Josephus, Jesus, and John

Ken Olson recently had a guest post on the Jesus Blog, about the Testimonium Flavianum. Olson’s chapter on this subject, “A Eusebian Reading of the Testimonium Flavianum,” is online on Academia.eduJim Davila and Richard Carrier also discuss this topic.

Olson’s argument is summed up as follows: “The most likely hypothesis is that Eusebius either composed the entire text or rewrote it so thoroughly that it is now impossible to recover a Josephan original” (p.100).

As Olson points out (promising that he will address these matters in future articles), Origen mentions that Josephus was not a Christian, and without some reference to Jesus rather different than the current form of the Testimonium, there would seem to be no basis for such a statement. I would also add that, while there is indeed an awkwardness to the flow in the mention of Jesus here, it is not something that is uncharacteristic of Josephus in general or this chapter in the Antiquities more specifically.

Vridar mentioned an article by Rivka Nir, which disputes the authenticity of the reference of John the Baptist by Josephus, on unpersuasive grounds. The article insists that there was a clear Jewish mainstream, rather than the diversity that most scholarship has concluded existed in this period. And Nir at times treats the immersion practiced at Qumran as fringe, other times as mainstream. And so it is hard to address the points made in the article when they seem at times to be self-contradictory.

But in response to some of her points, it is worth considering (1) that John need not have been addressing something “mainstream,” and there may not have even been a clear mainstream in this period; and (2) the Mandaeans seem to provide precisely what Nir sees here, a wider Baptist context to which John was responding. Nir also mentions that the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (2.23) identify John as belonging to the Hemerobaptists – i.e., those who immerse daily.

The similarities with Jewish-Christian baptism can of course be explained very well in terms of Jewish Christianity’s debt to earlier Jewish immersion rituals. Nir further writes:

The author of our passage speaks of Johannine baptism in terms paralleling

those used for expiation sacrifices in the temple cult, by means of which the person bringing the sacrifice asks God to accept it so that his sins may be forgiven.

The notion that baptism was a substitute for the Jewish sacrificial cult is manifestly Christian…

It seems on the contrary that Jewish sectarian groups, especially those that disapproved of the temple either on principle or as currently run, regularly substituted or supplemented temple sacrifice with other rituals. And so her conclusion, “the inevitable conclusion is that the description of John’s baptism, as provided in the passage under review, was not written by Josephus, but was rather interpolated or adapted by a Christian or Jewish-Christian hand” (p.62), scarcely seems to be justified by the evidence she presented.

In looking at this issue in writing this blog post, I came across a doctoral dissertation by Max Aplin, on whether Jesus was ever a disciple of John the Baptist.

It is worth noting that, while it would be nice to have additional information from Josephus about both John and Jesus, having a letter from someone who met Jesus’ brother, as well as accounts of Jesus’ life which historical criticism shows to not be entirely fictional, are enough to demonstrate that there most likely was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. The situation with John the Baptist is somewhat weaker, but still adequate. And so the question of whether John and Jesus were historical figures is independent of the authenticity of these particular passages in Josephus.

On these topics elsewhere in the blogosphere, Ari’s Blog of Awesome recently had several posts related to mythicism, including one with video of John Barclay talking about Josephus, and another about how Robert Price promotes himselfTom Verenna mentioned that Is This Not The Carpenter? has been released in North America. And a Hindu Patheos blogger offered thought on whether it matters whether Jesus existed.

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  • Stewart Felker

    Ha, funny…I hadn’t had time to get into the Nir article yet – but I’m finishing up a really long post responding to Olson’s most recent article.

    (Oh, and this is koine_lingua from Reddit, btw.)

    • James F. McGrath

      Welcome! Please do share a link to your post, once you’ve written it!

  • Ken Olson

    Hi James,

    Thanks for the shout out and the link to my paper. For various reasons, including trying to keep the length and subject matter of the paper appropriate to the volume to which I was contributing (Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations, edited by Aaron Johnson and Jeremy Schott, from Harvard
    University Press, 2013), I limited myself largely to discussing the internal
    evidence concerning Eusebius’ authorship of the Testimonium and put off addressing the external evidence in published form (a Google search will probably reveal where I’ve addressed most of them online, if you’re curious).

    On your first point, I’ve always found the idea that Origen’s statement that Josephus was unbelieving in Jesus as Christ (or did not receive Jesus as Christ) would require that he knew of some kind of assertion to that effect from Josephus a curious one. Modern scholars have just about unanimously concluded that Josephus was a non-Christian Jew despite the presence of the Testimonium
    in his text. Josephus discusses Moses and the Law extensively and gives no hint
    (outside the Testimonium, of course) of being a Christian. Most readers would
    take him to be a Jew, not a Christian, in the same way they would take the
    authors of other Jewish documents, like the Mishnah, to be Jewish, not
    Christian. Origen probably never gave serious consideration to the logical
    possibility that Josephus was a Christian Jew who had simply never mentioned
    the fact in his works. When he’s citing him, he wants to make it clear that he is
    citing a non-Christian (“unbelieving” in patristic terminology) Jew as an
    outside witness whose testimony cannot be impeached on the grounds of some sort of Christian sympathies. This is typical of Origen. For instance, when he
    introduces Moiragenes as an author “who is not a Christian but a philosopher”
    in Contra Celsum 6.41, this probably does not mean we should expect to find a
    specific statement in Moiragenes’ work in which he denies being a Christian,
    but rather that Origen is producing him as an outside witness who can’t be
    accused of having Christian prejudices. We should probably also not take it to
    suggest that a person can’t be both a Christian and a philosopher. Justin Martyr
    is a good early example of someone who claimed to be both. In the case of
    Josephus, Origen was aware that there were Jews who received Jesus as Christ
    (Contra Celsum 2.1), but he’s making it clear that the particular Jew whose
    testimony he was producing was not one of them. Origen took him to be a Jew and attributed to him the same beliefs he attributed to other Jews, as when he
    says: “We bring this charge against the Jews, that they have not believed in
    Jesus as God ” (Contra Celsum 2.9).

    Your second point about “the awkwardness of the flow in the mention of Jesus” was a bit confusing to me because the only place that idea comes up in the article is in a quotation of John Meier, in which he is stating his own position that we can distinguish the hand of Josephus from that of a Christian interpolator because the statement “This one was the Christ” disturbs the flow of thought of the passage. I am arguing, against Meier, that the conclusion “This one was the Christ”, is not awkward, but logically follows the narration of Jesus’ fulfillment of things Eusebius elsewhere claims to have been foretold about the Christ in prophecy: that he would be a maker of miraculous works and a teacher of those human beings willing to receive the truth about the One God, not only from the Jews (who had been given this teaching before), but even from the Gentiles (who had not). So I’m not really sure how your comment about the awkwardness of the flow relates to what I argued. I’m thinking you might be addressing the argument made by Eduard Norden (in 1913) and others that the Testimonium is an awkward fit in the Antiquities and not something from my paper per se.

    So thanks again for taking the time to blog about my article. If you have any further thoughts about the things I discussed or didn’t discuss in the paper, I’d be glad to hear them. And sorry about the long comment. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

    Best wishes,


    • James F. McGrath

      Thanks for your comment, Ken. You may be right about Origen. On the other point, I was referring to the idea that the flow in that chapter of the Antiquities is better if the entire Testimonium is removed. If that suggestion was not made in something you wrote, but something else I was reading while writing the post (I had parts of it saved and worked on it over multiple days since the blog post appeared), then I apologize!