The New Testament gives us a lot of information about Jesus, but there aren’t many other historical references to Jesus in the first century to support the New Testament information. Some sceptics claim this indicates Jesus was an invention or a legend.
So there has always been great interest in two references in the writings of Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who wrote towards the end of the first century. In particular, there are arguments about whether one or both references are genuine, or were added later by those copying the text.
(Being before the printing press, Josephus’ works were preserved by manual copying. The earliest extant copies in the original Greek date from the 10th or 11th century, but there is a Latin translation from the 5th century, and the main reference to Jesus was quoted earlier by christian writers.)
I’ve blogged about this before, almost 4 years ago, so it’s time to check out the latest score.
Josephus, this is your life!
Josephus (Titus Flavius Josephus, originally known as Joseph ben Matityahu) was a Jewish commander in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 CE who was captured by the Romans and subsequently worked for the Romans as an interpreter and advisor.
In later life he wrote several volumes of history, one of which, Jewish Antiquities, makes two brief mentions of Jesus. The first (often referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum) gives a brief outline of Jesus’ life and death, and includes information on christian belief about Jesus as Messiah and the resurrection. The second reference just mentions his name.
The shorter reference
Ananus …. assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
Scholars almost unanimously agree that this reference is genuine. Jesus is simply mentioned in passing, to identify the James who was executed, and there is little reason to believe that a later christian scribe would add such a brief reference. Only a few scholars plus diehard Jesus mythicists question the authenticity of this passage. James Carleton Paget writes: “In general scholars have not doubted the authenticity of this passage.”
The Testimonium Flavianum
This reference comes earlier in Antiquities and reads:
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 among 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.
Scholars have long questioned this passage, because it contains statements that only a christian would say, and Josephus was not known as a christian. Some scholars accept the passage as genuine (some believe Josephus took much of the wording from a christian proselytizing document based on the gospel of Luke), some regard all of it as spurious, but most believe Josephus mentioned Jesus, and a christian copyist has added some extra words to support christian belief.
That was then ….
Up to about 2005, we could say quite confidently that the majority of scholars believed the reference to Jesus in the Testimonium Flavianum was at least partly genuine.
- Reviews by Louis Feldman, James Paget and Peter Kirby all indicated that the majority of scholars (about two thirds) thought the Testimonium was partially authentic. About a quarter thought it was totally spurious, and a smaller number thought it was totally genuine.
- Those concluding it was partially authentic included Robert Van Voorst, Robert Funk, James Dunn, J Dominic Crossan, AN Wilson, John Meier, EP Sanders, Paula Fredrikson and Jewish scholars Geza Vermes, Louis Feldman, and Paul Winter, and many others.
- Paula Fredriksen summed up: “Most scholars currently incline to see the passage as basically authentic, with a few later insertions by Christian scribes.”
This is now
The subject continues to interest scholars, and a number of analyses have been published in the last decade or so (there may be others, but I searched fairly thoroughly):
- In 2005, Georgio Jossa supported partial authenticity.
- In 2007 (though not published until 2014) Casey Elledge cautiously accepted partial authenticity.
- In 2008, Alice Whealey argued that the TF was substantially genuine. Significant in her argument were Syriac and Arabic copies of the TF that supported the most common reconstructions of the text.
- In 2010, James Paget referenced arguments and scholars with opposing views, and seemed to cautiously favour partial authenticity.
- In 2011 Louis Feldman said that there was good evidence either way. He concluded that the TF “may well have” been interpolated.
- In 2013, Ken Olson put forward strong arguments for the TF to be totally interpolated, possibly by Eusebius, an early christian writer who quoted the TF and allegedly may have invented it (see also here).
- In 2014 Paul Hopper used a linguistic study to also argue against authenticity.
- Also in 2014, Fernando Bermejo-Rubio made his assessment: “I find most plausible the widespread view that an authentic core goes back to Josephus, although it has been partially interpolated.”
- Finally, in 2016, Alice Whealey reviewed all the evidence again, and again opted for almost complete authenticity.
The evidence and the arguments
All copies of Antquities the reference to Jesus is included. However the exact wording of the TF is different in different documents, and when it is quoted by other writers. This is all evidence of partial authenticity.
Most scholars agree that a Jew like Josephus wouldn’t have spoken to favourably about Jesus. Some argue that Josephus wouldn’t have written any of the TF, a few believe he could have taken this content from a christian source, while most find it most plausible that he wrote some or most of the TF, but the most favourable phrases were added later.
The TF is so short that it isn’t surprising that linguistic/vocabulary studies come to very different results. Many conclude that the TF includes phrases that are typical of Josephus, others (e.g. Olson and Hopper) claim to have shown that Josephus didn’t write the TF, and perhaps the language is more typical of Eusebius, who allegedly may have invented it. It is too soon to know whether these views will be accepted by other scholars
The existence of copies of the TF in different locations and languages is strong evidence in favour of its partial authenticity. It seems that this is convincing to most scholars, and it remains to be seen whether the linguistic analysis against authenticity will change the broad consensus.
So where does that leave us?
Atheist apologist and blogger Richard Carrier has argued for the inauthenticity of both references to Jesus (the Testimonium Flavianum and the shorter reference). In characteristic fashion, Carrier referenced several studies which conclude the whole TF is spurious (and ignored those which came to a different conclusion) and claimed that it is time for everyone to agree with his conclusion.
But scholarship doesn’t work that way, and simply making an ambit claim like this has little impact. It will likely take years for other scholars to assess the latest information and for a consensus to emerge. Not everyone agrees with Carrier’s positive assessment of Olson’s and Hopper’s work.
In the meantime we can say that the previous consensus has been challenged, and there are now a few additional scholars on the side of total inauthenticity. But it still seems likely that the consensus favours partial authenticity.
The following probably remains more or less the consensus of what Josephus originally wrote:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Photo: Wikipedia (public domain)