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Josephus’ Account of Jesus

Josephus’ Account of Jesus

Introduction

Joseph son of Matthiah—more commonly known by his Hellenized name Josephus—was a descendant of the Hasmoneans, a family of Judean priests which also ruled Jerusalem as its princes and kings for a short time. Josephus was highly educated and well-traveled, such that when revolt broke out in Iudaea Province against Roman authority in 66 CE, he was placed in charge of the military in Galilee. Through happenstance and ingenuity (and, perhaps, some duplicity), Josephus avoided death in the war, instead being captured by the Romans. He ingratiated himself with his captors by acting as their negotiator with the revolutionaries defending Jerusalem.

At one point, Josephus insisted on having a private meeting with the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus. When they were alone, Josephus told the general he would soon rule the Roman Empire. When the prediction came true in 69 CE, Josephus earned Vespasian’s favor. After the worst part of the war had ended (Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 CE, under command of the new emperor’s son), Josephus was made a Roman citizen and adopted the name ‘Flavius’ in honor of his patron. With Vespasian’s support, Josephus wrote the seven-volume Judean War around 75 CE, a detailed history of the war. He later expanded the original Hebrew text (which no longer exists) with a Greek rewrite. Nearly two decades later, Josephus completed a larger history, Judean Antiquities, twenty volumes spanning from the creation of the universe to the outbreak of the war. He also wrote a sort of autobiography, Life of Josephus, as well as a response to one of his critics, Against Apion.

Early Christians cited Judean War (JW) and Judean Antiquities (JA) on occasion in support of their theological claims. They were also the ones primarily responsible for Josephus’ works being preserved at all. Despite this, it was a disappointment for Christians that, for all Josephus had written, just three brief passages actually mention reputed founders of the Christian religion. (There is another relevant passage found only in the Old Russian tradition of Josephus, but this is universally rejected as a forgery.) These three passages comprise a short paragraph about Jesus (JA 18.3.3), another about John the baptizer (18.5.2), and a passing reference to Jesus’ brother James (20.9.1).

In my own brief survey of the landscape of scholars, the impression I am left with is that the latter two passages are generally accepted as authentic. There are a rare few who suspect each of them was partially or completely fabricated by later Christians who wanted to provide a proof-text for their religion in a renowned Judean historian, but I have not found arguments convincing in either case. But the first of the three texts has met far more skepticism across the board, for good reason.


Conceptual Problems

The passage in question—Judean Antiquities book 18, chapter 3, section 3—is commonly referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum, so-called because it is read by Christians as Josephus’ admission that Jesus was the Messiah, crucified and raised from the dead. However, by the time readers arrive at the Testimonium, Josephus has already expressed his belief that God ordained Vespasian to be the true ruler of the whole world (e.g. JW 3.9.9; 6.5.4; JA 10.11.7). This presents a major obstacle when reading the passage in question.

Judean Antiquities 18.3.3

Greek text

And around this time came Jesus, a wise man, if, in fact, one should call him a man, for he was a doer of unexpected works, a teacher of people who, with pleasure, receive the truth. And many Judeans on the one hand, and even many of the gentiles on the other hand, he drew to himself. He was the Christ. And when, because of an accusation from the foremost men among us, Pilate sentenced him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease. For he appeared to them the third day, alive again, the divine prophets having told both these things and myriad other wonderful things concerning him. Even until now the tribe of Christians, named for him, has not disappeared.

γινεται δε κατα τουτον τον χρονον ιησους σοφος ανηρ ειγε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην γαρ παραδοξων εργων ποιητης διδασκαλος ανθρωπων των ηδονη ταληθη δεχομενων και πολλους μεν ιουδαιους πολλους δε και του ελληνικου επηγαγετο ο χριστος ουτος ην και αυτον ενδειξει των πρωτων ανδρων παρ ημιν σταυρω επιτετιμηκοτος πιλατου ουκ επαυσαντο οι το πρωτον αγαπησαντες εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην εχων ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου θαυμασια ειρηκοτων εις ετι τε νυν των χριστιανων απο τουδε ωνομασμενον ουκ επελιπε το φυλον

There are three common ways of approaching the extant text.

  1. Total authenticity: Josephus wrote the complete paragraph.
  2. Partial interpolation: Josephus wrote something about Jesus, but the original text was expanded by a Christian redactor with identifiable elements.
  3. Total interpolation: a Christian redactor wrote the complete paragraph.

While Josephus could comfortably relay that other people believed Jesus was the Messiah, it strains credulity that he could bluntly say ‘he was the Christ’. While it has rare proponents, the first approach must be taken off the table. Comparably, in regards to representation within the academic world, total interpolation stands in a distant second place behind partial interpolation. It is widely accepted throughout scholarship that this passage has—at the very least—been edited by a later Christian, but few are those who think the entire thing is a fabrication. As a starting point, the elements which absolutely cannot have come from the hand of Josephus should be identified. Three elements stand out as the most obviously incongruent.

English translation

Greek text

if, in fact, one should call him a man

ειγε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην

He was the Christ.

ο χριστος ουτος ην

For he appeared to them the third day, alive again, the divine prophets having told both these things and myriad other wonderful things concerning him.

εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην εχων ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου θαυμασια ειρηκοτων

A common argument is that Josephus, if he had mentioned Jesus, would only go so far as to offer a neutral or deliberately ambiguous account, or even a harsh one. These three elements come across as clearly elevating Jesus in a positive way. This has not stopped some scholars from insisting on their authenticity while interpreting them negatively, but such claims have not gained wide acceptance.

There is the possibility Josephus could have originally written that other people believed ‘he was the Christ’, rather than flatly declaring his messianic identity (cf. his note in JA 20.9.1). This would require our speculation that something has been removed from the present text, alongside the previous suggestions of interpolation. It seems better to follow a simpler approach and simply excise the declaration altogether. Removing ‘he was the Christ’ does have consequences: without the declaration of Jesus’ messianic identity, the last sentence in the Testimonium becomes an orphaned reference: his sect was named ‘Christians’ in honor of ‘Jesus’. Keeping the last sentence may be defended by insisting Josephus would not need to first mention ‘the Christ’ if readers already knew it was a title for Jesus. There is another example, just one book earlier, often cited in demonstration of this point.

Judean Antiquities 17.5.1

Persuaded by these, he sailed and landed at the harbor called Sebastos, which Herod had built at great expenses and had called Sebastos in honor of Caesar.

But this arguments lacks any force, due to the substantial difference in recognition between the universally-recognized emperor and an obscure Galilean peasant. Any educated, Greek-speaking person in Roman society (i.e. Josephus’ target audience) would know Greek ‘Sebastos’ (σεβαστος) was equivalent to Latin ‘Augustus’. It is far less likely they would know each the Aramaic name ‘Jesus’ (yešuʿ, ישוע), the Hebrew title ‘Messiah’ (mašiaḥ, משיח), the newly-coined Greek equivalent ‘Christ’ (χριστος), and that these referred to one and the same man. The comparison hardly seems apt. It may even be argued from the works of Josephus’ gentile peers, Tacitus and Suetonius, that non-Christians in the late first century thought ‘Christ’ was the actual name of the founder of that new superstition which came out of Iudaea Province. (It was pronounced similarly to Chrestus, an actual Latin name.) Without clarifying that Jesus was, in fact, ‘Christ’, readers would be left scratching their heads how ‘the tribe of Christians’ was ‘named for’ him.

I am further inclined to suspect two other items in the Testimonium may be interpolations into an earlier text. The admission that Jesus ‘was a doer of unexpected works’ is not impossible for Josephus—he records a variety of supernatural acts from diverse sources—but the text gives it as an explanation for the previous comment (i.e. Jesus performed miracles, so maybe he was more than a mere man), which is already under suspicion. I think it is also possible ‘because of an accusation from the foremost men among us’ may not have come from Josephus, such that only the Roman governor would be blamed for the decision to crucify someone (cf. 1 Tim 6.13; Tacitus, Annals 15.44), though I am more ambivalent on this one.

Trimming down the Testimonium based on these possible interpolations gives us the following. The items less commonly challenged remain in brackets.

And around this time came Jesus, a wise man, [for he was a doer of unexpected works,] a teacher of people who, with pleasure, receive the truth. And many Judeans on the one hand, and even many of the gentiles on the other hand, he drew to himself. And when, [because of an accusation from the foremost men among us,] Pilate sentenced him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease. [Even until now the tribe of Christians, named for him, has not disappeared.]

This version is much less objectionable on the surface, and something near it is broadly favored throughout the academic world as authentic, falling under the second approach from the list above.


Literary Problems

When the more obviously inauthentic parts of the section are removed, we are left with a fairly short passage in which Josephus quickly summarizes Jesus’ career, his execution by Pilate, and that his followers continued believing in him after his death. Despite the absence of any other elements incompatible with Josephus’ personal theological worldview, careful attention will notice other difficulties which merit discussion.

First, the surviving passage disrupts the flow of the surrounding narrative.

Over in JA 18.5.2, Josephus explains that, when Herod Antipas suffered a military defeat, there was a common belief God had caused the ruler’s misfortune because he had unjustly executed someone. To make sense of why people would think this, Josephus names the victim as John the baptizer, a holy man known for his theological emphasis on ritual washing. Antipas had John killed because he thought of him as a threat. Likewise in JA 20.9.1, Josephus says that Jerusalem’s high priest was deposed amid rising tensions between Roman and Judean authorities. The reason for his removal was that, when the Roman governor had died and his replacement had not yet arrived, the high priest took advantage of the power vacuum and ran some of his enemies through a rigged trial, sentencing them to death. The violation of justice so outraged people in the city that the new Roman governor removed the high priest from his office. Josephus identifies James as the most prominent of the victims, and clarifies which James he meant by identifying his more (in)famous brother, that certain Jesus whom some called the Messiah.

In contrast, if JA 18.3.3 is removed, we are left with an ongoing account of various social disasters happening in different parts of the empire in the early decades of the first century CE. Josephus provides an account about how Pilate repeatedly abused his authority over Jerusalem, deliberately antagonizing the populace until he found an occasion to slaughter a large crowd (18.3.1–2). These paragraphs essentially reproduce what Josephus wrote in JW 2.9.2–4 almost twenty years earlier. This is followed by the Testimonium, which has no equivalent in the JW parallel section. After the Testimonium, Josephus gives a lengthy account about certain events in Rome; this culminates in the emperor, Tiberius, banishing Judean residents from the imperial capital to the island Sardinia (18.3.4–5; cf. Tacitus, Annals 2.85; Suetonius, Tiberius 36).

This latter section begins:

About the same time also another sad calamity put the Judeans into disorder

The antecedent of ‘another sad calamity’ was Pilate killing ‘a great number’ of Judeans in the section prior to the Testimonium. The explanations about John and James are each necessary to make sense of the chain of events in their surrounding context, but the Testimonium does not follow from the preceding section, nor does it lead into what comes after. It is purely an interruption, immediately forgotten in the next sentence.

There is also the matter that, once the extraneous pro-Christian elements have been removed, the ‘original’ form of the paragraph about Jesus ends up saying very little. Jesus is called ‘a wise man’ (σοφος ανηρ; cf. Solomon in JA 8.2.7; Daniel in 10.11.2) and a ‘teacher’ (διδασκαλος; cf. Moses in JA 3.2.3). His followers comprised many Judeans and gentiles. Pilate had Jesus crucified. Whatever Josephus might have intended, the result is a confused reader. What did Jesus teach? Why did so many people follow him? What about him intrigued gentiles enough to follow him as well? Why did Pilate have him crucified? Why did his followers continue to follow him after his death? Without the pro-Christian elements identified above, the remaining text still arrives without narrative purpose, and leaves Josephus’ original audience with several unanswered questions precisely due to its brevity.

While the language and format of the reconstructed short version is often said to fit well within Josephus’ own writing style, there are detractors even on this point, suggesting that various terms or phrases found in the Testimonium are uncharacteristic for the historian. Josephus everywhere else uses ποιητης to mean ‘poet’, while here it is ‘doer’ (of παραδοξων εργων, ‘unexpected works’). He uses φυλον once for a ‘swarm’ of locusts, once for the female ‘gender’, but otherwise always for ‘nation’. Its application to a religious sect is absent from his works. Meanwhile, the concept that Christians comprise a sort of third ethnic category, neither Judean nor gentile, is found in early Christian literature. Josephus uses ελληνικος only rarely, always as an adjective designating an established noun as being ‘Greek’ in origin, never as a standalone adjective-as-noun designating a people-group. He instead consistently prefers plural forms of the noun ελλην when referring to ‘Greeks’ as a people-group, and I was unable to find any occasions where he clearly intended ‘Greeks’ to mean ‘gentiles’ (i.e. any non-Judeans). Rather than singular adjective-as-noun ελληνικος, plural noun ελληνων would have been far more typical of Josephus’ style.


Historical Problems

The above points are helpful for understanding why even a reconstructed version of the text is difficult to attribute to Josephus, but they have their limits. We are left with the most significant detail which needs to be addressed, which is the matter of timing. When might the Testimonium have been interpolated? Or, if the Testimonium were a complete fabrication, when was it inserted into Josephus’ book?

Agapius, Kitāb al-ʿUnwān

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

The Testimonium was known throughout the Middle Ages, but this tenth century Arabic translation from Agapius of Hierapolis is often mentioned in particular. The first half of his version resembles the hypothetical short version (minus the items I bracketed).

Reconstructed text

Agapius

And around this time came Jesus, a wise man, a teacher of people who, with pleasure, receive the truth. And many Judeans on the one hand, and even many of the gentiles on the other hand, he drew to himself. And when, Pilate sentenced him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease.

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship.

While Agapius does retain most of the elements which were held in suspicion above, it is notable that the declaration of Jesus as the Messiah has been moved into the second half, and he omits laying the blame for Jesus’ death on the Judean leadership. A few centuries later, Michael the Syrian produced a Syriac version of the passage, but his more closely resembles the familiar Greek text. Why is the Arabic copy from Agapius so different? Perhaps, it has been suggested, this is an independent translation of the Testimonium, straight from an untampered copy of Josephus. Meaning, Agapius demonstrates the essential authenticity of a non-Christianized version of JA 18.3.3.

Skipping to before the Medieval period, we find the full version of the Testimonium was known to Jerome of Stridon at the very end of the fourth century. When writing a summary about Josephus, Jerome provided a Latin translation of the Testimonium.

Jerome, On Illustrious Men 13

Latin text

At the same time there was Jesus, a wise man, if, however, one should call him a man, for he was a doer of marvelous works, and a teacher of those who, cheerfully, receive the truth. He also had many followers, both Judeans and gentiles. And he was believed to be the Christ. But when, on the envy of our foremost men, Pilate sentenced him to a cross, nevertheless those who had first loved him persevered. For he appeared to them the third day alive, and many other marvelous things in the verses of the prophets who foretold concerning him. And until today the Christian nation, named for him, has not failed.

eodem tempore fuit iesus vir sapiens si tamen virum oportet eum dicere erat enim mirabilium patrator operum et doctor eorum qui libenter vera suscipiunt plurimos quoque tam de iudaeis quam de gentibus sui habuit sectatores et credebatur esse christus cumque invidia nostrorum principum cruci eum pilatus addixisset nihilominus qui primum dilexerant perseveraverunt apparuit enim eis tertia die vivens multa et haec alia mirabilia carminibus prophetarum de eo vaticinantibus et usque hodie christianorum gens ab hoc sortita vocabulum non defecit

While the phrasing ‘he was believed to be the Christ’ more plausibly could have been written by Josephus, we still find the other problematic elements: the implication Jesus was more than a mere man, the direct statement that ‘he appeared to them the third day alive’, and that he fulfilled prophecy.

Around 320–325 CE, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote an account of early Christianity. Eusebius cites Josephus—especially the ‘eighteenth book of his Antiquities’—as one of his sources many times.

Eusebius, Church History 1.11.7–8

Greek text

And around this time came Jesus, a wise man, if, in fact, one should call him a man, for he was a doer of unexpected works, a teacher of people who, with pleasure, receive the truth. And many Judeans on the one hand, and even many from the gentiles on the other hand, he drew to himself. He was the Christ. And when, because of an accusation from the foremost men among us, Pilate sentenced him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease. For he appeared to them the third day, alive again, the divine prophets having told both these things and myriad other wonderful things concerning him. Even until now the tribe of Christians, named for him, has not disappeared.

γινεται δε κατα τουτον τον χρονον ιησους σοφος ανηρ ει γε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην γαρ παραδοξων εργων ποιητης διδασκαλος ανθρωπων των ηδονη ταληθη δεχομενων και πολλους μεν των ιουδαιων πολλους δε και απο του ελληνικου επηγαγετο ο χριστος ουτος ην και αυτον ενδειξει των πρωτων ανδρων παρ ημιν σταυρω επιτετιμηκοτος πιλατου ουκ επαυσαντο οι το πρωτον αγαπησαντες εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην εχων ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου θαυμασια ειρηκοτων εις ετι τε νυν των χριστιανων απο τουδε ωνομασμενων ουκ επελιπε το φυλον

Eusebius incorrectly identifies the Testimonium as found after Josephus’ account of John’s death, but his version is nearly identical to the Greek text of Josephus. Eusebius also reproduces the Testimonium in two other places. One of these, Manifestation 5.44, was written in the decade or two after his Church History, and only survives in a Syriac translation from the fifth century. The other, Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.142, was written in the decade or two before the Church History, and has several textual differences.

Church History 1.11.7–8

Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.142

γινεται δε κατα τουτον τον χρονον ιησους σοφος ανηρ ει γε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην γαρ παραδοξων εργων ποιητης διδασκαλος ανθρωπων των ηδονη ταληθη δεχομενων και πολλους μεν των ιουδαιων πολλους δε και απο του ελληνικου επηγαγετο ο χριστος ουτος ην και αυτον ενδειξει των πρωτων ανδρων παρ ημιν σταυρω επιτετιμηκοτος πιλατου ουκ επαυσαντο οι το πρωτον αγαπησαντες εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην εχων ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου θαυμασια ειρηκοτων εις ετι τε νυν των χριστιανων απο τουδε ωνομασμενων ουκ επελιπε το φυλον

γινεται δε κατ εκεινον τον χρονον ιησους σοφος ανηρ ει γε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην γαρ παραδοξων εργων ποιητης διδασκαλος ανθρωπων ταληθη σεβομενων και πολλους μεν του ιουδαικου πολλους δε και του ελληνικου επηγαγετο ο χριστος ουτος ην και αυτον ενδειξει των παρ ημιν αρχοντων σταυρω επιτετιμηκοτος πιλατου ουκ επαυσαντο οι το πρωτον αγαπησαντες εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου ειρηκοτων οθεν εισετι νυν απο τουδε των χριστιανων ουκ επελιπε το φυλον

In this earlier version from Eusebius, we find singular adjective-as-noun ιουδαικου in place of plural noun ιουδαιων, agreeing with the unexpected use of ελληνικου. Eusebius uses forms of ελληνικος about three times as often as Josephus, despite Eusebius’ corpus being about one-third the length. He also occasionally has the adjective function as a noun meaning ‘gentiles’ in distinction from ‘Judeans’ or ‘Hebrews’. Relatedly, we find forms of ιουδαικος about twice as often in Eusebius as Josephus.

Prior to Eusebius, Josephus and his Judean Antiquities are cited by about a dozen Christian writers. For example, Josephus is used a handful of times in the Exhortation Addressed to the Greeks, an apologetic work once attributed to Justin Martyr, who was active circa 130–165 CE, though it is now agreed to have come from an anonymous Christian author in a later time. Origen of Alexandria also used Josephus’ works, citing his accounts about John (Against Celsus 1.47) and James (Commentary on Matthew 10.17; Against Celsus 1.47; 2.13). Origen wrote his Against Celsus just before the reign of Emperor Decius, when Origen was arrested and tortured during an official imperial persecution of Christians.

Despite their dependence on Josephus, no writer prior to Eusebius shows any awareness of the Testimonium’s existence. Even after Eusebius, the Testimonium’s presence in other Christian apologists and theologians is scarce. Jerome, nearly a century later, is the next earliest author to quote the passage. Even the Arabic and Syriac versions which receive so much attention ultimately derive from a Syriac copy of Eusebius’ history. The wide divergence in Agapius’ version comes from having paraphrased his source, rather than directly translating it.


A Potential Source for Interpolation

The omission of the Testimonium from the earliest writers to make clear use of Josephus’ histories is glaring. Origen in particular flatly states that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (as mentioned, Josephus seems to have placed Vespasian in this role), indicative that Origen was rather studied beyond just quote-mining the passages about John and James. Additionally, each of the elements which are most commonly removed in ‘reconstructions’ of an earlier, shorter version of the Testimonium leave behind details which follow from them: Jesus’ miracle-working is allowed to remain, but it explains why he may be something greater than a mere man; his identity as the Christ is cut, leaving without explanation why his followers are named for him; the point that he returned to his followers alive is removed, making readers ask why his followers continued to follow him after he was crucified.

At this point, total interpolation begins to stand alongside partial interpolation as a viable option. It could be that such an interpolation was fabricated from a redactor’s own imagination, but there is a strange parallel with the Gospel of Luke worth examining.

In the discussion of the relationship between the Gospel of John and the synoptics, one particular argument in favor of John’s dependence on at least one of the other gospels is the rhetorical question, ‘How did the author of John decide to structure his gospel the way he did?’ The Gospel of John: begins with a brief account of John the baptizer as a herald for Jesus (1.19–34); spends roughly half of the narrative showing how Jesus accumulated disciples, performed miracles, debated opponents, dispensed teachings through analogies, and hinted at his true, hidden identity (1.35–12.11); has Jesus enter Jerusalem and participate in a ‘last supper’ with his disciples, during which he predicts that he will be betrayed (12.12–13.30); and, spends roughy the final quarter of the narrative showing how Jesus was arrested, put on trial, crucified, and found absent from his tomb by his women followers (18.1–13). The exact same structure is used by Mark and, with modification, Matthew and Luke. Why did the Gospel of John not spend more time with the baptizer? Why not devote a substantial portion to Jesus’ parents, or his youth, or any of his life before becoming a public figure? Why not present Jesus’ teachings as a formal document of theological instruction? Why not a book devoted entirely to miracles he performed? Why not several chapters detailing his post-resurrection appearances, prior to his ascension into heaven? John’s gospel is painted with a different color than the other three gospels, but his framework is the same. Giving this up to sheer coincidence is asking a lot.

The same type of question may be posed here.

In Luke’s final chapter, the narrator tells how the first people to see the risen Jesus were a pair of disciples walking to Emmaus. Jesus, inexplicably unrecognizable to the two disciples, coyly asks them about recent events in Jerusalem.

Luke 24.19–21, 26–27, 44

‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in works and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.’ […] Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things concerning himself in all the scriptures. […] Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

The rest of the chapter describes how, on the third day, Jesus was seen alive again by his disciples, and they remained his followers ever after. This dialogue in Luke is essentially a summary of both the book’s narrative and the Christian kerygma. Compare other examples in the New Testament to see how this general shape is followed (Acts 2.22–24, 32–33; 3.13–15, 18; Rom 1.1–6; 1 Cor 15.3–5; 1 Tim 3.16).

Contrary to claims that Josephus’ choice of vocabulary in JA 18.3.3 is not like anything in the New Testament or other early Christian literature, the Testimonium uses similar language to the above passage from Luke: Jesus; man; works/work; the Christ; cross/crucified; the third day; concerning him/Jesus/himself/me; and, the prophets. These are loaded in mostly the same order, resulting in the Testimonium taking on the appearance of not just another kerygma summary, but Luke’s in particular.

Judean Antiquites 18.3.3

Luke 24.19–21, 26–27, 44

γινεται δε κατα τουτον τον χρονον ιησους σοφος ανηρ ειγε ανδρα αυτον λεγειν χρη ην γαρ παραδοξων εργων ποιητης διδασκαλος ανθρωπων των ηδονη ταληθη δεχομενων και πολλους μεν ιουδαιους πολλους δε και του ελληνικου επηγαγετο ο χριστος ουτος ην και αυτον ενδειξει των πρωτων ανδρων παρ ημιν σταυρω επιτετιμηκοτος πιλατου ουκ επαυσαντο οι το πρωτον αγαπησαντες εφανη γαρ αυτοις τριτην εχων ημεραν παλιν ζων των θειων προφητων ταυτα τε και αλλα μυρια περι αυτου θαυμασια ειρηκοτων εις ετι τε νυν των χριστιανων απο τουδε ωνομασμενον ουκ επελιπε το φυλον

τα περι ιησου του ναζαρηνου ος εγενετο ανηρ προφητης δυνατος εν εργω και λογω εναντιον του θεου και παντος του λαου οπως τε παρεδωκαν αυτον οι αρχιερεις και οι αρχοντες ημων εις κριμα θανατου και εσταυρωσαν αυτον ημεις δε ηλπιζομεν οτι αυτος εστιν ο μελλων λυτρουσθαι τον ισραηλ αλλα γε και συν πασιν τουτοις τριτην ταυτην ημεραν αγει αφ ου ταυτα εγενετοουχι ταυτα εδει παθειν τον χριστον και εισελθειν εις την δοξαν αυτου και αρξαμενος απο μωυσεως και απο παντων των προφητων διερμηνευσεν αυτοις εν πασαις ταις γραφαις τα περι εαυτουειπεν δε προς αυτους ουτοι οι λογοι μου ους ελαλησα προς υμας ετι ων συν υμιν οτι δει πληρωθηναι παντα τα γεγραμμενα εν τω νομω μωυσεως και τοις προφηταις και ψαλμοις περι εμου

There are further similarities with part of the previous chapter in Luke, which has Pilate sentence Jesus to be crucified based on the demands of a crowd led by Jerusalem’s religious leaders.

Luke 23.23–24

But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified, and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.

As an account about Jesus, JA 18.3.3 is quite brief. How, then, did its author—whether that was Josephus or someone else—decide on the shape the passage is found in? I am skeptical of giving up such a strong concentration of verbal and conceptual overlaps to mere accident. I think there is a strong possibility of literary dependence.

It is necessary to briefly explore three scenarios in which Josephus himself did write the Testimonium which might explain the similarity to Luke 24. The Gospel of Mark was probably written around 75–80 CE. This would require that Luke (some version of it, anyway), which used Mark, was produced in the range of 90–100 CE at the earliest. Josephus’ Judean Antiquities was completed around 94 CE. If Josephus wrote the Testimonium, he must have received a copy of Luke almost immediately after the gospel was written, right before he finished Antiquities. This breakneck turnaround is not impossible, but neither is it likely. Otherwise, maybe Josephus wrote the Testimonium entirely on his own, and Luke borrowed from him. This begs the question: why would Luke’s author need to craft a summary for his own book by copying from Josephus? His gospel was literally right in front of him, and he certainly was more familiar with its content than Josephus was. This direction of dependence is entirely unnecessary. Lastly, perhaps both Josephus and Luke copied from another source, one now lost. This suggestion allows the authors to be both contemporary and independent, but it seems too convenient a solution, an almost deliberate refusal to disturb the status quo by grasping at purely hypothetical straws. Additionally, all three of these scenarios insist on overlooking the many other difficulties with the Testimonium.


Conclusion

Despite its presence in all known (complete) copies of the Judean Antiquities, the extant form of the Testimonium cannot be attributed to Josephus. Its pro-Christian outlook does not even qualify as ‘thinly veiled’, utterly incompatible with the historian’s own worldview. This leads many scholars to favor a simpler form of the text as authentic, found simply by removing the most explicit Christian details.

There are further narrative and verbal obstacles standing in the way of even partial authenticity. The evidence available, limited as it is, shows the Testimonium was known in its entirety by the second quarter of the fourth century CE, but it seems not to have been known at all even by the middle of the third century. It also exhibits an uncanny overlap in verbiage with Luke 24, and the few details we can ascertain regarding the origin of the biblical gospels prevent this overlap as being explained by Luke having used Josephus.

If the person responsible for the forgery can be identified, the strongest candidate would be Eusebius. He is the earliest witness to the Testimonium, and his two surviving Greek copies differ in key points. The idea that Eusebius might forge a quotation from a non-Christian author just to cite it as evidence for his theology does ascribe a less-than-pious ethic to Eusebius, but we do have clear examples of Eusebius attributing to Josephus passages he did not write or ideas he did not express (CH 2.6.3; 2.23.20; 3.5.6). It may also be argued that the language of the passage far more closely conforms to Eusebius’ style than to Josephus (e.g. he uses forms of ‘doer of unexpected works’ and ‘tribe of Christians’ on multiple occasions). The points where the language better fits Josephus’ style are precisely those points where Eusebius’ quotation of the Testimonium in his earlier Demonstration differs from his later one in Church History (such as the earlier αρχοντων being replaced by πρωτων ανδρων). Perhaps this is a hint that Eusebius, as he became more familiar with Josephus’ works while working on his Church History, refined his ‘quotation’ of the Testimonium to sound more like his alleged source.

When I set out to study this topic, I already agreed with the broad consensus that JA 18.3.3 had only been partially interpolated. I am now compelled to think it is a total interpolation, written sometime between 250 and 325 CE by someone—possibly Eusebius—who used the ending of Luke as his primary source of inspiration.


Resources

Alice Whealey, ‘The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic’, New Testament Studies 54.4, 573-590.

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, ‘Was the Hypothetical Vorlage of the Testimonium Flavianum a “Neutral” Text? Challenging the Common Wisdom on Antiquitates Judaicae 18.63-64’, Journal for the Study of Judaism 45.3, 326-365.

Gary J Goldberg, ‘The Coincidences of the Emmaus Narrative of Luke and the Testimonium of Josephus’, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 7.13, 59-77.

J Neville Birdsall, ‘The continuing enigma of Josephus‘s testimony about Jesus’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 67.2, 609-622.

John P Meier, ‘Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52.1, 76-103.

Ken A Olson, ‘Eusebius and the “Testimonium Flavianum” ’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2, 305-322.

Nicholas Peter Legh Allen, Christian Forgery in Jewish Antiquities: Josephus Interrupted.

Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications.

Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament.

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