Christianity Knowledge Base

Josephus (c. 37 AD – c. 100), who became known, in his capacity as a Roman citizen, as Flavius Josephus, was a 1st century Jewish historian and apologist of priestly and royal ancestry who survived and recorded the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70. His works give an important insight into first-century Judaism.

In 93 AD, he published his work Antiquities of the Jews. The extant copies of this work, which all derive from Christian sources, even the recently recovered Arabic version, contain two passages about Jesus. The one directly concerning Jesus has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum, and its authenticity has been disputed since the 17th century. The other passage concerns James the brother of Jesus.

Testimonium Flavianum[]

Greek version[]

The passage appears in Antiquities of the Jews xviii 3.3, which, in the translation of William Whiston, reads:

3. 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.

As usual with ancient texts, the surviving sources for this passage are Greek manuscripts, all minuscules, the oldest of which dates from the 9th century. It is likely that these all derive from a single exemplar written in uncial, as is the case with most other ancient Greek texts transmitted to the present in medieval copies, and have come down through the hands of the church. The text of Antiquities appears to have been transmitted in two halves — books 1–10 and books 11–20. But other ad hoc copies of this passage also exist. However, other manuscripts existed which did not contain this passage, and one such was known to Isaac Vossius.

There are also citations in other writers of antiquity.

The first to cite this passage of Antiquities was Eusebius, writing in about 324, who quotes the passage in essentially the same form. This is evidence that this passage existed in at least some manuscripts of the Antiquities of the Jews at that time, though many scholars believe that Eusebius himself might be the author of the passage. Alice Whealey has demonstrated, however, that a Greek text differing in at least one respect existed in the late 4th century.

Concerns about interpolations[]

Critical view[]

It is significant that Origen, writing in about 240, fails to mention the Testimonium Flavianum, even though he does mention the less significant reference to Jesus as brother of James, which occurs later in Antiquities of the Jews (xx 9). Origen also states that Josephus was "not believing in Jesus as the Christ" (Cels, i 47) "he did not accept Jesus as Christ" (Comm. Matt., x 17), and "he says nothing of the wonderful deeds that our Lord did" (Stromateis, ii 2) but the testimonium declares Jesus to be Christ and claims that he did "wonderful works". Starting in the 17th century, this has given rise to the suggestion presented by Protestant philologists that the Testimonium Flavianum did not exist in the earliest copies, or did not exist in the present form.

Many modern historians reject the passage as an interpolation, on other grounds, for several reasons inherent in the text. In its context, passage 3.2 runs directly into passage 3.4, and thus the thread of continuity, of "sad calamities," is interrupted by this passage. The context, without the testimonium passage, reads:

So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition. About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome.

The passage 3.3 also fails a standard test for authenticity, in that it contains vocabulary not otherwise used by Josephus, according to the Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus, edited by K. H. Rengstorff, 2002. It is also argued that "He was [the] Christ" can only be read as a profession of faith. If so, this could not be right, as Josephus was not a Christian; he characterized his patron Vespasian as the foretold Messiah.

The deepest concerns about the authenticity of the passage were succinctly expressed by John Dominic Crossan, in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991, ISBN 0060616296): "The problem here is that Josephus' account is too good to be true, too confessional to be impartial, too Christian to be Jewish." Three passages stood out: "if it be lawful to call him a man … He was [the] Christ … 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." These seem directly to address Christological debates of the early 4th century. Consequently, most secular historians (and even many Christian scholars) dismiss the Testimonium as an interpolation.

The entire passage is also found in one manuscript of Josephus' earlier work, The Jewish War. Lower Criticism has concluded that this is an interpolation as other extant manuscripts do not contain it, and reflect the modern standard text of The Jewish War.

Support for authenticity[]

Most writers, however, observe that these objections are not conclusive. The ragged structure of Antiquities involves frequent disruptions to the narrative, not least because it was mainly composed by a number of scribal assistants. Linguistic analysis has not proven conclusive when compared with other passages in Josephus which likewise exhibit unusual features. The supposed confession of Josephus relies on the standard text. But a recent study by Alice Whealey has demonstrated that a variant Greek text of this sentence existed in the 5th century—"He was believed to be the Christ." The standard text, then, has simply become corrupt by the loss of the main verb and a subsequent scribal "correction" of the prolative infinitive. In any event, the audience for the work was Roman, and the Romans always referred to Jesus as "Christus", which would make this merely an identification. Finally, it has been pointed out that every line of the passage can be objected to, or supported, by one argument or another.

The Testimonium Flavianum was treated with suspicion as long ago as the times of Archbishop Ussher (1581–1656), and by the early 20th century, it was generally believed by scholars to be an interpolation. However, over the last century, the consensus of scholars has moved, not least under the influence of manuscript discoveries.

Arabic version[]

In 1971, professor Shlomo Pines published a translation of a different version of this passage, quoted in an Arabic manuscript of the tenth century. The manuscript in question appears in the Book of the Title written by Agapius, a 10th century Christian Arab and Melkite bishop of Hierapolis. Agapius appears to be quoting from memory, for even Josephus' title is an approximation:

For he says in the treatises that he has written in the governance of the Jews: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders" - Shlomo Pines' translation, quoted by J. D. Crossan

Pines suggests that this may be a more accurate record of what Josephus wrote, lacking as it does the parts which have often been considered to have been added by Christian copyists. However, Pines' theory has not been widely accepted.

Pines also refers to the Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian in his World Chronicle. It was left to Alice Whealey to point out that Michael's text in fact was identical with that of Jerome at the most contentious point ("He was the Christ" becoming "He was believed to be the Christ"), establishing the existence of a variant, since Latin and Syriac writers did not read each others' works in late antiquity.

Modern consensus[]

Over the last century, the consensus seems to have changed, and the subjective nature of many of the arguments used in the 19th century has been recognized. Judging from the 2003 survey of the historiography, it seems that the majority of modern scholars consider that Josephus really did write something here about Jesus, but that the text that has reached us is corrupt to a perhaps quite substantial extent. There has been no consensus on which portions are corrupt, or to what degree.

Alice Whealey writes:

Twentieth century controversy over the Testimonium Flavianum can be distinguished from controversy over the text in the early modern period insofar as it seems generally more academic and less sectarian. While the challenge to the authenticity of the Testimonium in the early modern period was orchestrated almost entirely by Protestant scholars and while in the same period Jews outside the church uniformly denounced the text’s authenticity, the twentieth century controversies over the text have been marked by the presence of Jewish scholars for the first time as prominent participants on both sides of the question. In general, the attitudes of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and secular scholars towards the text have drawn closer together, with a greater tendency among scholars of all religious backgrounds to see the text as largely authentic. On the one hand this can be interpreted as the result of an increasing trend towards secularism, which is usually seen as product of modernity. On the other hand it can be interpreted as a sort of post-modern disillusionment with the verities of modern skepticism, and an attempt to recapture the sensibility of the ancient world, when it apparently was still possible for a first-century Jew to have written a text as favorable towards Jesus of Nazareth as the Testimonium Flavianum.

It seems clear that, whatever the current fashion of scholarship, no conclusive evidence exists to allow a final closure of this question.

Reference to Jesus as brother of James[]

The other reference in the works of Josephus often cited to support the historicity of Jesus is also in the Antiquities, in the first paragraph of book 20, chapter 9. It concerns the execution of a man whom traditional scholarship identifies as James the Just.

"And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus 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 others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest."

This paragraph is generally accepted as authentic by scholars, although there is debate as to whether the words who was called Christ were in the original passage, or were a later interpolation. Even most scholars who hold that the Testimonium is inauthentic regard the xx 9.1. reference as original to Josephus. Unlike the Testimonium, the xx 9.1. reference was mentioned in several places by Origen. A small minority, including Zindler, challenge the passage in its entirety, noting contradictions in both the characterization of Ananus and the chronology of his tenure between the passages in the Antiquities and the Jewish Wars.

The heart of the debate is over whether the "Jesus" in question is the same person as the main character of the Christian Bible or, as the passage states at the end, merely "the son of Damneus" (which would make the James whom Ananus had executed the son of Damneus, as well.) Some assert that the paragraph discusses two different people named "Jesus." Others assert that Jesus the brother of James and Jesus the son of Damneus are the same person, and see King Agrippa's action as a particularly pointed snub of Ananus (by making the new high priest be the brother of the man Ananus had wrongfully executed). Those who hold to the latter view note that, if one assumes that "who was called Christ" is a later interpolation by a Christian scribe, the reference to Christ may well have replaced "the son of Damneus" at that location in the original text.

If one makes such an assumption, additional problems with the text as it stands are resolved. First, it would have been quite unusual, bordering upon unheard-of, to identify a man as somebody's brother rather than as his father's son. On the other hand, introducing men as brothers and identifying their father at the same time would have been pro forma.

Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Josephus, a first century Jew, could have called another man the Messiah. "Christ", from the Greek Χριστος or Khristos, and "Messiah", from the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ or Mašíaḥ both literally mean "anointed". If one assumes that "who was called Christ" is original to Josephus, there are two possible explanations: that Josephus was merely reporting the title ascribed to Jesus, or that he really did believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The former is a remote possibility, though it is most unlikely that Josephus would use such a title without accompanying it with editorializing on the blasphemy such a title would represent to him. The latter can be ruled out, as detailed above, because it would contradict Origen's repeated admissions that Josephus did not believe in nor accept Jesus as the Christ.

It is worth noting that both "Jesus" and "James" were popular names in first-century Judea. There are at least five characters named "James" in the New Testament. Josephus mentions at least nineteen people named "Jesus," a number of them living in the first third of the first century.

Also, just as it is customary to refer to people today by their first and last names, it was customary then to refer to a man by his one-and-only name and his father's name. While "the son of" sounds awkward in English, the original Greek is not so stilted, using a formula similar to that found in Gaelic languages with "Mac." "Jesus who was called Christ" is "Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ" ("Iêsou tou legomenou Christou"), and "Jesus the son of Damneus" is "Ἰησοῦν τὸν τοῦ Δαμναίου" ("Iêsoun ton tou Damnaiou").


  • James Carleton Paget, Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity, Journal of Theological Studies 52.2 (2001) pp. 539-624. A monster review of all the theories, all the scholars and all the evidence.
  • Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (Viking Penguin) 1997
  • Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its Implications, (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971)
  • Alice Whealey, Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times,Peter Lang Publishing (2003). How the TF has been seen down the centuries.
  • Frank R. Zindler, The Jesus The Jews Never Knew, Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the historical Jesus in Jewish Sources (AAP), 2003

External links[]

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