If Jesus was such a big deal, then why isn’t he mentioned by more historians of his time? This is a question that often gets asked by skeptics. The common Christian reply is that he was mentioned by 1st and early 2nd-century historians – namely Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus. This is where some critics – particularly the “Jesus-is-a-myth” crowd – cry foul. They’ll argue that Josephus never really mentioned Jesus, and if we’d critically examine the passages for ourselves, we’d admit that this popular Christian apologetic is pretty flimsy.
This reply is a bit odd, seeing that even some of the strongest critics of traditional Christianity like Bart Ehrman and JD Crossan think that Josephus really did mention Jesus. So what are these skeptics basing their arguments on?
WHO WAS JOSEPHUS?
Before we get into their arguments, let’s back up and talk a little bit about who Josephus was. Here’s the bullet point version:
- He was born to an aristocratic Jewish family and lived between the years 37-100 AD.
- He was actively involved in the political and military affairs of the Jews in Palestine.
- He was the general of Jewish troops in the northern part of Palestine before defecting to the Roman side.
- He wrote extensive histories, including The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. These histories give us great insight into the social, political and religious climate of 1st-century Palestine. He mentions Biblical figures like Pilate, Tiberius, the family of Herod, Claudius, Felix, Festus, John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus. (Mythicists will dispute the James passage, however. We’ll talk about it in a bit.)
SO WHAT DID JOSEPHUS ALLEGEDLY WRITE ABOUT JESUS?
The most famous passage is called the “Testimonium Flavianum”. Here it is:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so-called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64
The quotes in bold are what most scholars would dispute, and for good reason. These are clearly something only a Christian writer would say, and we know that Josephus was certainly not a believer.
WHY DO SOME CRITICS SAY THAT THIS PASSAGE IS A TOTAL FABRICATION?
1. If you remove the Testimonium from its larger context, the previous paragraph flows together. This section seems conspicuously out of place.
But the problem with this argument is that it’s not rare for ancient writers to digress, and other digressions are found in the context of the passage. Footnotes are more of a modern thing. Furthermore, in this section of Josephus, it does emphasize Pilate’s rule. It’s understandable why Josephus would give us a parenthetical comment about Jesus here since it was Pilate who had him crucified.
2. No one mentions this passage until the 4th-century. (Eusebius) Why don’t early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr, Tertullian or Origen make use of this passage? Even more damning, Origen mentions Josephus but never mentions this section.
For starters, this is just an argument from silence. That no Christian writers mention the passage doesn’t prove that it didn’t exist. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was a general during the Civil War and fails to mention the Emancipation Proclamation. His silence gives us little reason to doubt that he wasn’t aware of it. Arguments from silence are notoriously sketchy.
We’ll look at what scholars think the original Josephus passage said in a moment. But we’ll see that it contains little that early Christian apologists could have used to defend Jesus from attacks from pagan critics. What exactly were they going to use it to prove? That Jesus was wise or did great deeds? That he had a big following? Yawn. Few in the ancient world would’ve denied this, nor would they have really cared. They didn’t doubt his existence.
Furthermore, the non-touched-up version of the Testimonium may reflect that Josephus was surprised Jesus still had followers given how he was executed. This could explain why Origen says that Josephus didn’t believe in Jesus. Jerome (347-420 AD) mentions the Testimonium (De Viris Illustribus 13.14) but never makes any use of it, even though he cites Josephus 90+ times in his writings. He simply didn’t see any apologetic value in it.
3. Josephus complained a lot about other Messianic pretenders killed by the Romans. He painted them all in a bad light (i.e. Theudas, “The Egyptian”, “The Samaritan”) Why wasn’t he harsher regarding Jesus?
In the original passage, there isn’t a word about Jesus being a political leader trying to rebel against Rome. He’s mentioned as a teacher who is accused on unknown charges and is killed by crucifixion. There’s not a lot of harsh things to say, to his knowledge, other than him being crucified indicates that he wasn’t all that successful. We already know that Jesus wasn’t a political Messiah.
4. Josephus never would have called him wise or as someone who taught the truth.
The answer here is that we’re not sure of how familiar Josephus was with Jesus’ teaching. Jesus did teach things that many other Jewish rabbis taught, namely that we should love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves. He taught that we should do good to others, feed the hungry and care for the poor. This itself would hardly be seen as unwise or untruthful.
5. Josephus would have never called him “the Christ.” He calls no other messianic pretenders by this title. This complaint refers to the James passage. In his book Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, Josephus wrote:
“But this younger Ananus, who, as we told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent…He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned.”
But Josephus’ use of the word Christ here hardly suggests interpolation. We can readily see why he’d use it when mentioning the death of James. Josephus mentions over 20 other men by the name of Jesus in his works. He probably would’ve wanted to specify James’ well-known brother.
Furthermore, Origen does use this passage. It seems unlikely he would have cited it unless he was sure his critical pagan audience could have found it themselves. (Contra Celsum 1.47). Also, the traditional accounts differ significantly from the account found in Josephus. Eusebius, Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria all tell us that he was first thrown down from the battlement of the temple by scribes and Pharisees. They began to stone him after he fell, but were stopped by a priest. Then he was finally clubbed to death by laundrymen.
Josephus simply tells us he was stoned to death by Ananus. That these two accounts greatly differ it makes it unlikely they were a Christian interpolation.
WHAT DO SCHOLARS THINK THE PASSAGE REALLY SAID?
Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, most scholars believe that this passage was doctored by Christian interpolators. Think of Cecilia Giménez’s infamous botched attempt to restore the Ecco Homo fresco. While her “touch-up” was the subject of many a meme, no one concludes that there was no original painting.
Without the Christian additions, most scholars reconstruct the passage as follows:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”
This is Jon Meier’s reconstruction and even some of the most skeptical of scholars like Bart Ehrman think that the original passage said something very much like this. To quote Ehrman “The majority of scholars of early Judaism and experts on Josephus think it was the former – that one or more Christian scribes “touched up” the passage a bit.” (See Dr. Ehrman’s book: Did Jesus Exist, p 60.)
SO WHAT DOES THIS PASSAGE TELL US ABOUT THE HISTORICAL JESUS?
- We learn that many believed Jesus did remarkable, perhaps miraculous deeds.
- Jesus had a large following.
- He was condemned to be crucified by Pilate because of Jewish accusations brought against him.
- He continued to have followers after his death.
- That many believed that he was the Messiah.
This non-Christian source confirms much of what we already knew from the gospels. Recognizing some regrettably dishonest Christian edits doesn’t take away from the historical core of what Josephus believed about Jesus. Christians aren’t being uncritical to cite it as extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus as some rabid skeptics would have us to believe. When examined fairly, these texts in Josephus remove all doubt that Jesus really existed.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.