What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Whenever someone says Josephus is evidence for Jesus, a misperception of the facts is at work. The fact is that people express opinions about the evidence we read in Josephus. It is someone’s opinion that what is found in Josephus can or should be interpreted as a reference to the historical Jesus. There is no clear evidence at all in Josephus — only passages that have recently been interpreted that way.

The claim that Josephus said anything at all about Jesus is a relatively new one to the field of “modern” (post enlightenment) historical enquiry. The “rational claim” used to be that, since the key passage (the “Testimonium Flavianum” in book 18 of Antiquities) was clearly doctored or contaminated with some obvious interpolation, it was worthless as evidence.

To recap, here is the key passage in Josephus:

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 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 at this day.

Here is what G. R. S. Mead could say in describing even the conservative scholarly view of this passage in his day (1903):

It is true that we have that famous passage in his “Antiquities “(xviii. iii. 3) which amply and doctrinally confirms the Gospel tradition; but how a so transparent forgery could have escaped detection in even the most uncritical age is a marvel. For many years it has been abandoned by all schools of criticism, even the most conservative, and we have only to turn to any modern translation or text to find it definitely characterised as an interpolation or enclosed in brackets. It is not only that we are confronted with upwards of a dozen most potent arguments against its authenticity, but that we have also the explicit statement of Origen in the third century that Josephus (with whose works he was acquainted, and whom he is quoting to prove the historic existence of John the Baptist) had no belief whatever in Jesus being the Christ, whereas the spurious passage states categorically that he was the Christ. Nevertheless, there are still a few daring scholars who, while admitting that it is heavily interpolated, endeavour to save some fragments of the passage, and even one stalwart apologist who maintains its complete genuineness.


That was from Mead, a theosophist, who argued Jesus was a figure from 100 b.c.e.

So let’s compare a mainstream scholar from those days.

Albert Schweitzer in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1913) expressed his opinion of the same passage:

This note is either inauthentic or so extravagantly interpolated that it can no longer be presented as credible evidence. (p. 359)
It is clear, then, that when we read someone saying that Josephus is “contemporary” extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, we are really reading a relatively recent opinion about the evidence.
(I am skipping the discussion here about that other passing reference to “the brother of Jesus, James”, in Josephus. Suffice to point out here that who interpret this as evidence for Jesus are astonishingly overlooking the other “Jesus” mentioned in the very same passage and who is said to have been so bound up with the treatment of James that he finally profited from James’ execution!)
This leaves absolutely NO clear indisputable extra-biblical evidence from the first century about Jesus. To assert the contrary is to express an opinion, not to state a fact, about the surviving evidence.

More from the past:

Walter Bauer


In the traditional text of the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus (e. B. Niese) Jesus is mentioned twice; once quite briefly (XX. 9. 1, 200): “Ananus summoned the Council to judgement and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name”. This sentence was known already to Origen as a statement of Josephus (c. Cles. I. 47, 2. 13; in Matth. tom. 10. 17, p. 22 ed. E. Klostermann), and since the author through the ‘so-called clearly stands aside from the Christian faith there is no reason for denying the words to Josephus.

The situation is then, however, all the more doubtful with regard to the other passage, the ‘testimony’ proper (Ant. XVIII. 3. 3, 63f.):

At this time appeared Jesus, a wise man, if one may call him a man at all. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of men, who received the truth with gladness. And he attracted Jews as also people of the Greek sort in great number. This was the Christ. And when on the denunciation of our leading men Pilate had punished him with crucifixion, those who had loved him formerly did not cease therefrom. He appeared to them alive again on the third day, for the godly prophets had foretold this and innumerable other wonderful things concerning him. And even now the race of men called after him Christians has not died out.

This testimony was known to Eusebius (H. E. I. 11. 7; Dem. ev. 3.5. 105f), but evidently not yet to Origen, who in c. Cels. 1:47 expressly denies to Josephus any belief in “Jesus as the Christ”, in direct contradiction to the words “this was the Christ”. On the whole, the ‘testimony’ is intelligible only as the confesssion of a Christian, and for this reason even an F. C. Burkitt (Theol. Tidschrift 1913, pp. 135-144) and an A. Harnack (Internationale Monatsschrift 1913, pp. 1037-68; most recently F. Dornseiff, ZNW 46 (1955) pp. 245-250) have not succeeded in defending its authenticity. The passage is either to be completely rejected (so after many predecessors since the 16th century E. Schurer, Gesch. des jud. Volkes I4, 1901, pp. 544-49; E. Norden, Neue Jaahrb. f. d. klass. Altertum 1913, pp. 637-668), or we must assume that an original text by Josephus has been very thoroughly transformed by a Christian hand (so among others P. Corssen, 79f.). As for attempts to restore the original text (Th. Reinach, Rev. des Etudes juives 35 (1897) p. 13 f.; R. Eisler, Ἰησους Βασιλευς I, 1929, pp. 1-88; F. Scheidweiler, ZNW 45 (1954) pp. 230-243), the more venturesome they are, the less they are credible.

pp. 436-437 in Edgar Hennecke, New Testament APocrypha Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings.  Ed by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. 1963. English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson.

So for anyone (scholars and lay alike) who likes to ridicule as unintelligent and irrational and worse people who question the reliability of the evidence of Josephus for Jesus, they are unwittingly acting the part of ignorant nobodies who are casting stones at some of the greatest minds biblical scholarship has ever known.

We also have the lengthy exposition by Maurice Goguel (also http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Goguel) — a scholar who defended the historicist Jesus and wrote against the mythicist view.  See http://www.christianorigins.com/goguel/ch2.html for his discussion — [though I notice on second reading that Goguel does indeed fall on the side of those who favour a Josephan original. — 4th Nov. 2021]

Another who believed Jesus was historical, yet rejected as useless the testimony of Josephus, was Charles Guignebert. From the Wikipedia:

Charles Guignebert (Professor of the History Of Christianity at the Sorbonne) similarly stated “all the pagan and Jewish testimonies, so-called, afford us no information of any value about the life of Jesus, nor even any assurance that he ever lived, however, Guignebert rejected the Jesus Myth theory and felt that the Epistles of Paul were sufficient to prove his historical existence.

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus”

  1. Surely if you take the most blatant bits of forgery out of Ant. 18, what you are left with is a passage that does not display such blatant forgery.

    And so must be genuine.

    A bit like saying that a painting must be a genuine Rembrandt even though the paint is still wet on it.

    Provided there is a place on the canvas where the paint is dry.

  2. To be as fair as possible to modern scholars, the Arabic version of the testimonium, not known to earlier scholars, did seem to support the idea of a neutral original. However, Whealey now argues the Arabic version derives from Eusebius, not Josephus.

    1. The various assertions of neutral versions of the TF sound to me more like wishful thinking. Josephus had no time for anyone who bucked the status quo and cannot be imagined as saying someone who did so was “wise” and “thought to be the Christ” — such descriptors are indeed positives even if Josephus appears to withhold his own view on his identity as Christ. If Jesus attracted the hostility of the priests of the day or was a suspected political subversive then Josephus’s track record was to excoriate them. Besides, the TF appears out of the blue in a section where Josephus is narrating a series of events that earned divine punishment. The TF is not said in the least to add to this theme — which just doesn’t add up. No, the TF is false through and through.

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