Josephus on Jesus

Josephus on Jesus October 2, 2020

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece titled “The Resurrection, Fideism and Circularity“, to which regular Christian commenter Jayman responded to here. Please read both to get a sense of the conversation. I will now react to only a couple of his claims in this article before continuing in further articles about Josephus. His first paragraph read:

It simply isn’t the case that NT history only intersects with non-biblical history in the nativity and resurrection accounts. And, to be honest, I’m not sure where Jonathan thinks the resurrection accounts intersect with non-biblical history. He says such claims fail to be history but does not go into further detail. But we can counter his claim about NT history intersecting with non-biblical history by noting Josephus’s references to John the Baptist, Jesus, James the brother of Jesus, and the death of Herod Agrippa I or Tacitus’s mention of Jesus’s death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Then there is archaeological evidence supporting the NT to also consider. I am not trying to be exhaustive here, but noting the inauspicious start to the post. The rest of the post is built on a faulty premise.

Firstly, my piece is a draft section to my book on the Resurrection that builds on my earlier book on the nativity (The Nativity: A Critical Examination – UK).  It is in these books, and the many blog pieces that I have written that I substantiate such claims. Where I think that the Resurrection intersects with history are in the following ways:

  • Passover traditions
  • Execution practices
  • Burial practices
  • Veneration practices
  • Pontius Pilate
  • The actions of the Sanhedrin
  • Joseph of Arimathea

And that’s just for starters. My larger point is that the vague claims in between the birth and death of Jesus are not verifiable in any way: when was it, and who turned up to the Wedding at Cana? How can we historically verify the resurrection of Lazarus?

The birth and death of Jesus offer us ample opportunity to be able to corroborate (or not) the claims concerning Jesus. For the rest of his life, we are not afforded that luxury.

And when we do closely analyse the claims, we are left with a lack of verification and evidence that such Gospel claims did not happen. Which then leaves us only with fideism (reliance on faith) to support Christian belief, and the whole belief process becomes circular.

Let us look at Jayman’s claim about Jewish historian Josephus

But we can counter his claim about NT history intersecting with non-biblical history by noting Josephus’s references to John the Baptist, Jesus, James the brother of Jesus…

John the Baptist (Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18, Chapter 5, 2))

This is considered to be an authentic passage by most scholars (but not all). The problem is that whilst this may confirm that the person of John the Baptist existed, it does not confirm Christianity or any claims per see, as we can see:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the Baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. …. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret. And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

There is disagreement here with the Gospels on why Herod had JtB killed.

I would go further to say that the evidence is pretty good that it was actually an interpolation. Here are 5 reasons:

  1. The Baptist material intrudes into its context quite roughly. The paragraphs on either side of it follow perfectly if the Baptist section is removed.
  2. The passage about John the Baptist says Herod sent John to the castle of Macherus to be killed. Yet only two sentences before the [p]aragraph…, Josephus had written that the castle of Macherus did not belong to Herod, but to the king who soon afterwards attacked him.
  3. In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was defeated by Aretas was that God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.
    But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:

    And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

  4. Josephus makes no mention of John the Baptist when discussing Herod in his other book, The Wars of the Jews.
  5. John the Baptist is not mentioned in the early Greek table of contents to the Antiquities of Josephus, but he is found in the later Latin version.

I would contest that it is not an interpolation, and we already know that there were Josephus interpolations. Without Josephus, there are no extra-biblical references to JtB.


The most famous example, the Testimonium Flavianum, was interpolated. End of. I don’t want to go into it as it would take a chapter to discuss. Go read Wikipedia. If you believe, like some, that there is some authentic nucleus, all this would do is tell us “Jesus existed”. Well, I believe that, so that doesn’t get you to “Jesus as God incarnated in man form existed”. This interpolation essentially goes against all of Josephus’ other writings to suggest Jesus is the Messiah.

James, the brother of Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, Chapter 9, 1))

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. 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: 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, 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, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. 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. (Antiquities, 20.9.1) [My emphasis.]

This reference is found in all version of Josephus’s book 20. The 2nd-century Christian chronicler Hegesippus also recounts the death of James, though the details differ to Josephus’. Mainstream Christian scholarship (obviously) favours it not being an interpolation. However, there are good arguments to suggest it was – but even if it wasn’t, it just tells us that Jesus had a brother called James who was stoned to death (on the order of Ananus ben Ananus, Herodian-era High-Priest).

Reasons for this being an interpolation (blockquote from Efron, J. (1987). Studies on the Hasmonean period. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.), though 7 onwards are my additional reasons:

  1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views: … In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.
  2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts” [see link above for more information on how this is suspiciously similar to Acts, and how observant Jews seem to be disgusted at how Christians were being treated.]
  3. Historical ignorance of Roman governance: The “pseudo-Josephan” text speaks of a sudden power or administrative vacuum arising as a result of the death of the Roman procurator and before his successor arrived. But that’s not how Roman administration worked. Other imperial officers and officials were still present to maintain order and justice. There was also the legate-governor of Syria overseeing the region.

    It is not plausible to think that a Jewish official was free to act in defiance of Roman law in that context.

    Note further oddities in the narrative. The opponents of Ananus appeal not to one authority but to two: both king Agrippa and the next procurator on his way, Albinus. Were the opponents of Ananus confused about whom they should approach? Or was it the author who was ignorant of who would have been in charge at that time. Finally,

    Did the procurator need the clarification and guidance of the Jewish delegation so as to recognize his own full authority and exercise it? And why wasn’t Ananus properly punished for his terrible crime?

  4.  A Josephan anomaly concerning the high priest

    Fourthly, despite Josephus’ patent inclination to glorify the high priesthood, he does not make the slightest mention, except in this “Christian” passage, of the convening of the Sanhedrin by the high priest subject to the governor’s approval, and there was no lack of opportunity in the years close to the Great Revolt, the events of which Josephus records.

    For Josephus, it was not the high priests who ruled at this time but the aristocracy. The leadership of the people was not in the hands of a single high priest, according to Josephus elsewhere, but to “groups of chief priests” heading the Sanhedrin.

    We learn from Josephus that it was the king, Agrippa II (or earlier, Hyrcanus II), who convened the Sanhedrin, not the high priest of the day.

  5. The passage “absolutely opposes Josephus’ consistent hostility”:

    Fifthly, the admiring neutrality in this questionable testimony regarding the mysterious figure of Jesus “called the Messiah (Christ)” with no explanation of the unusual epithet (as in the previous passage), and without the least reservations, is most astonishing. Pilate too, compassionate and good-hearted, according to Matthew, adopts a similar ambiguous expression about the one “called the Messiah (Christ)’’ as does Matthew himself.221 Such a strange, tolerant, ambiguous definition is absolutely opposed to Josephus’ consistent position and his demonstrative hostility to fermenting dangerous messianic aspirations and the many dangerous movements of various misleading saviors and false prophets.222 What is the reason for his surprising deviance? Christianity was then illegal, abominated by the authorities, and widely disliked in Rome. Not only from the fundamental Jewish point of view but also because of the apologetic purpose embedded in Josephus’ work, there was no good reason to express fondness or compassionate understanding for the invidious inimical church. (Efron 1987, p. 336 – My emphasis.)

  6. External evidence strengthens the case for interpolation:  Origen (third century) quotes a version of the same passage, Efron writes, and adds that it was the unjust execution of James that was the reason God ordained the destruction of the Jewish nation and its Temple. Origen expresses some dismay that Josephus acknowledged how righteous James was but failed to believe in his brother, Jesus.

    The deviant version cited has not survived in any manuscript, but Eusebius copied it in his Ecclesiastical History, added a legend told by Hegesippus about the circumstances of James’ death, and also the version generally found today of the Josephus passage.223 The vicissitudes and textual changes of the suspect chapter suggest arbitrary false corrections in it, since it became a tool of Christian propaganda.

  7. The mention of “Christos” is out of place in Josephus (as per the Tesimonium Flavianum).
  8. It flows well without the reference to Jesus.
  9. As per Rober Price, Josephus may have seen James as a fraternal sort of brother rather than his actual brother.
  10. From Wikipedia, concerning Richard Carrier’s work: Richard Carrier argues that the words “who was called Christ” likely resulted from the accidental insertion of a marginal note added by copyist between the time of Origen and Eusebius.[119] Carrier proposes that the original text referred to a brother of Jesus ben Damneus, who is mentioned later in the same passage. The original passage would have described the illegal execution of James, the brother of Jesus ben Damneus, by the high priest Ananus. Ananus is then punished by being stripped of his position as high priest and replaced with ben Damneus— the brother of the very man he had unjustly killed.[120]
  11. Further to this, and taking into account several previous points (again from Wikipedia): Carrier points out that in the earliest potential external references to the James passage, found in the works Origen (see § Early references above), Origen attributes statements to Josephus that he never wrote in any of his extant works, such as the claim that the killing of James caused the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. According to Carrier, this strongly suggests that he is confusing statements from another author with those of Josephus. He proposes that Origen actually had in mind a passage from the work Commentaries on the Acts of the Church, written by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus in the late second century. The Hegesippus passage, which is preserved in a quotation from the church historian Eusebius, describes the martyrdom of “James the Just” at the hand of the Jews and heavily implies that this was the cause of the destruction of the temple.[103] If Origen is really referring to a passage in Hegesippus, Carrier argues, then this actually provides evidence against the authenticity of the reference to “Christ” in Josephus’ Antiquities. This is because, if the reference to Christ were authentic, Origen would likely have simply quoted that passage rather than insisting that Josephus wrote something that he did not actually write.[121]
  12. GA Wells corroborates this and the work of Efron: G. A. Wells argued that the fact that Origen seems to have read something different about the death of James in Josephus than what there is now, suggests some tampering with the James passage seen by Origen.[122] Wells suggests that the interpolation seen by Origen may not have survived in the extant Josephus manuscripts, but that it opens the possibility that there may have been other interpolations in Josephus’ writings.[122] Wells further states that differences between the Josephus account and those of Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria may point to interpolations in the James passage.[122]

I’ll add in a further Efron quote that sums up the Josephus passages:

224 Josephus obviously totally disregarded the young Christian congregations in their first stages of development, despite his extensive detailed descriptions of the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Revolt. As a historian and writer addressing non-Jewish readers, defending Judaism and aspiring to gain appreciation for it, he preferred to delete sensitive, inconvenient manifestations likely to arouse a negative reaction and controversy. The three “Christian” passages — the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of his brother James and John the Baptist’s death — are exceptional in spirit as well as in their artificial contextual interpolation. Similarly Josephus’ contemporary and rival, Justus of Tiberias, author of a Jewish history in Greek, who did not however renounce his people, made not the slightest mention of Jesus or the miracles he wrought, as noted in Byzantine Christian testimony of Photius, Bibliotheca, Codex 33, PG 103; Photius, Bibliotheque, ed. R. Henry, vol. 1 (Collection Bude-Paris 1959), p. 18L: τής Χρίστου παρουσίας και των περί αυτόν τελεσβέντων καί τών ύπ’ αύτοΰ τερατουργηθέντων ούδέν δλως μνήμην έποιήσατο. See also Τ. Rajak, “Justus of Tiberias,” CIQ 23 (1973): 345 ff. Philo’s complete silence is equally significant.

(Efron 1987, pp. 336f. My emphasis.)

The point is that the Josephus accounts are the weakest of the weak forms of intersection qua attestation. Not only were they not eyewitness accounts, but they are almost certainly (at least mostly) interpolations. And even if they were not, they only tell us that people at the time believed Jesus was Christ. Well, yeah, his followers.

I’ll get onto Tacitus and other claims in the next post.

Lastly, here’s my book for you to enjoy:


Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook:

A Tippling Philosopher

You can also buy me a cuppa. Or buy some of my awesome ATP merchandise! Please… It justifies me continuing to do this!

Browse Our Archives