Josephus Flavius (37-101 CE), a first-century historian who composed his work Antiquities of the Jews around 95 CE, is an important writer for historians wishing to gain early insight into the First Jewish-Roman War and early Christianity. It is an extensive 20 volume work detailing the history of the Jewish people from the time of Adam at the very beginning down to his own day. But this text also has value to historians wishing to learn about Christ since Antiquities makes two direct references to him. There is also one reference to John the Baptist (who historians are confident baptized Christ) and to Christ’s brother James. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman refers to Josephus Flavius as
“… one of the truly important figures from ancient Judaism. His abundant historical writings are our primary source of information about the life and history of Palestine in the first century” (1).
The Disputed Passage
Of the two direct references to Christ, one of them, referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum, is widely accepted to be an interpolation. It the interpolation Flavius refers to the condemnation and crucifixion of Christ under the Roman authorities:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men who 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” (18.3.3).
This has been the most discussed passage in Flavius’ work (2). The academic consensus is that Flavius did refer to Christ in this passage although it seems clear that a later Christian scribe touched it up (3). Christians were the ones who kept and made the copies of the Flavius’s documents, which means that it was possible for one of them to have touched up the passage to make Christ appear in a superior light to how Flavius would have made him out to be. Scholar Louis Feldman surveying relevant literature between 1937 to 1980 found that of 52 scholars who have worked with this text, only four see it as entirely genuine, six as mostly genuine, twenty accept it with some interpolations, nine with several interpolations, and thirteen as being totally an interpolation (4). The majority (39 of the 52) view the Testimonium Flavianum as historical in some way or another and to a greater or to a lesser degree. As we shall see shortly, there is good reason to think that the majority view is indeed that Flavius directly mentioned Christ in this passage before it was ever worked over by a later scribe.
But why has there been doubt in the first place? Most obvious is that Flavius refers to Christ in a manner he, as a Jew living in Rome, almost certainly would not have. We should remember that Flavius was a writer who only unsympathetically mentioned early Christianity and its founder because it was relevant to his overall project (5). He was no Christian and he did not care much for Christ other than that the fact that he was the founder of a religious movement whose “tribe” still existed at the time Flavius was writing. It is therefore far more likely the case that Flavius referred to Christ and the events surrounding him, such as his crucifixion (and more), simply because he wished to communicate to his readers history as it happened. This history would have included people like Christ, who to Flavius and fellow Jews was a troublemaker.
In light of this, Flavius’ phraseology as in referring to Christ as the “Messiah” or that there were “a thousand marvels” about him is not something he would have said. However, this is very much something a Christian scribe, who believed in a resurrected Christ, would certainly have believed and thus said. Flavius certainly did not believe Christ was the Messiah and he would not have referred to him as being more than a man (i.e. as hinted by the line: “if indeed one ought to call him a man”).
A further sign of interpolation is in the inconsistency with his terminology used in 18.3.3 and his wider work of Antiquities. Biblical scholar and historian Steve Mason says that the word translated as “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.” However, in Flavius’ day it had already come to have special reference to literary poets and that is how he consistently used it elsewhere (at least nine times), to speak of poets like such as the famous Homer (6).
However, despite the clear working over of Flavius’ original text, there is little doubt that he did mention Christ within this passage. This is accepted by scholars who have examined Antiquities, with particular emphasis on 18.3.3. Some of these scholars have further proposed reconstructions of what the original passage would have read like (7). James Dunn says that there is “broad consensus” that we can what get to what the passage would look like without the interpolations (8).
The Historical Nucleus within the Interpolated Passage
What convincing evidence is there to suggest a historical nucleus in the interpolated passage? The answer largely lies with internal arguments based upon textual analysis comparing the disputed passage with the rest of Flavius’ work (9). Scholar James Charlesworth explains that,
“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… 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” (10).
The passage’s placing within the overall work suggests it wasn’t merely created. Historian E. P. Sanders explains that “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” (11).
As noted most scholars accept the Testimonium is partially authentic. Robert van Voorst argues that the usage of the words “a wise man” is not laudatory enough for an interpolator, neither is the reference to “amazing deeds” (12). He also says that the statement “those that loved him at the first did not forsake him” are clear characteristics of Flavius’ general writing. It is also unlikely that the phrase “receive the truth with pleasure” would be a Christian interpolator as for Christian writers generally avoided the use of the word “pleasure” (ἡδονή in Greek) in a positive sense due to its association with hedonism (13). Van Voorst further notes that the text’s referance to Christians as a “tribe” would have been out of character for a Christian scribe and that we find Flavius using the same word to refer both to Jewish and Christian groups elsewhere.
Professor Andreas Köstenberger of New Testament and Biblical Theology says that the passage includes vocabulary consistent with much of the rest of Flavius’ writing style (14). Claudia Setzer also believes “the style and vocabulary are Josephan” and specific parts (e.g. the use of “wise man”) are not what one would expect from a Christian forger (15). She believes the elements concerning Christ’s death and him being a miracle worker were original to Flavius (16). Professor Craig Blomberg argues that when the three elements: “lawful to call him a man”, “he was the Christ” and the reference to the resurrection are removed, the rest of the passage flows smoothly within the context, fits the style of Josephus, and is likely to be authentic (17).
Two prominent historians, Edwin Yamauchi and John Meier have constructed what the original text, prior to its interpolation, would likely have read like (19). Dunn and Joel Green have also proposed a very similar reconstruction which can be seen in the reference list included at the end of this article (20). According to Yamauchi and Meier, the underlined words included in square brackets are what is believed to be added in by a later Christian scribe,
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man.] For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
Removing the words included in square brackets we get the following,
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
From this reconstruction, one can present the following list of details on Christ likely mentioned in the authentic passage:
1. Was a wise man,
2. Was a teacher,
3. Performed surprising feats,
4. Gathered many Greek and Jewish followers,
5. Was accused by men in authority,
6. Was condemned by Pilate to death via crucifixion,
7. Had followers who continued to believe in him and love him even though he died a shameful death,
8. Had left a legacy which resulted in the continual existence of a tribe of Christians.
The Undisputed Passages on James and John the Baptist
Moving on from the Testimonium, consensus acknowledges the authenticity of the reference to Christ and his brother, James, in book 20, chapter 9 of Antiquities (21). Flavius speaks of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James,” and then mentions that James was stoned to death (20.9.1),
“[S]o he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (emphasis added)
According to Louis Feldman, a leading scholar on Josephus Flavius, the authenticity of the Flavius passage on James has been “almost universally acknowledged” (22). Van Voorst says that the majority of scholars consider both the reference to “the brother of Jesus called Christ” and the entire passage that includes it as authentic (23), as does Richard Bauckham (24). In Book 18 we find a reference to John the Baptist
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death” (18.5.2, emphasis added)
Flavius provides a clear reference to John the Baptist’s execution by King Herod in a passage also considered to be authentic in its entirety (25). The passage also provides independent attestation to the gospel accounts that also mentions John the Baptist’s death by Herod. Most scholars also see this reference as confirming the historicity of the baptisms that John performed in the gospels (26).
Perhaps the strongest sign that this passage is authentic and original to Flavius is because of the differences it has to the gospels. Although the gospels and Flavius agree that it was Herod who killed John the Baptist, the gospels claim this was a result of the marriage of Herod and Herodias in defiance of Jewish law (Mark 6:18, Matthew 14:4) whereas Flavius says it was due to Herod preventing a foreseeable uprising. If a Christian were to fix up the passage he would have likely edited the details to make it consistent with the gospel explanations for John’s death. John Meier says that “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” (27).
It seems that from Flavius we get attestation to a number of gospel persons and events. Antiquities is an independent attestation to the historical Christ, had a brother by the name of James, and that there was an individual, John, known for his baptisms. Flavius agrees that all three figures of Christ, James, and John the Baptist were killed, as the gospels also attest. Some have argued that Flavius attests to Christ being a miracle worker in the reconstructed passage. Geza Vermes, a specialist in Judaism and early Christianity, states that Christ as a miracle worker is authentic given Flavius’ style (28). Flavius called Christ a wise man who also “worked startling deeds,” a description that Flavius also applied to the miracles associated with the prophet Elisha.
1. Feldman, L. & Hata, G. 1987. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. p. 54–57.
2. See Schreckenberg, H. & Schubert, K. 1992. Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature. p. 38–41; Evans, C. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies p. 316. Wansbrough, H. 2004. Jesus and the oral Gospel tradition. p. 185; Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus remembered. p. 141.
3. Feldman, L. & Hata, G. 1989. Josephus, the Bible, and History. p. 430.
4. Kenneth, O. 1999. Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 61(2): 305.
5. Early Christian Writings. Josephus and Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Question. Available.
6. Mason, S. 1992. Josephus and the New Testament. p. 169.
7. Schneemelcher, W. & Wilson, R. 1990. New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings. p. 490.
8. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 141.
9. Paget, J. 2001. Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity. The Journal of Theological Studies, 52(2). p. 539–624.
10. Charlesworth, J. 1988. Jesus within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries. p. 93-94.
11. Sanders, E. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. p. 50.
12. Van Voorst, R 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. p. 89–90.
13. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Ibid. p. 90.
14. Kostenberger, K. 2009. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. p. 104–108.
15. Setzer, C. 1994. Jewish responses to early Christians. p. 106–107.
16. Setzer, C. 1994. Ibid. p. 106–107.
17. Blomberg, C. 2009. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. p. 434–435
18. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Ibid. p. 89–90.
19. Yamauchi, E. 1995. “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. p. 212-214; Meier, P. 1990. “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52. p. 76-103.
20. Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid. p. 141; Green, J. 2001. Crucifixion. The Cambridge Companion to Jesus. p. 89. The reconstruction reads:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
21. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Ibid. p. 83; Feldman, L. & Hata, G. 1987. Ibid. p. 54–57; Maier, P. 1995. Josephus, the essential works: a condensation of Jewish antiquities and The Jewish war. p. 54–57; Painter, J. 2005. Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. p. 134-141.
22. Feldman, L. & Hata, G. 1987. Ibid. p. 55–57
23. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Ibid. p. 84.
24. Bauckham, R. For What Offense was James put to Death? James the Just and Christian origins. p. 199–232
25. Feldman, L. 1992. Josephus. Anchor Bible Dictionary. p. 990–991; Evans, C. 2006. Josephus on John the Baptist. The Historical Jesus in Context. p. 55-58.
26. Murphy, C. 2003. John the Baptist: prophet of purity for a new age. Jonas, G. & Lopez, K. 2010. Christianity: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Guide. p. 95–96; Chilton, B. & Evans, C. 1998. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. p. 187–198.
27. Meier, J. 1991. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. p. 66
28. Vermes, G. 1973. Jesus the Jew. p. 79.