Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part One
What use would the early fathers have had for a passage in Josephus saying Jesus was not the Messiah? An educated Jew stating this would not be helpful, as it would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament were not nearly as clear-cut as early Christians would have liked to believe. And because no early skeptics or opponents of Christianity ever challenged Jesus' existence, early Christians never had any reason to point to a critical Jewish source to prove that he was real. Hence Josephus was not quoted by earlier Christian writers.
So what exactly did Origen write? Here are two passages from his works. Both of them basically say the same thing and reinforce each other:
And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered such great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. And the wonderful thing is that, although he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James. (Origen, Commentary on Matthew X, XVII)
For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. 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. (Origen, Against Celsus I, XLVII)
The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is a much briefer reference to "James, brother of Jesus called Christ." We also know about James from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. He was indeed Jesus' brother and one of the early leaders of the Church. This second mention of Jesus certainly existed in Origen's copy of Josephus because Origen uses the phrase "called Christ" twice. It cannot be a Christian interpolation into Josephus because Christian texts called James either "James the Just" or "James the Brother of the Lord."
The reference to "James, brother of Jesus called Christ" is still found in book 20 of Jewish Antiquities, and this by itself torpedoes the idea that Jesus never existed. The idea that Christians were going around doctoring copies of Josephus while they were still a persecuted minority is ludicrous. Origen also says that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, so our present day passage on Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 18 cannot have existed in its current form. However, the authentic passing reference to Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 20 is good evidence that he had been mentioned previously by Josephus.
It should be pointed out that Origen himself reads too much into Josephus. Josephus does indeed say the people of Jerusalem thought the killing of James was wrong, but he does not go quite so far as to blame the entire Jewish War on the event.
It is clear that the existence of Jesus and the fact of his crucifixion are adequately attested by Josephus, even leaving aside the New Testament and other early Christian sources. To claim Jesus did not exist, in the face of the evidence from Josephus, is to indulge in special pleading. Historians should not ask for a higher standard of proof for the existence of Jesus than they do for any other ancient figure.
In the second part of this series, I will consider the alleged similarities between the story of Christ and the mythological stories of various pagan religions.
James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at http://bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson.