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Is This Mention of Jesus a Forgery?

Josephus

Many skeptics assert that there is no early, non-Christian evidence for a historical Jesus. But Christian apologists point to the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions Jesus no less than twice. Yet are those accounts truly trustworthy?

Who was Josephus?

 
Josephus was born to a wealthy family in Judea in the year A.D. 37. In the year 66, a national revolt against Rome broke out and Josephus was appointed commander of the insurgent forces in Galilee. The resistance was crushed in the summer of 67, and he was brought before Vespasian, the Roman general charged with suppressing the revolt. Josephus predicted that Vespasian would become emperor one day, and so his life was spared, but he was kept prisoner until two years later when the prophecy came true.

After defecting to the Roman side, Josephus became an adviser to Vespasian's son, Titus. He later recorded Jewish history, especially from the first century.

Where Does Josephus Mention Jesus in His Writings?

 

In his historical work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes that the Roman procurator of Judea died suddenly in A.D. 62. During a three month interregnum period, Annas the younger, son of Annas who is mentioned in Luke 3:2, John 18:3, and Acts 4:6, is appointed high priest and orders the stoning of lawbreakers:

"[H]e convened a judicial session of the Sanhedrin and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ—James by name—and some others, whom he charged with breaking the law and handed them over to be stoned to death." (Josephus, Antiquities, book 20)

This James was probably James the Just, whom St. Paul describes as “James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal.1:19). An overwhelming majority of scholars believe that this passage is authentic, but there is another mention of Jesus in Antiquities known as the Testimonium Flavianumthat many are divided on:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Antiquities, Book 18)

Josephus was certainly not a Christian, and so it is unlikely that he would have used phrases like, “if it be lawful to call him a man,” or “he was the Christ.” The majority of scholars of early Judaism and experts on the writings of Josephus believe this was likely touched-up by Christian scribes at a later time. Instead, the passage probably read like this:

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct even now." (J. Klausner,Jesus of Nazareth, pg 55)

What to Make of the Testimonium Flavianum?

 
Many skeptics argue that Jospehus actually made no references to Jesus at all, and that both mentions of him were added by Christians. According to them, if the Testimonium Flavianum were removed from the text, the paragraph preceding it and the one after it flow together well. This argument is weak, however, because ancient writers would often wander from their main points. Antiquities itself contains many such digressions.

Another common skeptical claim is that no Christian authors seem to be aware of either passage until early Church historian Eusebius mentions it in the fourth century. For example, second-century theologian Origen quotes Josephus freely in his writing Contra Celsus, but, as atheist Dan Barker writes, “[He] never once used this paragraph, which would have been the ultimate ace up his sleeve” (Godless, pg 255). However, given the nature of the pagan accusations against Jesus (that he was born out of wedlock, died shamefully, etc.), there is nothing in the shortened version of the Testimonium that would have aided the arguments of the early Christian apologists. Thus we would not expect them to quote it, especially since Jesus' existence was not in question.

Whether the surviving quotes contain Christian interpolations or not, the scholarly consensus is that Josephus did indeed know something of an obscure teacher named Jesus. What we are left with is a non-Christian account that backs up at least three main points about him: Jesus existed, he started the Christian movement, and he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
 
 
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Orinst)

Jon Sorensen

Written by

Jon Sorensen is the Director of Marketing for Catholic Answers, the largest lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization in the United States. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-length films. Follow Jon through his website, JonSorenson.net.

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  • Cubico
  • Ben Posin

    What strikes me as odd about this article is that it seems to frame those who think there are interpolations concerning Jesus in Josephus's writing as skeptics, in the more general sense of skeptics concerning Jesus/Christianity. It seems odd to reference only "atheist Dan Barker" by name, rather than discussing any modern scholarly articles. But while there is evidently more than one view on this issue, are we agreed that the interpolation theory has the support of some serious and evidenced scholarship, and that there is legitimate reason to have doubts about the authenticity of the passages in question?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I think these are legitimate questions, Ben. I think the reason they are not addressed is that once again we have an OP not written for Strange Notions but for a different audience and for a different purpose.

      The SN audience demands OPs by serious scholars or real experts, or at least reports based on the same.

      • Ben Posin

        Thanks Kevin. Would you go so far as to say that the answer to my question is "yes"?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I'd say there are legitimate arguments on both sides and on many grounds.

          I see you wrote something about "straw man arguments" then deleted it. I would actually argue for removing the straw man prohibition in the commenting policy because almost every argument against every position can be accused of being a straw man argument and many of our initial arguments *are* inadvertently straw men because we don't really understand the position contrary to our own.

          • Doug Shaver

            I would actually argue for removing the straw man prohibition in the commenting policy because almost every argument against every position can be accused of being a straw man argument and many of our initial arguments *are* inadvertently straw men because we don't really understand the position contrary to our own.

            I think you raise a good point. If you actually know that your opponent does not say X, what could be the point of trying to refute X?

    • Max Driffill

      Ben,
      (If you are still here and not banned) According to almost every account I've read by academics, Christian, agnostic and unbeliever alike, there seem to be good reasons for doubting the authenticity of at least some of the language used by Josephus. But I think even if we are to grant that they are the exact words Josephus decided to use his theological musings don't count for much, nor do his details of the life of Christ, limited though they are. Josephus was reporting biased history very much after the events had occurred. Josephus wasn't born until the year 37. Jesus was dead several years prior to that. The writings in question don't show up until nearly 100 CE. In any event, There are two mentions in Antiquities. The references come very much after the fact, and working from secondary, and tertiary sources. Again, most scholars disagree with Mr. Sorenson.

  • Michael

    What expertise does Mr. Sorensen have on this subject? I see that he has a "bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications" but is he literate in Greek?

    • David Nickol

      What expertise does Mr. Sorensen have on this subject?

      The alleged references to Jesus in Josephus are invariably discussed when the issue is the existence of the historical Jesus is questioned, and Jon Sorensen is presenting a very familiar argument, so whether or not he himself has any special expertise in the matter is basically irrelevant. You can find much the same information in the Wikipedia entry Josephus on Jesus. Sorensen says

      Whether the surviving quotes contain Christian interpolations or not, the scholarly consensus is that Josephus did indeed know something of an obscure teacher named Jesus.

      He is using scholarly consensus in the same sense that I have recently been. That is, there is no unanimity of opinion about the references in Josephus, but probably a majority of scholars qualified to make a judgment believe there were already references to Jesus in Josephus originally, and they were expanded by Christian copyists to include statements Josephus would not himself have made.

      • Charles Breemer

        Right, there is nothing here that isn't available to anybody with a "lay" interest. (I would note that it's odd that he doesn't discuss the references to James or John in detail, since scholars make a lot more hay out of the authenticity of those passages).

        What is at stake here? The only take-away seems to be that Josephus is another example of an early witness to the existence of Jesus. I suppose that matters in debates with "mythicists," but doesn't seem otherwise applicable to this site's nature.

      • Michael

        My issue with this article is that it asks us to take Mr. Sorensen at his word when states that this or that is the "scholarly consensus." Why should we? He has no academic credentials pertaining to the field of study in question. He is employed by Catholic Answers, an unscholarly and even contra-scholarly website. Strange Notions itself appears to be suspicious of scholarly consensus, as evidenced by the moderator's recent comments on the NAB. The reader has no reason at all to regard Mr. Sorensen as a reliable source on the issue scholarly consensus.

        The Wikipedia entry on the Testimonium may have been written by non-scholars but it includes extensive footnotes demonstrating its general reliability. This article does not. You have appealed to scholarly consensus from time to time but have also demonstrated by the books you've quoted that you posses a basic awareness of scholarly consensus. Mr. Sorensen does not even attempt to do the same. His single quote of Klausner is not enough.

  • I have no problem deferring to what the majority of reputable historians accept about Jesus. That he existed, he was crucified.

    Of course, these same scholars do not accept that the historical record establishes any of the supernatural claims in the Bible.

    Not even Josephus believed that Jesus was God or that the Christians were right.

  • To understand whether the passages in Josephus mentioning the Christians were added by later copyists, we would look for the same things we find in the New Testament that indicate a later addition. Does the style change (e.g. from a formal to casual style of writing) is it in some but not other versions of the text?

    The version containing statements about Jesus not necessarily being a man and appearing alive, would be inconsistent with a Jew who was unconvinced by the claims of the Christians he was familiar with. I think it makes sense to prefer the latter reading. But how could I know? I can't read the vernacular, I'm not deeply familiar with the period, have no idea how many versions are floating around. I don't know what else Josephus says that might question his credibility, his ability to observe these matters, what sources he drew on. This is why it makes sense to defer to mainstream historians.

  • Ignorant Amos

    “Recently some have suggested that this incident, originally related by Josephus, intended no reference to James the Just, the “brother of the Lord.” It would make a lot of sense if the ambushed James was James, son of Damneus, the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus. The implied scenario would be one in which Ananus arranged to have a rival of the priesthood eliminated on trumped-up charges but did not get away with it. Once his crime was known, he was thrown out of office, and the brother of the murdered James was awarded the office Ananus had sought to render secure for himself. In this way, the slain James was avenged at least insofar as his surviving brother, Jesus, recieved the office James had been cheated out of. The reference we now read to “Jesus called Christ” might originally have read (or denoted, even if it read as it does now) “Jesus, called/considered high priest.” In both Daniel 9:26 and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ‘an anointed one’ (which is what Josephus has here, no definite article denoting “the Messiah”) means ‘high priest.’”

    That is the view of Biblical scholar Robert Price, among others, who, upon closer examination of that particular passage in Josephus' writing, have discovered that we may have the wrong Jesus and the wrong James. It certainly explains why it took so long for early Christians make reference to it.

  • Doug Shaver

    Whether the surviving quotes contain Christian interpolations or not, the scholarly consensus is that Josephus did indeed know something of an obscure teacher named Jesus.

    Wouldn't Josephus also have known that the followers of that obscure teacher were telling everyone who would listen that he was God incarnate?

  • Leela Kim

    Dear, all just wanna step by and let's all go back to the True Monotheism

  • Leela Kim

    But if you want to keep following Paul who contradicted Jesus teaching and built the polytheistic religion, then by all means keep following Paul. But you've been warned. Even by the words of Jesus himself. Bye.