Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?
Note: This article is copyrighted and is by Christopher Rice. It is found
A Thorough Review of the Testimonium Flavianum
By Christopher Price
The most important extra-biblical references to Jesus are found in the writings
of Josephus. Although some have questioned the authenticity of the passages,
modern scholarship has rightly recognized that one of them is completely authentic
and the other, though embellished by Christian scribes, provides an authentic
core of material confirming much about Jesus. This article thoroughly examines
the authenticity of the disputed reference to Jesus, the Testimonium Flavianum refer
red to hereafter as the "TF".
[IMAGE] Arguments for Partial Authenticity of the Testamonium
[IMAGE] Objections to the Authenticity of the Reconstructed Testamonium
[IMAGE] What Can We Learn About Jesus from Josephus?
Who Was Josephus?
Josephus ben Matthias is the best known ancient Jewish historian. He was born
in 37 CE, only a few years after Jesus’ execution. Josephus was well educated
in biblical law and history. On his mother’s side he was a descendent of the
Hasmonean Kings. On his father’s side he came from a priestly family. Josephus
counted among his friends Agrippa II. His life took some dramatic turns in 66
CE, when the Jews in Palestine revolted against Roman rule. Although Josephus
was only 29 at the time, he was given command of the Jewish forces in Galilee. His
forces were no match for the Romans and were utterly defeated. Josephus survived,
however, and became an advisor to the Roman general Vespasian by prophesying
that the general would become the Roman Emperor. Not so amazingly, in 69 CE Vespasian
did become Emperor. As a result, Josephus’ stock went up and Vespasian returned
to Rome to run the Empire. Vespasian’s son, Titus, was given the responsibility
of completing the war against the Jews. Titus used Josephus as an interpreter
and spokesman to the Jewish forces in Jerusalem. Josephus was berated by the
Jews of Jerusalem after he repeatedly called on them to surrender to the Roman
forces. Eventually, in 70 CE, the Romans crushed the revolt and destroyed Jerusalem.
Josephus returned with Titus to Rome, where he was awarded for his service with
a house and a pension. With time and resources, Josephus turned to writing of
history. In the 70s, he wrote Jewish Wars, which provided a chronicle of the wars
of the Jewish people. He thereafter in the 90s wrote a much broader history
of the Jewish people, Jewish Antiquities.
Two References to Jesus
Josephus’ writings cover a number of figures familiar to Bible readers. He discusses
John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, the Sadducees,
the Sanhedrin, the High Priests, and the Pharisees. As for Jesus, there are
two references to him in Antiquities. I will recount them in the order in which
First, in a section in Book 18 dealing with various actions of Pilate, the extant
texts refer to Jesus and his ministry. This passage is known as the Testimo
nium Flavianum referred to hereafter as the "TF".
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.
Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3
Second, in Book 20 there is what could be called a passing reference to Jesus
in a paragraph describing the murder of Jesus’ brother, James, at the hands
of Ananus, the High Priest.
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 so-called
Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them
as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1
The Testimonium Flavianum
It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators
– mostly Jesus Mythologists – who doubt the authenticity of the second reference.
According to leading Josephus scholar Louis H. Feldman, the authenticity of
this passage "has been almost universally acknowledged" by scholars. (Feldman, "Josephus," A
nchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pages 990-91). Instead, this article focuses on arguments
regarding the partial authenticity of the TF.
Although Josephus’ reference to the martyrdom of James is universally accepted
by critical scholars, there has been more controversy over the fuller reference
to Jesus. The TF contains some obvious Christian glosses that no Jew would have
written; such as "he was the Christ" and "he appeared to them alive again the
A strong majority of scholars, however, have concluded that much of the TF is
authentic to Josephus. In his book Josephus and Modern Scholarship, Professor Feldman reports
that between 1937 to 1980, of 52 scholars reviewing the subject, 39 found portions
of the TF to be authentic. Peter Kirby’s own review of the literature, in an
article discussing the TF in depth, shows that the trend in modern scholars
hip has moved even more dramatically towards partial authenticity: "In my own
reading of thirteen books since 1980 that touch upon the passage, ten out of
thirteen argue the Testimonium to be partly genuine, while the other three maintain
it to be entirely spurious. Coincidentally, the same three books also argue that
Jesus did not exist." (Kirby, Testamonium Flavianum, 2001). Though my own studies have
revealed a similar trend (about 15 to 1 for partial authenticity, with the exception
being a Jesus Mythologist), I do not believe that it is a coincidence that it
is Jesus Mythologists who are carrying the water against the partial authenticity theory.
Even the partial validity of this one passage is enough to sink their entire
Notably, the consensus for partial authenticity is held by scholars from diverse
perspectives. Liberal commentators such as Robert Funk, J. Dominic Crossan,
and A.N. Wilson, accept a substantial part of the TF as originally Josephan.
So do Jewish scholars, such as Geza Vermes, Louis H. Feldman, and Paul Winter and secular
scholars such as E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredrikson. Even Jeff Lowder, co-founder
of the Secular Web, recognizes the merits of the partial authenticity theory.
(Lowder, Josh McDowell’s Evidence for Jesus: Is it Reliable? 2000). Paula Fredrikson
sums up the state of the question amo
ng scholars: "Most scholars currently incline
to see the passage as basically authentic, with a few later insertions by Christian
scribes." (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, page 249).
Those scholars who accept the "partial authenticity" theory conclude that –
at a minimum – something similar to the following reconstruction of the TF was
likely original to Book 18:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling
deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained
a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. 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. And up until this
very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) had not died out.
(per Meier, op. cit., page 61).
Arguments for Partial Authenticity of the Testamonium
The strong majority opinion of scholars is not without justification. As discussed
below, there are many arguments of varying weight which support this view.
1. An Authentic Core of Josephan Language and Style
Perhaps the most important factor leading most scholars to accept the partial-authenticity
position is that a substantial part of the TF reflects Josephan language and
style. Moreover, when the obvious Christian glosses — which are rich in New
Testament terms and language not found in the core — are removed or restored
to their original the remaining core passage is coherent and flows well.
We can be confident that there was a minimal reference to Jesus . . . because
once the clearly Christian sections are removed, the rest makes good grammatical
and historical sense. The peculiarly Christian words are parenthetically connected
to the narrative; hence they are grammatically free and could easily have been inserted
by a Christian. These sections also are disruptive, and when they are removed
the flow of thought is improved and smoother.
(James H. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism, pages 93-94).
Also Graham Stanton states "Once the obviously Christian additions are removed,
the remaining comments are consistent with Josephus’s vocabulary and style."
(Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, page 143). The most recent and comprehensive study
of the TF was done by John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, Volume 1. As stated by Meier,
"[m]any key words and phrases in the Testimonium are either absent from the
NT or are used there in an entirely different sense; in contrast, almost every
word in the core of the Testimonium is found elsewhere in Josephus–in fact, most of the
vocabulary turns out to be characteristic of Josephus." (Meier, op. cit., page 63).
Below I break down the TF phrase by phrase to examine its linguistic characteristics
a. Now there was about this time, Jesus
The digression and introductory phrase are typical of Josephus. As noted by
Steve Mason, "[t]he opening phrase ‘about this time’ is characteristic of his
language in this part of Antiquities, where he is weaving together distinct
episodes into a coherent narrative (cf. Ant. 17.19; 18.39, 65, 80; 19.278)."
(Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, page 171). Additionally, the use of the simple
name "Jesus" favours Josephan authorship. A Christian would be more likely to
use the term "Jesus Christ" or "Christ Jesus. In all of Ignatius’ seven authentic
letters he refers to "Jesus Christ" 112 times, "Christ Jesus" 12 times, "Christ" 4
times, and "Jesus" only 3 times (Robert Grant, The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 4, page
7). Another example is Polycarp. In his letter he ten times refers to "Jesus
Christ" and never once to "Jesus." Though certainly not determinative, this
is suggestive and more consistent with authorship by Josephus than a Christian
b. A wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man,
Although the phrase "wise man" sounds positive, it almost certainly is not a
Christian addition. That it is followed by the obvious interpolation "if it
be lawful to call him a man" indicates that the interpolator found the description
of Jesus as a "wise man" to be woefully inadequate. So, he remedies this insufficient
estimate of Jesus by clarifying that there is good reason to doubt he was just
a man. "A Christian scribe would not deny that Jesus was a wise man, but would
feel that label insufficient for one who has believed to be God as well as man."
(Meier, op. cit., page 60). Mason adds: "As it stands, the reticence to call Jesus
a man seems like a rejoinder to the previous, already flattering statement that
he was a wise man. It seems more like a qualification of an existing statement
than part of a free creation." (Mason, op. cit., page 171; See also France, op. cit., pa
ge 30: "Thus the clause ‘if indeed one should call him a man’ makes good sense
as a Christian response to Josephus’ description of Jesus as (merely) a ‘wise
man’, but is hardly the sort of language a Christian would have used if writing
Furthermore, the phrase "wise man" is characteristically Josephan. And its context
and how Josephus uses it elsewhere are especially matched to its use in the
He uses the designation ?wise man? sparingly, but as a term of considerable
praise. King Solomon was such a wise man (Ant. 8.53), and so was Daniel (10.237).
Interestingly, both men had what we might call occult powers?abilities to perform
cures and interpret dreams?of the sort that Jesus is credited with in the t
(Mason, op. cit., page 171).
Leading Jewish scholar Geza Vermes agrees that there is a connection between
the use of the term for Daniel and Solomon and the TF’s description of Jesus:
Of these, Solomon and Daniel are the most obvious parallels to Jesus qua wise
men. Both were celebrated as masters of wisdom. Hence it is not surprising to
find the epithet ‘teacher’ follows closely the phrases under consideration in
(Geza Vermes, The Jesus Notice of Josephus Re-Examined, Journal of Jewish Studies,
?Spring 1987, page 3).
Finally, an often overlooked argument about the use of "wise man" is that it
would have a "pejorative connotation" to Christians. In 1 Corinthians 1:24,
30, the wisdom of man is put in a very negative light. In Matthew 11:25 and
Luke 10:21, "the wise" are compared unfavourably to "babes." Indeed, such a term
is not used by Christians in their early literature to describe Jesus. Vermes, op. cit.
, page 5. This adds yet more weight to the argument for partial authenticity.
As Vermes concludes, "no stylistic or historical argument" can be "marshalled
against the authenticity" of this phrase. (Ibid).
c. for he was a doer of wonderful works,
The term for "doer" here has been claimed not to be Josephan. But Professor
Meier is aware of this argument and offers an explanation:
[I]t is used elsewhere in Josephus only in the sense of "poet"; but Josephus
. . . has a fondness for resolving a simple verb into two words: a noun expressing
the agent and the auxiliary verb (e.g., krites einai for the simple krinein).
Moreover, Josephus uses such cognates as poieteos, ‘that which i
s to be done," poiesis,
"doing, causing" (as well as "poetry, poem"), and poietikos, ‘that which causes
something" (as well as "poetic").
(Meier, op. cit., page 81).
Furthermore, it is not all that unusual for ancient Greek authors to use occasionally
a word in an unusual way. The undisputed epistles of Paul have their share not
only of hapex legomena but also of Pauline words and phrases that Paul uses in a given
passage with an unusual meaning or construction. Especially since Josephus is
dealing in the Testimonium with peculiar material, drawn perhaps from a special
source, we need not be surprised if his usage differs slightly at a few points.
(Meier, op. cit., page 83 (emphasis added)).
On balance therefore, there is nothing about this term that counts against authenticity.
One the other hand, Mason confirms that the term "startling/incredible deeds"
(paradoxa) is Josephan: "Josephus often speaks of ?marvels? and ?incredible?
things in the same breath, as the testimonium does. He even uses the phrase
rendered ?incredible deeds? in two other places, once of the prophet Elisha
(Ant. 9.182; cf. 12.63)." (Mason, op. cit., page 171). Yet this term is nowhere used
in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ miracles. Nor is it used in early Christian
literature prior to its citation by Eusebius.
The reason Christians generally avoided this term is that it could just as easily
be interpreted in a neutral or even negative way, such as "controversial deeds."
Professor Van Voorst notes that the phrase "is ambiguous; it can also be translated
‘startling/controversial deeds.’" (Jesus Outside the New Testament, page 78). Professor Vermes
notes that "paradoxa" is not an unambiguous reference to a Godly miracle. In
fact, "students of Josephus seem to agree that the word best expressing his
notion of ‘miracle’ is" a different Greek term that Vermes translates "sign." This
is especially true when the issue concerns an extraordinary deed achieved by
a man of God (Vermes, op. cit., page 7). Josephus does not use the unambiguous term,
but uses "paradoxa." According to Vermes, "paradoxa" is simply too neutral standing
alone to be a positive attestation. Though Josephus uses this term for Moses
and Elisha, he goes out of his way to explain that the deeds described there
were from God.
The Jesus notice, though verbally closely related to the Elisha passage, lacks
a positive evaluation by Josephus. His is a fairly sympathetic but ultimately
detached description: he reports traditions concerning Jesus, but he is personally
not committed to them.
(Vermes, op. cit., page 8).
Such a neutral reference would be expected from Josephus, but not from any Christian
interested in inserting the interpolation in the first place.
d. a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.
The phrase "receive the truth with pleasure" is characteristically Josephan.
In particular, Thackeray, the prince of Josephan scholars, who went so far in
his study of Josephus’ language as to compose a lexicon to Josephus for his
own use so as to see how precisely each word is used in Josephus and whether
there is evidence of shifts of style in various parts of his works due to his "assistants"
or to other reasons, noted that the phrase ‘such people as accept the truth
gladly’ is characteristic of the scribe in this part of the Antiquities, sinc
e the phrase appears eight times in books 17-19 (supposedly the work of the
Thucydidean assistant) and nowhere else in Josephus.
(Louis H. Feldman, "The Testimonium Flavianum, The State of the Question,"
Christological Perspectives, Eds. Robert F. Berkley and Sarah Edwards, page 188).
The concentration of the phrase "received the truth with pleasure" in these
three chapters serves as even stronger evidence for authenticity. Furthermore,
it is unlikely that a Christian would have used such a phrase to describe Jesus
or Christians. As Professor Feldman notes, "Christian interpolation is unlikely,
since the word in the New Testament and in early Christian writings had a pejorative
connotation." (Ibid). Van Voorst agrees, "because Christians generally avoid
a positive use of the word ‘pleasure,’ with its connotation of ‘hedonism,’ 
it is difficult to imagine a Christian scribe using it here about Jesus’ followers."
(Van Voorst, op. cit., 90).
e. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.
This statement probably could not have been written by a Christian because it
so obviously contradicts the portrait of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Indeed,
it directly contradicts several assertions made by the Gospel about Jesus and
In the whole of John’s Gospels, no one clearly designated a Gentile ever interacts
directly with Jesus; the very fact that Gentiles seek to speak to Jesus is a
sign to him that the hour of his passion, which alone makes a universal mission
possible, is at hand (John 12:20-26). In Matthew’s Gospels, where a few exceptions
to the rule are allowed . . . we find a pointedly programmatic saying in Jesus’
mission charge to the Twelve: ‘Go not to the Gentiles, and do not enter a Samaritan
city; rather, go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6).
The few gentiles who do come into contact with Jesus are not objects of Jesus’
missionary outreach; they rather come to him unbidden and humble, realizing
they are out place. For Matthew, they point forward to the universal mission, which
begins only after Jesus’ death and resurrection (28:16-20). While Mark and Luke
are not as explicit as Matthew on this point, they basically follow the same
pattern: during his public ministry, Jesus does not undertake any formal mission
to the Gentiles; the few who come to him do so by way of exception.
Hence the implication of the Testimonium that Jesus equally won a large following
among both Jews and Gentiles simply contradicts the clear statements about the
Gospels. Unless we want to fantasize about a Christian interpolator who is intent
on inserting a summary of Jesus’ ministry into Josephus and who nevertheless wishes to
contradict what the Gospels say about Jesus’ ministry, the obvious conclusion
to draw is that the core of the Testimonium comes from a nonChristian hand,
namely, Josephus’. Understandably, Josephus simply retrojected the situation of his
own day, into the time of Jesus. Naive retrojection is a common trait of Greco-Roman
(Meier, op. cit., page 64-65).
Accordingly, this statement is much more likely to be authentic to Josephus
than a Christian invention. The notion that it served some apologetic purpose
of Eusebius, as argued by Olson and Kirby, is erroneous. As I suggest below,
Olson’s theory of Eusebian interpolation is unpersuasive and his explanation of Eusebius’
use of TF for apologetic purposes is particularly misguided. Moreover, it fails
to account for Josephus’ substantial influence on Eusebius. (See, Eusebius, The History
of the Church, ed. Andrew Louth, page 382).
f. He was the Christ,
This is clearly an interpolation using blatantly New Testament language about
Jesus. A Jew such as Josephus would not refer to Jesus as the Messiah. But,
if a Christian had written the entire TF, he would likely have placed this phr
earlier in the passage. As Meier notes:
"He was the Messiah" seems out of place in its present position and disturbs
the flow of thought. If it were present at all, one would expect it to occur
immediately after either "Jesus" or "wise man," where the further identification
would make sense.
Meier, op. cit., page 60.
Some scholars have argued that this phrase originally was "he was thought to
be the Christ," but that the interpolator changed it because he could not let
such a statement stand. "And if … Josephus had written ‘he was the so-called
Christ’ (ho legomenos Christos), it would have been natural for a Christian reviser to
leave out legomenos." (France, op. cit., page 30). Although Meier disagrees, such
a tentative phrase would actually make sense after explaining the nature of
Jesus’ ministry. And it would especially make sense as an explanation that Jesus
had "gained a following both among Jews and among many of Greek origin." So,
while "he was the Christ" is obviously not original to the text and is out of
place, it is possible — perhaps likely — that the TF originally stated that
"he was thought to be the Christ." Indeed, based on the manuscript evidence, this reconstr
uction is likely.
g. and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned
him to the cross,
The mention of Pilate is neutral, as it would be used by a Jewish historian
or a Christian familiar with the Gospel narratives. Thus, it does not favour
The reference to "principal men" is very common in Josephus, but has no counterpart
in the Gospels or in any other early Christian literature. A Christian would
be much more likely to refer to "the Jews" or "the Sanhedrin", or even the "Sadducees"
and/or "Pharisees." Accordingly, it is typically and uniquely Josephan. As for
the phrase "among us," it is often used by Josephus (Preface of Antiquities 1.3; Antiq
uities 10.2.2; 12.6.2; 14.10.1; 15.3.2; and 15.10.5).
Steve Mason has argued that the phrase "principal men among us" is unusual because
Josephus elsewhere only uses the phrase "principal men" to refer "of Jerusalem"
or "of the city." (Mason, op. cit., page 169). Yet this provides little support
for the total interpolation theory. As Mason himself admits, "Josephus often
speaks of the ?leading men? among the Jews with the phrase used in the test
imonium, especially in book 18 of Antiquities (17.81; 18.7, 99, 121, 376)." (Mason, op. cit., pag
e 169). That this phrase has a higher concentration of occurrences in Book 18
is credible evidence that we have here a stylistic occurrence that attests to
heavy influence of one of Josephus’ assistants, or at least a peculiar focus
on the term by Josephus in Book 18. Given the unusual focus on that phrase in
this Book, it is not surprising that it would find itself used in conjunction
with the very common Josephan phrase "among us." Notably, Mason does not find
this usage as in any way conclusive as evidence against partial authenticity.
As he notes, "although some of the language in the testimonium is odd, we have
no linguistic basis for dismissing the whole paragraph." (Mason, op. cit., page
170). Indeed, Mason favors the partial interpolation theory (Ibid., page 171).
Finally, unlike the Gospels, this phrase simply notes that Jesus was crucified
at the instigation of some of the leading Jewish men. This bland reference makes
more sense for Josephus than it would for a Christian writer, who would be more
eager to describe how their motives in killing Jesus were improper or at least unjustified.
h. those that loved him at the first did not forsake him;
Steve Mason argues that the phrase "they did not forsake" must be "be completed
by the translator, for it is left incomplete in the text; the action which his
followers ceased must be understood from the preceding phrase. This is as peculiar
in Greek as it is in English, and such a construction is not found elsewhere
in Josephus’ writing." Mason, op. cit., page 169. Two other scholars, however, note
that this phrase is characteristic of Josephus. Professor Van Voorst states
that "’Those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]’ is characteristically
Josephan in style…." (Van Voorst, Op. cit., page 90). Professor Yamuchi similarly
notes that this phrase "conforms to Josephus’ characteristic style." (Edwin
M. Yamuchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament" in Jesus Under Fire, Eds. Michael J.
Wilkin and J.P. Moreland, page 213).
Perhaps the reason that it appears to be "left incomplete in the text" is because
the text itself is deficient. Such omissions are common in the Antiquities
textual tradition. Citing a study by G.L. Richards in the Journal of Theological
Studies (xliii, page 70, 1941), F.F. Bruce notes, "[i]t has also been pointed
out that omission of words and short phrases is characteristic of the textual
tradition of the Antiquities . . . ." (Bruce, The New Testament Documents, page 109).
At present, therefore, there seems to be insufficient reason to doubt that this
passage is Josephan.
i. 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.
This is a clear Christian confession, akin to the creedal "according to the
scriptures" of 1 Corinthians. 15:5. But at least part of it fits with Josephus’
Although the phrase ?divine prophets? sounds peculiar at first, there is a close
parallel in Josephus? description of Isaiah (Antiquities. 10.35). Even the word
used for what the prophets ?announced? is commonly used by Josephus in conjunction
(Mason, op. cit., page 171).