Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Paul Hopper
Paul Hopper

A volume on linguistics and literary studies published last year contained a chapter by Paul Hopper, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, titled A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63. The chapter can now be downloaded from academia.edu. (I was alerted to this through a post by Peter Kirby on Biblical Criticism & History Forum.)

Here is the abstract of the chapter:

Abstract: Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities introduces Jesus the Messiah into his history of the Jews, and appears to report events corresponding closely to those of the Gospels, including Jesus’s crucifixion on the orders of Pontius Pilate. A longstanding dispute exists about the authenticity of this text. The present article offers a narratological analysis of the passage, comparing the styles of event reporting in the passage with the three other episodes in Josephus’s Pontius Pilate sequence. The study concludes that the uses of the Greek verb forms such as aorists and participles are distinct in the Jesus passage from those in the other Pilate episodes, and that these differences amount to a difference in genre. It is suggested that the Jesus passage is close in style and content to the creeds that were composed two to three centuries after Josephus. (my bolding in all quotations)

Hopper’s conclusion is even more direct:

The narrative grammar of the Testimonium Flavianum sets it sharply apart from Josephus’s other stories of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. The most likely explanation is that the entire passage is interpolated, presumably by Christians embarrassed at Josephus’s manifest ignorance of the life and death of Jesus. The Jewish Antiquities would in this respect be consistent with the other chronicler of this age, Josephus’s contemporary and rival historian, Justus of Tiberias, who wrote a history of this period that conflicted with Josephus and claimed Josephus’s version to be self-serving. Justus’s work has not survived, but we know from other sources that he wrote in great detail about the exact period of Tiberius’s reign that coincided with Jesus’s ministry – and that he did not mention Jesus.13 Outside the Gospels, there is no independent contemporary (i.e., first century CE) account of these events. The silence of other commentators, and the absence of any mention of the Testimonium by Christian writers for two full centuries after Josephus, even when engaged in fierce polemic about Jesus, are strong indications that the passage was not present in Josephus’s own extraordinarily detailed account of this period. The activities of a religious fanatic who moved around Galilee and Judaea preaching a gospel of peace and salvation, was said to have performed miracles, was followed by crowds of thousands of adoring disciples, and within the space of a few hours invaded the hallowed grounds of the Temple, was hauled up before the Sanhedrin, tried by King Herod, interrogated by Pontius Pilate and crucified, all amid public tumult, made no impression on history-writers of the period.

13. We know this because Photius, the ninth century patriarch of Constantinople, who read Justus’ works, found it remarkable that he did not mention Jesus, and commented on it.

One wonders what Paul Hopper could possibly be driving at with the tone of that final sentence!

I have argued in some detail that this Jesus passage in Josephus (the Testimonium Flavianum) was not penned by Josephus. Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier have also argued this, Earl Doherty in the most detail. I recently tried to sum up my own reasons at the Biblical Criticism and History Forum and copy that summary here:

Question: Couldn’t the “outrage” have been that “the leading men among us” condemned “Jesus the wise man” to a cross?

My response:

Not likely for the following reasons.

Josephus expresses no hint of how Jesus or his followers has anything to do with “the history of the Jews”, or their relevance to any of the themes that are elsewhere fleshed out in all the narratives of Josephus.

(Those themes he spells out in his preface and are sustained throughout his narrative: the supreme, even divine, benefit of the Jewish religious heritage for the rest of humanity; and the living and powerful relevance of this heritage by a demonstration of its benefits when obeyed; and the calamities that ensue when it is violated. When Josephus relates the fortunes of the Jews, the theme of divine Providence, with its testings, rewards and punishments, is never too far away. We also observe his unstated theme of honouring the Roman imperial establishment, and promoting an honourable place for the Jews within Roman civilization.)

Whether Josephus tells readers about Judas and Sadduc, or Theudas or “that Egyptian” (both in Book 20), or any of the other Jewish trouble-makers or Jewish notables in Book 18, in every single case Josephus is discussing the workings of God and the natural outcomes of adhering to or violating the laws and nature of God. Sometimes gentiles are the heroes and villains, but the Jews especially, with their special offering of the most noble of philosophies and laws that originated with Moses, are naturally centre-stage.

The TF is about Jesus and Christians for their own sakes. That is unlike any other anecdote of Josephus.

The TF tells us about Jesus in a self-contained bubble. He did this, he did that, he was treated this way, and some thought this about him, and here we see his followers around us today.

There is no connection with the demise or suffering of the Jewish people. Nor is there any relevance to the piety of the Jews in the way they courageously or nobly adhered to their customs of their fathers.

I go so far as to suggest it is unthinkable that Josephus could have written such a piece, given that everywhere else he is demonstrating to his readers the piety of his own race and peers in opposing or suffering at the hands of Pilate. They don’t just suffer from Pilate, but they suffered because of their loyalty to Moses who taught them look to the Divine Nature.

Or where Josephus does find fault with leaders it is to demonstrate that it is the ancestral customs of the Jews that they have violated, not the teachings of one whose followers understood as requiring them to part company with Moses.

Details of this argument, including the nature of the ‘outrages’ Josephus addresses and how they are of a different nature from the TF theme, are in three posts: Jesus in Josephus- A Cuckoo in the Nest Part 1Part 2Part 3.



The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

30 thoughts on “Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus”

  1. Two other essays about the Testamonium Flavianum.

    One shows it has significant parallels with and differences from similar passages in the works of Josephus. This suggests it was written by someone who tried to imitate Josephus’ style with only partial success.


    The other suggests that the author of the TF was bilingual in Greek and Latin and was influenced by Livy’s description of the religious charlatan who founded the dangerous Bacchanalian cult. The cult leaders used fraud and violence to achieve their goals.


  2. The link provided for Paul Hopper’s 2014 paper in the Monika Fludernik & Daniel Jacob volume does not connect one to the paper.

    STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
    Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
    לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


  3. Shalom & Boker tov…found the ‘wayback machine’, and several efforts in retrieving the paper failed. Can someone forward to the PDF to me?
    Todah / gratitude. Stephan
    STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
    Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
    לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


    1. You will have to take it without the formatting from archive.org or ask the author or publisher. (But I suggest a polite tone might help.) I am reluctant to pass on anything that the author appears to have removed from normal public access.

  4. Mythicists sometimes cite Origen (Contra Celsum 1.47 and Commentary on Matthew 10.17), who certainly knew Book 18 of the Antiquities and cites 5 passages from it, as explicitly stating that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as Christ.  This seems to exclude Origen as being aware of the relevant passage in the Testimonium Flavianum as we have it today, but doesn’t it ALSO imply Origin’s copy of Josephus’ work did say “something” about Jesus, enough for Origen to conclude that Josephus didn’t think Jesus was the Christ? 

  5. @ Darth

    > doesn’t it ALSO imply Origin’s copy of Josephus’ work did say “something” about Jesus, enough for Origen to conclude that Josephus didn’t think Jesus was the Christ?

    Both passages you cite and the recap of the first in _Against Celsus_ 2.13 can be explained as Origen misremembering what he’s read in Book 20 about James.

    That misrecollection, combined with Origen plausibly knowing that Josephus remained Jewish throughout his life, suffices for Origen to assert (correctly, it seems) that Josephus didn’t accept Jesus as Christ.

    Origen’s long-term memory needs no supporting text to fail vividly, any more than Jerome’s needed a text to backdate the “Voices in the Temple” incident from the 60’s to Jesus’ crucifixion.

  6. Paul said:

    “That misrecollection, combined with Origen plausibly knowing that Josephus remained Jewish throughout his life, suffices for Origen to assert (correctly, it seems) that Josephus didn’t accept Jesus as Christ.”

    Again, even your language seems to suggest Origen thought Josephus didn’t accept Jesus, so he would have been aware of him.

  7. @ Darth

    > your language seems to suggest Origen thought Josephus didn’t accept Jesus, so he would have been aware of him.

    Yes, and more than “suggest.” It is Origen’s stated opinion that Josephus didn’t accept the Christian revelation; you gave the cites already. Origen’s opinion seems to be correct, too. However, it is unclear how Origen came to his conclusions about Josephus’ non-Christianity.

    Regardless, Josephus being aware of Jesus is likely enough. A well-off and well-connected former priestly resident of Jerusalem could easily have heard something about what Christians profess about their Jesus by 93 CE.

    1. Paul:

      But one of the cornerstones of the mythicists’ argument is that Josephus was not aware of Jesus, and so it is possible Jesus never existed. What do you think about that?

    2. @ Darth

      If we go with middle-of-the-road timelines (like over at Early Christian Writings), then the cat was comfortably out of the bag by the 90’s. So what if Josephus had heard the Word by 93?

      Mythicist theories that imply there was no Word to hear that early would have a problem. Is there anybody else specifically whose position you think would be vulnerable to Josephus’ simple awareness in the 90’s that some people told Jesus stories?

        1. Shalom & Erev tov…because it is a forgery…I suggest you read the surviving text, not the English translation(s)…

          STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
          Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
          לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


        2. I think the real question is why biblical scholars have since the latter half of the twentieth century changed their tack and worked so hard to prove Josephus did write something about Jesus that is a core to a passage that is an obvious forgery and where a passage about Jesus interrupts a thematic flow in J’s narrative; and where the second reference is patently associated with linguistic questions. It is the mythicists who are arguing for the application of Occam’s razor. It is those fighting against the Occam’s razor that used to be the default position not many generations ago who are seating and working so hard on this one.

          But beside all of that, I don’t see how a mention of Jesus in Josephus would necessarily strengthen the case for the historicity of Jesus any more than does the reference in Tacitus — especially if such a passage adds nothing new to what we know of Jesus from other sources.

        3. @ Darth

          > Then why do you think mythicists work so hard to discredit the Jesus references in Josephus, like the Testimonium Flavianum?

          I don’t know that they do “work hard” on the TF. It isn’t even forgery (a forger intends deception, as opposed to idle fantasy expression like what we read). There’s some rear-guard skirmishing about “what Josephus really wrote,” but for all we know he wrote “Pilate’s legacy continues to this day, in those Christian fables which say …”

          As the hypothetical illustrates, the TF doesn’t interrupt the flow of the Pilate stories, but “Paulina and Mundus” does. That rowdy Roman romp, if it happened at all, dates from well before Pilate took office.

          James’ tie to Jackpot Jesus is much higher stakes than the TF, and worth some effort. The trial was part of Josephus’ lived experience, and he was a co-worker of some of the people mentioned. Fortunately for Team Myth, the “authentication” is Origen’s, who got everything about the passage wrong except the two or three words Josephus apparently lifted from GMatthew. Uh huh.

  8. Yeshu benMiriam was the necessary, deliberate fabrication of a late 2/early 3 century CE Graeco-Roman-Egyptian thanatos. In the 1 century CE, there were no natz’rim, no yosef/miriam, no ‘disciples’, no anastatis, no Gol’gotha/Kranion. And the ‘Yeshu’ passages in Yosef benMitityahu are later additions (he never mentions ‘Jesus’ because the word was invented later, and does not cite ‘Yeshu’ because it was a later concoction), and Paul Hopper’s incontrovertible linguistic analyses of the koine Greek refute the wishful longing here.

    STEPHAN PICKERING / חפץ ח”ם בן אברהם
    Torah אלילה Yehu’di Apikores / Philologia Kabbalistica Speculativa Researcher
    לחיות זמן רב ולשגשג


  9. The Testimonium Flavianum, the most famous Christian forgery in Josephus’ “Antiquity of the Jews” first saw the light od day with Eusebius. previous hurch historians never mentioned it. an astonishing omission.
    But Eusebius also was noted as n interpolator par excellence.
    So inthis case 2 pus 2 really DO make 4.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading