THE TESTIMONY OF JOSEPHUS: Powerful Evidence for the Truth of Christianity, or an Interpolated Fraud?

THE TESTIMONY OF JOSEPHUS: Powerful Evidence for the Truth of Christianity, or an Interpolated Fraud?

© 2015, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

The four Gospel books in the New Testament are our primary sources for information about the life, ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  They are all based on early eyewitness testimony.

  • The Gospel According to Matthew was written by the former tax-collector Matthew aka Levi, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, in AD 40-41.
  • The Gospel According to Mark was written by John Mark, an early believer and assistant of the apostle Peter, who recorded Peter’s testimony in his Gospel book written in AD 43.
  • The Gospel According to Luke was written in AD 48 by a Gentile physician, a fellow worker of the apostle Paul, who based his account on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:2).
  • The Gospel According to John was written by the apostle John, the closest personal friend of Jesus during His earthly ministry, in AD 64-65.

By the standards of ancient historiography, such a wealth of early data is more than enough for us to be certain about the facts about Jesus; there is nothing else in ancient history that is nearly as well documented as these.  But there is more.  There is also the testimony of Josephus.

Titus Flavius Josephus was a 1st-century AD Jewish historian whose monumental works Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War provide us with most of what we know about 1st-century AD Jewish history, as well as providing interesting details about Roman history.[1]  In Antiquities 18.3.3 (18.63-64) written ca. AD 94, Josephus talks briefly about Jesus in the following passage that has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one must 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.

Γίνεται δὲ κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον Ἰησοῦς σοφὸς ἀνήρ, εἴγε ἄνδρα αὐτὸν λέγειν χρή: ἦν γὰρ παραδόξων ἔργων ποιητής, διδάσκαλος ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡδονῇ τἀληθῆ δεχομένων, καὶ πολλοὺς μὲν Ἰουδαίους, πολλοὺς δὲ κἐαὶ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ ἐπηγάγετο: ὁ χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν. καὶ αὐτὸν ἐνδείξει τῶν πρώτων ἀνδρῶν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν σταυρῷ πιτετιμηκότος Πιλάτου οὐκ ἐπαύσαντο οἱ τὸ πρῶτον ἀγαπήσαντες: ἐφάνη γὰρ αὐτοῖς τρίτην ἔχων ἡμέραν πάλιν ζῶν τῶν θείων προφητῶν ταῦτά τε καὶ ἄλλα μυρία περὶ αὐτοῦ θαυμάσια εἰρηκότων. εἰς ἔτι τε νῦν τῶν Χριστιανῶν ἀπὸ τοῦδε ὠνομασμένον οὐκ ἐπέλιπε τὸ φῦλον.

This amazing testimony corroborates Jesus’ miracles, His public teaching, His converts, both Jews and Gentiles,[2]  His title as the Christ, and especially His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.  Thus, it constitutes powerful evidence for the truth of Christianity.

The Attack on the Testimonium Flavianum

For centuries, no one questioned the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum; it was seen as a genuine albeit short witness to Jesus and His resurrection.  In the days when Koine Greek was the living language of the people, no one found anything linguistically or stylistically suspicious in this passage.

The first recorded attack on its authenticity was made by Huguenot scholar Joseph Scaliger in the 16th century,[3] but he simply insisted that Christians adjusted this text without giving any reason for that claim.[4]  The earliest printed attack on the Testimonium Flavianum was by Lucas Osiander in 1592[5]; his argument against it seems to be that if Josephus had believed in the resurrection, he would have become a Christian.[6]  This was followed by an attack made by a certain Rabbi Lusitanus, who argued that the passage cannot be original to Josephus but must be a later interpolation, because it interrupts the flow of the narrative at the point at which it is found:

Josephus telleth first / how Pilate hath given cause for rebellion / whereupon the text should continue to say / how about the same time still another tumult happened unto the Jews: but because in between them is told the history of Jesus / the text doeth not hang together / the other tumult pointeth to the first.[7]

This charge was seconded by Tanneguy Lefevre (1615-1672), who insisted that

this interpolation could not have been more ineptly inserted anywhere else.[8]

Of course, there were others who defended the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum;

since the sixteenth century the authenticity of the Testimonium has become a controversial issue, ardently questioned or defended by scholars and students of both sides.[9]

Interestingly, in this debate all of the arguments against authenticity were adduced quite early, with no new arguments since.[10]

As the Western world moved into the Enlightenment era, however, things changed.  This was the era in which Man became the measure of all things and human rationality was seen as the supreme arbiter of truth.  There was a concerted effort among the intelligentsia, the Rationalists and liberal scholars, to drive out God, and that required that Christianity, and the Bible upon which it is based, be discredited.  Jesus had to be reinvented as nothing more than a purely human teacher and the Bible as nothing more than a collection of pious fictions and opinions of primitive people.  As a result, a long assault on the Bible began, using the tools of historical criticism, textual criticism, and eventually Darwinism.  An authentic Testimonium Flavianum, because it would constitute powerful evidence for the Biblical portrait of Jesus, was simply unacceptable and, although no new evidence on the matter was brought forth, under the influence of literary criticism scholarly defenders of the passage gradually disappeared.[11]

By way of illustration, consider that William Whiston, in his famous translation of the works of Josephus, first published in 1737, included an excellent dissertation vindicating the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum; in the “Revised and Expanded Edition” of this work published by Kregel in 1999 with a commentary by Paul L. Maier, Whiston’s dissertation is still included, but Maier includes his own aside on the Testimonium Flavianum in which he avers that the option that this passage is authentic is “held by very few [and] would seem hopeless.[12]  Interestingly, his justification for this comment is that “No Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without converting to Christianity, and Josephus did not convert[13] – the same argument advanced by Osiander more than four centuries earlier!

Now, it is not surprising that liberal scholars and skeptics would close ranks against the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum; as a famous Doctor once said, “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common.  They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views,” and the Testimonium Flavianum is one of those facts that needs to altered to fit the liberal scholars’ view that Jesus was no more than a mere man.

What is surprising is the unseemly haste with which evangelical scholars follow the liberal lead and surrender the Testimonium Flavianum as authentic evidence for Jesus.  Dr. Edwin Yamauchi’s position is quite typical:

The early Christians thought it was a wonderful and thoroughly authentic attestation of Jesus and his resurrection.  They loved it.  Then the entire passage was questioned by at least some scholars during the Enlightenment.  But today there’s a remarkable consensus among both Jewish and Christian scholars that the passage as a whole is authentic, although there may be some interpolationsearly Christian copyists inserted some phrases that a Jewish writer like Josephus would not have written.[14]

And what are these “interpolations” that “early Christian copyists inserted”?

  • “if indeed one must call him a man” – Yamauchi asserts that “This implies Jesus was more than human, which appears to be an interpolation.[15]

  • “He was the Christ” – According to Yamauchi, in his reference to James[16] Josephus wrote that Jesus was “called the Christ,” and he thinks it unlikely that Josephus would call Jesus “the Christ” here in 18.3.3 if elsewhere he merely said that Jesus was called “the Christ.”[17]

  • he appeared to them alive again the third day” – Yamauchi suggests this is an interpolation because it’s not likely that Josephus, an unbeliever, would declare that Jesus rose from the dead.

So Yamauchi concludes that

The passage in Josephus probably was originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned.

But not to worry!  Yamauchi assures us that

even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of the some of the Jewish leaders.[18]

My, aren’t we blessed!  The bowdlerized passage corroborates “important information about Jesus” – information that is already accepted by everyone, including liberal scholars, so what good is it?  It is almost as if liberal scholars were agreeing not to insist that the entire passage is an interpolation as long as we agree to deny every substantive thing in it, leaving us nothing but the Jesus of liberal reinvention.  What a Faustian bargain!

Nevertheless, there is broad agreement with Yamauchi’s view among evangelical scholars, and this view is in turn parroted by popular level apologists, as, for example, in this “gem” from Creation Ministries International:

The Testimonium Flavianum in its current form is certainly not what Josephus wrote, but was manipulated by a well-meaning Christian copyist sometime later.  But beneath the Testimonium is almost certainly a genuine statement about Jesus by Josephus.  If you take out the pious language, you are left with something that sounds like what Josephus wrote, and various Josephus scholars have made attempts at reconstructing the likely original.[19]

This is nothing but a bald assertion that this passage is “certainly not what Josephus wrote,” with a bald assertion that the original was “manipulated by a well-meaning Christian copyist,with no attempt to offer evidence nor even is there any hint of uncertainty, not even such as Yamauchi himself expressed.

Let’s try something new.  Let’s try actually looking carefully at the evidence and assessing the arguments.

What Does the Evidence Say about the Testimonium Flavianum?

The first thing to note is that the Testimonium Flavianum is present in every known manuscript of Josephus’ Antiquities that is extant in that portion of the book.  True, the earliest such manuscript, Codex Ambrosianus 370, dates to the 11th century,[20] but such a lengthy age gap between the date of composition and the earliest manuscript is not atypical for ancient writings.[21]  Since the contents of a book are determined by what’s actually in the book, this means that the initial presumption is in favour of the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum, and it is those who argue against its authenticity who must make the case against it.[22]

CODEX AMBROSIASTER 370 (11th century)

We also note that

it seems remarkable that [the Testimonium Flavianum] is the only passage in Josephus (with the possible exceptions of those about John and James) that has been suspected of interpolation.[23]

To suggest that the entire body of works has been passed down unaltered except for the very ones that may defend Christianity certainly smacks of special pleading.[24]

With this understanding that the initial presumption is in favour of authenticity, let us examine the arguments that have been levied against the Testimonium Flavianum.

Argument #1: No Jew Would Have Written Such Things about Jesus

The strongest and most common argument against the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum is still the first one, raised more than four centuries ago by Lucas Osiander; as Paul Maier puts it,

No Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without converting to Christianity, and Josephus did not convert.[25]

Before we consider responses to this argument, let us take note of a couple of problems with the argument itself.

First, each person is an individual, not merely a member of a group, and may do things that are not usually done by members of that group.  Josephus certainly did things atypical of Jews.  For example, Jews were supposed to have as little as possible to do with Gentiles, as Peter points out:

“You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation.” (Acts 10:28)

In the case of Josephus, however,

When Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, Josephus might have remained in Judea, rewarded as he was by the Romans with a tract of land near Jerusalem … He chose instead to accompany the victorious Titus to Rome, where he received Roman citizenship, an apartment in Vespasian’s former mansion on the Quirinal, and an annual pension to underwrite his literary endeavours.  His relationship as client to the Flavian imperial family was so close that he could be renamed Flavius Josephus[26]

So it is questionable to assert what Josephus would or would not do on the basis of his being Jewish.

Second, how do we know that Josephus did not, in fact, convert to Christianity, perhaps secretly?  Scholars point out that Origen “twice criticizes Josephus for not having accepted Jesus as the Messiah.[27]  These are in Contra Celsum I.47, in which Origen comments about Josephus that “The same author, although he did not believe in Jesus as Christ,” and in Commentarii in Matthaeum X.17, in which he states, “and wonderful it is that while he did not receive Jesus for Christ, he did nevertheless bear witness that James was so righteous a man.[28]

Now, this is a very interesting thing.  The early church fathers, even those predating Origen, tell us a great deal about the fact that the Gospel books were written at early dates by the apostles Matthew and John; by Mark, the companion of Peter who recorded the latter’s testimony; and by Luke the fellow worker of the apostle Paul.  This manifold and abundant testimony is more than enough to prove these facts of Gospel origins – yet they are uniformly dismissed or ignored by liberal scholars.  The church fathers are unreliable, we are told.  They have no independent source of information.  They are not to be trusted.  But if one of them makes a comment that liberals find useful, why, then the church father (but only that one, and only on that one fact) becomes an unimpeachable authority!  We must believe what Origin says about Josephus, even though he is writing as much as a century and a half after the death of Josephus and does not tell us how he knows that Josephus did not believe in Jesus.  Such a double standard is a staple of liberal scholarship.

But let us suppose that Josephus did not believe in Jesus.  Does that mean he could not have written the things we find in the Testimonium Flavianum?  Let us examine each of Yamauchi’s objections.

#1 “If indeed one must call him a man” – Contra Yamauchi’s assertion that “This implies Jesus was more than human,[29] it is simply raising a question that is very reasonable in light of the miracles Jesus did, of which Josephus shows knowledge.  Even in Jesus’ own time, people – and not just followers – wondered who He was and made suggestions consistent with calling Him something more than a man:

Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, “John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” Others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets.” (Mark 6:14-16).

Particularly if Josephus was not a believer would he wonder exactly who or what Jesus was.

Furthermore, when we consider that Christians certainly called Jesus a “man (Acts 2:22; 1 Timothy 2:5), it is not reasonable to assume that a Christian interpolator would write such a statement.  In fact, it seems less likely that a Christian would write this than that a Jew would write it!

#2 “He was the Christ” – According to Yamauchi, in his reference to James Josephus wrote that Jesus was “called the Christ,” and it is unlikely that Josephus would call Him “the Christ” here if elsewhere he merely said that He was calledthe Christ.[30]  Really?  Let us look at Matthew 1:16-17:

And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

Now, if a Gospel writer can refer to Jesus as the one who is “called Christ” and as “the Christin consecutive verses, why cannot Josephus in two widely separated passages in his book?

What about the claim that Josephus, being a Jew, could not have written that Jesus was the Christ?  This assumes that by “He was the Christ” Josephus was indicating his personal belief in that fact.  However, this may not be the case at all.  Josephus was writing mainly for a Roman audience, and there is indication that the Romans knew of Jesus as “Christ,” as if that were simply His name.  As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote ca. AD 110:

Nero, in order to stifle the rumor [as if he himself had set Rome on fire], ascribed it to those people who were hated for their wicked practices, and called by the vulgar Christians: these he punished exquisitely.  The author of this name was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was brought to punishment by Pontius Pilate the procurator. (Annals 15:44)[31]

So Josephus may simply having been identifying to his Roman readers who this “Christ” of whom they had heard had been, and used the term “Christ” because that was the name by which the Romans knew him.

Furthermore, the assumption that a Jew would not write such a thing is more than counterbalanced by the fact that a Christian would not write that about Jesus that “He was the Christ,” but that He is the Christ.  So in this case too it is as least a problematic to assume that this comment was written by a Christian interpolator as to assume that Josephus wrote it.

#3 “He appeared to them alive again the third day” – Yamauchi suggests this is an interpolation because it’s not likely that Josephus, an unbeliever, would declare that Jesus rose from the dead,[32] while Maier insists that

No Jew could have claimed Jesus as the Messiah who rose from the dead without converting to Christianity, and Josephus did not convert.[33]

But why should we assume that Josephus would not declare the fact that Jesus rose, if that’s what the evidence indicated?  After all, he tried to be a careful historian, and if the evidence indicated that Jesus rose from the dead, why should he not declare it?  We know, in fact, that many eyewitnesses of the resurrection were alive during Josephus’ own lifetime,[34] so Josephus may have found the evidence that Jesus rose compelling.

The objection, of course, is that a Jew who believed that Jesus rose from the dead would surely have converted, and Josephus did not convert.  However, even if we accept the claim that Josephus did not convert, the objection is false; conversion is not guaranteed.  As proof of that, consider the 20th century Jewish orthodox rabbi and theologian Pinchas Lapide.  He undertook to examine the historical evidence related to the question of the resurrection of Jesus and became convinced it that it happened, saying,

I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.[35]

Nevertheless, he did not convert to Christianity, and if that was the case with Lapide, there is no basis for saying that that could not have been the case with Josephus.

In sum, then, of the three details in the Testimonium Flavianum that are allegedly Christian interpolations, the evidence fails to prove that contention for even one of them.  With the strongest evidence for the inauthenticity of this passage debunked, let us now consider the other arguments brought against it, none of which carry much weight.

Argument #2: No Church Father prior to Eusebius Appealed to the Testimonium Flavianum

Some skeptics ask why the church fathers did not make more use of the Testimonium Flavianum if it was authentic.  Feldman argues that,

It is not cited until Eusebius does so in the fourth century, despite the fact that such a passage would have been extremely effective, to say the least, since it comes from a Jew who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death, in the debates between Jews and Christians, especially since we know that Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 8) attempted to answer the charge that Jesus had never lived and that he was a mere figment of Christian imagination.[36]

Actually, this is a remarkably ill conceived argument.  Feldman is thinking like a 20th-century liberal scholar, not like an early Christian apologist.  Why would such an apologist want to use a short paragraph from Josephus, “who was born only a few years after Jesus’ death,” when he had the Gospel books, which are far more detailed and are eyewitness testimony written by people who are alive at the time of Jesus and knew Him personally?[37]

Is it because Josephus was “a Jew”?  Has Feldman forgotten that Matthew, Mark, and John – and, indeed, all the New Testament writers except Luke – were also Jews?

Was it because Josephus was a Jew who affirmed the facts about Jesus but did not convert, unlike Matthew, Mark, John and the others?  In that case, if Justin had cited him, his opponent would simply have pointed out that the evidence was obviously not enough to convince Josephus, so why should it convince him?

Feldman is also missing a huge elephant in the room: Josephus was viewed as a traitor by the Jews because he had joined the Romans during the rebellion.  They had no truck with him and wouldn’t even study his writings for centuries:

Josephus Flavius, formerly Yosef Ben Matityahu (34-95), had been shunned, then banned as a traitor.  His Latin historical reports of the rebellion against the Romans (The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities) had been banned by those scholars who dealt with Jewish history for many generations, and in spite of its more or less legitimate place in world history, hundreds of years passed before it could be accepted by early Jewish historiography as anything but the biased, fraudulent testimony of a traitor, let alone translated into Hebrew.  The first to accept his testimony as a possible source for valid historical records was Markus Jost, the founding father of modern Jewish historiography, and indeed his history of the Israelites (Geschichte der Israeliten, 1824-1828) stirred much criticism and bitter debate.[38]

It would therefore have been pointless for Origen to cite Josephus in his debate with a Jew, as it is all but certain that the Jew would not be familiar with Josephus’ writings.  Moreover, it would have been counterproductive, as the bitter feelings of Jews toward Josephus would have made it all the more unlikely that they would listen to a Christian apologist who enlisted this Jewish “traitor” Josephus as an ally.

The same obtains in the case of the other apologists.  Feldman cavils that there were eleven Church fathers antedating or contemporaneous with Eusebius, and five more postdating him, who cited Josephus but did not mention the Testimonium Flavianum.[39]  As we have pointed out, however, to the Church fathers this passage would have been insignificant in comparison to the far greater testimony of the Gospel books, which they defended and promoted at length.

Argument #3: The Testimonium Flavianum Is Clearly an Interpolation Because It Interrupts the Flow of Josephus’ Narrative at This Point

We have seen that this argument was first made by Lusitanus almost four hundred years ago.  He claimed that in this portion of Antiquities,

Josephus telleth first / how Pilate hath given cause for rebellion / whereupon the text should continue to say / how about the same time still another tumult happened unto the Jews: but because in between them is told the history of Jesus / the text doeth not hang together / the other tumult pointeth to the first.[40]

This charge was seconded by Tanneguy Lefevre, who insisted that

this interpolation could not have been more ineptly inserted anywhere else.[41]

As Feldman puts it,

The passage breaks the continuity of the narrative, which tells of a series of riots.[42]

For some inexplicable reason, this argument has been seen as powerful or even decisive for centuries.[43]  This is passing strange, since there is no value to it at all.  As Eisler rightly points out,

It is perfectly true, of course, that the section in its extant form does not fit into the enumerations of “tumults.”  But in a narrative observing a purely chronological order of sequence and written in the ordinary style of annalists it should be possible to insert here and there some miscellaneous notes among the disturbances which form the nucleus of the story.[44]

Eisler goes on to note that there are, in fact, “quite a number of instances in the text of Josephus where obviously foreign matter has been inserted, more or less awkwardly, by the compiler, whose artistic preconceptions were evidently not of the highest order, and who is, moreover, at times fully conscious of adding details which are not essential to the story he is telling.[45]  In light of this, it is difficult to see how the argument against the Testimonium Flavianum on the basis that “The passage breaks the continuity of the narrative, which tells of a series of riots[46] could ever have been adduced in the first place, let alone to understand how people can continue to assert it with a straight face.

If anything, Eisler has not been forceful enough, for it is patently obvious that the course of history does not flow topically.  The Great Depression happened between World War I and World II, and, as inconvenient as it may be for historians that this event “interrupted” the “narrative” of the first half of the 20th century history, “which tells of a series of wars,” a brief description of the Great Depression, placed between the accounts of World War I and World War II in a history book about this period, should not be considered an “interpolation” because it “breaks the continuity of the narrative, which tells of a series of wars.”  The simple fact of the matter is that Jesus’ ministry took place between the two “riots” about which Josephus wrote, and, mindful of chronology, that is where Josephus described it in his narrative – and he was right to do so.  This “powerful” argument, therefore, cannot be taken seriously.

Argument #4: The Vocabulary of the Testimonium Flavianum Differs from Josephus’ Usual Vocabulary

It is argued by some that the Testimonium Flavianum includes words that differ from Josephus’ usual vocabulary.  For example,

J. Neville Birdsall has argued that it contains several words or meanings of words that are not customary in the rest of Josephus.[47]

Steve Mason, meanwhile, avers that

it uses some words in ways that are not characteristic of Josephus.[48]

Apropos to this, he offers the following example:

The word translated “worker” in the phrase “worker of incredible deeds” is poiētēs in Greek, from which we get “poet.”   Etymologically, it means “one who does” and so it can refer to any sort of “doer.”   But in Josephus’ day it had already come to have a special reference to literary poets, and that is how he consistently uses it elsewhere (nine times) – to speak of Greek poets like Homer.[49]

Now, even a moment of actual thought would show Mason that his example is a failure.  If indeed in Josephus would not use poiētēs to refer to a “doer” because it had “come to have a special reference to literary poets,” then how much less would a later interpolator use this word in this passage to mean “doer?

In fact, the New Testament writers do use poiētēs to refer to Greek poets when that is what they want to talk about,[50] but elsewhere they use poiētēs in its original sense to refer to “doers”.[51]  So we cannot deny either use to Josephus.[52]

As fun as this has been, there is actually no point to wasting time on arguments from vocabulary or style, as these impress only those who are utterly ignorant of statistical analysis.  In fact, because of the variability inherent in language, it requires a large sample of a writing to establish authorship:

G. Udney Yule, a professional statistician and reader of statistics at the University of Cambridge, has shown that it takes at least 10,000 words to form any solid statistical basis for authorship.[53]

Inasmuch as the Testimonium Flavianum comprises only eighty-nine words, this line of argument against authenticity is useless.

Argument #5: There Is No Mention of Jesus in the Corresponding Passage in Josephus’ Wars of the Jews

This argument dissolves when one remember that Antiquities of the Jews was written a good fifteen years or so after Wars of the Jews, which was written sometime between AD 76 and 79.[54]  When Josephus wrote Wars of the Jews, he may not yet have encountered sufficient evidence to convince him to declare that Jesus had risen from the dead (in which case he might have felt that it was not worth mentioning him at all), but this situation had obviously changed by AD 93-94, when he wrote Antiquities.[55]  Or perhaps in AD 76-79 he still retained hopes of being accepted again by the Jewish community and so deliberately refrained from mentioning Jesus and the things He had done.

Whether either of these suggestions is correct or not, though, is neither here nor there.  The time gap between Josephus’s two books makes it unreasonable to demand that whatever he included in one must be included in the other.  And, finally, we can ask why, if the Testimonium Flavianum was inserted into Antiquities by a later Christian interpolator, why did he not also insert a similar passage into Wars of the Jews to forestall an attack upon his interpolation on the basis that there is no such thing in this earlier book?

Argument #6: The Testimonium Flavianum Is Not Listed in an Ancient Table of Contents of Antiquities

According to this minor argument,

an ancient table of contents, already referred to in the Latin version of the fifth or sixth century, omits mention of the Testimonium.[56]

However, inasmuch as this table of contents is “selective,[57] not exhaustive, this argument proves nothing.  To be sure, Feldman tries to maximize the probative value of this omission, averring that

one must find it hard to believe that such a remarkable passage would be omitted by anyone, let alone by a Christian, summarizing the work.[58]

Yet Eusebius quoting a non-existent passage from Antiquities in the 4th century is something one should find still harder to believe than that the passage is not mentioned in an “admittedly … selective” table of contents from one or two centuries later.

Argument #7: Agapius’ 10th-Century Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum Proves That the Version in the Greek and Latin Manuscripts Is Not Original

This final argument is not levied against the Testimonium Flavianum per se, but against the form with which we are familiar from the Greek and Latin manuscripts, the form that affirms that Jesus rose from the dead.  The alternative version found in this tenth-century Arabic book reads as follows:

Similarly Josephus the Hebrew.  For he says in the treatises that he has written on 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 his discipleship.  They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.[59]

Evangelical scholars fall all over themselves in their haste to embrace this version as being the original (or approximately the original),[60] and popular level apologists follow along without any apparent question or critical assessment.  J. Warner Wallace, for example, in Cold-Case Christianity, writes,

There is controversy about Josephus’s writing because early Christians appear to have altered come copies of his work in an effort to amplify the reference to Jesus.  For this reason, as we examine Josephus’s passage related to Jesus, we will rely on a text that scholars believe escaped such alteration … a long-lost tenth-century Arabic text written by a Melkite bishop of Hierapolis named Agapius.[61]

Yet, as Feldman points out,

The tenth-century Agapius’ version in Arabic of the Testimonium reveals that the order of the statements differs sharply from that in Josephus’ Greek text and indicates that we are dealing here with a paraphrase, one that is based upon Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, which was the chief source through which Josephus’ work was known in the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Ages.[62]

Now, ponder this for a moment.  If Agapius was basing his version on Eusebius’ version, it cannot possibly be better than Eusebius’ version – and therefore cannot possibly be closer to a putative “original version.”  The best Agapius could have done would have been to reproduce Eusebius’ version exactly, but he clearly did not do this.  And, inasmuch as he was paraphrasing Eusebius’ version, all of his deviations from it come from his own carelessness, or from faulty memory, if he did not have Eusebius’ text in front of him when he wrote this but was relying on memory alone (which is quite possible in view of the nature of the deviations).  Alternatively, the deviations may have been intentional, which case they came from Agapius’ own imagination, and not from adherence to a putative “original version” of the Testimonium Flavianum.

What Feldman subsequently says tells us is that Agapius’ deviations were not, in fact, simply due to carelessness or faulty memory, but seem to have involved deliberation alteration, inasmuch as “This, of course, still leaves the question as to how a believing Christian could quote Josephus as saying that Jesus ‘was perhaps the messiah.’  This may have been due to Agapius’ realization that, as a Jew, Josephus could hardly have accepted Jesus as the messiah; and so, like Jerome, he qualifies Josephus’ statement.[63]  So not only is Agapius’ version a paraphrase of Eusebius’, but Agapius freely altered (“interpolated”) it as he saw fit, based on what he thought Josephus would have said!

In sum, then, Agapius’ version of the Testimonium Flavianum is nothing but a corrupted version of Eusebius’ original, cobbled together carelessly in the tenth century by a man who freely interpolated the text according to his own suppositions.  It is therefore physically impossible that his product is the “original version” of the Testimonium Flavianum or closer to the original version than what is in the Greek manuscripts, and this is not even open for debate.

The last objection, therefore, to the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum as found in the Greek manuscripts is shown to be bogus.

Conclusions

The Testimonium Flavianum is a remarkable extra-biblical testimony to the facts of Jesus’ ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection, written in the 1st century by a Jewish historian who by all accounts was not a Christian believer.  As such, it is a powerful apologetic tool that should be widely used by Christians.  However, this has been stymied by accusations that it is inauthentic, and these accusations have been embraced by evangelical scholars and popular level apologists.

But to do serious apologetics requires verifying all claims made, not simply accepting them, especially since liberal paradigm assumptions have so frequently made their way into evangelical thinking.  Accordingly, we have carefully considered all the evidence that bears upon the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum.  We have found the following:

The Testimonium Flavianum is present in every known manuscript of Josephus’ Antiquities that is extant in that portion of the book (and was quoted by Eusebius in the 4th century AD), which grants the initial presumption in favour of authenticity.

Corroborating authenticity is the fact that there is a passage in Antiquities (18.5.2) about John the Baptist, which seems to disagree with the Biblical accounts.[64]  The fact that no attempt was made to alter the passage to bring it into conformity with what the Gospel books say indicates that there were, in fact, no Christian interpolators modifying Josephus’ writings.

Furthermore, the claim is made that there are three statements in the Testimonium Flavianum that a Jew would not have written, but we found that not only is this not true, but on the contrary two of those statements are ones that a Christian would not have written.

Finally, we must ask why a Christian interpolator would alter Josephus’ text to make it more favourable to the case for Christ, when he would surely know that his changes could immediately be proven false when his opponents pointed out that all the other manuscripts of Antiquities did not have such material in it?  This would not strengthen the case for Christianity but weaken it, since it would provide an opportunity for opponents to claim that Christians had to lie to make their case.  This vitiates the idea that a Christian would even want to alter Josephus.  The cumulative case, then, for the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum is very strong.

On the other hand, we looked at the arguments made against authenticity and found that not one of them stands the test.  In fact, they run the gamut from wrong to ridiculous.  And this should have been obvious to anyone who actually looked at the facts and applied critical thinking.  Instead, the arguments are accepted in toto by evangelical scholars who, as we have seen, crow that “Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus[65] – though this supposedly “important information” consists only of facts that are not disputed even by liberal skeptics; the Testimonium Flavianum passing through the hands of evangelical scholars is shorn of everything significant, especially Josephus’ declaration that Jesus rose from the dead, and becomes of no value as an apologetic tool.

Tragically, the pronouncements of the scholars are simply passed on in toto by popular level apologists to the Christian public.  Creation Ministries International, for example, tells us not once but twice that the Testimonium Flavianum as it appears in the Greek manuscripts is not authentic:

The Testamonium Flavium [sic] in its current form is certainly the product of a Christian interpolator who “helpfully” amended Josephus’s almost certainly not-as-pious statements about Jesus.[66]

The Testimonium Flavianum in its current form is certainly not what Josephus wrote, but was manipulated by a well-meaning Christian copyist sometime later.  But beneath the Testimonium is almost certainly a genuine statement about Jesus by Josephus.  If you take out the pious language, you are left with something that sounds like what Josephus wrote.[67]

It should be obvious by now how risible these statements are.  Evangelical apologists need to do better.  They need to do very much better.  We cannot afford to discard powerful apologetic material simply because we have not bothered to do our homework.  And the Testimonium Flavianum is by no means the only important apologetic issue on which evangelical scholars and apologists are asleep at the switch.[68]


Endnotes

[1] He also wrote Against Apion and the autobiographical Vita (Life).  See Whiston, William. Trans. The New Complete Works of Josephus. Revised and Expanded.  Commentary by Paul L. Maier. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999, for details.  Information on Josephus is widely available.

[2] He seemed to have had at least some Gentile converts during His earthly ministry (Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 3:18b; John 4:39-42).

[3] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Books XVIII – XIX, LCL 433. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 49 f.n. b

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, response in “Revising Josephus,” The New York Review of Books 38:6. Posted on March 28, 1991, at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1991/mar/28/revising-josephus/

[5] Osiander, Lucas. Epitomes eccl. cent., xvi cent., i., lib ii. c. 7 (Tübingen, 1592)

[6] Nelson, Eric. “The Unlikely Key.” The New Republic. Posted on February 10, 2011, at http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/83145/isaac-casaubon-jews-renaissance-scholarship

[7] Eisler, Robert. The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist according to Flavius Josephus’ recently rediscovered ‘Capture of Jerusalem’ and the other Jewish and Christian sources. Translated by Alexander Haggerty Krappe (Methuen, 1931). Posted at http://www.josephus.org/eisler.htm#text7

[8] ibid.

[9] Baras, Zvi. “The Testimonium Flavianum and the Martyrdom of James” in Feldman, Louis H. and Gohei Hata. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, p. 339

[10] ibid.

[11] Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000, pp. 89-90

[12] The New Complete Works of Josephus., p. 662

[13] ibid.

[14] Edwin Yamauchi in Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, p. 79

[15] ibid., p. 80.  Yamauchi translates this as “if indeed one ought to call him a man.”

[16] Josephus discusses the death of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities 20.9.1

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[19] Cosner, Lita. “How should we interpret the numbers in the Bible?” Posted on May 9, 2015, at http://creation.com/numbers-in-bible-josephus.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[20] Mason, Steve. Ed. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9, Life of Josephus, Translation and Commentary by Steve Mason. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001, p. LI

[21] Jones, Clay. “The Bibliographical Test Updated.” Christian Research Journal 35:3 (2012), pp. 32-37

[22] Feldman, pointing to the fact that the earliest extant manuscript dates from the 11th century, suggests that this one “indeed may be derived from … an interpolated manuscript.” (Feldman, Louis H. “A Selective Critical Bibliography of Josephus.” in Feldman, Louis H. and Gohei Hata. Josephus, the bible, and history. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988, p. 431.)  However, since no one seems to have demonstrated any genetic relationship among the extant manuscripts, which means they all trace back to the original independently of each other, this argument, which is no more than an untestable supposition, carries no weight.

[23] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 56

[24] Of course, the skeptic might argue that it is only the passages that speak of NT people that Christian interpolators would want to alter.  However, if Christians did indeed feel free to alter Josephus in this way, why did they choose John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus?  Why not insert passages on Peter and Paul, who ultimately were more significant?

[25] The New Complete Works of Josephus, p. 662

[26] ibid., p. 9

[27] Baras, op. cit., p. 339

[28] ibid., pp. 339-340

[29] Yamauchi, op. cit., p. 80

[30] ibid.

[31] Recorded in The New Complete Works of Josephus, p. 987.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[32] Yamauchi, op. cit., p. 80.  (Bolding added.)

[33] The New Complete Works of Josephus, p. 662.  (Bolding added.)

[34] In 1 Corinthians, which was written ca. AD 55, when Josephus would have been eighteen years old, Paul tells us that the majority of more than five hundred eyewitnesses to the risen Christ were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6).

[35] Cited in Lapide, Pinchas. The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Translated by Wilhelm C. Linss. London: SPCK, 1983.  The details of his investigations, reasoning, and conclusions are found in this book.

[36] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 57

[37] Matthew and John were direct eyewitnesses, and Mark was recording the testimony of the eyewitness Peter.  Luke was basing his book on what eyewitnesses had handed down to him (Luke 1:2).

[38] Nitsa Ben-Ari. “The double conversion of Ben-Hur: a case of manipulative translation.” Target 14:2 (2003), pp. 267. Available at http://www.tau.ac.il/~nitsaba/Publications/papers/NBA-DoubleConversionBen-Hur2002.pdf.  Whiston (The New Complete Works of Josephus, p. 10) says, “While Jewish scholars in earlier centuries ignored Josephus as a turncoat, their Christian counterparts carefully preserved his texts.”

[39] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 57

[40] Eisler, Robert. The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist according to Flavius Josephus’ recently rediscovered ‘Capture of Jerusalem’ and the other Jewish and Christian sources. Translated by Alexander Haggerty Krappe (Methuen, 1931). Posted at http://www.josephus.org/eisler.htm#text7

[41] ibid.

[42] Josephus LCL, op. cit., p. 49

[43] Eisler, op. cit.

[44] ibid.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[45] ibid.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[46] Josephus LCL, op. cit., p. 49

[47] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 56

[48] Mason, Steve. Josephus and the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992, p. 169

[49] ibid.

[50] Paul, as recorded by Luke in Acts 17:28

[51] Romans 2:13; James 1:22, 23, 25, 4:11

[52] Mason offers two more examples, but they are no more persuasive.  Furthermore, Mason doesn’t explain why such supposed errors are more problematic when ascribed to Josephus than when ascribed to a Christian interpolator.

[53] Johnson, Alan F. “A Stylistic Trait of the Fourth Gospel in the Pericope Adulterae?JETS 9 (1966), p. 93.  (Bolding added.)

[54]  The New Complete Works of Josephus, p. 10

[55] ibid., p. 11

[56] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 57

[57] ibid.

[58] ibid.

[59] Agapius, Kitab al-‘Unwan.  Translated by Shlomo Pines.  See Pines, Sholmo. An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971.

[60] Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009, pp. 434-435; Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009, pp. 104-107, esp. p. 106.  All of these scholars carelessly dismiss the actual version of the Testimonium Flavianum on the basis of the same old tired arguments that we have already debunked.  Köstenberger et al, it should be noted, do raise one more argument here, claiming that “according to Josephus’s own testimony in Jewish War (3.8.8-9 §§ 392–408), he regarded Vespasian as the Messiah of Judah.”  Yet an examination of those sections of Jewish War shows no such thing.  To save life at the time, Josephus told Vespasian “You, O Vespasian, are Caesar and emperor, you, and this your son … you, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind.”  There is nothing in the passage to indicate that Josephus saw Vespasian as “the Messiah of Judah.”  And even if there had been, Vespasian died in AD 79, so by the time of the writing of Antiquities, Josephus may well have changed his mind about who was the Messiah.

[61] Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013, p. 196

[62] Feldman. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, p. 58.  (Bolding added.)

[63] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[64] This is not a problem, of course.  Josephus was by no means perfect, and the Gospel writers were closer in time to the events of John the Baptist’s life and death and should be considered therefore to have more reliable information.

[65] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[66] Lita Cosner in “Does archaeology confirm the Bible’s historical record? Archaeological and written evidence for the authenticity of the Bible.” Posted on September 15, 2012, at http://creation.com/bible-historical-record.  (Bolding added.)

[67] Lita Cosner in “How should we interpret the numbers in the Bible?” Posted on May 9, 2015, at http://creation.com/numbers-in-bible-josephus.  (Bolding added.)

[68] See, for example, Tors, John. “A Call for Serious Evangelical Apologetics: The Authenticity of John 7:53-8:11 as a Case Study” at https://truthinmydays.com/a-call-for-serious-evangelical-apologetics-the-authenticity-of-john-753-811-as-a-case-study/ and Tors, John. “A Primer on New Testament Textual Criticism (in Manageable, Bite-sized Chunks)” at https://truthinmydays.com/a-primer-on-new-testament-textual-criticism-in-manageable-bite-sized-chunks/.

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