If you are not familiar with the writings of Josephus, you will be by the end of this article. They have been at the center of the debate on the historicity of Jesus since the discovery of the “Testimonium Flavianum”, or the testimony of Flavius Josephus, a section of his writings that supposedly reference Jesus. Unfortunately, there are quite a few problems with the authenticity of these writings that scholars are fiercely debating both for and against. Let’s get into it.
Per Wikipedia, here is some information on who he was, when he lived and the Jesus controversy:
Who was he and when did he live?
Titus Flavius Josephus (/dʒoʊˈsiːfəs/; Greek: Φλάβιος Ἰώσηπος; 37 – c. 100), born Yosef ben Matityahu (Hebrew: יוסף בן מתתיהו, Yosef ben Matityahu; Greek: Ἰώσηπος Ματθίου παῖς), was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem—then part of Roman Judea—to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry.
He initially fought against the Romans during the First Jewish–Roman War as head of Jewish forces in Galilee, until surrendering in 67 CE to Roman forces led by Vespasian after the six-week siege of Jotapata. Josephus claimed the Jewish Messianic prophecies that initiated the First Roman-Jewish War made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave and presumably interpreter. After Vespasian became Emperor in 69 CE, he granted Josephus his freedom, at which time Josephus assumed the emperor’s family name of Flavius.
Flavius Josephus fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship. He became an advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus, serving as his translator when Titus led the Siege of Jerusalem. Since the siege proved ineffective at stopping the Jewish revolt, the city’s destruction and the looting and destruction of Herod’s Temple (Second Temple) soon followed.
Josephus recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the first century CE and the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70 CE), including the Siege of Masada. His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94). The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation. Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Greek and Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into first century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity, although not specifically mentioned by Josephus. Josephus’ works are the chief source next to the Bible for the history and antiquity of ancient Palestine.
The Jesus controversy is mainly over the Testimonium Flavianum, which is quoted below:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
That looks pretty convincing on the surface, doesn’t it?
For starters, let’s look at what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about this passage:
“Flavius Josephus.” Catholic Encyclopedia. “Attempts have been made to refute the objections brought against this passage both for internal and external reasons, but the difficulty has not been definitively settled. The passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations“. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08522a.htm
That’s from the Catholic Encyclopedia, people. Not some conspiracy theory site. Interpolation is the insertion of something of a different nature into something else. So, essentially, meddling by the keepers of this text, who were Christians.
Another problem with this text is that Origen, an early Christian scholar and theologian (184-253 CE), was always looking for more material on the historicity of Jesus. We know he had access to and quoted the works of Josephus in his own writings, but he never mentions the Testimonium Flavianum. That’s quite problematic.
According to Wataru Mizugaki, Origen explicitly mentions the name of Josephus 11 times, never mentioning the Testimonium, both in Greek and Latin.
Why would Origen not know of the Testimonium Flavianum? Because it wasn’t there when he was searching for it. Meaning that it was inserted and not authentic, period.
Honestly, the argument could go on for a while with references to Syriac and Arabic versions of the same text but with the abundant evidence we now have on how many interpolations Christians inserted over the centuries, it’s time to put this one to bed.
The problems with the Testimonium Flavianum are as follows:
- Josephus didn’t think that Jesus was the Christ. At best, he was simply reporting on the Gospels and Christian legends.
- His Jewish Antiquities, which now has these references, wasn’t compiled until the 90’s CE, 60 years after Jesus was supposedly deceased.
- His Jewish War, written 20 years earlier, does not mention Jesus or Christianity.
- Experts have long believed that both his references to Jesus were inserted over 150 years after he wrote.
- The entry experts have now reiterated that this is not what he ever wrote; it is definitely a fabrication.
- There is no evidence he ever wrote anything there about Jesus or Christianity.
- There is evidence the short entry did not originally refer to Jesus but was inadvertently edited to.
- The evidence indicates that either the librarian Eusebius or his predecessor Pamphilus was responsible for these edits.
- If Josephus had written anything like this about Jesus or Christians, he would have written much more, and differently (given how he writes about other sects of the Jews, for example).
- Josephus wrote about 20 other people named “Jesus” (i.e. Joshua) in more believable detail. He even wrote about four specific men who were portraying themselves as a new Joshua (in English, “Jesus”) and Messiah (“Christ”, in Greek), and thus as Jesus Christs, but with no connection to Christianity.
- Josephus wasn’t born until after Jesus had supposedly died. He was not an eye witness to anything.
- Even if Josephus wrote anything about Jesus, we still can’t confirm he had any sources outside of the Gospels or sources citing the Gospels.
- All surviving manuscripts of the Antiquities derive from the last manuscript produced at the Christian library of Caesarea between 220 and 320 CE. Both references were probably added after their first custodian, Origen (who had no knowledge of them), but by the time of their last custodian, Eusebius (who is the first to find them there). The long one deliberately; the short one accidentally.
- Reliance on the Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum must be discarded. Attempts to invent a pared-down version of what Josephus wrote are untenable. The Testimonium Flavianum derives from the New Testament, doesn’t match Josephan narrative practice of context, and matches Eusebian more than Josephan style. Previous opinions on the James passage were unaware of new research; thus need revision.
- The Testimonium Flavianum doesn’t fit the context of Jewish Antiquities 18.62 and 65.
- The Testimonium Flavianum is implausible from a Pharisaic Jew perspective.
- Origen had no knowledge of the Testimonium Flavianum despite quoting Josephus in his own writings.
That’s it for the most argued perspectives on a historical Jesus and how they don’t hold up under the evidence. If you have something that I haven’t covered in this series, let me know in the comments and I’ll address it as soon as I can.