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Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Case Against the Josephus Passages

(Excerpted from my online essay "The Historicity of Jesus Christ")

Out of all the supposed sources for Jesus’ existence, Josephus is the only one that comes close to being a near contemporary. This is not to say that his account was written particularly close to Jesus’ time; it wasn’t. Josephus was born years after Jesus’ death, with his account of Jesus supposedly written some sixty years after Jesus’ death. Josephus wrote his Antiquities of the Jews in either 94 or 95 CE, which contains two disputed passages that many see as historical evidence for Jesus.

The first of these passages in Antiquities is referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum (XVIII, 33). The passage in question reads:

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 among 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.[1]

This passage has been subjected to decades of heated debate. Almost all scholars today accept that this passage is a Christian forgery added into Josephus’s writings centuries after he lived. What scholars do not universally agree upon, however, is how much of it is a forgery. Many argue that this passage is on the whole genuine, with some Christian interpolations added in. Some of the most obvious indications of interpolation are the parts of the passage that sound Christian to begin with. Josephus was an orthodox Jew, and no Jew would ever have referred to Jesus as the “Christ.” The passage also has somewhat of a positive tone in discussing Jesus, something an orthodox Jew would also have never written. But again, it has been argued that this passage is at least somewhat authentic, or at least authentic enough to show that Josephus really did speak of Jesus.

However, there is good reason to think that the entire passage is in fact a forgery. First off, there are other aspects of the passage that seem extremely un-Josephus like, rather than just the Christian sounding parts. For starters, Josephus talks of “divine prophets,” even though he does not indicate who these prophets are, which is very unlike Josephus, who was always very thorough in documenting his sources of information. There is also Josephus’s usage of the word “Gentile.” Josephus, who was writing for a Roman audience, never used the word Gentile to describe non-Jews in any of his other writings.

But by far the two most obvious indications that the entire passage is a forgery are the fact that it breaks the flow of Josephus’s writings and that there is absolutely no mention of it until the fourth century. With regards to the first point, the Testimonium ends with a discussion of Jesus’ resurrection, but the very next sentence of the next paragraph in Antiquities reads, “About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder.” This does not fit the tone of the Testimonium. It does, however, fit the tone of the previous paragraph before the Testimonium, which discusses Pilate sending his soldiers to massacre a large crowd of Jews in Jerusalem. That would clearly fall under the category of “sad calamity.” With the Testimonium completely omitted, the two paragraphs flow seamlessly into each other.

With regards to the second point, the Testimonium is not mentioned by a single person until the fourth century by church father Eusebius. This is extremely odd, as numerous earlier Christian authorities were known to have poured over Josephus’s writings, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Hippolytus,[2] yet not one of these people ever mentioned the Testimonium. Origen in particular had used Josephus extensively, with his own writings being full of references to Josephus. And yet, when the skeptical Roman Celsus asked what miracles Jesus had performed that made him godly, Origen answered him by saying that Jesus had performed many miraculous actions, “[but] what source could we use other than the gospels?”[3] Furthermore, Origen had used Josephus to prove the existence of John the Baptist, and while doing so noted that Josephus “did not believe in Jesus as Christ.”[4]

These facts, when taken together, demonstrate that in all likelihood the Testimonium Flavianum is a complete forgery. And it is quite interesting that the first person to make mention of this passage was Eusebius, being that he was known to have forged data in order to defend the Christian faith. Though he has been touted by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as “the Father of Ecclesiastical History,” Richard Carrier notes that “Eusebius was either a liar or hopelessly credulous, and either way not a very good historian.”[5]

If a passage mentioning Jesus was genuinely written by Josephus, what would it have looked like? It would have most certainly been unflattering, as Josephus was known to have bashed other supposed messiahs that he didn’t believe in. Furthermore, there are parts of Jesus’ story that Josephus likely would have mentioned without needing to speak about Jesus at all. An example would be Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. We previously established that only the Gospel of Matthew was known to have recorded this event. But Josephus did not write about this event, even though he was known to have written extensively on the atrocities that Herod committed. This only further confirms that this event in Matthew was a mythical story.

So, in the case of the Testimonium, we are left with a passage that does not sound like it was written by Josephus, is not mentioned by any Christian authorities until hundreds of years after it was supposedly written, and when it is finally mentioned it is by a church father who was known to have forged information. The probability of this passage being at all genuine would seem to be practically zero. However, there are still those who believe that Josephus did mention Jesus in another of his writings.

The second supposed reference to Jesus found in Josephus’s writings is what has come to be known as the “James Passage.” This passage in Antiquities (XX, IX, 1), reads:

…when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled a Sanhedrim 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.[6]

This passage, if it be genuine, would demonstrate that Jesus existed and had a brother named James. But is this passage a forgery as well? Unlike the Testimonium, very few scholars believe so, as it appears to be too short to be an interpolation that would have been added in. But is this passage a genuine reference to Jesus of the Gospels? Though it speaks of Jesus and his brother James, the passage in full does not appear to be consistent with the biblical account of James’ death. This passage refers to James being stoned amongst a group of people; while all other accounts of the death of “James the Just” discuss him being killed alone by an angry mob.[7] Furthermore, as noted by D. M. Murdock, “Josephus’s James died some seven years prior to the death of the New Testament's ‘James the Just.’”[8]

But what about the referral to Jesus as being “called Christ?” Josephus never uses the term “Christ” or “Messiah” anywhere else in his writings, not even to describe his own choice of messiah, Emperor Vespasian. And if the Testimonium did not refer to Jesus as “Christ,” this term would have meant nothing to his Roman audience. Though this gives the appearance of speaking of Jesus of the Bible, there may be an alternative explanation. For in the same passage, Josephus later writes about how the Jews were outraged by this execution, and they complained to King Agrippa, who took the high priesthood from Ananus “and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.”

What we first note about this section of the passage is that the Jewish people were for some reason outraged by James’ execution. If this James was truly James, the brother of Jesus, then why would they be upset? Most conservative Jews would have considered a Christian leader to be a hated cult leader, so there would be no reason for them to be outraged by his execution. Secondly, there is the matter of the other Jesus that Josephus mentions in this passage. Who is this Jesus? As it turns out, he may very well be the same Jesus who is James’ brother. This would make perfect sense when one considers the context. Basically, Josephus is telling us that after Ananus has this “brother of Jesus” killed, the Jewish people are angered. So in response, King Agrippa takes the high priesthood from him and makes Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. If this Jesus, son of Damneus, is the same Jesus mentioned before, then that would explain why the punishment was to depose Ananus and install in his place the brother of the man he unlawfully killed.

But what about the title of “Christ” applied to this Jesus though? According to historian Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald, this was most likely an accidental scribal interpolation of a marginal note. According to their analysis:

It looks exactly like what a scribe would write in the margin to himself to indicate that he thinks this ‘Jesus’ is ‘the one called Christ.’ But it interrupts the sentence, and though it is not bad Greek per se, it is clunky and confusing. Remove that awkward phrase and the sentence reads even more smoothly.[9]

Therefore, the phrase “who was called Christ” is not an interpolation, but rather an accidental marginal note. If this is the case, then taken together with all the information we have discussed, it would seem that the Jesus that Josephus is discussing is not Jesus of the Gospels, but rather Jesus the brother of James, who were both the sons of Damneus.

To summarize, the two passages in Josephus’s Antiquities that supposedly mention Jesus apparently do not discuss Jesus at all. The first passage is in all likelihood a forgery, and the second passage is genuine, but discusses an entirely different Jesus all together. With this information, we can ultimately conclude that Josephus made absolutely no mention of Jesus of the Gospels at any time in his writings. And unfortunately, this brings the number of non-biblical first century references to Jesus down to zero.

There are of course other sources which are claimed to have discussed Jesus, but they are all just as spurious and problematic as all the other sources we have discussed.[10] But the two Josephus passages teach us an important lesson in analyzing the historical evidence for Jesus. Before any source can be deemed to be valid, it must first meet at least two criteria; that a) the source can be shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be authentic and not a forgery (or at least authentic enough) and b) the source is actually talking about the subject in question. It would seem that in the case of the two Josephus passages, they each only meet one criterion. In other words, the Testimonium Flavianum clearly meets the second criteria, but not the first. And likewise, the “James Passage” meets the first criteria, but not the second.

For more information, see:
Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question
Josephus on the Rocks (a revised and expanded study of Josephus' references to Jesus)
The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled
Does Josephus prove a historical Jesus?
Titus Flavius Josephus discussed in Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of the Christ
The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled (Freethought Nation forum thread)
Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?

[1] Acharya S., Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha, and Christ Unveiled, pg. 382
[2] Cf. These and other examples are given in: Acharya, Suns of God, pg. 385
[3] Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.33, pg. 94 
[4] Ibid. 1.47, pg. 43
[5] David Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All, pg. 98 (Nook edition)
[6] Acharya, Suns of God, pg. 391
[7] Cf. Fitzgerald, Nailed, pg. 101 (Nook edition)
[8] D.M. Murdock, Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of the Christ pg. 91
[9] Fitzgerald, Nailed, pg. 104-105 (Nook edition)
[10] Cf. David Fitzgerald analyzes all of the most commonly cited sources for Jesus’ existence in Nailed, pg. 358-414 (Nook edition)


  1. Hi Adam,

    I would amend your first criterion to "beyond a reasonable doubt...." There are plenty of scholars who believe that Josephus' reference to the Jesus of the Gospels is authentic beyond a reasonable doubt, though they would probably admit that it is not beyond a "shadow" of a doubt.

    But since you are pursuing the mythiicist hypothesis, I'm curious what your hypothesis (or Carrier's) would be to explain the origin of the New Testament and the rise of Christianity.

    1. Well, I believe that Christianity likely started as a mystical-type religion, just like all religions before it. The attributes of previous religions likely influenced the founders of Christianity. It's certainly no mystery that religions have borrowed off of each other for centuries. I see no reason why Christianity would be an exception to this. I have posted on my site a talk given by Dr. Carrier on just this topic. You should take a look at that.

      I would argue that the passages do need to pass "beyond a reasonable doubt" in order to be taken seriously. Here's what Earl Doherty says on the matter, and I quite agree with him:

      "The 'majority of scholars' may today hold that some sort of authentic reference to Jesus was made by Josephus, but this was not always so. Early in the 20th century, the majority tendency was to reject it all as unlikely to be authentic. (Charles Guignebert is representative when he says, 'It seems probable that Josephus did not name Jesus anywhere' [Jesus, p.18].) The modern trend to claim a residue of the 'Testimonium' in the Antiquities of the Jews 18 as original is as much a bandwagon effect as anything, and there are so many difficulties and contradictory arguments in regard to this as to render any conclusion totally uncertain. Apologists just don't understand this point. The existence of Jesus does not, and cannot, stand or fall on Josephus. All the mythicist case needs to demonstrate is that the references in Josephus are unreliable, and this has been done. The case for either side must rest elsewhere, and for the mythicist case it does."

      Incidentally, Dr. Carrier has a paper coming out in the winter edition of the Journal of Early Christian Studies titled “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200.” I look forward to that.

    2. Here's the direct link for Dr. Carrier's talk:

    3. Hi Adam,

      I thought I posted a reply here yesteday, but I don't see it today. Didn't it come through?

    4. I don't think it did. If it had I would have seen it also in my email. Please feel free to post something again. If it still doesn't seem to work send me a message via email and I'll post it here.

  2. I started watching Carrier's lecture, until he got to the part where he started talking about the pre-Christian Jewish belief in a celestial being named Jesus. I've tried finding more about it, with not a lot of luck. I guess I'll have to get his book.

  3. I ordered Carrier's book from a local bookstore (I buy local when I can). While I was there I picked up a copy of Ehrman's book on the existence of Jesus. From the little I've skimmed, I would recommend it for those who want to explore both sides of the mythicist question. Meanwhile, at a local college library I find this Louis H. Feldman's book, Josephus, the Bible, and History, which summarized all the arguments for and against the authenticity of the Josephus passages about Jesus. Regarding the passage about James, he wrote on p.434:

    The passage about James ... has generally been accepted as authentic....
    Moreover, Origen (Commentary on Matthew 10.17) says that Josephus gave witness to so much righteousness in James, while expressing wonder that he did not admit Jesus to be the Messiah.

    1. I agree that the James passage is authentic in the sense that it is not a forgery. I believe the "who was called Christ" part was simply an accidental marginal note left by a scribe. It is highly probable that the Jesus Josephus is discussing is simply the Jesus mentioned later, Jesus the son of Damneus. Here's what Dr. Carrier says on this point:

      "In fact, imagine you are an ancient reader of the text. What would you conclude? You would ask yourself, 'Who's this jesus guy?' (even if "the one called Christ" was tacked on, most readers would not know what that meant, or why it had anything to do with Ananus going after his brother, etc.). Then you would read on, and see, 'Ah, thst's the Jesus.' That is, since Josephus doesn't tell you who this Jesus is, there is only one Jesus he leaves his reader to infer that it is: Jesus, son of Damneus."

      As for Origen, I have often heard people argue that since he says that Josephus did not see Jesus as the Messiah, it implies that Josephus must have made some sort of mention of him in order to make this judgement. But I disagree. The reason Origen would have concluded that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the messiah is simple: Josephus made it clear throughout his writings that he believed that Emperor Vespasian was the true Jewish messiah. In fact, just the fact that Josephus was an orthodox Jew probably would have been enough for Origen to conclude Josephus didn't see Jesus as the Christ.

      Here's what Earl Doherty says regarding that quote from Louis Feldman:

      "I was vastly amused at [the] appeal to 'today's leading Josephus scholar Louis Feldman.' The fact that I've never heard of Feldman may not mean anything, but what does this 'leading' scholar say to support the authenticity of the second Josephan reference to Jesus?... 'The passage about James [Antiquities Book 20, Sections 197-200] has generally been accepted as authentic.' Apparently this 'authority' on the subject is basing his opinion on the appeal to other authorities, who 'generally' accept the passage. Talk about inbred 'evidence'!"

      If you're going to read Ehrman's book, please keep this link in mind: