Wasn't Jesus Discussed by Josephus?

Josephus on Jesus

I thought I read somewhere that Jesus was mentioned in one of the books by Josephus, doesn't this prove he was a historical person?
Atheist Answer: 

Far too often apologists and evangelicals bring up Josephus as a source for a historical Jesus. This is a continuing error among scholars, and it is fueled by secular scholars who are either persuaded by pseudo-scientific evaluations of the texts, or for reasons dealing only in their presuppositions, such as those discussed above. The Testimonium Flavianum is generally brought up by both apologists and historical Jesus questers more than any other document. Although other supposed mentions of Jesus exist, the subject, so as to not seem as if an Argument from Silence is the only means at which one can attain the position held in this book, will be limited to the Testimonium due to its importance and scope of usage. For this reason, included here in this section is a specific refutation towards the use of this passage, as will be provided ample evidence for its entire dismissal as an interpolation.

Arguments for the interpolation of this passage consist of the following: (1) Problems of textual conformity between manuscripts, (2) peculiar placement in the text, (3) odd use of Josephan language, (4) the use of pro-Christian language, (5) lack of mention specifically in any other earlier Christian source including Justin Martyr and Origen, (6) the earliest attestation we have, that of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical Histories, he places the Testimonium after Josephus’ account of John the Baptist, and finally (7) Eusebius has an alternate version of the text himself in another work.

The problems of conformity of the manuscripts are a huge deal, although generally not touched upon by dissenters of the Josephan controversy over the Testimonium. The first attestation to this passage is found in the forth century, and even then it seems to not have been set in stone, as Steve Mason cites that Jerome (p. 230) had a different version of the transcript in his Lives of Illustrious Men, and in the 10th century yet an additional manuscript is found in Agapius (ibid.). But it doesn’t stop there, as Michael, the Patriarch of Antioch quotes another variant text in the 12th century. So many alterations exist. Mason asks, “Where did such equivocal versions of Josephus’ account come from?” (p. 231) And not least of all, the fact that there are alternative translations which exist from Robert Eisler and John P. Meier spark additional questions. Why are there no copies of Josephus before Eusebius in the fourth century for scholarship to adequately translate? Perhaps Christians didn’t feel the need to preserve it beforehand, and that should raise additional red flags.

The peculiar placement of the text is additionally odd. Looking at the text from a distance, without really comparing the accounts of the context around the Testimonium, it may seem possible that it fits. It does deal with Pilate, that is for sure, and certainly it contains accounts of followers of a cult, referred to as a “tribe,” that Josephus didn’t hold to, much like those of the cult of Isis he discusses a section down. But further examination reveals a troubling reality. After Pilate arrives in Judea, Josephus follows with two incidents; (a) Pilate allows the Roman images into Jerusalem during the night, and (b) Pilate’s use of temple funds to build an aqueduct. Immediately following the Testimonium, (c) Josephus discusses the destruction of the temple of Isis and the crucifixion of Egyptian priests, (d) Jews are expelled from Rome because of Jewish troublemakers, and (e) Pilate destroyed the Samaritan movement and their settlement at Gerizim. Mason states that, “Like a tourist negotiating a bustling, raucous Middle-Eastern market who accidentally walks through the door of a monastery, suffused with light and peace, the reader of Josephus is struck by this sublime portrait.” (p. 227) Events (a), (b) and (e) involve incidents that look unfavorably upon Pilate, but the Testimonium blames the fiasco of the crucifixion not on Pilate—who seems more like a puppet being played—but on the “denunciation by the leading men among us.” Every single event save for the Testimonium in Antiquities 18 is described as some form of outrage or uprising, yet there is no tumultuous event here, no uprising to speak of. Overall, Mason makes the observance that “he is pointing out the follow of Jewish rebels, governors, and troublemakers,” (ibid.) yet in the Testimonium, Josephus speaks highly of Jesus and his followers, a stark contrast to the rest of the context. Finally, Josephus starts the section concerning the Isis temple as “another outrage,” for which George A. Wells and others have argued both events (b) and (c) to have originally been adjacent, leaving the probability for the Testimonium to have been inserted later.

The debate over the language of the Testimonium has been all over the place, to say the least. The hard fact is, however, that the passage reeks of Josephus but in a completely bizarre manner and at the same time seems to resemble normal Christian apologia. Mason cites several words and phrases which seem Josephan until considered in context; that being “doer (poietes) of wonderful deeds,” “they did not cease,” “he was perhaps the Christ (Christos)” and “tribe (phyle) of the Christians.” The use and language of these words does not fit into the normal Josephan style, and even in the case that they were Josephan in style they would not fit into how Josephus used the terms, they are missing further explanation, or would make little sense to his intended audience; the Greeks and Romans who would be fully unaware of the meaning behind “Christ.” In the same manner, the high regard in which he holds Christ, even in the regard that our earliest attestation, Eusebius, has him being referred to specifically as Christ is downright ridiculous. Not only is the language reflective of a Christian apologist in the forth century, but it doesn’t sound like something a first century pious Jew would write, especially in the context that Josephus was writing in (Jewish apologetics).

Silence is golden except when one is trying to prove their God existed, and then one should want to be as loud with information as possible. Yet early Christians seemed to be loud on everything except the Testimonium, which would have been completely revolutionary in terms of evidence in the early Christian centuries, especially against Trypho, Celsus and Prophyry. Yet strangely the reader of the polemics against these pagans seems to be missing the Testimonium, even though they cite from Josephus over and over again. Mason writes that “Origen expressed his wonder that the Jewish historian ‘did not accept that our Jesus is Christ’,” (p. 229) which is accurate. But there is more troubling information to consider here. That nowhere does Origen ever cite or attempt to cite anything remotely close to the Testimonium is damning. Instead one only sees reference to James, in which Origen seems to have recalled that Josephus referred to Jesus as “the one called Christ.” It is odd that this appears only in Origen and not before. For example, this passage is never brought up by Justin Martyr in his dialog with Trypho. What else is odd is that out of the blue you have Ananus killing James. The apologist would have one believe that he killed James because Jesus was his brother, but what purpose would that have served? Instead, looking at the context another probability possibility itself, and seems to be the more probable.

The order of Chapter 9 is as follows: (1) Ananus takes the high priesthood away from Josephus by order of Agrippa. (2) Ananus seems to have not been very patient, a member of the sect of the Sadducees, he felt the need to flex his muscles so, (3) while Albinus—the new procurator of Judea sent by Caesar after the death of Festus—was yet enroute, (4) he arrested James and some companions and (5) brought forth accusations against him. (6) He then had them stoned. (7) Citizens who felt James was just and upright sent out for Agrippa while others met Albinus on the road. (8) Agrippa removed Ananus from the High Priesthood and gave it to Jesus, son of Damneus. James, in the context of the chapter, is said to be “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”

There seems to be two possible solutions for this, and both seem adequate in light of the evidence. First, it seems more accurate that Josephus is here referring to Jesus, son of Damneus. Among our first solution, consider the passage is authentic with absolutely no tampering; even Mason agrees that the use of Christos in this fashion seems more appropriate as it is a nickname rather than a title. (p. 228) Mason suggests that titles were common among first century Jews because of the lack of common names in use. Jesus here is nicknamed “anointed.” Jesus son of Damneus did in fact get selected to be the High Priest, in which he would have been anointed for the position which the scripture commands in Exodus 29:9 and 1 Samuel 10:1, and thus his nickname would apply. This example gives too much credit to the originality of the text, however, and although it certainly is possible that this section of the text could be authentic, it is still doubtful considering the list of early Christians who would have had no problems tampering with it. In the Greek, the text for Antiquities 20.9.1, 200 is as follows (translated here from the Koine):

“When Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”
It is odd that this verse is considered to be authentic completely, especially considering the almost nonchalant nature of Josephus’ discussion of James, as if he wasn’t the subject at all. Instead, it seems that Jesus was the subject of this verse specifically, which is why his name is brought up at all. What other reason would Josephus have to discuss Jesus in relation to James? How does Jesus fit into this discussion, especially if he was already dead which oddly enough is never mentioned in the text? Nowhere does Josephus say “Jesus who was called Christ, who had been crucified by Pilate.” Jesus doesn’t even get discussed in past tense in any way; in fact it could be argued that it seems as if Jesus is still alive when James was put on trial. These oddities lead to the position that Jesus son of Damneus is the Jesus who is the brother of James, who is being tried by Ananus.

This is even more anomalous then, that Origen notes that James is to blame for the fall of Jerusalem instead of Jesus, as he writes (emphasis added):

“Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless--being, although against his will, not far from the truth--that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ),--the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure.”

It should be obvious to those who would read this that Origen only knew of this passage in Josephus, and perhaps the only reason why he even considered it to be in regards to Jesus was that he had copies of Luke, and also of Paul which he would have read as being the same James. It does not even appear as though Jesus was called “the Christ” in this passage, but rather Origen simply interpreted it at this time to mean Jesus Christ. This should lead to some consideration as to how much Origen really read of the text in Josephus’ Antiquities. He certainly did not know of the Testimonium, as he never refers to it, where it would have been valuable to do so. Moreso the passage here in Antiquities 20 does not seem to mean what many think it does, and probably didn’t receive its final stature until either right before or immediately after Origen, but certainly before Eusebius. This can be witnessed in that Eusebius himself doesn’t seem to have a completed interpolation either, and perhaps even he had received a slightly reworked text before reading it himself.
Consider that, while returning to the list concerning the Testimonium, Eusebius’ understanding of the text is exactly the next subject to be discussed. For Eusebius quotes the Testimonium as if he didn’t know where it fit. He suggests for example that the passage of Jesus is found after the passage of John the Baptist, which is erroneous to the manuscripts we have today. Mason writes that “even at Eusebius’ time the form of the Testimonium was not yet fixed…in fact...[it] remained fluid.” (p. 230) Not only does it seem to be fluid, but Eusebius seems to have an alternate reading of the text—or perhaps he is altering it even more himself—in Demonstratio Evangelica 3:5 below:

"And Jesus arises at that time, a wise man, if it is befitting to call him a man. For he was a doer of no common works, a teacher of men who reverence truth. And he gathered many of the Jewish and many of the Greek race. This was Christus; and when Pilate (c) condemned him to the Cross on the information of our rulers, his first followers did not cease to revere him. For he appeared to them the third day alive again, the divine prophets having foretold this, and very many other things about him. And from that time to this the tribe of the Christians has not failed."

This is a very damning case for Eusebius and his Testimonium. What is worse is that all seven of these problems, with the addition of the James passage, make Josephus’ testimony hard to take seriously. The Testimonium appears completely nonexistent prior to the forth century, and even then we don’t have any manuscript evidence until after the tenth century. And all the manuscript data we do have conflict with each other in ways you shouldn’t expect to find, especially among the same people! Admitting these problems as well as the fact that many, albeit not near a consensus, in the scholarly community have suggested the complete removal of the Testimonium, Mason suggests that a complete interpolation seems unlikely. It is hard to believe that somebody can truly feel this is the case after looking over the evidence, and one has to wonder if there are any additional motivations in wanting the text to be authenticated. However, suffice from ever gaining that knowledge one can only hope that Mason can provide some sort of sound evidence for his claims. He does put forth a few reasons why such a complete interpolation would not seem likely. (1) He claims that Christian copyists were “quite conservative in transmitting texts.” (p. 232) His evidence for this point is that (a) there seems to be no other suspicious tampering in Josephus and that, (b) no evidence exists in Philo which would also have been helpful to their cause. Mason states, “But in the case of Philo and Josephus…one is hard pressed to find a single example of serious scribal altercation.” (ibid.)

But Mason’s claims here are dubious, and full of pseudo truths. For starters, his final claim that one is hardpressed to locate any “serious” scribal altercations is hard to take seriously, as he is discussions a very serious scribal altercation in his very paragraph! Indeed, the whole reason why Christian scribes were conservative is because to interpolate more would be to cause additional problems. In fact, it is probably the reason why textual critics did not find more than just one paragraph, as had the interpolators used any additional space it would have made copying the rest of the manuscript much more difficult, and perhaps they would have even run out of room. This is why when we see interpolations they are minimal, and not extensive. For example, we do not see the Gospel narratives fully embedded in Josephus precisely because such a thing would be difficult for an interpolator to accomplish while still recalling the other two full books he would have to copy.

Bart Ehrman shows how this is impossible due to scroll length. Papyrus scrolls—basically glued-together sections of papyrus sheets—seldom measured longer than 35 feet in length due to convenience. Thus, authors, and later those copyists who would transmit the texts onto fresh scrolls later—would generally separate long works into “books,” each accommodating one scroll. Josephus’ Antiquities was made up of 20 such books, so the scribal interpolator would need to be conservative in order to avoid running out of space. This is perhaps why textual critics see small interpolations in the Gospels, such as 1 John 5:7, and not whole sections of text, at least not until much later when the cost of codifying made it cheaper to transmit texts.

Indeed, it seems that when Christians started using Codices as opposed to scrolls, it would have become much easier to interpolate a selection of text. It would have cost significantly less than interpolating a scroll—Ehrman recounts that in terms of value one would save up to 44% by having something copied in Codex form as opposed to Scrolls—and even more so when the Christian copyists started using parchment sheets instead of papyrus leaves. Such a change from papyrus to parchment made copying texts onto both sides of a sheet much easier to accomplish than using the sheets of papyri, in which the direction of the fibers made transmission difficult and annoying.

This would explain then why we don’t really see an interpolation until after Eusebius, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Not only was the use of Codices more popular as is discussed by Eusebius concerning the fifty copies of the scripture to be Codified by the order of Constantine, but the fact that there were now whole groups of professional scribes focused on transmitting texts just for Christians, something that probably was state sanctioned if Constantine were commanding it. Prior to this time, it would probably still have been too expensive for the Christian to pay for a copyist to transmit the texts in this great a number, and additionally we know many of the early Christians were slaves, criminals, women and their children, who would probably not have had the means at interpolating any specific passages themselves.

That aside, the notion that Christian scribes were always conservative is truly bunk. Especially when one considers the Old Russian copies of Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, where there seem to be several interpolated passages attesting to Jesus. In refutation of Mason’s claim that “Christian copyists were quite conservative,” George A. Wells writes, “This seems to overlook the considerable interpolations…in the Old Russian translation of The Jewish War, and there are extensive Christian interpolations in other Jewish writings of the period, now known as the OT Pseudepigrapha.” (p. 51-52) For a complete viewing of these manuscripts, Frank Zindler has an informative article on the Old Russian manuscripts in his work The Jesus the Jews Never Knew (2003), p. 60-71.

In the end it must be concluded that there is not a single reason to accept any part of the Testimonium, indeed any reference to Jesus in Josephus should be looked at skeptically and avoided as any use for evidence of a historical Jesus. To accept the Testimonium is to cherry pick the translation, the text variant and the church father one likes the best, and nothing more. This is not the means to attaining honest research and certainly should not be considered good scholarship.

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