Jesus Unscriptured: Josephus

“This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context.”

Question from C.L.H.:
Christians sometimes point to “independent sources” or historians of Greek or Roman history in validating the existence of Jesus and historical truth of the Bible.

For example: Flavius Josephus wherein he writes about Jesus the Christ.

“Chapter 3 – Sedition Of The Jews Against Pontius Pilate. Concerning Christ, And What Befell Paulina And The Jews At Rome

3. 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.”
(from Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

I know there are several other historian accounts that are often referenced, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.

What are we to make of this “history”?

The other day I covered independent references to Jesus, and the evidence for him in general. I’ll focus on Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum this time.

In my other piece I said that the document was a battlefield. It’s been disputed since the 17th century, because although it’s the most direct (and flattering) extra-Biblical mention of Jesus we have which was apparently written in the first century, there are many reasons why it might not be entirely genuine.

Its positive affirmations are a major sticking point. It says, without qualification, “He was [the] Christ.” Elsewhere it says he rose from the dead after three days. Josephus isn’t obviously saying that this is what Christians think, he’s apparently flat out saying it happened.

This is a real Jew of the establishment we’re talking about. He stayed a Jew all his life which means it’s very doubtful he actually thought Jesus was the Messiah, which is what “Christ” meant in a Jewish context. He also did a lot of what amounted to PR work for the Romans who weren’t keen on prophesied kings. Had he actually written and released this passage at the time, as is, he’d have been thrown to the lions figuratively or literally.

The passage comes to us via a set of Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 11th century. That means about a thousand years went by in which changes might have been made. In the third century, after reading the Testimonium, the Christian historian Origen wrote that Josephus “did not accept Jesus as Christ”. The version he read at the time, therefore, was likely to have given a different impression than the one we have.

From this fact alone, apart from the likelihood that the Testimonium was changed at some point to be more Christian-friendly, we can deduce one more thing: that Josephus probably did write something or other about Jesus. That isn’t saying much, because in his original piece he might simply have recounted the story preached by Christians without saying that any of it was fact.

I won’t go through the other arguments against it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty to argue about.

In general, documents such as the Testimonium Flavianum reveal credibility issues as soon as you scratch the surface. That doesn’t mean they’re all false, it just means that the standard of evidence they provide isn’t earthshaking right now.


8 thoughts on “Jesus Unscriptured: Josephus”

  1. I agree with you that any historical writings about Jesus don’t prove he was God or that he was raised from the dead. (I believe those things for other reasons). But I would like to point out that anyones writings that allude to Jesus are always refuted by someone. I have people tell me that they don’t think Jesus, Paul, Peter, Mark ever even existed. (The list is much longer than that btw). If someone doesn’t like what Josephus wrote, they just claim who ever wrote this wasn’t really Josephus. Or this part or that part was added years later. So in my opinion it’s just one more “Red Herring” for some Atheists’ to use as rhetoric?

    I enjoy your site. Thanks, Peace out, feeno

  2. And I agree with you that dissent over accounts like Josephus’ doesn’t prove they’re false (I just about said as much), but nor does the dissent itself lend credibility to the claims.

    The implied rhetorical question by Christians who bring up Josephus’ account, especially as part of a long list of extra-Biblical accounts like you did over here, is this:
    “How else do you explain this mass of historical evidence?”

    The answer, quite simply, is, “Like this, for example. And this. Or this. [Most important part:] And here’s why.” The counter-claims don’t just come out of a vacuum. The fact that Origen interpreted Josephus so very differently directly supports the idea that the passage was changed between the third and eleventh centuries.

    Counter-claims may only be red herrings if they couldn’t conceivably be true, because they’re the necessary responses to what is effectively an argument by elimination. If you want to dismiss those counter-claims with some evidential support behind them, you have to directly address that support.

    I’ve talked about those who deny the existence of Jesus in any form. They have some explaining to do too, because there’s a fair bit of stuff to explain away. There’s a lot of circumstancial evidence, albeit nothing concrete in and of itself, for the existence of such a man. Anything specific beyond his existence is a tough sell.

  3. Your a good and fair blogger, I sometimes take liberties when I can get away with them, but mad props to so many Atheists cause if I slip and mess up, they will always catch it.

    Peace Brah, feeno

  4. My, but you’re honest, and I appreciate it. I wonder why you take “liberties”, though. Is gaining a convert worth employing sophistry? That’s not rhetorical, I’d like to know if there’s an official rationale.

  5. Well, what I’ll do sometime if I hear something I like, I’ll just run with it without checking the facts. And seriously like I said there is always someone who will call me out. So I have gotten better about not doing that. I don’t know what sophistry is but I certainly don’t think I should be doing it.

    Thanks, feeno

  6. Well, given your definition of taking “liberties” I don’t think you’re guilty of it.

    Sophistry is arguing by dishonest means, for example using an argument which you’ve seen refuted before because it may still convince those who haven’t heard the refutation. Repeating an argument without checking it isn’t really dishonest, it just leaves you open to any responses which may already exist.

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