Examining Historian Josephus Flavius on Jesus and His Evidential Importance

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Josephus Flavius

Josephus Flavius (37-101 AD), a 1st century historian who penned his work around 94 AD, is important for historians wishing to gain early insight into the first Jewish-Roman War as well as Christianity. He is also important for historians who wish to learn about the Christ since in his Antiquities of the Jews one finds two direct references to Christ, and one reference to John the Baptist and Christ’s brother James.

The Disputed Passage

In the disputed passage, referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum, Flavius refers to the condemnation and crucifixion of Christ by the Roman authorities. The full text reads,

“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 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” (Ant. 18.3.3).

This has been the most discussed passage in Flavius’s work (1). Academic consensus is that Flavius did refer to Christ in this passage although a later scribe touched it up (2). This seems likely given that Christians were the ones who kept and made the copies of the Flavius’s documents. It is therefore not impossible that one of them could have, at some moment, touched up the passage to make Christ appear in a greater light than how Flavius 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, 20 accept it with some interpolations, nine with several interpolations, and 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation (3). Given Feldman’s insight the majority (39 of the 52) view the Testimonium Flavianum as historical in some one way or another and in greater or lesser degrees.

Why has there been doubt concerning the reference to Christ within the Testimonium Flavianum? The most obvious reason is because Flavius refers to Christ in ways that he would likely not have given that the fact he was particularly unsympathetic towards Christ as well as the early Christian movement (4). Rather, that Flavius even referred to Christ and the events surrounding him was simply because he wished to communicate to his readers real history as it happened, which included that history concerning Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers. So, Flavius’s use of certain words such as “Messiah,” or that there were “a thousand marvels” about Christ, for example, suggests interpolation by a Christian who already had a high view of Christ. Flavius did not believe Christ was the Messiah and he would not have referred to him as being more than a man (“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man”). As one informative commentary explains, “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.” We also know that Flavius was not a Christian (5).

Another reason for doubt concerns a use of terminology that is not characteristic of Flavius in general. For example, Steve Mason, a biblical historian of the Graeco-Roman period, says that “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.

“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. 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 signifies 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” (6).

There is little doubt that Flavius did mention Christ within the interpolated passage. This is widely accepted and scholars have proposed hypotheses concerning what the original passage would have read like (7). There is, however, a reconstruction that has achieved some currency within the academy. 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 Disputed Passage

Why is there a consensus concerning a historical nucleus in the interpolated passage? The answer largely stems from internal arguments that rely on textual analysis of which compares 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).

Secondly, its 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).

The Reconstruction

As already noted most scholars hold that the Testimonium is partially authentic. Robert van Voorst argues that the usage of the words “a wise man” are not laudatory enough for an interpolator, neither is the reference to “amazing deeds” (12). He also notes that the statement “those that loved him at the first did not forsake him” are clear characteristics of Flavius’ general writing. Another argument is that it is 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).

Professor Andreas Köstenberger of New Testament and Biblical Theology notes that the passage includes vocabulary consistent with much of the rest of Flavius’ writing style (14). Professor of Religious Studies, Claudia Setzer, also believes that “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 goes on to note that the elements concerning Christ’s death and him being a miracle worker were original to Flavius (16). Professor Craig Blomberg argues that one 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). Van Voorst further notes that the text’s referring to Christians as a “tribe” would have been out of character for a Christian scribe, and that we also find that Flavius used such a word to refer both to Jewish and Christian groups elsewhere (18).

Two prominent historians, Edwin Yamauchi and John Meier (19), have constructed what the original text, prior to its interpolation, would likely have read like. James Dunn and Professor Joel Green have also proposed a very similar reconstruction which can be seen in the references below (20). The underlined words in square brackets are what are believed to be added in by a later 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.”

From this reconstruction one discovers several things about Christ:

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 (James and John the Baptist).

Consensus widely acknowledges the authenticity of the reference to Christ and his brother, James, in 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, “when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (20.9.1).

According to Louis Feldman, a lead scholar in the subject, the authenticity of the Flavius passage on James has been “almost universally acknowledged” (22). This view is widely held by leading scholars within the field . 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). Richard Bauckham agrees (24).

Flavius also refers 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)

Flavius provides a clear reference to John the Baptist’s execution by Herod. Again, consensus affirms this passage to be authentic in its entirety (25), while it also provides confidence in the historical gospel accounts which also mention 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 to Flavius of the differences it has to the gospels. Although the gospels and Flavius agree that it was Herod Antipas who killed John the Baptist, the gospels claim this was a result of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias in defiance of Jewish law (Mark 6:18, Matt. 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 the Baptist’s death. Historian 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).

This passage is important in its attestation of gospel events. It is not only an independent attestation to Christ, but that he was also called “the Christ” and had a brother by the name of James. Flavius also provides attestation to James and John the Baptist’s deaths. Some also argue that Flavius attests to Christ being a miracle worker. Geza Vermes, a specialist in Judaism and early Christianity, states that Christ as a miracle worker is authentic given Flavius’ style (28). In this report, 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.

References.

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.

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11 responses to “Examining Historian Josephus Flavius on Jesus and His Evidential Importance

  1. James, you really need to either curb Ericson’s seeming hatred for human life, or obtain a different and more caring admin. The following is a statement I made after reading an article inn which the Book of Daniel was included as being prophetic: “Everything I read tells me that the book of Daniel was written long after these events occurred. Can you support the opposite? [😊] “. Yes it was followed by a happy face to make sure that it was not taken out of context. I was about to attend a sermon, and I did not have time to lay out a dissertation on the subject. Here was his response: “Everything you read were wrong. Can you support the opposite?”. “If you want to be taken seriously, state clearly your arguments and substantiate it with actual references on your first post. We have very low tolerance for trolls here. My sources (books and actual studies) are indicated there on the status.” When I responded again, this time with references, making it clear that all I wanted were facts against the claim that The Book of Daniel was not written much later, he replied with, “I was responding to this trollish post”. I am a devout Christian who obtained a master’s in the philosophy of religion, and I am still stunned at his rather negative approach to my inquiry. I have seen him respond to others in much the same manner, and I strongly feel that he is not going to be good at this job if not spoken to directly re his behavior. Sincerely, Bob Coleman

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