavianum did not exist in the earliest copies, or did not exist in the present form.

Some modern historians reject the passage as an interpolation (i.e. forgery), on other grounds, for several reasons inherent in the text. In its context, passage 3.2 runs directly into passage 3.4, and thus the thread of continuity, of "sad calamities," is interrupted by this passage. The context, without the testimonium passage reads:

"...So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition. <insertion> About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome..."

The passage 3.3 also fails a standard test for authenticity, in that it contains vocabulary not otherwise used by Josephus, according to the Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus, edited by K. H. Rengstorff, 2002. It is also argued that 'He was [the] Christ' can only be read as a profession of faith. If so, this could not be right, as Josephus was not a Christian; he characterized his patron Vespasian as the foretold Messiah.

The deepest concerns about the authenticity of the passage were succinctly expressed by John Dominic Crossan, in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991): "The problem here is that Josephus' account is too good to be true, too confessional to be impartial, too Christian to be Jewish." Three passages stood out: "...if it be lawful to call him a man... He was [the] Christ... 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." These seem directly to address Christological debates of the early 4th century. Consequently many secular historians dismiss the Testimonium as an interpolation.

Lastly it should be noted that the entire passage is also found in one manuscript of Josephus' earlier work, The Jewish War. Lower Criticism has shown this to be an interpolation as other manuscripts are extant that do not contain it including the modern standard text of The Jewish War.

However, this is not the case for the main text in question. Lower Criticism makes it improbable that significant deletions or interpolations have occurred.

Support for authenticity

Most writers, however, observe that these objections are not conclusive. The ragged structure of Antiquities involves frequent disruptions to the narrative, not least because it was mainly composed by a number of scribal assistants. Linguistic analysis has not proven conclusive, when compared with other passages in Josephus which likewise exhibit unusual features. The supposed confession of Josephus relies on the standard text. But a recent study by Alice Whealey has demonstrated that a variant Greek text of this sentence existed in the 5th century -- 'He was believed to be the Christ'. The standard text then has simply become corrupt, by the loss of the main verb and a subsequent scribal 'correction' of the prolative infinitive. In any event, the audience for the work was Roman, and the Romans always referred to Jesus as 'Christus', which would make this merely an identification. Finally, it has been pointed out that every line of the passage can be objected to, or supported, by one argument or another.

The Testimonium Flavianum was treated with suspicion as long ago as the times of Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656), and by the early 20th century it was generally believed by scholars to be an interpolation. However, over the last century, the consensus of scholars has moved, not least under the influence of manuscript discoveries.

Arabic version, from tenth century

In 1971, Professor Shlomo Pines published a translation of a different version of this passage, quoted in an Arabic manuscript of the tenth century. The manuscript in question appears in the Book of the Title written by Agapius, a 10th century Christian Arab and Melkite bishop of Hierapolis. Agapius appears to be quoting from memory, for even Josephus' title is an approximation:

For he says in the treatises that he has written in the governance of the Jews: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders."
—Shlomo Pines' translation, quoted by J. D. Crossan.

Pines suggests that this may be a more accurate record of what Josephus wrote, lacking as it does the parts which have often been considered to have been added by Christian copyists. However, Pines' theory has not been widely accepted.

Pines also refers to the Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian in his World Chronicle. It was left to Alice Whealey to point out that Michael's text in fact was identical with that of Jerome at the most contentious point ('He was the Christ' becoming 'He was believed to be the Christ'), establishing the existence of a variant, since Latin and Syriac writers did not read each others works in late antiquity.

Modern consensus

There is little consensus amongst modern scholars. A significant number of scholars consider it genuine, on the grounds that all of the passages supposed to be corrupt are upheld by other writers; a significant number of scholars likewise consider the passage interpolated, on the ground that all the passages upheld are likewise demolished by other writers. Some apologists maintain that only some of the section are interpolations.


  • Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (Viking Penguin) 1997
  • James Carleton Paget, Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity, Journal of Theological Studies 52.2 (2001) pp. 539-624. A monster review of all the theories, all the scholars and all the evidence.
  • Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications, (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971)
  • Alice Whealey, Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times,Peter Lang Publishing (2003). How the TF has been seen down the centuries.
  • Frank R. Zindler, The Jesus The Jews Never Knew, Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the historical Jesus in Jewish Sources (AAP), 2003

External links

de:Testimonium Flavianum fr:Testimonium Flavianum pl:Testimonium Flavianum sv:Testimonium Flavianum


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