Josephus' Testimony on Jesus
For a more up to date version of this essay, please see our book Shattering the Christ Myth.
[Background Data] [Forged?] [The Shorter Reference] ["So-Called" Problem] [Top Billing Objection] [The Larger Reference] [Out-of-Context Objection] [Too Late?] [Why Not the Resurrection?] [Pilate Slam?] [Table of Contents] [Conclusions]

The works of the first-century historian Josephus have been held in high regard by Christians throughout history. The early church, Schreckenberg writes, saw Josephus as "a kind of fifth gospel" and a "little Bible" [Feld.JosJes, 317], because his works "appeared to Christian theologians to be a commentary or a historic appendix to the New Testament." (ibid., 319) The church's love for Josephus "assured him an ongoing role in Western tradition." [Maso.JosNT, 8]

Closer to modern times, households in France, Holland and England were known to present newborns with inscribed copies of Josephus, right along with the Bible. [Hada.FJos, 2] Thus it is that the particular references to Jesus have been held historically in the highest esteem - and perhaps, also why they have resulted in the most spilled ink.

This article will examine objections to the testimony of Josephus. The objections will be put in bold and answered thereafter.

We will not investigate the question of Josephus' reliability closely here, for there is little question that Josephus is a generally reliable historian. He had his biases, of course, and he was, unfortunately, something of a traitor to his people. However, questions as to his accuracy as a historian are not what turn up regarding his references to Jesus. Rather, they focus on this question:

Are these genuine references, or are there doubts about their veracity?

There are two quotes that mention Jesus in Josephus' Antiquities: A smaller and a larger one. Both of these have been targeted by the Jesus-myth circle as interpolations made by later Christian scribes.

Wells [Well.WhoW, 21; Well.DidJ, 14] , for example, rejects the small passage as a partial interpolation or marginal gloss, as did Drews [Drew.WH, 10]. Stretching the polemic, Wells says that it is "widely admitted" that both this passage, and the larger one are interpolations. [Well.HistEv, 18] Wells' "widely" estimation is quite a bit off. According to Feldman's discernible statistics [Feld.JosMod, 684-91] , 4 scholars regard the larger passage as completely genuine, 6 more as mostly genuine; 20 accept it with some interpolations, 9 with several interpolations; 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation as Wells does.) Twleftree [Twel.GosP5, 300] , offering an unusual view, rejects the smaller passage on rather thin terminological grounds, but strangely, accepts most of the larger passage as genuine.

Let us begin in the natural place to start: By quoting the materials in question. Here is the first and smaller quote:

Antiquities 20.9.1 But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.

It is the words "the so-called Christ" that are thought to be interpolated here - assuming that this passage is even noticed; some writers, I have observed, seem to forget that it exists! But let us consider the arguments for and against regarding this as an interpolation.

The bulk of the evidence therefore favors highly the genuineness of this passage.

[Well.DidJ, 11] There is evidence of Christian influence here. In Greek the passage is the same as that in Matthew 1:16, where it is translated "him called Christ", without any expressed doubts.

France [Franc.EvJ] responds, however:

...Josephus' usage should be determined from Josephus, not from Matthew. The complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus translates legomenos as 'so-called' or 'alleged', and refers as an example to Josephus, Contra Apionen II 34, where he speaks of Alexandria as Apion's 'not birthplace, but alleged (birthplace)'. Even if legomenos does not necessarily carry this dismissive tone in our passage, it is hardly conceivable that a Christian interpolator could have been content with so non-committal a phrase.

Glenn Miller has further provided this information:

This J. ref seems to indicate the shift from title to name, as the standard Greek lexicon ABG indicates (s.v. "Christ"):
"the transition to sense 2 (personal name) is marked by certain passages in which Christos does not mean the Messiah in general (even when the ref. is to Jesus), but a very definite Messiah, Jesus, who now is called Christ not as a title but as a name"
This lexicon also points out that this form (as the passive of lego)is routinely understood in this sense, and actually cites a different passage from Josephus to illustrate this:
be called, named Mt 13:55; Hb 11:24. "ho legomenus" the so-called (Epict. 4, 1, 51: "so-called kings"; Socrat., Ep. 14, 7: "so-called Death") ...(Herm. Wr. 2, 14 the "so-called gods" in contrast to "the only God" Somewhat differently Josephus., Ant. 12, 125 ("Antiochus who is called 'god' by the Greeks")

Miller also provides indications from the Septuagint, Athanasius, and Eusebius of the use of this word in question. More important here is the usage within the NT, showing the term used in both a simple and a disparaging form:

First, some simple 'naming' ones:
  • "The first, Simon, who is called Peter (Mt 10.2)
  • "He answered, "The man who is called Jesus made clay, and anointed my eyes,(John 9.11)
  • "and also Jesus who is called Justus (Col 4.11)
Now, the disparaging:
  • "For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"),yet for us there is but one God (1 Cor 8.5)
  • "Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (Eph 2.11)
  • "Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? 18For he knew that for envy they had delivered him. 19When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. 20But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. 22Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified." (Mt 27.17-22) [There should be little doubt about Pilate's skepticism about the messiahship of Jesus!]

Miller's key conclusions are as follows: Josephus, it is either a non-committal record of what the public called Jesus (by that time), or a statement that reflects the transition from title to name (e.g. from "Jesus the Christ" to "Jesus Christ"), or a slightly disparaging reference (i.e. the 'so-called' Christ). [But note that the disparaging uses documented above ALWAYS occurred in an oppositional form--"a so-called X, not a REAL X".]
Matthew's use might reflect the simple naming aspect (i.e. identifying the Jesus of the genealogy) or maybe even making a point that a growing body of Jewry HAD recognized Jesus as the Christ. But it is more likely that Matthew is intending to actually assert more--that Jesus was REALLY the Christ, as he goes about to show in his gospel.

It is a sign of Christian interpolation that in the reference, Jesus is named first rather than James. A Christian scribe would have given Jesus the top mention.

One might ask in reply why Josephus could not also have given Jesus top billing, simply on the basis of Jesus being the more familiar of the two names. Furthermore, note who else Josephus refers to - not just James, but also "others". If the references were reversed, the result would be a bit clumsy: "As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it James the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned."

I cannot say whether sense would be made of this in Greek, but in our language at least this format would leave open the question as to whether Josephus meant that James was the "brother" of the others as well as Christ or James and the "others" were brought before the council. The passage as it now reads leaves no such possible ambiguity.

If Jesus did exist, we would expect Josephus to have mentioned Jesus more than once in his histories and to have said more about him. We would also have expected him to say something about Jesus in his other work, the War.

Of course, this presumes that our second reference is itself a complete interpolation, which we will show to be an unwarranted position in a moment. However, even beyond that, it presumes motives for Josephus that the objector should have knowledge of BEFORE tendering this as an objection. We must ask what it is specifically about Josephus that would make him want to write more about Jesus.

More generally, regarding the amount of space Josephus devotes to Jesus (even including the larger passage), we may note the observation of Williamson [Willm.WorJos, 120] that for the entire period of 10 years around which Jesus died, Josephus devotes only "one small page" in his War, and six pages in the Antiquities. Therefore, it is actually quite significant that Josephus devotes any attention to Jesus at all, and the lack of mention in the War means nothing -- indeed, Van Voorst notes that "the Antiquities goes beyind the Jewish War at many points," not just this one [VanV.JONT, 88-8].

We may now add that there is a sound contextual reason for this brief mention of Jesus, adduced by Byrskog in Story as History [62]. He writes: "For Josephus, as for Thucydides and Polybius, contemporary history has a methodological basis in the possibility of personal experience. He wishes for that reason to write in detail only about contemporaneous matters. (Bell. 1:18)"

For Josephus and many historians of the ancient world, the ability to write authoritatively was directly related to how close you were to matters at hand. Since Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus or his ministry, his methods were such that he naturally would write less about people like Jesus or John the Baptist, and only what could be corroborated by inquiry in his own day, writing in the 90s AD.

So now we turn to the second Josephus reference, the Testimonium Flavianum, as it is popularly called. The authenticity of the passage was first questioned in the 16th century; one of it's most significant detractors was the French skeptic Voltaire [Hada.FJos, 226] . The passage reads:

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 among 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.

That there are interpolations here is seldom questioned; very few scholars hold that the entirety of the passage is genuine, as we have noted in Feldman's statistics. On the other hand, we have the "total interpolation" view of G. A. Wells, who points out the many positive things that Josephus says about Jesus in the passage.

The middle ground here is certainly most reasonable. Charlesworth derides "scholars acting like formal logicians" who approach the text "with an either/or mentality." The same mentality keeps them from saying that Josephus could have said anything positive about Jesus without accepting His divinity and thus rejecting all of the nice things said about Jesus in the passage. This is clearly a wrong-headed approach which does not appreciate the possibility that while some Jews followed Jesus completely, others merely admired Him "for his honesty, charisma, integrity, and teachings." [Chars.JesJud, 92]

Elsewhere, Meier [Meie.MarJ2, 59] notes that the "total interpolation" position has its respectable defenders, but it is not a majority view. Among those he cites are Conzelmann, who sees the passage as totally an expression of Christian kerygma (though without substantiation), and Hermann, who regards the Testimonium, the short passage, AND the passage in Josephus about John the Baptist as Christian interpolations. Thackeray, whom Meier describes as the "former 'prince' of Jospehan scholars," formerly regarded the entire set of passages as a forgery, but later changed to the middle-ground view of partial interpolation.

Mason [Maso.JosNT, 170-1] adds the comment that "Christian copyists were quite conservative in transmitting texts" and would have been committing "an act of unparalleled scribal audacity" by creating the Testimonium out of the whole cloth. Moreover, Christian copyists also handled the works of the Jewish historian Philo for hundreds of years; yet we have no Testimonium Philoum to wrangle over. (Wells in response notes that there are supposedly Christian interpolations in the Old Testament pseuduopigrapha. But this is far from established, and Wells does not even deal with the text-critical data and methods associated with identifying interpolations. [Well.JesL, 52] )

What are some of the reasons for accepting at least some part of this passage as genuine? We can suggest that some of it must be genuine, for it is identifiably in the style of Josephus [Meie.MarJ, 62-3] ; the opening phrase, "Now about this time..." is used regularly by Josephus to the point of nausea! Skeptics often counter by saying that someone could have simply imitated Josephus' writing style, an objection which, being unreasonable, has no reasonable answer. But for a complete answer, let's go down the passage a section at a time.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man,

The description of Jesus as a "wise man" cannot be rejected out of hand, for Josephus and other Jews could have regarded Jesus as a wise man without accepting His divinity - just as is the case with many people today. Josephus' language here (and throughout the passage, where it is not regarded as interpolated) is a "middle ground" between Christian acclaim of Jesus as divine and Jewish referral to Jesus as a magician and a deceiver -- against this spectrum, the words of Josephus are neutral and noncommital (and also parallel his treatment of John the Baptist). [VanV.JONT, 93, 98]

Moreover, Josephus would have appreciated much of what Jesus said and did; he was not the same as the overzealous would-be militaristic Messiahs commonly opposed and defeated by the Romans. Though containing various subversive elements, Jesus' teachings of this sort were directed not against Josephus' Roman patrons, but against the Jewish establishment, and his miracles were never done with a "revolutionary" purpose in mind (like the pretender Theudas' promise to divide the Jordan so that his troops could pass, or the unnamed Egyptian's threat to knock down the walls of Jerusalem).

Jesus never came close to this sort of activity (except in certain fantastic theories), and even in his "threat" to the Temple a) was focused on the Jewish establishment, not the Romans; and b) did not actually threaten the Temple himself - remember, the "threat" did not say WHO was going to knock the Temple down.

So, as Charlesworth writes:

Jesus argued against the zealous revolutionaries and was not an apocalyptic fanatic; Jospehus would have admired this argument and position. Jesus uttered many wise and philosophical maxims and Josephus was fond of Jewish wisdom and of Greek philosophy. [Chars.JesJud, 97]

The second phrase, however, is questionable. It is sometimes rendered, "if indeed one ought to call him a man." Like the rest of the suspected interpolations, it is "parenthetically connected to the narrative" and "grammatically free and could easily have been inserted by a Christian." [ibid., 93] A Christian interpolator, moreover, would have considered the description of Jesus as merely "wise" to be insufficient, and so would want to add something else. [Meie.MarJ, 60]

The passage is also not found in an Arabic citation of Josephus from the 10th century work Book of the Title, which was analyzed in 1971 by Hebrew University scholar Schlomo Pines [Cross.MedP, 373] and may represent a "more moderate attempt at Christianization of the original text."[Feld.JosJes, 340].

On another accounting, Twelftree [Twel.GosP5, 303] suggests that Josephus used the word "wise" in a suspicious or ironic manner.

The bottom line: The balance of the evidence points to authenticity for the first phrase, and gives moderate probability of inauthenticity to the second.

for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.

The first phrase has also been rendered, "For he was one who performed surprising works, (and) a teacher of people who with pleasure received the unusual." The first phrase would hardly be used by a Christian to describe Jesus' miracles. The difference in translation is owed to the Greek word paradoxos, which can mean strange, surprising, or wonderful. Christian translators would naturally assume that Josephus meant the latter, where he more likely meant the second or first.

The second phrase was perhaps the subject of a mistranslation or change, replacing taethe (unusual, strange) with talethe (truth), although Meier regards this as an indulgent thing to suppose [Meie.MarJ, 85] and Feldman notes that the new word is not used elsewhere by Josephus [Feld.JosMod, 698] - neither of which is a compelling enough reason to outright reject the proposed terminology, but nor is there really any compelling reason to accept it. Neither phrase is in the Arabic version, but the reconstruction has found wide acceptance.

In addition, Meier [Meie.MarJ2, 76] offers speculation that the last phrase may not be complimentary, but rather implying "simple-minded enthusiasm, even self-delusion." He also cites Pelletier as saying that as Josephus uses the phrase, it implies no more than the subjective good faith of the listeners, "not necessarily the objective truth of what the speaker propounds." (ibid., 84)

He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.

This is also rendered, "He stirred up..." Either way would be acceptable as describing what Jesus did without supposing Christian interpolation or belief by Josephus. Indeed, the phrase seems to contradict the Gospels, which do not portray Jesus as dealing with "many" Gentiles. Meier [ibid., 65] regards this as a retrojection of the Gentile mission of Christianity.

He was the Christ,

Big obvious honking no-no on this one, though some propose that the phrase here was like the one on the other passage, referring to Jesus as one who was "called" Christ.

and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him;

For our comments on this section, please see this essay.

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.

Again, a very obvious mistake by the interpolator -- though an alert reader has informed me that in the Arabic version, the first phase is preceded by the words "They reported..."

And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.

The term "tribe" is a key here. Thackery saw this as a pejorative term for the Christians; Meier disagrees, for Josephus also uses it to describes the Jews, and Eusebius uses it to describe Christians. The phrase seems best regarded as an expression of surprise; i.e., "Those Christians are STILL here!" [ibid., 66] But it is no indication, either way, in favor of interpolation.

A worthwhile question, of course, is: how did these questionable phrases get into the body of the original text? Some suggest duplicity by Christian scribes, but it need not be so horrid. Much as certain people scribble "replies" in the margins of their books, so some scribe(s) perhaps added the questionable phrases as commentary - and then they were later carelessly incorporated into the text. [ibid., 79]

The passage is out of context. Josephus is discussing Jewish troubles, and the Testimonium is out of place. Without it the text of Josephus runs on in proper sequence. [Well.DidJ, 14; Well.JesL, 51; Drew.WH, 8-9]

This is a favorite objection, but it comes from people who obviously have not read very much of Josephus! As Thackery opined, Josephus was a "patchwork writer," one guilty of "inveterate sloppiness." [Meie.MarJ, 8] I can agree: As one with a background in language and literature, were I to give Josephus a grade for composition, it would be something around the level of a C-minus.

Even so, the "out of context" charge carries very little weight. An exposition by Mason will be helpful here. This is the outline of events under Pilate as given by Josephus [Maso.JosNT, 163-4 - using newer outline system for Josephus]:

As can be seen, this is by no means a set of connected events. Pilate has a role in all of them; but it is not even certain that Josephus is giving these events in chronological order.

Wells responds to Thackery by noting that Josephus often uses phrases that indicate that he is aware that he is digressing:

"When a writer digresses, and confesses to doing so, this does not make him a 'patchwork' writer from whom we must expect any kind of irrelevancy."[Well.JesL, 51]

Wells is simply missing the point here. Confessions of digression indicate a "patchwork" writer who is conscious of his flaws in this regard. Nor may it be appropriately said that the reference to Jesus is "any kind of irrelevancy." If it was a significant event in the reign of Pilate, even in retrospect as it would be in this case, then it is quite relevant.

[Well.WhoW, 21; Well.JesL, 55] Even if the Josephus passages are genuine, they would be "too late to be of decisive importance."

This objection would cause us to have to trash a great deal of ancient history. As Harris points out [Harr.3Cruc, 26] our best references to the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) come from historians who lived much later than he did (Tacitus, c. 115 AD; Suetonius, c. 120 AD; Dio Cassius, 230 AD), so this is hardly reason to dismiss Josephus' testimony concerning Jesus.

If this is an authentic reference, how is it that Josephus says nothing about the most important Christian belief about Jesus - his resurrection?

In fact, we may assert that Josephus does refer to this belief, albeit obliquely, when he indicates that those who loved Jesus at the first "did not forsake him" - indicating that they were in some way still devoted to Jesus himself, even after his death. Even so, this sort of objection presumes to know that there must have been a reason for Josephus to make a more direct mention, and no reason why he should not have, which is easy to assert but rather difficult to prove.

Josephus was writing to please the Roman establishment. Why would he make Pilate look like he had been duped or had done something incorrectly?

Elsewhere near this passage Josephus reports things that don't make Pilate smell very good, and he had no hesitation in reporting mistakes that the Romans made (i.e., the Roman soldier exposing his buttocks and making an "appropriate" sound to the crowd!). As long as he said nothing that made his CURRENT Roman patrons look bad, I daresay he was going to be in good shape!

"There's a Table of Contents for Josephus that doesn't mention the Testimonium. This proves it wasn't there."

For this objection, we rely on material here (highly recommended for additional information as well) by Christopher Price, who also authored the chapter on Josephus for my book Shattering the Christ Myth:

...[W]hat really sinks this objection is that the table of contents was likely not created by Christians, but by Josephus or one of his assistants. That Josephus or one of his assistants would not see any point in highlighting what they spent so little time recording is hardly surprising and in no way suggests that the TF was absent....
During our debate on the TF, [Peter] Kirby and I learned that the table of contents was originally written in Greek before the sixth century. Thus, it is not a sixth century Christian creation. Additionally, we learned that Professor Thackeray had addressed the origins of the table of contents. According to Thackeray, the author of the table of contents was likely a Jew and possibly one of Josephus' assistants:
Josephus himself incorporated a rough summary of the whole in his proem, and though it is improbable that these more elaborate chapter headings are the product of his pen, they may not be far removed from him in date.
(Henry St. John Thackeray, ed. and trans., Josephus, vol. 4, page 637).
Thackeray goes on to suggest that the summaries were written by one of Josephus' assistants because "the phraseology occasionally suggests the hand of one of the author's assistants." Ibid. Given that no scholar was or is more familiar with the nuances of the style and linguistic characteristics of Josephus' writings, this opinion is entitled to substantial respect.
Finally, the original table does not refer to any of the features that would have interested Christians, such as John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, or the death of Herod. Such omissions make sense for a Jewish author, but not for a Christian one -- regardless of whether the TF existed. If Christians had originally created the table, they would not have left out those features which most interested them. The better explanation is that whoever created the summaries, they were not Christian. Thus, no significance can be gleaned from the fact that the table does not refer to the TF.

What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?

Josephus ends up being a rich source for confirmation of the Gospel record:

  1. Jesus had a brother named James, who was an important member of the church;
  2. Jesus was a wise and virtuous man;
  3. Jesus had disciples, both among the Jews and Gentiles. Although Meier regards the latter as retorjectory in nature, we may suggest that it is something that simply lacked emphasis in the Gospels.
  4. Jesus was called "Christ" by some.
  5. Jesus was a worker of surprising deeds - an allusion perhaps to miracle-working power.
  6. Jesus was executed by Pilate by means of crucifixion.
  7. His execution was prompted in part by the leaders among the Jews.
  8. Christians were "named" from Him - which confirms Tacitus' own usage of the terminology.

Issue of note: Some discussion has attended the argument that the Testimonium is strongly paralleled by Luke's Emmaus road narrative. Not surprisingly, this data has been used to suggest that Luke copied Josephus, or vice versa, or to suggest a common source. We now have a look at that issue here.