Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.

We saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is an independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”

Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.

Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:

  1. Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
  2. Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?

The Question of Authenticity

Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.

In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.

And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that

  • summarizes the work and character of Jesus
  • tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
  • says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians

and in the course of that summary, the same passage says

  • Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
  • that Jesus was the Christ
  • that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
For alternative views of the passage in Book 20, especially those arguing against its reference to “the Christ” being original, see the posts in the James Passage archive.

Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20, Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.

We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:

  1. It is entirely original to Josephus
  2. It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
  3. It is a mixture of original and insertion.

Meier excludes the first two options:

  1. It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
  2. It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus

Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.

That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.

Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.

Thus Brodie presents Meier’s case for authenticity positively (if somewhat provisionally). In this Brodie argues a case that is unlike that of any other mythicist argument that I know of concerning the Testimonium. So his argument should be of special interest.

I have refrained from commenting on each of the points since to do so would inevitably lead this post too far from Brodie’s presentation. There is an archive for Vridar posts on the Testimonium Flavianum, and another post looks at the history of scholarly interpretation of the Jesus passages in Josephus.

The Question of Independence

Meier lists five possible sources used by Josephus for his account of Jesus:

  1. Christians he encountered in Palestine or Rome
  2. The Gospels / NT writings
  3. Imperial archives in Rome
  4. Educated Judeans within Josephus’s Romanized circle
  5. Information obtained in Palestine before the War

Brodie writes:

The challenge for the investigator is to establish with as much certainty as which one(s) of these five provided information to Josephus. In practice, this means trying to match Josephus’ information with one or more of the five. The more the information matches a source, the more likely it is that it is the source Josephus used. (p. 162)

Since there is no perfect match between what Josephus wrote and any of the five possible sources (an ideal match would have been a word for word correspondence at some point), so certainty is out of the question. This leaves the historical inquirer having to be content with finding something that is highly probable.

Meier argues that since all options are “equally unverifiable” they all remain “equally possible”. In reaching his final conclusion he focuses on two features: language and content.

Here is Meier’s reasoning:

  • Christians as the source? — No, because the defining belief of Christians is the resurrection of Jesus and Josephus does not mention the resurrection as such.
  • The NT writings as the source? — No, because the NT language is different from that of Josephus.

So having eliminated the Christian sources Meier concludes that there is no problem in assuming that Josephus is a witness independent of them.

. . . Roman archives, educated Judeans from the Romanized world, and pre-war Palestine. These three sources sound rich — they sound varied and potentially deep — so the idea that they supply independent evidence seems plausible. (p. 164)

Brodie stops to ask the questions that should be obvious. He grants the possibility of the principle that the three remaining sources may be independent from those of the Christians. But then he pauses.

Independent witnesses generally add something new to what is already known.

Of course. Surely there is some new snippet from such potentially rich independent sources.

When Josephus elsewhere writes about Pilate he adds much to what we read in the Gospels about him. His perspective is completely different from that of the evangelists so we would expect different types of information to come through. We know much about Pilate from his witness that is truly independent of the Gospels.

So what do the independent sources of Josephus add to our knowledge of Jesus? What new information do they contain that bears out their independence?

Brodie answers his own question in a one-word paragraph:

Nothing. (p. 164)

Ken Olson is not so sure that the vocabulary is uniquely Josephan: see:

(1) More Clues from Eusebius;

(2) Eusebian Clues #4;

Doherty points out that any Christian copyist of Josephus would learn how to imitate Josephus’s vocabulary and style.

Everything that Josephus tells us about Jesus is found already in the Gospels and Acts. The only difference, according to Brodie, is “Josephus’s own distinctive vocabulary and style.”

Theoretically (Brodie concedes) it is possible that independent sources had nothing new to add. But even if so,

it makes their claims sufficiently fragile that it is appropriate to come back to the factor that Marginal Jew skims over — the possible dependence of Josephus on one or more of the evangelists. (p. 164)

By now we know that Thomas Brodie is very conscious of the ancient practice of re-writing other texts, of adapting them and creating new works from the old masters. He follows that frame of reference through in his argument about the Josephan style and vocabulary of the core (“original”) Jesus passage in Book 18 of Antiquities.

Brodie makes the telling point that Josephus used many other sources yet always expressed their contents in his “own style and his own language”.

With such a simple and “obvious” point Brodie demolishes Meier’s (and most historical Jesus scholars’) reasons for concluding that the Josephan passage on Jesus is necessarily independent of Christian sources.

Besides, in the wider ancient practice of rewriting sources, verbatim quotation was an exception. And so, the variation in language proves precisely nothing. (p. 164)

So simple, yet so profound and of such far-reaching consequences. No wonder the Bart Ehrmans and the James McGraths prefer to withdraw to their own paywalls and to presenting blatant misreadings of Brodie’s points in place of serious engagement.

So did Josephus know any Christians personally?

Brodie quotes Meier’s view that Josephus did not. Josephus belonged to an elite social class that would have had no connections with the followers of “a marginal Jew”.Nonetheless, Brodie does offer three reasons to think that Josephus did have “a certain closeness” to some of the evangelists or their works.

Three reasons to suspect Josephus knew (or knew of) Christian writings/authors

1. General literary context

Josephus and the evangelists, as writers of significant works that were read by others, belonged to an elite.

They were not enclosed in small worlds. Josephus drew widely upon all kinds of writings. Antiquities absorbed everything from Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus to tragedy, philosophy and romantic motifs from Xenophon and Hellenistic novels. And, like most other writers of his day, he presented these materials through the medium of his own distinctive language and style. (p. 165)

Further, both Josephus and the evangelists were engaged “essentially in the same field of writing — in diverse modifications and updatings of the Jewish scriptures.” Both Antiquities and Luke-Acts build on the Jewish scriptures. Both Josephus and Luke covered an expanse of history that went back to the beginnings of things. And there are clear affinities (Mason, 2003) between Josephus and Acts, especially in the speeches.

Brodie concludes:

It makes sense that the Antiquities that built so carefully on the older scriptures should also acknowledge New Testament narrative.

(I don’t think so. Surely the ideology of the New Testament narrative stood in conflict with the values most cherished by Josephus.)

2. Specific content

Josephus regularly summarizes or paraphrases sections of the Hebrew Bible, Brodie points out, so this fact should remove any quibble about the Testimonium core being a summary outline of the contents of the Gospel account. Further, the Gospel of Mark — or some knowledge of it — could have informed Josephus that Jesus was both the brother of James and recognized as the Christ.

3. Location and time

Josephus lived in Rome between around 70 and 100 CE. Brodie is inclined to the view that Mark also lived in Rome and wrote his Gospel there around 70 CE. Josephus lived in close proximity to Christians who very likely possessed their own texts. The Gospel of Mark was circulated — it was not hidden in the closet of a secret group: Luke and Matthew had access to it and used it. Brodie concludes that it was quite likely that Josephus had access to at least information about these Christians and their writings. He would also have had an interest in writings — such as Mark and Luke-Acts, based on the Scriptures.

(As above, I suspect Brodie is overlooking the ideological divide between Josephus and Christianity in drawing his conclusion.)

Brodie acknowledges the vagueness of this hypothesis, but is right to point out that the Meier’s alternatives — Jesus-related imperial archives that may never have existed; unspecified educated Judeans; a pre-war career in Palestine — are no more precise.


What is certain is that it is extremely risky to conclude that Josephus did not have access, direct or indirect, either to serious discussion with some Christians or to some of the work of the evangelists, so it is not possible, in any reliable way, to invoke Josephus as an independent witness to Jesus.

The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unreliable witness cannot be used to condemn someone to death. And neither can it be used to assert that someone lived. (p. 167, my formatting)


Next and last in Act 4, the witness of Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata.


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17 thoughts on “Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus”

  1. Just an editing note. In the top section, The Question of Authenticity, second paragraph, the sentence “It is very likely, then, that Jesus had earlier written about this Jesus.”

    I’m guessing that “Jesus” is supposed to be “Josephus.”

  2. This is a great subject, and I look forward to reading about the Tacitus question.

    I’ve been thinking lately that if there was a pre-interploated TF, then maybe it could have resembled what Tacitus says about Jesus and Christians in Annals 15.44 (e.g., “suffered the extreme penalty,” “mischievous superstition,” “Judea, the first source of the evil,” “hideous and shameful”).

    IF (big if) there was originally something like *this* about Jesus in Josephus, it would be understandable if no Christians ever quoted it and felt a need to change it (or say something else) when they had to the power to do so.

    While I realize there are various ideas about where Tacitus got his information from, the most likely possibility to me is that he got it from Josephus, like he seems to have gotten other information about Judea, such as the omens and signs that preceded the destruction of the temple (Hist. 5.13; cf. War. 6.5.3), and that “in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful and rulers, coming from Judea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people … interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves” (cf. War 6.5.4). The correspondences in this case are quite apparent.

    So if there *was* a pre-interpolated TF (regardless of whether or not Ant. 20 “who is called Christ” reference is genuine), this seems like the best possible expalnation for what it might have said and why it might have been altered.

  3. G.J. Goldberg found nineteen cases of matching words and phrases between the Testimonium Flavianum and the resurrection narrative of Gospel of Luke. He believes that those similarities should be attributed to both TF and GoL relying on a shared Christian text which is now lost. Carrier differs (link: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/2946 and believes that those similarities are evidence of TF being an interpolation based on GoL. If Goldberg is right though that serves as actual evidence for Brodie’s position that Josephus is not an independent source for the historicity of Jesus.

    1. I liked Goldberg’s observation that there appears to be some kind of connection between this resurrrection passage in Luke and the TF when I stumbled upon it a year or so ago. I agree that there does appear to be some kind of connection, and my thinking is that this would most likely be another instance of Luke using Josephus, since it seems clear enough from Mason that Luke did generally make use of Josephus.

      And while I don’t think there will ever be any “slam dunk” on the TF question, this seems more plausible to me than the idea that someone (Eusebius) just happened to select this passage from Luke and interpolate parts of it into Josephus(out of all of the passages in Luke or in any other gospel), the one gospel that just happened to use Josephus.

      This is not to say that I think that this makes the TF “genuine.” I think the Luke/TF connection is an indication that there might have originally been “something” about Jesus in Josephus, maybe something in a “bad” light (one that might be reflected in Tacitus, and in Origen’s comment that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and perhaps even in the Slavonic Josephus), that someone (Eusebius) later “fixed.”

      One of my favorite ideas from Doherty is that Origen could have made the Josephus/Jesus comment because it says in the Jewish War that Josephus believed that Vespasian was the Messiah. But if I recall correctly, Origen never mentions the Jewish War, only the Antiquities. But I could be wrong about that, since it’s fresh on my mind and I haven’t double checked.

      If this is so, it seems more likely to me that Origen was responding to something negative about Jesus in Josephus, because he specifically says that Josephus did *not* believe that Jesus was the Messiah. That Origen said this because Josephus says (in a book Origen never cites or mentions, if this is the case) Vespasian was the Messiah seems less tenable.

    2. Another argument to consider here is one by Joseph B. Tyson in “Marcion and Luke-Acts”. He offers reasonable grounds for believing that the Emmaus Road scene in Luke was added part of an agenda to combat Marcionism. This was done in towards the middle of the second century by the same author who wrote Acts. The points are outlined in my earlier post, Luke’s Resurrection Chapter: its ties to the Infancy stories, Acts and Marcion.

  4. This is an excellent article on Josephus, and I agree wholeheartedly with John that what Josephus actually wrote about Jesus (if anything), it would be similar to what tacitus wrote. But if he wrote what most scholars think he wrote, then he was writing a gospel commercial, which means he would certainly have written a HUGE disclaimer and a reason why this Jesus fellow turned out to have created a disaster for the Jews (i.e., the “swarm of Christians” whose Jewish members were expelled from the synagogue as the Nazoreans and the minim.

    Another thing, if one accepts that Josephus wrote the so-called pre-interpolated TF, then it appears he was sceptical whether Jesus was even crucifed, having written that “Pilate [merely] condemned him to the cross”!

    1. Ed-M,

      Well, I’m willing to allow for some lattitude on what Tacitus says, because (and again, I’ve got to double check this) while he, like Luke, does appear to use Josephus, I noticed that he “changes” the messianic prophecies that Josephus said were the cause of the war to include Titus as well as Vespasian (and this could be due for political flattery), not just one ruler like in Josephus, if I recall correctly.

      1. Of course, there’s also the idea floating about the internet (I read it on FRDB) that Tacitus got his information about one “Christus” from Pliny. That idea goes by the assumption that Pliny’s 10th volume was genuine — the manuscript never showed up until the 16th Century, IIRC, then promptly disappeared.

          1. Yes, that’s true, and I’ve heard some say that the whole of his annals is forged.

            At any rate, Peter, you’ve proven to my satisfaction that there is evidence that there were Christians (or Chrestians) as early as the 100s CE.

  5. I doubt I am the first to try to link these dots here or elsewhere but here goes. I’m aware of Hopper’s analysis that the entire Jesus paragraph is fabricated though I’m curious why he has apparently chosen (based on references in other posts) to withdraw his paper from public view unless I am unaware of later developments. Maybe he got tired of being attacked?

    Re the argument that Josephus did say something about Christians, here are the dots. 1) Why did Josephus say so little about them if 2) given he had demonstrated interest in Pilate and extreme interest in Herod and 3) based on his extreme interest in Herod listing Herod’s many crimes why does he not link Jesus to Herod given Herod supposedly targeted a whole area to eliminate the Messiah by killing babies which is at least on a par with his other crimes 4) especially given Luke says Jesus was immediately taken to the Temple and publicly declared the Messiah

    I know the above complicates the already drastic differences between Luke and Matthew regarding what happened after the birth. In Matthew they flee Herod’s wrath escaping to Egypt and staying there until Herod’s death. In Luke they go to the Temple and then to Nazareth where they live throughout, apparently not fearing anything from Herod EVEN AFTER Jesus is publicly declared the Messiah. My conclusion is inescapably that these stories for the reasons already cited would have interested Josephus and based on his interest in Herod he would have written about them even if only to debunk them, HAD HE HEARD THESE STORIES. Surely he would have written about the slaughter in Bethlehem if it had occurred (and Herod would not have been able to keep something like that quiet), but the slaughter of the innocents is notoriously absent from accusations against Herod.

    We know further that the author of Matthew is attempting to convert the Judeans, and is implicitly linking the Jesus story to the Moses story which also includes a slaughter of innocents/flight to Egypt. So in conclusion I think the paragraph being entirely a fabrication is correct, whether you go by Mark, Luke or Matthew. To expect a major historian to ignore major clues is just too much especially as they relate to Herod. If Josephus did have contacts with Christians, it certainly suggests that Luke or Matthew or their “origin stories” did not yet exist. If as in Luke Jesus was publicly declared the Messiah at the Temple, Herod would have heard about it (does nothing). If as in Matthew, Herod gets advance warning of the birth of the Messiah and kills a bunch of babies to prevent it, that also could not have escaped the notice of Josephus (whose own father was a priest). As is obvious, the stories in Luke and Matthew can’t both be true, one or the other HAS to be false, and the Jesus Seminar decided they were both cooked up to engage different audiences.

  6. I would HOPE that someone especially a conventional historian would ask why Josephus would write almost parenthetically about a movement that should have been by then well-defined just based on what a Roman emporer (Nero) supposedly did to them 30 years earlier! So obviously if Josephus didn’t write about it (or at all), but Tacitus “knows” about it, then Tacitus is automatically unquestionably forged

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