Testamonium Flavianum

JosephusWhen we look for the evidence of the historical Jesus, we must spend time dealing with the first century Jewish historian Josephus.  Josephus wrote a number of books including one called the Antiquities of the Jews.  This is a history of the Jews from creation to the Jewish War of 70 AD.  If Jesus existed, you would expect that he would get some mention from Josephus and he does.  In Antiquities 18:63-64 we read this:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst 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.

Critics who suggest that Jesus never existed must wrestle with this passage. The problem is that Josephus’ account looks too Christian for a Jew to write. Most scholars accept the fact that later Christian writers tampered with the passage to make it more Christian. However, this passage is still of use to us. Scholars have been able to reconstruct the passage as to what it likely looked like before the Christians got to it.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man… For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks… When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst 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.

The Testamonium Flavianum continues to be a major piece of evidence for the historical Jesus. Click To Tweet
Despite this reconstruction, there are some critics who claim that the entire passage is a forgery (afterall this passage is a great embarassment to those who reject the historicity of Jesus). Is this true? The evidence does point to a testimony of Jesus by Josephus that once lacked the Christian additions. Evidence for this is found in the early church father Origen (185-254 AD). In Origen’s writings (Contra Celsum i. 47, Commentary on Matthew x. 17) he discusses what Josephus says about John the Baptist, James and Jesus. In both passages, Origen says that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ. This suggests that Origen knew a version of Josephus that mentioned Jesus but did not include the Christian additions. The Testamonium Flavianum continues to be a major piece of evidence for the historical Jesus.


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Comments

  1. How do scholars ‘reconstruct’ a supposed writing of Josephus ‘before Christians got to it’? If a forgery was inserted into something Josephus wrote, how can we then determine what the original was?

    I can understand if a paragraph was inserted by Eusebius or whomever to give a Christian slant to a secular or Jewish writer. Textual criticism could show the inserted section had a different style, or different script, or that the passage reads more fluently if we remove the alleged insertion. But if a passage was not inserted, but merely altered, how does one ‘reconstruct’ the original?

  2. Good question. The truth is that this is not the only example of someone altering a text and so scholars have quite a bit of experience reconstructing texts. In this case, they know what is unlikely for a Jewish historian to write and they know what fits with the rest of Josephus’ writing, the context of that section and what is most consistent with his vocabulary. What is interesting is that scholars evangelical and liberal, Jewish and atheist, generally agree with the reconstruction.

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