Bart Ehrman on the Testimonium Flavianum

I continually hear people suggest that the Testimonium Flavianum, that is Josephus’ testimony about Jesus, is only accepted by evangelicals.  Even to suggest that Josephus had a core statement later augmented by Christians is an evangelical mistake at best or deception at worst.  Is that true?

I think it is fair to say that Bart Ehrman is not an evangelical Christian.  I think it would be even fair to say that Ehrman has an anti-Christian bias.  What does Ehrman have to say about Josephus?

It is certainly worth knowing that the most prominent Jewish historian of the first century knew at least something about Jesus—specifically that he was a teacher who allegedly did wonderful deeds, had a large following, and was condemned to be crucified by Pontius Pilate.  This account confirms some of the most important aspects of Jesus’ life and death as recounted in the Gospels. (Jesus Interrupted, p. 150)

Here is the Testimonium, and the sections in square brackets are the Christian additions.  Notice how much we still have.

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one should call him a man, for] he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Antiquities 18.3.3)

Interesting.  Interesting, indeed.

Liked it? Take a second to support Stephen Bedard on Patreon!
Share

15 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman on the Testimonium Flavianum”

  1. Whether one agrees with Ehrman or not, the context for this excerpt is necessary to avoid misrepresentation of an author’s view:

    Jesus Interrupted, p. 150 (full page):

    …The other reference is more extensive, but it is also problematic.
    In it Josephus seems to confess that he himself is a Christian, but we
    know from his other works that he was not (he wrote an autobiography, among other things). Scholars have long known that Josephus’s
    writings were not copied by Jews throughout the Middle Ages, since
    he was (probably rightly) considered a traitor to the Jewish cause in
    the disastrous war with Rome in which Jerusalem was destroyed in
    70 CE. His writings were copied instead by Christians. And at the
    point where Josephus discusses Jesus, it appears that a Christian
    scribe made a few choice insertions, in order to clarify who Jesus
    really was. I have placed the sections possibly inserted by the scribe
    in brackets:

    At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one
    should call him a man, for] he was a doer of startling deeds, a
    teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he
    gained a following both among many Jews and among many
    of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us,
    condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the
    third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken
    of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And
    up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him,
    has not died out. ( Antiquities 18.3.3)

    It is certainly worth knowing that the most prominent Jewish
    historian of the fi rst century knew at least something about Jesus—
    specifically that he was a teacher who allegedly did wonderful deeds,
    had a large following, and was condemned to be crucified by Pontius
    Pilate. This account confirms some of the most important aspects
    of Jesus’ life and death as recounted in the Gospels. But it doesn’t
    indicate exactly what he did or said, or what circumstances led to his
    accusation and death, even if you include the bracketed comments.

  2. Thanks for typing that all out for me. Good job! I will actually add his reconstructed version into the post. Readers of this blog will know that I do not argue for the Christianized version of the passage. I do not think that Josephus thought Jesus was the Christ. I believe Josephus wrote something and then some well meaning Christian expanded the passage, causing us tremendous grief ever since.

  3. Antiquities was written about 94 CE, after all the gospels (except possibly John) were written. So what Josephus wrote was what “Christians” believed. He was born in 37 CE, and did not have any first hand knowledge about Jesus.

    The reason why Josephus is so prominent in many apologetics’ minds is the utter lack of ANY secular direct evidence about Jesus.

  4. To be honest, I was addressing a specific charge: that there are no first century witness of Jesus outside of the Bible. The truth is that there is. Now you are free to reject Josephus if you want, but the evidence is there that he mentioned Jesus.

    As for Josephus being too late, take a look at historical writings about other ancient figures. In classical studies, they would love to have evidence that is only sixty years after the person being described. Take a look at Alexander the Great and find out when our earliest accounts of him are.

  5. Absolutely, Stephen. The earliest manuscript evidence we have for Jesus’ existence dates to within 10s of years of His death. Further, the evidence for Christ trounces the evidence we have (for example) Caesar, Plato and Homer. Evidence for Caesar dates back to 1000 years after his death. For Plato the evidence dates to as ’early’ as 1300 years after his death. For Homer’s Iliad the evidence dates back to 500 years after his death. Do the so-called critics question their existence? Do they apply the same level of irrational scepticism to these other, less-documented historical figures?

  6. Dm- the reason people believe in Caesar, Plato and homer is because their stories are actually believable. As soon as you introduce magical/ supernatural elements your burden of proof gets way higher. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of any crazy story anyone tells you. ( p.s.- there are coins with Caesars face on them from the time period. There are reams of contemporary documents from independent sources to verify Caesar was real.

      1. Do you believe that Caesar was a God? There were many from his era that did. I believe Caesar was real- but I require a lot more proof to believe he was a god. Even first hand, eyewitness reports would not be credible enough for any rational person. There are many people alive today that claim to be jesuses and many followers who would testify that they are divine. How am I to decide which one is correct without some critical process? I would love to believe this stuff is true, but the apologetics aren’t convincing to me.

      1. Sure I’m prepared to believe a person named vespasius existed. I also believe that Kim Jong Un exists.
        However, that is way different than believing that that individual is divine. As soon as someone smuggles in magic powers to an argument, the whole thing falls apart. People have worshipped their leaders as divine since the beginning of time. Which ones will you choose to believe? Why aren’t we all worshipping Caesar right now still? There’s more literature from his time period that supports his divinity than there is for Jesus. There is zero evidence from Jesus’s lifetime. That’s a fact. If you have it then you should present it to the world and settle the argument. I would gladly concur when I see it.

        1. So you’ve agreed that just because a document mentions purported miracle events of a historical figure, then that figure is not de-facto non-historical. So, the question now is: If Jesus was a historical person, how do you assess his purported miracles?

          1. The real question is this- which Jesus are we talking about? I feel very confident denying the existence of a miracle producing supernatural Jesus. Is this the Jesus were talking about?
            I have no problem believing in a dude named Jesus, who thought he was some kind of messiah figure. But the evidence of that watered down Jesus figure is pretty poor. Definitely not enough to base a belief system upon.
            There is clearly not enough evidence to make any case for a magic Jesus. We can’t even link first hand witness accounts to his lifetime. Take some time and take a skeptical look at the earliest documents. The whole thing is just myths documenting an ancient land dispute.
            Which Jesus would you like to present evidence for? Testify

          2. What kind of standard should we use to evaluate miracle claims? What’s to keep us from believing in anything that anyone throws at us?

  7. There is also the passage in the Antiquities where Josephus recounts the circumstances surrounding the execution of the brother of Jesus – James the Just. This passage occurs in all manuscripts of Josephus and is almost universally accepted as genuine by scholars.

    “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-20.htm

    Even if one denied the authenticity of the “Testimonium Flavianum” passage there seems to be no reason to reject this passage, and in it Josephus attests to both the execution of the brother of Jesus and the existence of Jesus himself.

    1. I totally agree with you. Unfortunately there are those who take the Christian additions to the TF and use that as grounds to dismiss everything in Josephus. Some even try to argue that any references to to the earthly Jesus in Paul must be later additions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.