Outside of the New Testament (which undoubtedly contains notable forgeries; most of the letters of Paul, for example) there appear no mentions of Jesus by which we can establish who he was, what he said, or in fact, whether he actually existed in the first place. Whilst there are no sources, apologists tend to be adamant that there are. Most notably, the writings of Josephus. And so I thought i’d address the Josephus source here, in three parts. Josephus’ Book 18 of his work ‘The Antiquities of the Jews‘, followed by the early Christian writer ‘Eusebius‘, onto Antiquities ‘Book 20‘, ending on my own thoughts. Each ‘part’ is highlighted relevantly, for convenience.
The passage from Book 18 of ‘Antiquities‘, often cited as evidence, is referred to as “Testimonium Flavianum“, or simply “the Testimonium“, and it is this:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”
– Pretty conclusive. But if we read it carefully, there are problems immediately.
Firstly, Josephus was not a Christian. He was a devout Jew. His writings are important in the history of Judaism, they show Josephus to be fully committed to his faith. His Grandfather lived around the same time as Herod, in Judea. His father lived during the time of Jesus, in Jerusalem. Josephus writings about his father, make no mention of the apparent shockwaves Jesus was sending through Jerusalem when he first arrived, according to Matthew:
“The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.”
– Apparently Josephus’ father, who lived through this ‘uproar‘ didn’t mention it to his son. All the miracles, the huge following, the darkness that covered the land for hours following Jesus’ crucifixion…. not one mention from Josephus in his history of the Jewish people, despite writing much less impressive, and far more mundane accounts of life for Jews in Jerusalem. So, already alarm bells are ringing that he would suddenly, 60 years later, write an extremely brief, yet extraordinary claim on the divinity of someone that as a Jew, he doesn’t believe to be divine in the first place. In fact, make any claim on the existence of Jesus at all, given his silence on the subject for over half a century.
Josephus wrote many works on Judaism. A faith that denies the divinity of Jesus. By all accounts, the divinity of Jesus – central to Christianity – is not central, nor has any more relevance to the life of Josephus, nor his writings, than the one passing, paragraph above. And yet within that paragraph, Josephus writes like he’s a devout Christian apologist. He accepts that Jesus died, and rose from the dead. He calls him “the Messiah“, he refers to his teachings as ‘the truth‘, he accepts that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies. This is not a story a Jewish writer would be perpetuating.
Every other ‘Prophet‘ of Judaism, are presented in ‘Antiquities‘ as great Philosophical leaders (to help appeal to Pagan Rome at the time). Josephus though, places Jesus above all of them, as not only a great Philosophical teacher, but also divine, the Messiah, the fulfilment of all earlier Prophecies. It would seem from that passage, that Josephus is very, very Christian.
It is the early Christian writers who linked Jesus to the prophecies of the Old Testament, in order to ‘prove‘ his divinity. The story of Herod and the murder of the innocents mentioned in nowhere but the Gospel Matthew, which concludes the story with:
“Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.”
– This Gospel quite obviously attempts to link Jesus with the apparent Prophecies of the past. Josephus then, appears to agree with the Gospels. Josephus, a Jewish man who mentions Jesus divinity nowhere else, nor does it affect the way he lives his life, nor is he a Christian; apparently believes Jesus is the divine Son of God, fulfilling the Prophecies of the Jewish Prophets. He concurs entirely with Christian writers at the time.
Secondly, ‘Antiquities‘ was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Jesus supposedly died during the reign of Tiberius. Between Tiberius and Domitian, we see the three year reign of my favourite Emperor, Caligula. We see the thirteen year reign of Claudius, the thirteen year reign of Nero, the year that saw Emperor’s Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, the ten year reign of Vespasian, the two year reign of Titus, and finally the fifteen year reign of Domitian; under whom the ‘Antiquities‘ was completed, in the last year or two of his reign. So, that’s a full nine Emperors, and around 60+ years after Jesus death. This does not count as evidence. Especially given how wide spread Christianity had become, and how much of a threat it was perceived, even as far before Domitian as the reign of Nero. Josephus himself, was born after Jesus supposedly died. The best you could say is, if it is his work, Josephus was apparently told the story, and convinced it must be true. Hearsay. Nothing more.
This is not a valid source of evidence for proof of the life of Jesus.
And thirdly, and most importantly…. it would appear that most historians agree that either the entire above paragraph is a forgery, or it is a genuine verse of Josephus, with the more ‘Christian‘ parts added later. I place myself in the “the entire passage is a forgery” camp.
For example, the passage uses the phrase “a wise man” to refer to Jewish figures throughout history, like Solomon. Never, does he use the term to refer to anyone outside of the scope of Judaism. Most other leaders around that time, are referred to negatively. The philosophical figures, for Josephus, are all those of Judaism.
The beginning of the next sentence, that directly follows the above passage is:
“About the same time, another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.”
– What an odd line to follow such a positive passage about a wonderful, wise, Messiah, and a band of loving followers. Yet, if we take the passage out entirely, the line of the new paragraph flows perfectly from the passage preceding it, which discusses slayings, and Jewish misery. Go look for yourself…here.. Chapter 3, verses 2,3 and 4. It becomes obvious that verse 3 (the Jesus passage) is completely out of place.
Not only that, but it isn’t until the 4th Century that any Christian mentions the Jesus passage by Josephus. Three hundred years pass by, and not one notable Christian scholar, including Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Origen, Justin Martyr, Clement, Tertullian and Methodius – all commentators on Josephus, mention this passage at all.
Origen actually mentions Book 18, but doesn’t refer to the passage at all. Did he genuinely not consider it important? Well, there is actually something more telling than that in Origen’s words from Book 1 of Contra Celsus:
“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”
– Here Origen quite openly states that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ. So, we can confidently suggest that the passage in question was not there, when Origen was reading it. So where did it come from?
The first mention of the Jesus passage, comes from a man the Church refer to as the Father of Ecclesiastical History; Eusebius. He was a member of the First Council of Nicea, and a friend and biographer of the Emperor Constantine. He also happens to have been one of the most distrusted, and fraudulent Christian historians in history. The great Cultural Historian Jacob Burckhardt says of Eusebius:
“the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”
It isn’t as if Eusebius would disagree with that analysis of himself, given that in Chapter 13 of Eusebius’s own book ‘Praeparatio evangelica‘, he states:
“That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”
– Eusebius, in his role as courtier and biographer to Constantine, along with his work with the Council of Nicea, was a political propagandist of the Constantinian era. He writes during Constantine’s lifetime, that the Emperor had grown up around Christians. After the Emperor dies, suddenly Eusebius tells us that Constantine had a divine vision of the Cross, which led to his instant conversion. Propagandist, and nothing more. He helped to shape Christianity within that framework. And it would seem, he is responsible for the Josephus passage above, given that no other Christian scholar appears to have noted it before him. It all begins with Eusebius.
Eusebius is also the first person to record the legend of the King of Edessa writing letters to, and getting replies from, Jesus himself. Eusebius also claimed to have not only found the letters, but translated the letters into Greek. They can be seen here. The letters themselves use language from Jesus, that he absolutely doesn’t use when we look at the Gospel. In the letters, Jesus, for some odd reason, wishes to emphasise that he is separate from God the Father:
“I went out of My Father, who is in Me like I am in Him! However, the Father is the Highest, because He is My Love, My Will.”
– Coincidentally, this letter appears at a time when the Trinity was a hotly debated topic among the early Church, and Eusebius happened to believe that Jesus was separate from God, but also ‘from’ God. They were different, but attached. The Son was subordinate to the Father, according to Eusebius. Much like Jesus seems to be emphasising in the letter above – “The Father is the Highest” – conveniently found, and translated, by Eusebius. Similarly, in his work “Church History”, Eusebius is very anti-Jew. He dedicates a lot of time to writing about how awful the Jews are. For example:
“that from that time seditions and wars and mischievous plots followed each other in quick succession, and never ceased in the city and in all Judea until finally the siege of Vespasian overwhelmed them. Thus the divine vengeance overtook the Jews for the crimes which they dared to commit against Christ.”
– And so, can this hatred for Jews be linked in any way to the words of Jesus? Well, not if you look at the Gospels. But, if you look at the letters conveniently found and translated by Eusebius, we get:
“However, be steadfast in all, what you will gradually hear of Me from the wicked Jews, who soon will deliver Me into the hands of the hangman.”
– Jesus seems to confirm most of Eusebius’s views. How convenient.
If we are to say that these letters are forgeries (which pretty much every historian accepts, and it is quite obvious, they are forgeries, most probably by Eusebius for purposes of propaganda) then we cannot trust anything Eusebius says. Especially his reference to a Josephus passage that no other preceding Christian scholar seems to have noticed. Therefore, it is not a mention of Jesus.
The other apparent mention of Jesus by Josephus, is Book 20 of Antiquities:
“But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over 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, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. (24) 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.”
– There are marks that certain changes have been made to this passage, though the passage itself is not completely invented, like the passage in Book 18. The change here, is the use of the term ‘Brother of Jesus, the Christ‘. If we take “Brother of Jesus, the Christ” out of this passage, it suddenly makes sense to the proceeding lines, which end:
…… and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
– If we take this story at face value, it seems to not make much sense. After James is killed, the Jewish elders are very angry, and demand Ananus, his condemner, have the High Priesthood taken away from him, and given to Jesus….. the son of Damneus.
Why would Jewish elders care so much about the Christian Lord’s brother condemned to death? It makes no sense, and this is especially true, given that the death of James does not correlate with early Christian writings on how he supposedly died. It’s a completely different story. It’s a different James, and a different Jesus. The phrase “brother of Jesus, the Christ” was added later.
The problem for Christianity is, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was incredibly famous during his own lifetime:
“News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.”
– And so you would expect that someone might have made some sort of reference to Jesus at the time. There might be some contemporary source, given how famous he apparently was. And yet, we have nothing. Nothing by Jesus, nothing written of Jesus during his lifetime, by any one. It isn’t as if we’re short of historical sources from that time period and that area, either. It’s just, none of them mention Jesus. As noted in my previous article, Philo of Alexandria – an impressive contemporary historian and cultural commentator in Jesus’ time – wrote nothing about Jesus, despite living in and writing about the exact area Jesus was in, throughout the life of Jesus. No mention of miracles, no mention of ‘uproar’ caused as Jesus entered Jerusalem, no mention of the many ‘Saints’ who rose from the dead and appeared to many people in Jerusalem, according to the Gospel of Matthew:
“The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
– No mention of anything mentioned in the Gospels. Similarly, nothing mentioned by Josephus can reasonably back up anything suggested in the Gospels pertaining to the life of Jesus. And even if it could, it would be hearsay, based on the fact that Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus.
I am therefore led to believe, given the veritable lack of evidence, that Josephus does not provide a mention of Jesus at all.