Hi and welcome back! Last Friday, we checked out Tacitus and his writing. Christians often consider him to be extra-biblical evidence supporting their historical claims, but we found that he wasn’t really that at all. Today, we’ve got a similar situation. Many Christians point to Josephus as PROOF YES PROOF that their mythology has real and true historical roots. As we’ll see, though, it’s not that at all. And Christians’ dishonesty about Josephus has some real implications for Christianity as a whole.
(Series tag. In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. We examined this list in full here.)
Everyone, Meet Josephus.
Titus Flavius Josephus, usually just called Josephus, lived from 37-100 CE. That makes him too young to be a contemporary of Jesus, of course. All the same, Christians often point to his writing as extra-biblical support for their claims about him.
This Jewish historian had quite an interesting life. Born in Jerusalem to a wealthy priestly family, he led forces against the hated Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War (which ran from 66-73 CE). That war began over some Messianic prophecies. Alas, in 67 Josephus surrendered to an army led by Vespasian. Somehow, Vespasian got word that Josephus thought a particular Messianic prophecy referred to Vespasian becoming the Emperor of Rome. So he kept Josephus around as a slave.
When Vespasian indeed became emperor in 69 CE, he freed Josephus (which might be why Josephus took the name Flavius — Vespasian founded the Flavian dynasty, which then ruled Rome for a while). In return, Josephus defected to the Romans and gained citizenship in the Empire — and became a friend and advisor to Titus, Vespasian’s son. When Titus besieged Jerusalem, Josephus was right beside him as his translator. (Yes, the Jews back home were pretty frosted at him over all this.)
I guess Josephus didn’t mind too much that the siege of Jerusalem killed his whole family (except for his brother) and his first wife.
Most notably, Josephus wrote histories. He concentrated on Jews of the 1st century CE. And as such, you’d think that they’d contain at least something about Jesus and the very earliest Christians. He did, after all, write about all kinds of characters from the Bible.
Did he write about Jesus, though?
The Main Works of Josephus.
Josephus wrote two major works and a minor one.
The Jewish War, or The Wars of the Jews, written around 75 CE. A 7-volume history that covers the period of time between the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 BCE to the First Jewish-Roman War (which ran, again, from 66-73 CE). The original, written in either Hebrew or Aramaic, has been lost. We have a Greek version that Josephus himself might have overseen in creation, and an Old Slavonic version. PDF version.
Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93ish CE. A 20-volume history that covers the entire history of Judaism. Aimed at a gentile audience, its first 10 books roam through the historical myths of the Jews from Creation onward. The last 10 books cover Jewish history from the last Old Testament books through the First Jewish-Roman War. PDF version.
Josephus also wrote Against Apion. Written after 94 CE, it consists of Jewish apologetics arguments. The person he was arguing with was Apion, as you likely guessed from the title. Apion, a Hellenized Egyptian, wrote about Homer and grammar. He had one helluva good reputation as an orator — and he really did not like Jews. Remember when we talked about Philo and his visit to Caligula in 38 CE? Well, Apion headed the opposition. Josephus didn’t like him. PDF version.
A short fourth work called Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades used to be attributed to Josephus. But now historians think Hippolytus of Rome, a very important Christian leader, actually wrote it somewhere around 200 CE. WikiSource link.
The Testimony of Josephus.
When we check out the Wiki page for “Sources for the historicity of Jesus,” Josephus shows up (along with Tacitus, already debunked) as a “key” non-Christian source. In fact, one passage from one of Josephus’ works has been formally named the Testimonium Flavianum (or Testimony of Josephus).
This passage comes from Book 18, Chapter 3 of Antiquities. Book 18 in general is about modern Jewish history (well, modern to Josephus).
Josephus did not like Pilate much, we learn very early on. Here is the relevant bit of that chapter, from the PDF link:
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 amongst 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.
Remember, this would have been written around 93 CE — if it had been part of Josephus’ original work. Thus, it’d represent the earliest mention of Jesus anywhere outside of the Bible. And by that I mean Jesus Christ, originator of Christianity. Josephus actually mentions a great many Jewish guys named Jesus in this work.
But does he mention Jesus Christ?
What Christians Claim About Josephus.
In general, Christians not only accept this so-called Testimony of Josephus, but consider him an actual eyewitness account of Jesus’ historicity. Seriously. Yes. The guy who was not even born when Jesus supposedly died. Y’all, by that reckoning I could write an eyewitness account about Spencer Tracy, who died in 1967! Here’s a short list of the Christians who accept the Testimony as for-realsies, with caveats perhaps:
J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity:
Even when examining the a modest, redacted version of Josephus’ ancient account, it’s clear that this Jewish historian reluctantly affirmed the following: Jesus lived in Palestine, was a wise man and a teacher, worked amazing deeds, was accused by the Jews, crucified under Pilate and had followers called Christians. [Source.]
Michael Gleghorn of Be Thinking:
Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. [. . .] even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. [Source.]
Got Questions takes the same tack, as does NAMB (North American Mission Board). They accept most of the Testimony at face value, but concede that some of it might be additions by later Christian scribes.
That said, some Christians go whole-hog on the Testimony, insisting it is completely for realsies — like this Presbyterian pastor. Overall, though, it seems like most Christians try to split the difference. They recognize some part of the Testimony as real, with the most lavish bits being embellishments.
However, one historian calls this halfsies approach “seriously flawed.” And it is.
Since I used to hold this position to some extent, what I found out today blew my mind.
Rejecting the Testimony of Josephus.
(We’ll get into the James reference in a moment.)
The main problem we have with the Testimony is a simple one, and one that Christians simply cannot surmount:
Until the 4th century, not one Christian knew anything about it.
Y’all, we’ve met all kinds of early Christians around these parts, mostly through our History of Hell series. Think about them all now. Think about Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, probably more. Well, not one of them knew about the Testimony of Josephus. Not one, not ever. It might as well not have existed.
Origen, in particular, was a 3rd-century Christian who wrote the now-famous Contra Celsus. He wrote, according to Jesus Never Existed, a quarter-million words defending Christianity. Dude even quoted Josephus!
But he doesn’t mention the Testimony at all. Of course he didn’t. It did not exist in his copy of Josephus’ Antiquities.
The Language Doesn’t Even Check Out.
We also can check out a 2015 paper by Paul Hopper regarding the actual language of the Testimony. (It’s linked here, in the first post.) Hopper concludes,
The narrative grammar of the Testimonium Flavianum sets it sharply apart from Josephus’s other stories of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate.
He concludes that the exact written language forms in the Testimony mark it as having been written around the 3rd century or later.
So we may well have Eusebius — that supreme liar-for-Jesus himself — to thank for the Testimony. He is the first person to “quote” the passage in 340 CE. With Christian “discoveries,” after all, he who smelt it usually also dealt it. It sure wouldn’t be the first time Eusebius would ever put words in ancient figures’ mouths.
I see no reason whatsoever to think the Testimony of Josephus is anything but a wholesale fraud committed in the early 4th century by a Christian, most likely Eusebius.
The Jamesian Reference.
We also see Josephus mention what is apparently the brother of Jesus, James. He makes the mention in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James[. . .]
First, the term “Christ” is suspect. We’ve established that the Testimony was a fraud. So it seems unlikely for Josephus to have used this term for the first and only time in his book. He explains other terms he uses, because Antiquities was meant to teach gentiles about Jews.
Second, Josephus flat-out mentions a Jesus right after the naming of James. Here’s the rest of that paragraph:
[. . .] and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus [. . .]. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. [Source.]
But is it legit?
The Jamesian Reference Might Not Be Legit Either.
So the current high priest, Ananus, ordered James and a group of other men to be stoned to death around 62 CE on trumped-up charges.
Oh wait. Clement of Alexandria said James was beaten to death with a club around 70 CE.
Oh wait again. Hegesippus said James was thrown from the top of the temple to the ground, then finished off with a blow to a head from a fuller’s clothes-beating stick, also around 70 CE. [Both from here.]
We’ve already seen one complete insertion in Josephus’ text. Given that this account contradicts others of James’ death, it occurs to us, perhaps, that “who was called Christ” just might be one as well.
Returning to Josephus, he writes that these executions sparked a big outcry. Not because of James’ death per se. The real outrage here was that Ananus had acted way out of line.
In fact, it doesn’t seem like Josephus thought James was of any great importance. Interestingly, he mentions Ananus (at least, the father) in his Jewish War book (here, ch. 5, section 2), but not James. (Jesus, son of Damneus does get an unflattering editorial mention in the 4th footnote to Book 4 in the War.)
As punishment, Agrippa stripped Ananus of his rank, then awarded the now-vacated position to a guy named… Jesus.
Since a Jesus is mentioned immediately after James’ death, it isn’t too unreasonable to think that James was that Jesus’ brother, and that after a high priest had unlawfully executed this good man, King Agrippa handed the High Priest position to his still-living brother Jesus as justice/recompense/karma/whatever.
Obviously, Josephus isn’t contemporary with Jesus. He wasn’t even born till after Jesus’ supposed death. However, his histories have been invaluable to countless historians over the years, and that work is exhaustive in its way.
I can easily see why 3rd-and-4th-century Christians felt an irresistible urge to edit Josephus’ work to better support their own claims. Around then, they were just starting to wonder why they lacked that kind of corroboration, and it bothered some of them a lot. That’s when we start seeing claims of people finding Jesus’ birthplace and tomb, Bethlehem itself, and other such notable locations from the Bible — as well as countless totes-for-realsies relics from countless Bible characters.
Since Josephus wrote so much about that critical period of 1-35 CE, they’d likely have been quite concerned that he never said a word about Jesus. (Patriarch Photius expresses the exact same concern about Justus of Tiberias, a near-exact contemporary of Josephus’ in the 9th century.)
When they found nothing there, those Christians just did what Christians do all too often: they created the support they needed.
I give Josephus a B regardless. His work is so useful for so many reasons. His total silence on the topic of Jesus is beyond damning. However, he’s just not contemporaneous in the real sense of the term.
And except for made-up lies by later Christians, he, too, is silent about Jesus.
NEXT UP: What dishonesty around historical sources really means for Christianity. We ran out of time to cover that today, so we’ll finish that up tomorrow! This week, we’ll also finish up our Hell series by looking at C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. See you tomorrow <3
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