Jesus in the Eyes of Josephus
Is the passage about Jesus by the great Jewish historian a forgery — or authentic?
Joseph son of Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus — surnamed after his patron, the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius — was the greatest Jewish historian of antiquity. Without his work, much of the contemporaneous history of Israel would be floating in a vacuum. Josephus’s vignettes concerning Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus’s brother, James, are the only pieces of outside evidence relating to first-century New Testament figures. The issue of their authenticity is, therefore, of major importance. However, before tackling it, let me say a few words about the author and his reliability as an historian.
Josephus belonged to the Judaean priestly aristocracy. He lists among his forebears the daughter of the Jewish high priest and king, Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai). Born in 37 CE and educated in Jerusalem, Josephus boasted of precocious expertise in the Law. Between the ages of 16 and 19, he studied the “philosophies” of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as the wisdom of the Jewish hermit Bannus, finally choosing to become a Pharisee. In 64 CE, he sailed to Rome where Poppaea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero, was his benefactress.
He returned to Jerusalem before the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion (66 CE) and like many of his upper-class, land-owning compatriots, he first opposed the war. A prompt U-turn soon followed and, aged 29, Josephus became the officer in command of the revolutionary forces in Galilee. His short military career ended ingloriously in 67 CE, when he was captured by the Romans at Jotapata (Yodfat). Taken before Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces, Josephus predicted that he would become emperor. Two years later, the prophecy came true and Josephus was freed. Vespasian returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge of the war. Josephus was then used as an interpreter and negotiator by Titus in his talks with Jerusalem’s Jewish defenders.
Although in the eyes of the revolutionaries he was a traitor, Josephus believed he was serving his compatriots and used his influence with Titus to liberate many Jewish prisoners. He even rescued three crucified acquaintances, one of whom survived. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Josephus followed Titus to Rome, where he was granted citizenship. The financial support he received from Vespasian and his successors, Titus and Domitian, allowed Josephus to lead a leisurely life as a man of letters. He was married four times and his third and fourth wives bore him five sons.
Josephus’s works, aimed at glorifying the Jewish people, were primarily addressed to educated Greeks and Romans. The seven books of The Jewish War, covering the period from Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BCE) to the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (74 CE), were drafted in Aramaic and translated by Josephus into Greek with the help of assistants in the late 70s. He tells his readers that both the Emperor Titus and the Jewish king Agrippa II praised the reliability of his history in private correspondence. All his other books were written in Greek.
His major work, The Jewish Antiquities, completed in 93/4 CE, consists of 20 books and retraces biblical and Jewish history from the creation to the start of the anti-Roman war in 66 CE. The first ten books summarise the Bible and embroider the accounts with popular Jewish interpretative traditions. The last ten rely on Greek and Roman sources and on Jewish texts such as 1 Maccabees, the Letter of Aristeas, etc. The third writing of Josephus, entitled Life, dates after 93/4 CE and is an apologia for his conduct as military commander in Galilee in 66-7 CE.
Against Apion is Josephus’s last surviving work, written in the late 90s. It defends the Jewish religion against the ridiculous attacks of the Alexandrian grammarian and sophist Apion and other anti-Jewish writers. It also includes the first impressive synopsis of the Law of Moses for non-Jews. He died in Rome around 100 CE.
As an historian, Josephus is thought to be generally trustworthy except when he deals with matters in which he himself was involved. Also, like many classical historians, he often places apocryphal speeches on the lips of personalities and gives Greek colouring to Jewish schools of thought — the Pharisees were Jewish Stoics and the Essenes resembled the Pythagoreans. He plays down bellicose messianism in order not to provoke Roman suspicions, blaming the war against Rome on a revolutionary minority. Josephus’s reputation as an historian has noticeably improved in recent scholarship. Fergus Millar, perhaps the greatest living Roman historian, wrote in the 1987 Journal of Jewish Studies that the Jewish Antiquities was “the most significant single work written in the Roman empire”.
The survival of Josephus’s writings is due largely to the respect with which they were held by Christians because of the references to New Testament characters in the Antiquities. He almost enjoyed the dignity of a fifth evangelist and had a statue in Rome in the fourth century. By the Renaissance, some doubts began to surround the genuineness of the paragraph relative to Jesus — known as the Flavian Testimony (Testimonium Flavianum), or the Jesus notice of Flavius Josephus — yet in 1737, Josephus’s translator, William Whiston, still defended his veracity. He quoted Joseph Justus Scaliger, the prince of 16th-century Humanism, for whom Josephus was “the most diligent and greatest lover of truth” who was “more safe to believe…than all the Greek and Latin writers”.
The critical revival since the 19th century brought about a shift of opinion among leading scholars, tending towards the denial of the authenticity of the Jesus notice, and less frequently of those about John the Baptist and James. Nowadays, opinions are divided. Hence the question must be asked: Are the three notices the work of Josephus, or have they, or some of them, been produced wholly or partly by a Christian forger?
The three passages appear in separate sections of the Antiquities. The short Jesus notice comes first, followed by the longer accounts of John and the execution of James. Leaving the controversial Testimonium to last, let us first examine John and James, both in their Josephan context and in comparison with the corresponding Christian sources.
John the Baptist
In the Gospels, John, an eremitic prophet, preached repentance and baptism in the wilderness of the Jordan. He was the forerunner of Jesus, his follower and successor in Galilee. John was imprisoned and beheaded on the occasion of the birthday feast of the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, for disapproving of his marriage to Herodias, his sister-in-law. Josephus mentions no link between John and Jesus, places the venue of John’s execution not in Galilee, but in Machaerus (Mukawir), a fortress in contemporary Jordan, and does not connect the downfall of the Baptist with his disapproval of the union between Antipas and Herodias. For Josephus, John was an exemplary character, a “good man”, who “had exhorted the Jews…to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism”. He noted, however, that John “aroused” his followers to the highest degree by his sermons. The word “aroused” implies that he was a powerful and fiery preacher, and as such capable of igniting a revolt.
So, Josephus continued, Antipas decided to “strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising”. The eloquent John was seen by Antipas — like Jesus, one may add, by the high priests after he had caused mayhem in the merchants’ quarter in the Temple — as a potential threat to civic order. In consequence, both were eliminated.
Josephus included John’s story in his narrative because the annihilation of Antipas’s army by Aretas, the Nabatean king and the enraged father of the wife abandoned by Antipas for Herodias, was interpreted by the Jews as a divine vindication that fairly closely followed John’s murder. There is no reason to suspect here a Christian hand. The account fits Josephus’s narrative style and explains the tragedy just as well as the anecdote of Herodias’s dancing daughter, Salome, demanding the head of the Baptist on a platter. Against the Gospel version note that Machaerus on the distant Nabatean border would be a rather unsuitable location for a royal birthday party intended for the Galilean nobility (Mk 6:21).
James, the brother of Jesus
The authenticity of the mention of James is the least questionable of the three anecdotes. Josephus identifies James not as the son of “X”, but as “the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ”. Paul also refers to him as “James the brother of the Lord”. The atmosphere of the story reflects the political situation in Jerusalem in the first century CE, with Roman governors and Jewish high priests constantly vying with one another for power.
For Josephus, the James episode serves to illustrate the violent career of the high priest Ananus. In the gubernatorial vacuum — the procurator Festus (60-62 CE) was already dead and the incoming Albinus (62-64) still on his way — Ananus attempted to flex his political muscles. He brought his opponents, James “and certain others”, before the Sanhedrin and sentenced them to be stoned for transgressing the Law. The fair-minded and strictly observant representatives of the ruling classes — no doubt the leading Pharisees who opposed Ananus and his heartless Sadducees — were outraged and appealed to King Agrippa II. Agrippa, who had been granted the privilege to appoint and dismiss high priests by the emperor Claudius, promptly sacked Ananus, a mere three months after his elevation to office.
Fraternal love: Jesus and his brother, James (right)
Josephus’s notice possesses all the appearances of authenticity. It lacks New Testament parallels that might have inspired a forger. Moreover, the church fathers, Origen (185-254) and Eusebius (260-340), not only attest to the existence of the passage, but also assert that Josephus saw in the fall of Jerusalem divine punishment for the murder of James. Unfortunately, no surviving Josephus manuscript contains such a statement and its authenticity is doubtful.
Christian tradition presents a substantially different version of James’s killing. According to the second-century chronicler of the early church, Hegesippus, James was pushed from the parapet of the Temple but survived the fall and the subsequent stoning.
Finally, he was clubbed to death. Josephus’s interest is wholly centred on Ananus’s misconduct and has nothing to say about the admirable virtues heaped on the victim by Hegesippus: James “the Righteous” was holy from birth, was teetotal and vegetarian, never cut his hair or beard and shunned cosmetic oil and bath water. Compared to this, the sober picture of Josephus appears all the more believable.
As a final comment, Josephus’s identification of James as “the brother of Jesus called Christ” would have made no sense unless there was an earlier mention of Jesus in Antiquities. The Testimonium Flavianum is likely to be this prior reference.
The Jesus story is presented by Josephus as one of four misdeeds that Josephus blamed on Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea 26-36 CE. The first was the introduction of Roman standards bearing the emperor’s effigy into Jerusalem (26 CE). The second was the misappropriation of Temple funds (date unknown). The third was the sentencing of Jesus (30 CE), while the last was the upheaval in Samaria (35 CE), which led to Pilate’s dismissal from office.
Regarding the authenticity of the Testimonium, three stances are possible:
1. One may accept it lock, stock and barrel, as did all the pre-16th-century authorities.
2. With more recent scholars, one may reject the entire passage as a Christian interpolation.
3. In the company of an increasing number of recent students, it is possible to recognise some parts of the notice as authentic and discard the remainder as spurious.
I belong to the third group and will argue the case for a partial authenticity. The textual evidence — the Greek manuscripts of Josephus, the quotation of the passage in Eusebius, and the Latin, Syriac and Arabic translations — contains no significant variants. Consequently, only historical and literary-critical analysis can serve as a filter to separate the authentic from the inauthentic elements. I reproduce here Antiquities 18:63-64 in English:
(63) About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed paradoxical deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Christ. (64) When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
The Christian passages, those that cannot be ascribed to the Jew Josephus, are easily distinguishable.
- The gloss, “If indeed one ought to call him a man”, is the interpolator’s reaction to the superhuman/divine Jesus being called a mere “wise man”.
- “He was the Christ” is a common Christian interpolator’s confession of the messianic status of Jesus. Nevertheless, the original text must have contained the epithet, “Christ”, to account for the later statement about “the tribe of the Christians” named after the founder. The most likely original version read, “He was called the Christ”, as Josephus puts it in the James passage.
- The reference to Jesus attracting to himself “many Greeks” is without Gospel support. Nevertheless, if Josephus knew of a mixed Jewish-Gentile church in Rome, he may have believed that a similar structure existed at the time of Jesus.
- The resurrection appearances on the third day, together with the relevant prophecies, are part of the apologetic arsenal of the early church and have nothing to do with Josephus.
Once the Christian supplements are removed, the original notice is reduced to the description of Jesus as “wise man” and “performer of paradoxical deeds”, the epithet “Christ” attached to the name of Jesus; the crediting of the death sentence to Pilate; and the mention of the existence of the followers of Jesus at the time of the writing of the Testimonium in the 90s CE.
Both “wise man” and “performer of paradoxical deeds” take us to plain Josephus territory. Great biblical and post-biblical characters like the priest Ezra, the miracle-worker Honi-Onias (Hame’agel, the circle-maker), and the Pharisaic leader Samaias are regularly portrayed as “just men” and John is called a “good man”. More specifically, the legendary King Solomon and the Prophet Daniel carry the title of “wise man”, and the miracle-working prophet Elisha is said to have performed “paradoxical deeds”. The notion of a paradox is commonly used by Josephus in relation to extraordinary events caused by God (the manna or the burning bush) and to miracles performed by Moses (Ant. 3:37-38) and by the prophet Elisha (Ant. 9:182).
In contrast, the phrase “wise man” has no New Testament parallels in reference to Jesus and falls far short of an honorific title that a Christian forger would choose to describe the divine Christ. Note that in Paul “wise man” has a pejorative connotation (1 Cor 1:18-31) and in a saying of Jesus “the wise” are unfavourably compared to “babes” (Mt 11:25; Lk 10:21). Furthermore, a Christian interpolator would be presumed to use phrases borrowed from the New Testament such as “mighty deeds” or “signs” instead of the neutral “paradoxical deeds”. The term “paradoxical” is found only once in the New Testament on the lips of uncommitted witnesses of a Gospel miracle (Lk 5:26).
The fact that Josephus makes Pilate responsible for the crucifixion is highly significant. It is perfectly in line with Josephus’s critical attitude towards the prefect of Judaea, the perpetrator of a series of dreadful acts. One would imagine that a later Christian forger would try to exculpate him and place the blame for the death of Jesus on the shoulders of the Jews, as do the New Testament and especially later church tradition. Finally, the detached picture of the followers of Jesus is in harmony with the attitude of an outsider, but would be odd in the case of a Christian apologist.
The Jesus notice is a veritable tour de force. Josephus plays the role of a neutral witness. We know that when he wants to disapprove of someone, he knows how to do it. In his description of two pseudo-Messiahs, Theudas and “the Egyptian”, both mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (5:26; 21:38), Josephus calls them “imposters”.
So by portraying Jesus not unsympathetically, yet without fully embracing his cause, he achieved what none of his ancient Jewish successors managed to do: he sketched a non-partisan picture of Jesus. The Testimonium lies half way between the reverential portrait of the early church and the caricatures of the Talmud and of the early medieval Jewish lives of Jesus (Toldot Yeshu).
In conclusion, what seems to be Josephus’s authentic portrait of Jesus depicts him as a wise teacher and miracle worker, with an enthusiastic following of Jewish disciples who, despite the crucifixion of their master by order of Pontius Pilate in collusion with the Jerusalem high priests, remained faithful to him up to Josephus’s days.
Let me offer therefore the text that I believe Josephus wrote. The Christian additions, identified in the paragraph that follows the earlier reproduction of the English translation of Antiquities 18: 63-64, are excised and the deletions are indicated by [……]. The dubious authenticity of the phrase “[and many Greeks?]” (see the same paragraph above) is signalled by the question mark. Finally, the word [called] is inserted into the sentence “He was [called] the Christ” on the basis of Josephus’s description of James as “the brother of Jesus called the Christ”.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man…For he was one who performed paradoxical deeds and was the teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews [and many Greeks?]. He was [called] the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him…And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.