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Testimonium of Josephus

Historical Jesus

The Testimonium of Flavius Josephus

By Mark McFall

Is the testimonium of the Jewish historian Josephus authentic? Or, is it a forgery? If so, is it a forgery in whole or does it contain, at the very least, a passing authentic reference to Jesus that has been embellished? As we consider these questions we must first consider Josephus’ place in history.

Born in A.D. 37 through the Hasmonean family bloodline who ruled in Jerusalem a century before his time, Josephus received an excellent education which eventually led him to take up occupational careers as politician, historian, and soldier. Of these three, Josephus has been hailed as a great politician and historian but has received criticism throughout history for being a weak soldier. Sources tell us that during the Jewish-Roman War (A.D. 66 to 74) Josephus surrendered to the Roman General Vespasian during the siege of Jotapata instead of following the lead of his colleagues who committed suicide. Josephus, being the interesting character that he is, simply changed sides and began to defend Rome, and history has apparently not forgotten. As a new citizen of Roman, he found time to compose a number of works in which he sought to justify his actions to the Jews where his skills as politician and historian were put to use.

In one of these works, The Antiquities, Josephus is attributed as making reference to Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian movement, where he appears to provide sweeping corroboration to His life, miracles, death, and resurrection. The passage as it stands reads:

"Now at this time, Jesus arose. He was a wise man (if he must actually be described as a man), for he was a doer of remarkable deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with delight. He persuaded both many Jewish people and many of the Greeks as well. He was the Messiah. And after Pilate had punished him with a cross at the instigation of high ranking men among us, those who loved him at first did not stop because he appeared to them living again on the third day - the divine prophets had predicted these and countless other marvelous things about him. Even now, the group named after this man, the Christians, has still not disappeared" (Ant., 18.3:3).

Up until the enlightenment of the 18th century, early Christians thought this passage was a wonderful and thoroughly authentic attestation of Jesus and his resurrection, and it was often quoted. Then, during the enlightenment, the entire passage was questioned by at least some scholars. Today, however, there’s a remarkable consensus among both Jewish and Christian scholars that the testimonium at its core is authentic although there may be some interpolations as is seen in a survey conducted by the Josephan scholar, Louis Feldman. In covering all the relevant literature on the testimonium from 1937 to 1980, Feldman showed that 4 scholars regarded the testimonium as entirely genuine, 6 scholars regarded it as mostly genuine, 20 scholars accepted it with some interpolations, 9 scholars regarded it with several interpolations, and 13 scholars regarded it as being totally an interpolation." (See: ).

The controversy surrounding its authenticity mainly revolves around the notion that Josephus, a Jew, would never have referred to Jesus in a way that coincides with all the essential components of the biblical accounts. For that reason, it has become the most hotly disputed passage in all of ancient literature. Those who hold to the notion that the testimonium is thoroughly authentic, assert there is no textual evidence to warrant the idea the passage has been interpolated as ALL extant copies of this section contain this passage. However, while this is true, it must be tempered against the sobering fact that there are only three manuscripts of this section in existence and all of them date later than the 10th century, roughly 1000 years after Josephus lived. If we couple that fact with the other fact that these manuscripts and the information they preserve have always been in the possession of early Christians the idea of an over-jealous Christian tampering with this text is very real.

Unfortunately, suspicions are heightened in this regard because the Christian historian Eusebius (E.H., 1.11, c. A.D. 325) provides us with our earliest word-for-word quote of it around the fourth century while the Christian apologist Origen seems to show no knowledge of it a century earlier as he explicitly remarked that Josephus didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah; suggesting Josephus would not have been likely to write something that he did not believe (see: Contra Celsum 1:47 and Comment in Matt xiii.55). That is not to say that Eusebius is responsible for the tampering, as some contend, but only that the information as it came to him may have been altered. Those who incriminate Eusebius for perpetrating this tampering base their conclusions on little more than the same type of circumstances surrounding the testimonium itself.[1]

Regardless of who is responsible, Origen’s comments seem to be inline with an Arabic version of the testimonium that is thought to have been composed around the fourth-century but exists only in a tenth-century copy as we see here:

"At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jew and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."

Though the Greek version of Josephus’ entire work carries more weight, scholars believe this passage in the Arabic version is closer to what Josephus likely said though it too, to a lesser degree, shows signs of Christianization. In seeking to posit a version from the Greek, the language Josephus originally used, the majority of Josephan scholars have reconstructed what they think the Greek would convey from a Jewish mindset:

"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. And after Pilate had punished him with a cross at the instigation of high ranking men among us, those who loved him at first did not stop" (per: Yamauchi, Meier, etc…).

Minus the doctrinal overtones and elements of religious significance (i.e. Jesus’ resurrection), this text above appears more palatable to what is known of Josephus, the context of his books, and his heritage. Such a position is justified because in the only other place, just two books later, Book XX, where Josephus makes reference to Jesus again, he words his comments reflecting the way a non-believing Jew would likely word a passing remark:

"Festus was now dead, and Albinius 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, and some other, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned" (Ant., Bk. 20.9).

Due to the wording, "who was called Christ," this passage represents the single strongest piece of evidence outside the Bible alluding to Jesus’ existence; and it is recognized as authentic (in whole) by the *vast majority* of Josephan scholarship as even hardcore skeptics admit. Unfortunately, because the testimonium, as we have it in Greek, is not worded in a similar fashion, its value is considerably less significant on an evidentiary scale. So, while the prevailing view is that the testimonium shows signs of having been tampered with by an over-zealous Christian there is also signs of an authentic core. If this is true, as I think it is, then really what we have in Book XVIII is not a testimonium but rather another passing reference to Jesus alluding to His existence.

-End Article



[1] Many skeptics believe that "Eusebius is known to have advocated fraud in the interest of the faith," so the notion that he interpolated Josephus’ text isn’t a far stretch. According to Dennis McKinsey, author of The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, "Eusebius is the same thoroughly dishonest historian who said in chapter 31, book 12, of Praeparatio Evangelical, ‘I have repeated whatever may rebound to the glory, and suppressed all that could tend to the disgrace, of our religion’" (EBE, pg. 102). However, recent doubt has come to light that this quote attributed to Eusebius may be fraudulent: the words of a particular critic of Christianity, Edward Gibbon (1737-1795), seem to have taken on a life of their own. The contents of the citations appear to have derived from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (c. xvi) where Gibbon referenced chapter titles in Eusebius’ work that may well have been indexed by Byzantine scribes, and not Eusebius himself: Eusebian scholars are simply unsure if chapter titles were added at a later time. The same goes for Gibbon’s embellished interpretation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Bk. 8.2) where Gibbon leads readers to believe that because Eusebius said he wasn’t going to record ALL the vast amounts of Christian interests that this somehow constitutes that he was out to "suppressed" negative information. Since it’s difficult at these locations to glean distinctions in *character input* between Gibbon, Byzantine scribes, translators, and Eusebius himself, the assertion that Eusebius is deceitful rests on no stronger evidence than the interpolation his is accused of making.


Recommended resource:

If you are looking for a more detailed analysis of the testimonium, ITW recommends the book: A Marginal Jew Rethinking the Historical Jesus, by John P. Meier.