Is This Mention of Jesus a Forgery?

March 3, 2014 | 3 comments

When confronted by skeptics who believe there is no non-Christian evidence for a historical Jesus, apologists often point to the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Skeptics may respond by claiming that Josephus never actually mentioned Jesus in his writing.

How can we respond when confronted with this claim?

Who was Josephus?

Josephus was born to a wealthy family in Judea in the year A.D. 37. In the year 66, a national revolt against Rome broke out and Josephus was appointed commander of the insurgent forces in Galilee. The resistance was crushed in the summer of 67, and he was brought before Vespasian, the Roman general charged with suppressing the revolt. Josephus predicted that Vespasian would become emperor one day, and so his life was spared, but he was kept prisoner until two years later when the prophecy came true.

After defecting to the Roman side, Josephus became an advisor to Vespasian's son, Titus. He later recorded Jewish history, especially from the first century.

Does Josephus mention Jesus in any of his writing?

In his historical work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes that the Roman procurator of Judea died suddenly in A.D. 62. During a three month interregnum period, Annas the younger, son of Annas who is mentioned in Luke 3:2, John 18:3, and Acts 4:6, is appointed high priest and orders the stoning of lawbreakers:

[H]e convened a judicial session of the Sanhedrin and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ—James by name—and some others, whom he charged with breaking the law and handed them over to be stoned to death. (Josephus, Antiquities, book 20)

This James was probably James the Just, whom St. Paul describes as “James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal.1:19). An overwhelming majority of scholars believe that this passage is authentic, but there is another mention of Jesus in Antiquities known as the Testimonium Flavianum that many are divided on:

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. (Antiquities, Book 18)

Josephus was certainly not a Christian, and so it is unlikely that he would have used phrases like, “if it be lawful to call him a man,” or “he was the Christ.” The majority of scholars of early Judaism and experts on the writings of Josephus believe this was likely touched-up by Christian scribes at a later time. Instead, the passage probably read like this:

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise 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. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct even now. (J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, pg 55)

How can we answer objections to the Testimonium Flavianum?

Many skeptics will argue that Jospehus actually made no references to Jesus at all, and that both mentions of him were added by Christians. According to them, if the Testimonium Flavianum were removed from the text, the paragraph preceding it and the one after it flow together well. This argument is weak, however, because ancient writers would often wander from their main points. Antiquities itself contains many such digressions.

Another common skeptical claim is that no Christian authors seem to be aware of either passage until early Church historian Eusebius mentions it in the fourth century.  For example, second-century theologian Origen quotes Josephus freely in his writing Contra Celsus, but, as atheist Dan Barker writes, “[He] never once used this paragraph, which would have been the ultimate ace up his sleeve” (Godless, pg 255). Given the nature of the pagan accusations against Jesus (he was born out of wedlock and died shamefully), there is nothing in the shortened version of the Testimonium that would have aided the arguments of the early Christian apologists.

Whether the surviving quotes contain Christian interpolations or not, the scholarly consensus is that Josephus did indeed know something of an obscure teacher named Jesus. What we are left with is a non-Christian account that backs up at least three main points about him: He existed, he started the Christian movement, and he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

For more information on this topic, check out Trent Horn's new DVD, Why Believe In Jesus?: A Case for the Existence, Divinity and Resurrection of Christ.

Jon Sorensen is the Director of External Activities for Catholic Answers. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials, corporate videos, and print advertising campaigns. Jon has been with Catholic...

Why Believe In Jesus?: A Case for the Existence, Divinity and Resurrection of Christ
Jesus of Nazareth was the most famous man in history—and certainly the most controversial. Was he the Son of God? A political revolutionary? Just a wise teacher whose followers turned his memory into legend? Or maybe he didn’t exist at all… except as a fanciful mixture of ancient myths. With so many competing versions of Jesus to choose from, how can we know that traditional Christian teaching about him is true—in fact, that it is worthy of our faith? In Why Believe in Jesus?, apologist Trent Horn examines the historical, biblical, and logical evidence to build a compelling case for the reasonableness of belief in the Christian Jesus: that he was truly God incarnate in first-century Judea, put to death on a cross and risen on the third day.

Comments by Members

#1  Jeff Billeter - Chatham, NJ, New Jersey

I've always thought both conservative and liberal sides treated this passage as more than it necessarily needs to be. Josephus seems to me, along with other ancient historians, to treat the stories that people tell as just as important to understanding a people and their history as the raw facts (dates/events, etc). In his Jewish history, I think he shows this numerous times in not just relating what we would today confirm as fact but also in relating the stories and "spin" surrounding the fact so that the reader can understand the Jews as a people.

So in this passage, I've always thought that Josephus is doing the same thing for the Christians. It's not as if he's saying, "Hey, I went and researched this and I can confirm that this person Jesus was the Messiah." Rather, I think he's saying, "I went and researched this and I can confirm that this is the story the Christians tell. This is what you need to know to understand them."

Also, I don't recall off the top of my head but weren't there other early historians such as Sozomen or Socrates that referenced this passage? Perhaps they followed Eusebius but I thought the opposite. Maybe someone else can support that statement or show my recollection is wrong. Thanks.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

March 6, 2014 at 7:49 am PST
#2  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Hi Jeff. Eusebius was the first one to mention the Testimonium Flavianum directly. Socrates couldn't have mentioned it based on when he lived, and I am unaware of any mentions of it by Sozomen. If he did mention it, I would be interested in checking that out.

March 6, 2014 at 5:00 pm PST
#3  Jeff Billeter - Chatham, NJ, New Jersey

Hi again...thanks for confirming Eusebius was first. I meant the historian Socrates, by the way, who shares a volume with Sozomen in the Nicene and Post Nicene fathers series. I think that Sozomen mentions the passage in his preface to Book 1 in that volume.
Thanks again.

March 6, 2014 at 7:24 pm PST

You are not logged in. Login or register to leave a comment.